If you thought sneakerheads were obsessive about shoes, wait until you meet a watch enthusiast. While he may not have amassed the sheer number of watches as our resident sneaker collector has kicks, our Senior Director of Fine Jewelry & Watches, Michael Groffenberger, is no less passionate about the pieces he buys, sells and hunts down. Ask him about Glashütte and you’ll learn the extended history of watchmaking in Saxony (and come away with some restaurant suggestions). Ask him how a Witschi machine works and sit back as he excitedly explains the fundamental inner workings of mechanical timepieces — balance wheels, hairsprings, amplitude. He’s obviously as passionate about his own collection, so we asked him how he decides which pieces to buy, how he knows when to sell and more.
How many watches do you own? I don’t always have a large number of watches in my collection. I buy and sell frequently and generally only keep two watches in my collection at any given time. Over my career I have probably owned 25-30 different watches.
When did you start collecting watches? My first good watch was a Hamilton that my uncle gave me when I was 12 years old. I was fascinated by the mechanism and the idea that the watch had a heartbeat. It felt like it was more than just a device to tell the time — it felt like an extension of me. I was hooked from that moment on. When I left home to go to college, I was able to get a job at a high-end watch retailer as a salesperson. It was like being a kid in a candy shop. I was able to work with $10-50k watches every day, and I immersed myself in the watchmaking world.
Who are your favorite watchmakers? A. Lange & Sohne and Rolex are always on the list. Currently, I really like what Shinola is doing by bringing back American watchmaking and quality manufacturing. I could talk for hours on the American watch industry — it’s a passion of mine. Richard Mille is a strong independent watchmaker that is testing the boundaries of fine watchmaking, and has avoided some of the negative side effects of being rolled into a large group like Richemont and Swatch by remaining independent.
What’s your most prized watch? I love my Rolex Explorer 2. It is the easiest watch to put on every day. I have owned versions of this watch from every decade, including the rare “Il Freccione” from the 1970s. The current iteration is my daily wear and I like thinking about the fact that Rolex designed this watch for spelunking . . . something I doubt I will ever do, but at least I know my watch can handle it.
Have you ever gone to great lengths to get a watch? When I bought my Audemars Piguet 15202 I had to wait months for it to become available. It is just a really difficult watch to find. I had almost given up my search as I was heading out on my honeymoon. I got a call the last day I was in Hawaii and they said it was in stock. Much to my wife’s dismay, I pulled the trigger right then and there, in the Arizona airport, over the phone.
What’s the rarest or most unique watch you have owned? The 1655 Explorer 2 was incredibly rare, because it was all original. It is referred to as the “Il Freccione” (“the arrow” in Italian), and is also sometimes mistakenly referred to as the “McQueen Explorer.” This watch is often turned into a “Frankenwatch” by having replacement parts included from different watches over the years during servicing. My 1655 was 100% original from the dial to the signature orange hand, and the case was very lightly polished. It was a gem. I probably paid a bit too much for it, but given how rare it is, and that it really is one of the only remaining accessible vintage professional series Rolexes, I had to buy it. I regret selling it now that I think about it.
What are your tips on collecting? Buy for passion, not for investment. If you are buying because you want a return, you aren’t doing it for the right reasons. If the watch you are in love with doesn’t have strong value potential, then just make sure you buy it for the right price. At the end of the day, collecting watches is about identifying with a watch. It becomes a reflection of your personality.
Do you have any rules about your collection, like one watch in one watch out? Not really. I try not to build too many rules into what I collect. I want to be flexible and I want to buy what I love. I also recognize that sometimes something that is not necessarily on my wish list will become available in a condition and price range that I cannot turn down, so as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men.
How do you know when it’s time to let go of a watch? If thinking about selling it does not bother me.
Do you use consigning to edit your collection? Absolutely. Since I started at The RealReal, I have only sold my watches via consignment. Even though I am not getting a check on the spot, my watches have always sold fast, and my patience has paid off by earning more money for the watch.
How many watches have you consigned? Two this year.
Do you have any tips on caring for watches to keep them in good shape? Wear them, service them when you notice they are not keeping time and avoid polishing collectible watches.
Are there watches that you’re too attached to to wear? Too attached to to resell? No, I never buy a watch if I won’t wear it. I think I will become more attached to watches once I have children. Then I will have a longer term perspective on what my watch means to me and my kids. Someday my favorite watch will still be ticking and I won’t, and hopefully it will be on my son or daughter’s wrist, and it will remind them of me.