How Not to Buy a Watch: My Misadventure
The year: 2006.
The place: Tim Jackson’s watch shop in Northern California.
The event: a now-legendary weekend organized by Jackson and attended by some of the world’s great independent watchmakers, including Kari Voutilainen, Marco Lang, Peter Speake-Marin, and Vianney Halter.
The objects of desire: the Antiqua and Contemporaine, two dramatic pieces made by Vianney Halter, on display at the event.
Oh, how I loved those watches!
While some of my pals were not quite sure at the time about the Antiqua, for me it was love at first sight. And meeting Halter only increased my ardor. The only thing holding me back from placing an order to add one to my then-modest collection was the expense, which at the time was far beyond my watch budget.
The similar-but-simpler platinum Contemporaine that Halter brought with him also caught my eye, but sadly was financially out of reach as well.
As the months passed, I couldn’t get these two pieces out of my mind and searched the web from time to time to see whether any might be available on the pre-owned market.
In June of 2007, I typed the search term “Halter Contemporaine” into the search engine and to my astonishment was guided to an eBay ad for just that watch, this one in white gold and offered at a price that was about one-third its original retail value.
If your Spidey Sense is already tingling at this point, good for you! I suppose that I was a more innocent (spelled “S-T-U-P-I-D”) fellow in those days, and as the seller (a Florida dealer we’ll call Alexei) had good positive eBay feedback and the photos of the watch looked good, I typed in a number slightly lower than the asking price and hit the “make an offer” button.
The next morning, I awoke to the news that my offer had been accepted. And once I arranged for a wire transfer for the purchase price plus shipping, my watch was on its way to me.
Imagine my excitement upon the arrival of the box at my home, and then the feelings of disappointment and outright fear when it turned out that the watch in the box was quite different from the one in the eBay photos.
Here’s the list of problems that I sent to Alexei with a request for an immediate refund:
- The case back had obviously been (badly) opened and replaced. There were big gouges going out from several of the holes for the case tool on the rear of the watch, the holes themselves were disfigured, and the scratch continued all the way onto the polished side surface of the watch.
- The movement itself showed significant damage. Several of the screw heads were scratched and had damage to their slots. It appeared that the balance bridge was removed and misaligned when replaced as the joining line between the bridge and plate was uneven (as you can see in the photo below). The plate and bridge themselves were covered with many random scratches across the surface, and there were smudges (likely fingerprints wiped over) clearly visible on the plate and bridge. There was also damage to the metal rim of the mystery rotor – debris or smudges and scratches.
- The moon phase disk had scuffs on it; I can’t even imagine how those got there.
- It wasn’t clear that the automatic winding system was operational as the rotor would turn only in one direction.
- The date-change mechanism hung on the 10th, 15th, 29th, and 30th of the month, which indicates damage to or misalignment of it.
- There were small burrs along the edge of the case in other spots and some light scratching on the front of the watch case and crystals.
- The small bezels on the front of the watch (with the exception of the date window) had been clumsily removed, gouged, and bent.
- Even the hinge on the presentation box was broken!
To his credit, Alexei was quick to respond, but not with the exact news I’d hoped for. The message: all sales final, so no refund. But as a good-faith measure he’d offer a repair and refurbishment fund of up to $5,000.
Enter the blacksmith
Under a spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he, with large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms are as strong as iron bands.
To attempt to take Alexei up on his offer, I’d have to contact Halter and explain my plight; and as at the time I had no way of contacting him directly, that meant that I’d have to go down to Jackson’s store, hat in hand and swallowing hard more than once, to explain the following:
- That I’d bought a Vianney Halter watch, but not from him.
- I’d been dumb enough to get into a “no returns” arrangement with the seller.
- That I needed him to put me in contact Halter with some urgency to ask him for his input, and that I might also need their help in arranging for shipment of the watch to Ste. Croix, Switzerland.
Tim Jackson and his team couldn’t have been more splendid about the whole thing, and thus began a series of email exchanges with Halter. I learned that my watch, No. 3W, was one of only six examples and had initially been sold in Belgium in October of 2005.
