The Story Behind the Watch
(This article previously appeared on Watch Patina)
I’m driving a rented Toyota Camry from Chicago to Ohio. My former roommate and a bag of beef jerky are my two companions on this journey and the car’s speakers are blasting a mix of folk, indie rock, and audio books in order to keep us entertained (and awake) for the journey.
My mission: Drive eight hours round-trip in the same day to meet a complete stranger at a police station in rural Ohio for roughly fifteen minutes. In those fifteen minutes, give this stranger the largest pile of cash I’ve ever withdrawn in exchange for a fifty-year-old wristwatch that I’ve only seen in a couple of poorly taken pictures sent by the stranger.
How did I get here?
I started collecting watches a little over three years ago when I bought a vintage Tudor Submariner from a dealer simply because I liked the way it looked. Before long, I had two pre-moon Speedmasters – both acquired from unlikely sellers in unlikely places. I had discovered a true thrill in the research, painstaking search process, and eventual discovery of pieces still under the care of owners who aren’t watch nuts.
In parallel to my “enlightenment” and the slow growth of my watch collection, owners of Universal Geneve Compaxes from the 1960s received an incredible gift: on February 7, 2014 Hodinkee profiled a rare panda dial UG Compax. Make no mistake about it – that day shifted the course of vintage UG collecting for a long time to come. It also shifted the course of my own collection (which, at that point, was quite small).
The “Nina Rindt” Compax in that article was, simply put, the most beautiful chronograph that I had ever laid eyes on. By the time I was done reading the article, it had already become the grail watch for me and I began the nightly task of diving deep into the Interwebs to find one, similar to how Bill Bright (@wristfactor on Instagram) had found three Compaxes the year earlier (including the Nina profiled in the Hodinkee piece). They had to be out there, right?
Wrong. Very wrong. Word spread quickly after the Hodinkee feature, and the guys at Analog/Shift sold the very watch featured in the article for five figures not long after. On the heels of that sale, another sold in the $20,000 range. This hockey stick price trajectory continued steadily through December 2015, when a nice Nina Rindt Compax hammered at auction for $47,500. There was no hope for the average collector. My nightly searches, Google alerts, and eBay runs (using any and all variations of typos or vague descriptions) had produced absolutely nothing, and the only examples that showed up for sale were through dealers or auction houses – all with stratospheric asking prices.
After a few months of feverishly searching, I became resigned to my fate and refocused on other watch types, brands, and references. My desire for the Nina Rindt Compax began to shift from “I MUST HAVE IT!” to “well, there are other fish in the sea.” And in turn, my watch collection began to blossom… I started an Instagram account (@bazamu). I started attending Commonwealth Crew/Red Bar Chicago events and became good friends with other young collectors in the city. And everything was… really great – like I didn’t even need the Compax anymore.
But just as it always seems to happen with female pursuits, it was only when I stopped looking for Mrs. Right that she presented herself before me. In this case, Mrs. Right (Nina) wandered into my life in the form of a vague email (sent from a phone number instead of a normal address) and with a cryptic message that simply read: “I saw your article online and thought you might like to see my Universal Geneve Compax!” Attached were two poorly lit pictures of what appeared to be a near-mint Mk II dial Nina Compax. I replied with a nice enough (but equally vague) email that essentially said it was a beautiful example and if he ever wanted to get rid of it, I’d be happy to take it off his hands. I never heard back from my reply and quickly wrote it off as a scam of some kind. The biggest tell? I hadn’t written an “article”…
The damage was already done though. Nina had burrowed her way into my head like those gross space bugs from The Wrath of Khan. A couple of weeks later, I decided to send the stranger (I didn’t have a name or legitimate email address at this point) a more detailed email asking if he was the original owner and what his plans for the watch were… Immediately I received a message back, and over the course of the next two days, we traded roughly 20 email messages. Each time I sent a response, I’d try to pry a little further and test his story for weak spots, but it all seemed to be genuine. I finally threw out a soft offer and we made plans to speak the following day after he left work. Ever the skeptic, I tried to refrain from daydreams.
The next day, we spoke for nearly 45 minutes on the phone. The owner was a mid-60-year-old grain mill operator in rural Ohio and he explained how the watch came into his possession as a 19-year-old: while eating at a diner one night with his then girlfriend (and eventual wife) and a mutual friend, he noticed his friend’s new watch (a Compax), complimented him on it, and asked to try it on. Unbeknownst to him, his friend had recently purchased two brand new Compaxes, and after watching the exchange, his girlfriend conspired to surprise him by purchasing the exact watch from the diner for his upcoming birthday. The owner was overjoyed to receive the watch from the diner as a gift, but working an industrial job and not being a “jewelry guy,” almost never wore it and instead kept the Compax tucked away.
“To tell you the truth, I completely forgot it was even in [my safe] until about six months ago,” he said to me over the phone. After fishing it out, he performed a quick Google search and was shocked to see that the old watch had turned into a cult classic. He’d won the lottery – that much was undeniable – but he had to figure out the best way to cash in his ticket. More Googling brought him to a prominent dealer’s website, with whom he quickly initiated a conversation. Miraculously, however, he also came across an old Want to Buy post that I had thrown up on a forum nearly a year earlier. Or as he called it – my “article.”
As our dialogue expanded and he gave the decision more thought, something felt wrong to him about selling it to a dealer. He later opened up about his decision process to me. “My wife passed away in 2003 and the watch has always reminded me of her,” he said. “Although I didn’t wear it often, in my younger years I’d take it out and just look at it from time to time. I just want to know that the person who buys it will appreciate it for what it is and will enjoy it for years to come.” Before hanging up for the final time, we made plans to meet in Ohio in two weeks.
And that brings us back to the rental car. As I neared the small town’s police station, I wasn’t sure if the thumping in the car was from the music or my heartbeat. I’d dreamed about this moment for years, but it almost felt undeserved. I hadn’t even found the watch – it found me. Halfway through the drive, I even sensed a little doubt creep in about whether it was too good to be true – or the possibility that the transaction would result in no watch and one of my kidneys on the black market…
In what seemed like a blink of an eye, however, the exchange was over. Nina was all mine and the example was even more beautiful in real life than I had imagined. As I walked back to my rental car with the Compax in hand, I still couldn’t figure out why he’d chosen me… The owner had spoken with one of the preeminent vintage dealers in the country, received an accurate quote of the watch’s worth, yet had chosen to sell it to me instead. Was it fate? Pure luck? Maybe I’m just really, really good looking? I’ll never know, and I guess it doesn’t matter now. But as I drove away from the police station, the car might as well have been floating. Somehow, I had reeled in my grail watch.
The Nitty Gritty
This Compax is a collector’s dream. Seldom worn and kept in a dark, dry place, the watch is in superb shape and defines “Collector’s Grade” in my opinion. The sub-dials have faded to a very nice light brown color, and the patina is even throughout.