Having started collecting watches around 10 years ago, it seems inevitable that Osman Bhurgri would acquire a taste for vintage military timepieces. Born and brought up alongside a Royal Air Force base in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, at the height of ‘the troubles’ – as the ongoing conflict was called – the then 18-year-old was always in earshot of military planes taking off and landing.
“I grew up beside RAF Aldergrove, and I always had a fascination for military equipment,” says Dubai resident Osman, a product marketing manager at Dubai-based Internet company. “The RAF wasn’t for me, but about 10 years ago I had a friend who was serving in it, and we were talking about watches. I asked him why he was wearing a Seiko and he showed me the military markings, issue numbers and general rationale for wearing it.
“But what really got me into military watches is the fact that they are genuine pieces of history. The action they have seen, the places they’ve been to. For example, the Gulf War was [from] 1990 to 1991, when I was in my early teens, and I remember realizing that I could buy one of these timepieces that would have been there at the time.” Osman’s love of vintage watches that have previously been worn by soldiers in conflict inevitably led him first to the Cabot Watch Company (CWC), a British manufacturer founded in 1972, which has supplied watches to all branches of the British armed forces.
Osman has brought along several CWC G10 and GS service watches for this interview. To the untrained eye these durable timepieces, which run on an ETA quartz movement, look exactly the same, but the casebacks reveal the dates they were issued, and therefore the conflicts they likely visited, be it in the Falklands, Northern Ireland or the first Gulf War.
He shows me another watch that looks just like a CWC G10, but that was actually made by a little-known watch company called Precista, which in the early Eighties also supplied Royal Navy divers with a version of a submariner – the PRS82 (re-issued by the British retailer Timefactors.com who own the rights to the name).
“I genuinely think this could have seen a little bit of service in South Armagh at the Bessbrook heliport,” says Osman. “It’s [marked] 6BB so it was issued to the RAF. This is by far one of my most treasured military watches – only 1,800 were made of these in 1984.”
Quartz watches feature heavily in Osman’s collection. The inner workings of calibers and complications matter less to him than brand heritage and an intriguing history, hence his willingness to take a punt on horological oddities. “If you want to be a well-rounded watch collector you can’t discount quartz,” he says, while admitting “automatics are wonderful because you get the joy of the movement and you’re constantly engaging with it, trying to keep it alive.
“This Squale Ocean Diver Blandford, for instance, is a Quartz,” he says picking up a large 70s dive watch, which looks like it might have had a few bruising encounters with the ocean bed. “But it had to be a quartz to meet the requirements for that particular dive company. They needed a 1,000 meter dive watch that was able to run perfectly night and day, and it needed to be reliable. Back then there weren’t such things as easy-to-read dive computers. You couldn’t have any moisture get in and this one doesn’t have a helium escape valve so it needs that reliability. The guys wearing these were building North Sea oil rigs, things like that.”
As for Squale, Osman is gradually building a reputation as the unofficial Middle East ambassador for the family-owned company, which makes arguably the world’s coolest dive watches. A short history lesson for those unfamiliar with Squale’s burgeoning cult appeal (ie, anyone who isn’t a dive watch geek).
Founded by Charles Von Büren in 1959, the company has its origins in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where Von Büren, a keen diver, had been assembling watches since 1948. To distinguish his dive watches, for which he made cases, he came up with the distinctive Squale shark logo (Squale – pronounced Squal-eh – means shark in Italian) and the brand was born. By the 60s and 70s, it was supplying cases to brands including Blancpain and Doxa. The company has recently revived, much to the delight of avid dive-watch collectors, and is owned by the Maggi family, the original Italian distributors of the brand, who are based in Milan.
It recently paired up with specialist British watch retailer Page & Cooper to produce a limited-edition watch – named the Vintage Master – that made use of 60 old bezels found in a draw in the Squale workshop. Osman was delighted to get his hands on one.
“They made 20 of each colour: 20 blue, 20 black and 20 grey. I got in touch with Jonathan Bordell from Page & Cooper, the retailer that made the discovery of these old bezels in the Squale factory, and I said I was really sorry to miss out on one, and he said, ‘Hang on, I’ve got four coming in. What colour do you want?’
