Guillaume Joly owes his passion for watches to the period he spent working as a chef in some of Moscow’s top restaurants. During his 14 years in the city he would often visit a local antique market where you could find a wide selection of Soviet-era vintage watches.
“One day I was looking around and one guy asked me to take a look at his watch,” says Guillaume, a former winner of the prestigious ‘Best Young Chef in France’ award and now the executive chef at the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi since moving to the UAE almost two years ago.
“It was a pretty simple Russian watch, but I liked the patina and the design so I bought it for next to nothing. After a few days, of course, the watch broke, so I gave it to a watchmaker who told me it would take one week for him to fix. In the meantime I started to look on the internet to see what brand the watch was, and I found out it was a Poljot.”
There is a seemingly endless supply of vintage Soviet-era watches available on eBay; both the internet and local antique market joined forces to lure Guillaume into regularly parting with his well-earned rubles, and soon the Frenchman had accumulated around 120 watches. Yet it was a collection that resembled less an organised collection than a magpie’s nest.
“It was nonsense, my collection was all over the place. So I said to myself, ‘This doesn’t work, I need to have a focus.’ So step by step I became interested in first chronographs, and then diving watches. After that, military watches.”
Inevitably, it wasn’t long before Guillaume learned about the Poljot-manufactured Sturmanskie watch, claimed by many to be the watch that astronaut Yuri Gagarin wore in 1961 when he became the first man in space. “My passion for space watches started with this,” says Guillaume. “I have three Sturmanskies from ’52, ’55 and ‘59. It is now almost impossible to get hold of these original early-edition models.”
There are many fakes and Frankenwatches around, he says, which usually contain spare parts from Ukraine, although Volmax, a Russian company run by former Poljot employees, now makes commemorative quartz editions of the watch.
Six years ago, still with a burgeoning fascination for space watches, Guillaume took the next logical step and purchased his first Omega Speedmaster Professional, or ‘Moon watch’, the timepiece selected by Nasa in 1965 to be worn by its astronauts during the Gemini 4 mission, which saw Ed White make the first space-walk by an American. Later versions were, of course, worn by the crew of Apollo 11, the flight that took the first men to the very surface of the moon. The model remains in production and has become one of the most iconic and recognizable timepieces in horological history, accompanying every Nasa astronaut since 1965.
“I bought my first Speedmaster (ref. 145.022-71) six years ago,” says Guillaume. “My birth year is 1971 so I was very happy to find one from that year.” He also owns a 1965 model with a chocolate dial (ref.105.012-65), and an Ed White (ref. 105.003-63) from 1963.
His fourth vintage ‘Speedie’, as they are affectionately called by the cognoscenti, is a rare ‘220’ bezel model (ref. 145.022-69), with a numerical error on the tachymeter scale, making it extremely sought-after. They made a mistake, [the numbers are] meant to go from 190, then 200, but it instead goes to 220. There are about 1,000 pieces in existence.”
Much of what he has learned about Speedmasters comes from the book Moonwatch Only by Grégoire Rossier and Anthony Marquié, a comprehensive guide to the model that Guillaume hails as “fantastic”. An avid fan of Omega, Guillaume also owns a new Speedmaster Moonwatch, purchased a few years ago, two Speedmaster Mark II models, a Mark IV and a Seamaster chronograph calendar (ref. 176.007) from the 1970s with a cushion case typical of the decade. On his wrist today is a vintage Seamaster 300 – a watch that is currently enjoying global ubiquity thanks to its appearance in the latest James Bond film Spectre (Omega launched a limited-edition version earlier this year to tie in with the film).
Prominent among the row of Omegas in his case is a seldom spotted Heuer Bundeswehr fly-back chronograph, the robust-looking military watch issued to the West German army in the 1960s and 1970s, which runs on a Valjoux 230 movement. It’s a watch that has had an obvious aesthetic influence on brands such as Sinn and Bell & Ross. Guillaume bought it from a German collector on eBay around seven years ago. A Vixa chronograph from 1950, which has a Hanhart 4054 movement and is one of 5,000 pieces produced, is another of his favorites.
A patriotic Frenchman, Guillaume also collects a brand little known outside his own country. Yema made the first automatic chronometers manufactured entirely in France and its Seiko-like timepieces from the 1970s sit comfortably alongside more prestigious brands in his watch case. Based in the town of Besançon in eastern France (an hour from the Swiss border), Yema was actually bought by Seiko in 1988 before returning to French owners a decade ago.
“It’s a very nice brand that is not very well known,” says Guillaume. “It used to make nice chronographs with a Valjoux movement. Its current watches are mainly quartz and are not so interesting.”
Guillaume is currently taking a break from actively expanding the Russian part of his collection and has no immediate plans to add to his Speedmasters either. He says he already owns his grail watch: the Ed White. “You never know, I might see something I like, but with the vintage Russian watches I believe I have the best of what’s out there. After a while, you start to see the same mechanisms and dials all the time, it’s all pretty much the same.”
Having lived in Moscow for so long he can speak and read Russian. This has proved useful when gleaning information from what few Russian watch forums exist. As for maintaining his Russian watches – the bane of any vintage collector’s life – he says that he bought many of them from a trustworthy dealer and they were in good condition in the first place.
“A vintage watch is not like a vintage car,” he says. “A car you have to drive to keep working. But if you don’t wear a watch, it’s fine. So I don’t tend to wear my watches – maybe just for a couple of hours at home. But my [contemporary] Speedmaster is the watch I wear for regular day-to-day use.”
Are there other brands he might be interested in pursuing? Noticeably, there are no Rolexes in his collection. “I don’t like Rolex. I know they attract some passionate collectors, but for me it’s a brand for people who want to show off how much money they have. I was always reticent about collecting Rolex. I think Omega has a more humble approach in marketing its watches. It’s just my own taste. However, there is one Rolex I like: the vintage Explorer.”
“People say they are becoming the new [Rolex] Daytonas. Daytona prices are now crazy and there is nothing new in the market. If you like vintage Speedmasters this is probably a very good time to buy one.”
Recently, Guillaume and friend and fellow collector Osman Bhurgri founded their own watch club, Time Travellers, which is attended by several like-minded collectors based in the UAE.
“We try to get together every four to six weeks. We want to progress to eventually selling our own collections of straps or watch rolls, and setting up a website. Interest in vintage watches in this part of the world is growing. The group has grown very fast already by word of mouth.”
Asked if he has any advice for budding watch collectors, he says, “Be passionate. Be interested in discovering unknown brands because there are lots of brands that are very nice, with nice mechanisms and dials. Buy what you like, not just to have it in your collection.”