Adriano Davidoni’s passion for Longines began in 2002 with the eBay purchase of a watch that would be a relatively standard 1940s military model were it not for the inscription on the caseback listing several dates and places.
“The owner was a second-generation Italian from Boston who was in the U.S. Marine Corps,” says Davidoni, who has sportingly worn a Longines lapel badge for our interview. “I was attracted by this engraving, which is typical of military watches. He engraved this watch before a flight that he made from Bathurst [later renamed Bajul], the capital of Gambia, to Natal on the east coast of Brazil, which was the main base from which the U.S. Air Force flew to Africa, before going on to Europe.
“I found out everything I could about this guy, including where he was buried. He was in Algeria for a while, and then he was involved in intelligence activity in Sicily because he spoke the fluent Sicilian dialect. His family was originally from the volcanic island of Stromboli off the coast of Sicily.”
As someone who cherishes every watch in his small but discerning collection, Davidoni has never attempted to make contact with the soldier’s family for obvious reasons, though he did manage to track down a firm of lawyers in New Jersey bearing his name. “I’m very scared to, because if they asked me for the watch I’d have to give it to them,” he admits. “This actually happened to a friend of mine.”
Davidoni, the manager of a luxury Italian furniture company in Dubai, where he has been a resident for three years, first showed an interest in watches in 1987 after inheriting his father’s 1964 square-cased Zenith dress watch. A couple of Rolexes followed, then a period of horological apathy in the late nineties, before eventually pledging his allegiance to Longines, having been seduced by its long and illustrious heritage.
Information about the brand when he was starting out as a collector was, he says, thin on the ground, and what little there was could not always be trusted. “I started visiting online forums in 2004/5 and there was a lot of misinformation based on stories, which is why I started my website [watchexpertise.com],” he explains. “My research is always thorough. I rigorously check documents and I have a lot of books.”
Davidoni also stresses the importance of sharing his articles with the Longines museum before publishing them. Thankfully, the brand’s heritage department is well known for being one of the most responsive in the industry. “In the past dealers or collectors were inventing stories in order to justify what they were selling. And a lot of people these days have collections where some pieces are not salable anymore,” he explains. “Many times I’ve been an unofficial advisor to many European and worldwide collectors. I’m not a genuine advisor, more like I give friendly tips. Frequently I came across [dubious] watches. For example, the crown was not correct or the dial was reprinted.
“I spent a lot of time in Switzerland visiting the former technical director of a leading dial manufacturer and he showed me many details and techniques of the past – thanks to him I’m able to understand what is good, and what is not. After all, the face of a watch comprises about 80-90 percent of its value.”
Despite the brand knowledge he has built up over the years – enhanced by a substantial collection of Longines pamphlets and guides that he hunts down as eagerly as the watches – Davidoni has occasionally bought pieces that haven’t met his expectation of authenticity.
“The easiest thing to do is to sell it on and cheat someone else,” he says. “But I would never do that. In my opinion you have to be very strict, and if you change any part of a watch, you have to inform the person you sell it to.”
He cites Rolex as a particular minefield with regards to reference numbers and ensuring the right parts are in the right watches, which is why he’s never seriously considered collecting them – although he does own a handsome vintage Speed King that he’s wearing today. “In the vintage Rolex world, you have no idea what you’re buying. I love vintage Rolex but I decided to leave it alone.”
In recent years Longines has been drip-feeding the watch world with reissues of classic models, most notably its divers’ watches from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Named the Heritage Collection, it has been well-received by the industry. What does he think of the updated versions?
“They are very nice. I used to have one of the original models, the [Longines Heritage Diver chronograph] 1967 with the red bezel – we call it the ‘ghiera rossa’ in Italy – the reissue of which was recently shown in Baselworld,” says Davidoni. “This is very well done and a very accurate reproduction.
“At the time of the originals, Longines was at the top of the market. I can say without doubt that Longines chronographs and military chronometers were the best by far. Now, of course, they are in a different segment of the market. In the beginning I was skeptical about this way of approaching its history, but now I agree.
“Companies survive by doing what is profitable, and Longines is doing very well.” Davidoni’s collection mostly comprises chronographs from the 1930s up to the 1950s. He sources them mainly from the U.S. – “there is a very wide network of collectors and sometimes they ask me about pieces, sometimes I ask them” – which is also where he has found many of the catalogues and other assorted literature.
