As a watch collector, what do you do once you’ve ticked off the usual suspects from your must-have lists? Over time most collectors tend to focus their purchasing habits around a particular genre or type, but for Faisal Al Khoori, the next level meant designing his own bespoke watches.
The 38-year-old Faisal owns a number of watches that he created with help from Jochen Benzinger, the master German engraver and movement decorator known for his skeletonized movements and hand-guilloche dials. Faisal brings his own design flair to these watches and is completely hands-on at every stage of development.
The Abu-Dhabi based collector says he’s always been crazy about watches. “I think it all started when I was about seven years old. I used to accompany my father, who was a merchant, to the market. I would pester him to buy me a watch. As a kid I was always taking apart watches, sometimes breaking them in the process,” he recalls. “My first serious watch as an Omega Constellation that my father gifted me when in ninth grade. I still have it and wear it is sometimes. For me it’s never just been about the value of the watch, but also about how it makes me feel when I wear it.”
A financial professional-turned entrepreneur, Faisal says the first watch that he bought with his own money was a Chopard Mille Miglia Chronograph. “Right through my university days, my father would buy me expensive watches. But I’ll never forget the feeling of being able to buy a serious watch with money that I had earned. I remember everything about that purchase. I own about 70 watches now but I’ll never forget the first watch I bought,” he says.
Over the years Faisal recalls going through different phases of collecting. He says initially he bought a lot of watches, some of which he later sold or traded. “I was collecting all kinds of watches, there was no method. But over time, I started fine-tuning my interests. I developed clear preferences and started pursuing only the ones that piqued my interest. I’m more likely to keep the ones I buy now,” says Faisal.
He shows a watch box of nearly mint-condition Rolex watches with references that have been discontinued – everything from Daytonas, GMT-Masters and Submariners to Deepsea divers’ watches.
His love for customization is evident when he shows us a Daytona (Ref 16520) with a customized exhibition caseback that shows off Caliber 4030 based on the Zenith’s famed El Primero movement.
Considering his background in finance, I ask him if he looks at watch purchases as investments or purely for pleasure. Faisal reckons buying expensive investment-grade watches is not dissimilar from buying art as an investment.
“You have to be very selective about what you want to buy. In my opinion, Rolex and Patek Philippe are the only investment-grade watches in the market today. Even with these two brands, I would look at only the limited-edition pieces if I intend to look at them as investments. My vintage Rolex collection is purely an investment, but it also makes me happy to know that I own these watches. The same goes for my Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet timepieces.
Faisal’s taste in mainstream watches are conservative – apart from the Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet watches, he’s got a load of Panerai, Hublot, IWC Big Pilot’s and so on. He’s given the independent brands a miss because he’s not sure about most of them. “If I’m going to put down some serious money, I need to know that the watch brand has a history of making quality timepieces,” says Faisal.
One notable exception is independent watchmaker FP Journe, a brand that Faisal admires greatly. He reckons outside of Rolex and Patek, he would consider FP Journe as a truly investment-grade timepiece. “There is something about owning a luxury timepiece made by a living watchmaker. Not only are FP Journe watches technically great, but they are also limited by production and are in high demand. I feel the value of FP Journes will go up in the future. Also, I think some pieces from Breguet make the cut.”
His collection mostly comprises modern watches with the exception of his vintage Rolex stash. Mint condition vintage watches are expensive and rare, that’s why he doesn’t go after them.
“I will not buy a vintage piece unless it’s in excellent condition, so the ones that I want to buy tend to be super expensive. The difference in price for a mint-condition vintage Rolex with box and papers versus a piece without them is a lot.”
Faisal says his tastes veer mostly towards big, blingy timepieces that have quite a presence on the wrist. A timepiece that’s on the top of his wish-list is the Franck Muller Giga Tourbillon. “It has a rose gold case, a skeletonized rose gold movement with one of the largest tourbillons around,” he says.
Faisal feels he’s reached a stage in his evolution as a collector where he’s really selective about what he brings home. “Now I will not look at buying anything less than a Patek Philippe or a Breguet. Even if it’s a Breguet, it will have to be something special, something with a skeletonized movement and a tourbillon.”
A major shift in his collecting habits occurred thanks to an article about Jochen Benzinger he read in WatchTime’s U.S. edition. “That article really sparked my interest in unique pieces. I spent time trying to understand the quality of work that Benzinger does. Not many people in the industry can do what he does. I ended up buying the exact same watch that was featured in the article,” he says.
“As your knowledge of the industry and watchmaking grows, you tend to look at timepieces with a different eye. To give you an example – an engineer friend of mine visited the Sydney Opera House and was in awe of the structure. I couldn’t appreciate it the same way he did because as an engineer, he could appreciate the quality of work that had gone in to building the opera house. It is a technical marvel,” says Faisal.
“Today, in the luxury watch industry, the value of a watch is a matter of perception. The marketing department sets the price of the timepiece, it is down to how they market it. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the true value of the watch. With a Rolex you are getting value for your money. I wouldn’t say that about a lot of other brands. With Benzinger, you get what you pay for.”
Once he acquired a taste for bespoke timepieces, Faisal started designing his own watches. He has about 10 Benzinger timepieces now. He points to a steel watch with an elaborately engraved floral pattern on the case, his name etched on the dial and diamonds encrusted on the bezel.
The crown has his initials FK engraved on it. He calls this his signature watch – it has a highly decorated Unitas 6947 movement sourced from Benzinger fitted in a case that was engraved in New Zealand and paired with a python strap sourced from Hong Kong.
“The engravings on the case and movement have the same floral pattern. I found a Japanese engraver in New Zealand who was proficient enough to engrave on steel cases to work with me,” says Faisal. His next “signature watch” is currently work-in-progress – three different master craftsmen are working on it and it will feature a highly decorated regulator movement from Benzinger.
Faisal’s obsession with bespoke timepieces takes up a lot of his free time. He acquires movements from Benzinger, mostly a Unitas 6947. He then sources cases from brands like European Company Watch and Martin Braun.
“I chose these brands because they make cases big enough to house a Unitas movement. I don’t source the case, I buy the entire watch so I have spare parts as well. Same with the dials, hands and straps, which I source from different vendors. I have 15 watches that I made with parts sourced from different vendors and put together by a watchmaker,” says Faisal.
The watches he designs tend to have skeletonized movements because he thinks this is an integral part of the watch and deserves more attention.
Would he ever think of setting up his own bespoke watch company? “I do it as a hobby, I don’t intend to sell it. Turning a hobby into a business is quite complicated. This business is hard and competitive and it takes a lot to succeed. Some people do ask me if I can create a customized piece for them. This includes my wife who has been asking me to create a signature piece for her,” says Faisal. The staff at watch boutiques are often curious to know what he’s got strapped on his wrist, too. “The director of a luxury brand once said the skeleton dials on my bespoke models make his watches look like toys. So I suppose some find them attractive.”