“They have an old watchmaker, Franco, who made them. He’s worked for Squale since the 1960s, but this was his last batch of watches before he retires. This model was 51 of 60. You just don’t get watches like this anymore.” Squale’s old-fashioned modus operandi has endeared itself to Osman, even if he does have to be extra-patient when waiting for new models to be released.“They were meant to release a GMT this time last year but because they’re such a small company it’s taken them 13 or 14 months,” he explains.
“A really interesting fact about them is that they don’t have computers in their office. They have old-fashioned typewriters. So when they send you an invoice, it’s typed. They’ve got one person answering their phone going, ‘Prego’”.
He brings out a primitive, stapled together brown box that his watch arrived in, hand-stamped with the Squale logo.
According to an accompanying booklet, years ago, if you bought a Squale watch, the box would have contained a genuine shark’s tooth. Osman’s Vintage Master came with a steel mini pocket knife made by a Sheffield-based company, which has supplied the British armed forces since World War II – an unexpected bonus for a military watch aficionado.
One watch whose military provenance Osman has found especially hard to ascertain is a much sought-after Seiko 7A38-701B with yellow dial. “It doesn’t look like much. It’s a quartz, 7A38 – Seiko’s workhorse. I believe this was made for the crew of the RAF Vulcan bombers. The yellow dial was to help them read the time in the darkened cockpit. But nobody knows for sure.
“There’s so much myth surrounding this watch. I’d love to know the truth.” (WatchTime Middle East contacted Seiko’s PR department about the Vulcan after this interview but received a disappointingly terse reply, stating that it “cannot provide information about the destination of this watch”).
In a watch storage case dominated by Seikos and Squales, a few mechanical watches stand out. Osman owns two vintage Tudor submariners: a 9411/0 Snowflake with blue dial from 1975, and a 76100 Lollipop two-line submariner with black dial from the 1980s.
He also owns a well-preserved example of a 1960s Kelbert chronograph with a Valjoux 72 movement, plus a French army-issued Airain divers’ watch from the 1960s, the latter bearing more than a few scuff marks, but oozing character.
Amongst the battle-hardened cases is an immaculate, unbranded Flieger pilots’ watch, an obvious choice, perhaps, for any military watch lover, yet this one isn’t a Luftwaffe-era Stowa or IWC, or any of the other brands known for producing Fliegers during World War II.
“This is from the Melbourne Watch Company,” explains Osman. “It runs on an ETA hand-wound 2983 movement. The guy behind the company is an Australian called Sujain Krishnan. He was a standard guy who had a normal day-to-day job but loved handmade watches, so he gave his job up a few years ago and took a two-year course in watchmaking.
“I wrote to him asking if he could make me a special project watch. He said, ‘What do you want?’ So I told him I wanted a Panerai case and an IWC crown, like a German pilots’ watch, and he said he’s done something similar before. He skeletonized the movement and hand-finished it. I paid around $1,360 for it. The whole process was lovely – to have a one-off watch for that price is lots of fun.”
At the last count, Osman’s collection totaled 53 watches, although they are rarely in the same place at the same time as he’s big on refurbishment and modifications, which means he often sends them off to the other side of the world to be worked on.
“I have some in Northern Ireland, some in the UAE and some in the U.S., with a guy called Spencer Klein, and a company called MotorCity WatchWorks. [The latter] do this thing called Cerakote, which is really popular in the States – people usually put it on their guns to coat them. And so I’ve got a couple of old Seikos there.
“For me, one of the things I Iove doing is taking a watch and bringing it back to life. Behind every good vintage watch collection, you need to have a good watchmaker. You need to put your faith in them, like a doctor.” Osman sources his watches from several places but has picked up many of his Seikos and CWCs from eBay, setting his search criteria to hone in on the type of watches he collects. “Ebay Italy is good fun and you can get some great watches from there, but unfortunately it’s also home to some crooks. There must be some Italian postmen wearing some very nice watches.”
As for his grail watch, Osman unhesitatingly names an ultra-rare Squale model.“It’s the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bund 3H. Squale had a huge input into making this for Blancpain, made specifically for the German military in the 70s, hence the fascination of two iconic brands together in a military watch. A couple of years ago they were going for about $5,000, but today they’d probably go for about $15,000.
“One of the things about vintage watches is that you never know when the watch of your dreams is going to come up,” he says, possibly imagining that so-far elusive Blancpain Bund on his wrist. “And when it comes up you have to be quick to buy it or you might regret it for the rest of your life.”
(This article was initially published in our September-November 2015 print edition)