It’s a weeknight but the streets of Mongkok – a bustling warren of west Kowloon – are humming. The humid September air is thick with the smell of soy and sewerage; the streets awash in the light of lurid neon. Weary working folk form orderly queues around the many street food stalls selling noodles, fried bean curd and dim sums – a quick stop to fuel up before they head home.
Tariq Malik dodges a giant rubber duckie sticking out of a storefront, his eyes scanning the signage of the shops ahead. “It is around here, I’m certain of that,” he assures me. Malik is a world away from the cozy confines of Momentum, the vintage watch boutique he runs in Dubai’s tony DIFC district.
“Ah, I know where it is now,” he says, as we stumble onto Nathan Road, one of Kowloon’s busiest thoroughfares. Minutes later, we are at Sino Centre – a popular shopping arcade best known for selling comics and video games – and it is here that I peer into the strangest window display of any retail store I have seen. A stack of Panerai watches, cling-wrapped for protection, jostles for space among a dozen Patek Philippe timepieces, an assortment of A Lange and Sohnes, Rolex Submariners, and a lone FP Journe, which sulks in a corner. It’s the most blasé exhibition of haute horologerie I’ve ever witnessed.
“The price of watches that I sell here range from HK$5,000 (US$650) to HK$500,000 ($65,000),” says Edmond Cheung, the shop manager of Noble Watches & Jewellery Co. And yet, five grown men would find it difficult to fit on the shop floor. As if sensing my disapproval, Cheung says, “You see them stacked in the display because I don’t have enough space. I couldn’t move to a bigger place because this is the only rent I can afford,” says Cheung, cradling a Richard Mille RM 10 chrono in his hands.
Cheung says he sells about 100 watches a month, which is by no means a small number in the vintage watch business. Yet the high cost of renting space means most dealers operate out of small, nondescript places like Cheung’s establishment. Which also explains why hunting for vintage watches in Hong Kong can be such exhilarating fun for enthusiasts. You never know what you are going to stumble upon at some of these stores.
Rome, Hong Kong and New York are considered the major hot spots to buy vintage. Rome makes the cut because Italians are passionate collectors; remember where the Paul Newman Daytona craze started? Hong Kong is the largest exporter of Swiss watches, so it is fair to assume that the size of the vintage market is going to be a big one as well. In a city where even the wealthy prefer to use public transport, an interesting watch peeking from underneath your shirt cuff is a subtle display of affluence.
Malik, who scopes the Hong Kong market once a year for interesting stock, is our guide this time. And God knows you need one in Hong Kong. The threat of counterfeiting is real and if you don’t know your vintage, you are more than likely to end up with a bad deal.
“Three or four times a week, I have someone walk into the store to try to sell me a fake watch,” says Cheung, who’s been in the trade for nearly 25 years. “This is a business based on trust. I have customers who find me because have been referred by someone who’s bought from me before. I would never want to risk that reputation.”
You are unlikely to meet a vintage watch dealer like Raymond Chung. He runs his business from a tiny booth on Pottinger Street in Hong Kong’s Central district. The total floor area of his shop is probably a little more than a square meter, but you will be floored by the quality of watches he sells. After a short chat, he reaches into a drawer and pulls out a mint condition Rolex Beta Quartz watch in yellow gold worth HK$250,000.
At the Sotheby’s auction in November 2014, a similar watch had an estimate price of about HK$230,000. Only a thousand pieces were made of this very rare watch and it’s quite a task to find a working one now.
“The most expensive watch I ever sold from this shop was a HK$930,000 Patek Philippe moon-phase chronograph. I don’t recall the reference number now,” he says. There’s barely place enough for him to stand up straight behind the counter. “The rents are ridiculous. This tiny space costs me HK$12,000 a month, but this is Central, so I have the perfect location,” says Chung.
Chung’s been selling watches in various locations around Hong Kong for as long as he can remember. He can’t emphasize enough that reputation is everything in the business. He repeats the old adage known to vintage watch buyers – you have to buy the buyer before the watch. “Even when I buy a watch I will check with the nearest police station if the watch’s ID number is on their stolen items register,” he says.