Its path from that time to the moment it entered my hands may never be known, but between the time that the photos in the eBay listing were taken and delivery to me, enormous damage had been done.
The word from Halter upon reviewing the photos: “The good point is that the 3W probably can be revamped, although this shall be confirmed after external and internal complete checking.” And so (with Alexei’s blessing) off went the watch to Switzerland for evaluation at the Halter atelier.
In mid-July, I received the following from Halter: “This is to inform you that your Contemporaine 3W has arrived in Sainte-Croix. I have immediately had a look at it and, to be frank, the news is not that good.
“The watch was opened and badly manipulated by a so-called ‘watchmaker’ who probably would rather be a blacksmith. Not only he badly treated the mechanism and the case but he also signed his crime with his initial inside the case. Two of the bezels shall be changed and the case shall be re-machined.
“The movement is scratched as well as the screws among which one was broken in its bridge and glued by the blacksmith. Of course, nothing is irreparable! The cost of revamping would be as follows: case $9,000, movement $8,000.”
I’ve had a few moments of panic as a watch collector, and that one certainly ranks high among them – although truth be told, the “blacksmith” reference did bring at least a smile. And as the years have passed, this has become an oft-shared quote: the sheer audacity of gluing a balance cock into place does elicit a bizarre sense of admiration – of sorts.
I certainly didn’t have 17 grand, or even the $12,000 that would be needed after factoring in Alexei’s $5,000. For his part Alexei was equally gobsmacked, but firm in his conviction that, “There is no watch in the world that cannot be fixed for five thousand dollars.”
From the jaws of defeat
Just as all seemed lost, salvation appeared from an unlikely quarter: Halter himself. In a message to me, he explained that he lacked a “demonstrator” example of the Contemporaine to show to potential buyers and that he would be willing to keep the watch and repair it on his own nickel, paying me the amount I’d paid in the first place less the $5,000 repair allowance from Alexei.
Amazingly enough, Alexei was amenable to the idea, and so it came to pass that I received payments from Halter and Alexei that totaled, to the penny, my out-of-pocket cost for the watch and its associated shipping fees. Halter repaired the watch, and my understanding is that a few years later he received an offer for it and that it is now in the hands of a private collector to whom I hope it brings nothing but good fortune.
All’s well that ends . . .
Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to buy two other Vianney Halter watches: the Deep Space Tourbillon (see Why I Bought It: Vianney Halter Deep Space Tourbillon) and the piece I so much admired in the first place, the landmark Antiqua (see Why I Bought It: Vianney Halter Antiqua).
Both were purchased from reputable sources; the first from Halter himself and the second from a noted Singapore-based friend and collector.
I also took home some valuable lessons from my experience with the Contemporaine.
- Unless it’s absolutely impossible, always handle a watch in person (and for particularly complex pieces, consider having a qualified watchmaker perform an assessment) prior to buying it.
- If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is (yes, I know this is an old cliché but true nonetheless).
- As long as we are on old chestnuts: buy the seller. It turned out that Alexei was a good guy, but I could easily have been out of luck dealing with a stranger.
- It’s all about the people! Folks of good will and integrity abound in our hobby, and in this instance both Tim Jackson and Vianney Halter went above and beyond on my behalf
- Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart, but don’t count on it!
Thus ends the parable. I’d love to hear about some of your wilder watch buying experiences in the comments section below.
Quick Facts Vianney Halter Contemporaine Phase de Lune/Jour
Case: platinum, white gold, and gem-set white gold; crown with moonstone cabochon; 39 mm
Dials: lacquered small dials for time, day, date, and hand-painted moon phase
Movement: automatic Caliber VH300 with sapphire crystal “mystery” rotor
Functions: hours, minutes; day of week; date in small window; moon phase
Limitation: 6 pieces in this version
Price: original retail price $63,000; no known recent re-sale values
Production years: 2001 onward
* This article was first published on August 11, 2018 at How Not to Buy a Watch: My Misadventure.