He also meets up with other Longines collectors and fondly recalls a dinner at St. Imier attended by 15 people, including the great Italian watch historian John Goldberger, where the table was covered with around 70 classic and rare models. “Weems, Lindberghs, 13ZNs, 13.33s… if you saw the table! There were collectors from Belgium, the U.K., Denmark, France…”
He’s brought with him today several pieces that are in exceptional condition, most of which run on the brand’s highly regarded 13ZN movement, but his most valued watch is a Chronograph central minute recorder (Ref. 23086) from 1946 with two compasses.
“The movement was patented in 1944 by Longines and in my opinion it was not a success,” he says. “They made only 500 pieces and never did it again. From that point they started the 30CH, a new movement that was produced for the first time in 1946 and officially launched a year later.”
Undoubtedly the most unusual in the collection is a dress watch with an extremely rare purple enamel dial. It is so rare that Davidoni says he has only ever seen one similar looking watch in his life, and that was a Rolex.
The Lindbergh Hour Angle of 1931, the holy grail for any serious Longines collector and named after Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly across the Atlantic non-stop, solo, has so far eluded him – “That is my dream. It’s a beautiful watch.”
Surprisingly, he claims he never wears his watches, at least not in the Middle East. “I wear my Rolex Speed King, which is nothing special, but normally I wear an Eberhard chronograph, a present from my wife. But it’s not waterproof and in this country if it’s not waterproof you have the problem that the dial can be damaged and the movement can rust.”
Indeed, watch maintenance is a “very big headache” with vintage timepieces. Longines has recently started a vintage repair service but he says he’d like to see how effective it is before using it himself.
“In the meantime I have a friend who is not a collector but he is a very experienced watchmaker and is able to make parts and restore cases, whilst leaving a ‘juice’, a patina of the past. He is based in Treviso and he also helps me with the some technical descriptions of my articles. Every five years I send my watches for maintenance. If I wore them, it would be every two years.”
That is certainly good news for Davidoni’s 21-year old son, a medical student in Trieste, Italy, who he says will inherit his collection one day. Davidoni is schooling him well in the ways of horology.
He has purchased a Patek Philippe dress watch from the 1950s, which will be his when he graduates. Is he a watch obsessive like his dad? “Due to the strength of my own passion he was put off watches and wasn’t interested in having even one watch,” says Davidoni. “But he started to change his mind after I gave him a Rolex for his 18th birthday. Now he’s interested. I gave him a quick glimpse of the Patek Philippe and told him to be patient.
Being an Italian with such a strong interest in military watches, one wonders why he hasn’t developed a predilection for vintage Panerai. Has he ever felt a patriotic obligation to join the ranks of the “Paneristi”? “Yes, because it’s full of a strong military history, but it’s a history that can be used wrongly with regards to ideology. Also, they are very expensive. You can’t find vintage Panerai for less than $80,000 to $100,000.
“I’m always attracted by the idea of buying a new one, but then I always see a vintage watch I prefer, and they get priority. But the history of Panerai and the Decima Flottiglia MAS – the elite frogmen unit of the Italian army who used Panerai timepieces and sunk many vessels in the harbor of Alexandria in World War II – is a very epic one.”
As if to underline why he admires Longines so much, Davidoni hails its sporting and military dominance in its golden era, back when it manufactured its own movements and shared the stage with the very finest watch brands.
“The first Olympic games in Athens in 1896 were timed by a Longines Chronometer,” he says. “Still now, equestrian sports are dominated by Longines. They invented so many things. They were using quartz technology in the 50s. They were far ahead of anyone else at that time. Only Omega was competing with them.”
Could he maybe add a couple of quartz Longines to his collection, then, for the sake of variety? How about the Delirium model of 1979, said to be the start of a chain of events that led to the development of the Swatch?
“No, I’m very much concentrating on the 1930s, 40s and 50s models. This is enough for me. You can’t have everything, just like you cannot know everything. “That‘s why I feel like I know only a few things about Longines even though I‘ve been studying it for many years.”
(This article was original published in our May-August 2015 print edition)