He encourages his customers to do their due diligence as well. “Nobody buys a vintage Rolex or a Patek Philippe on an impulse. They usually have it authenticated by an authorized dealer first and check if the parts are all original. Sometimes we could haggle over the price for days.”
How often does he encounter fake watches? “There are plenty of fake watches out there, but if you have been in the business long enough, you’ll have no trouble spotting them. It’s your reputation that’s on the line every time you sell a watch to a customer so you don’t want to make a mistake there.”
How safe does he feel about selling watches from behind a counter, there’s not even a door here? “I don’t bring the really expensive ones out till I have a client interested in them. They are kept away safe elsewhere,” he laughs.
I lean over the counter to get a peek at the watch he was bent over when we approached him. It’s a vintage Breguet Type XX chronograph!
Not all retail experiences are sans glamour though. The Vintage Concept is possibly the best known of Hong Kong’s vintage watch stores. Run by enthusiasts Thomas Tse and Patrick Tsang, The Vintage Concept has a store in Mongkok and one on the more upmarket Lyndhurst Terrace in Central. The store stocks a curated selection of watches, trunks and jewellery that the team sources from around the world.
While Tsang’s been collecting for more than 20 years, Tse only got into vintage watches five years ago after he bought his first Rolex, a vintage Rolex ‘Red Sub’ Reference 1680. “I used to work in the textile business, but once I got into vintage watches I was really keen on starting a concept like this one,”says Tse. They sell about 60-80 watches a month and his store is stocked with vintage memorabilia that’s been sourced from all over the world.
Upon learning the purpose of our visit, Tse decides to show us “the special ones”– inventory reserved for the very keen. He brings out a watch case, the contents of which would leave most Rolexaholics dizzy. We spot a Rolex ‘RCO’ Paul Newman 6263, a Sea-Dweller 1665 Khanjar dial (a reference to the printed Omani royal emblem on the dial, coveted by collectors), a Daytona 6263 Khanjar dial, a rare Rolex Submariner 5510 with big crown and Explorer dial, a military issue Submariner (Milsub) 5513/5517, and a Comex submariner among other gems.
The combined worth of this lot? A few million dollars or so. I cannot be sure, so I turn to Tse for ballpark estimates and he shakes his head. “It would be very hard to put a value on this lot, we went through a lot of trouble to source these.” Malik laughs and says I should just consider myself lucky for having such a selection on one table. “Trust me, it’s not going to happen often,” he says.
Understandably, Rolex and Patek Philippe are the most sought after watches on the vintage market. Which brand comes in third? “There is no number three,” says Chung, without batting an eyelid. “No other brand gets the kind of attention that these two get.
Tse agrees that it is still Rolex that moves the most from his inventory. Vintage Audemars Piguet Royal Oaks, Panerai, Lemania and Jaeger-LeCoultre watches are popular too, but not nearly at the same level as the Big Two.
Most of his customers are tourists, but he sees increased interest in buyers from mainland China. “There is growing interest in vintage watches here, I see first time buyers walk in every week,” says Tse. “It’s a fascinating world and those who get sucked in draw immense pleasure from hunting down rare pieces.”
HERE ARE SOME STORES WORTH CHECKING OUT
Peninsula Center, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon
This is a good spot to check out more affordable vintage watches, we spotted a few 50s-era Zenith chronographs, some 60s-era Seamasters, pocket watches and so on.
Noble Watches & Jewellery
Sino Centre, Nathan Road
Good selection of haute horology brands including Panerai, Patek Philippe, A Lange & Söhne, Audemars Piguet, FP Journe among others.
Yin On Bldg, Kwong Wa Street, Mongkok
Not the friendliest bunch you’ll meet in Hong Kong, but an impressive collection of vintage Rolex watches can be found here. We spotted a Paul New Daytona with a Tiffany dial here.
Pottinger Street, Central
The coolest watch dealer in Hong Kong, this is a one-man operation out of a tiny stall on Pottinger Street. Chung will surprise you with the depth of his knowledge and the quality of watches he can source.
The Vintage Concept
Lyndhurst Terrace, Central
The biggest vintage watch boutique in Hong Kong, this store has an impressive inventory of some rare and very expensive Rolex watches. Friendly and knowledgeable staff will make you feel right at home.
(This article was originally published in our November-January 2016 print issue)