Watches And Guitars: Longines vs. Gibson, And John Mayer‘s Take On ’Relicing’
“I get it into things very deeply when I get into things. I got into guitar and it never stopped. Yeah, it’s excessive, in some way.” – John Mayer
In 2018, Longines presented its Military Watch at Baselworld. This was a vintage reissue of a 1940s Longines model, but with a difference: the dial and hands had been artificially aged to make the watch look like a genuine vintage watch. Moreover, the randomly applied splattering of dots and stains on the vintage-inspired, cream-colored dial means that each watch is a unique piece.
Is this the future of vintage watches? The answer perhaps lies in examining another field in which naturally aged, even damaged items also command a significant premium: vintage electric guitars.
By the early 1970s, Gibson Guitar Corporation had established its Les Paul model as the rock guitar par excellence, used by, among others, Eric Clapton (on the Beano album), Jimmy Page (virtually all Led Zeppelin albums), Peter Green with the original Fleetwood Mac (“Albatross,” “Black Magic Woman”) Marc Bolan, Mick Ronson (David Bowie), Duane Allman, Mike Bloomfield, John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, and many others.
If you’ve heard Eric Clapton on “Hideaway” or David Gilmour’s solo on “Another Brick in the Wall Pt 2,” you know the sound of a Gibson Les Paul.
One phenomenon that the electric guitar and the watch industries have in common is whether to restore an item showing its age, or to preserve it “as is”; and if the preservation option is preferred, the logical next step, which is the artificial aging of new products to make them look “vintage.”
In the guitar industry this is known as “relicing,” and much of it focuses primarily on just one specific model: the Les Paul Standard in sunburst finish, with around 900 produced by Gibson in 1959 (known to aficionados as the ’59 ’burst).
That year – not the ’58 or the ’60, although those weren’t bad either – is considered to be the finest vintage in Gibson’s guitar-making history, akin to a 1967 Puligny Montrachet or Pétrus. Gibson guitars produced in 1959 are considered to have the finest tone of any, perhaps due in part to the use of (now illegal) hardwoods, lacquer, and past superior craftsmanship.
Some compare their tone to that of a Stradivarius violin: loud, piercing and complex, evocative of the human voice.
Another “grail” Gibson guitar that has aged spectacularly is an earlier model, the 1954 Goldtop.
These guitars have sadly become purely collectors’ items – sadly because many have become “safe queens” rather than played on the road or in the studio. Understandably so as prices have risen from around $250,000 to $2,000,000 depending on condition, past owners, and provenance.
Perhaps the most prestigious ’59 ’burst is “the Greenie,” which originally belonged to Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, who sold it to Gary Moore in the 1970s, and which was recently acquired by Kirk Hammett of Metallica for a reported $2 million.
Provenance and history repeating
There is a direct parallel with a watch like the Rolex Daytona, where provenance and history have boosted the prices of the vintage items to a colossal multiple of the new watches (waitlists notwithstanding), which – as with the guitars – are still available new for under $20,000.
The artificial relicing of brand-new guitars is another issue and is partly the result of the cult surrounding this particular guitar (the ’59 ’burst). For many years Gibson had a luthier on its payroll, Tom Murphy, who had developed a reputation for repairing and restoring damaged guitars to pristine condition and beyond.
One day somebody challenged Murphy to reverse the process – to reproduce every aspect of an original road-worn 1959 Les Paul, from the period-correct electronics such as paper-in-oil capacitors through to the aged “checking” finish. And Murphy did, freehand, reproducing the distinctive sharp right-angled lines in the lacquer individually by hand with a razor blade.
This “checking” (known rather poetically in French as faïencement), in real life the natural consequence of the lacquer drying out and shrinking over the years (in relation to the underlying maple veneer or mahogany body), is akin to the cracking on an old Rembrandt and, of course, the much sought-after “spider” cracking on the dial of a Rolex Submariner.
On a “reliced” guitar, the would-be vintage guitar bodies are coated with a thinner, period-correct nitro-cellulose lacquer rather than the more durable polyurethane now in use, as this is also considered a determining factor in the ’59 ’burst sound.
After leaving Gibson in the 1990s Murphy became something of a celebrity in the relicing world, and his aged guitars began to command a significant premium over the standard ex-factory product. Again, the comparison with a tropical or spider Rolex Submariner or Datejust dial is striking.
Gibson takes the production of “aged” guitars so seriously that in 2019 it re-employed Murphy to head up its “Murphy Lab,” basically a re-branding of Gibson’s Custom Shop division (most guitar manufacturers have a “Custom Shop” that employs top luthiers to turn out premium-quality versions of its product range), so bringing the relicing of its classic guitar range back in-house.
John Mayer has both Rolexes and Gibsons
It would remiss of me if I failed to mention John Mayer, who happens to be both one of the world’s most highly-rated pop-blues guitar players and one of the world’s most influential watch collectors, and therefore arguably the coolest guy on the planet, but that’s food for another article.
Anyone who has watched one of Hodinkee’s “Talking Watches” interviews with John Mayer will know that he has “a lot of Daytonas” – and he has allegedly been known to single-handedly move prices in the vintage market simply by being photographed wearing a hitherto overlooked or unloved Daytona variant.
Mayer describes the wow factor of wearing his first “great” watch, a Rolex Explorer II, as follows, “It’s not just the weight of the movement and case . . . it has some other sort of thing going . . . that’s what did it for me.”
On the guitar front, Mayer had Gibson’s main U.S. competitor, Fender, build him “The Black One,” initially a top-grade Custom Shop Stratocaster, which Mayer actually signed and painted himself in Fender’s workshop. Before delivering it, Fender “distressed” the paintwork in the now-accepted manner.
Now this is where things start to get weird. Mayer was disappointed when the guitar was delivered as he plugged it in and was it just kinda “meh.”
Convinced that it had potential, he then put it in the freezer overnight in the hope of “inducing some sort of molecular transformation” that would bring the guitar to life! (He subsequently discovered that the pickups had not been properly earthed to the vibrato block, proving that even Custom Shops are not infallible.)
After that, inspired by Stevie Ray Vaughan’s authentically wrecked Fender Stratocaster, he sanded off a lot more of the paint on his new guitar as he felt that the less lacquer there was on a guitar body, the more the body resonated. This guitar is heard at its best on the album Continuum, the live Where the Light Is album, and on his versions of Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love” in particular.
Now, Mayer justifies his mistreatment of the guitar on technical grounds, but other fans of “reliced” guitars, especially the Gibson Les Pauls, claim that there is an intangible, even spiritual element in the successful aging of a guitar, almost as if it enables the player to “channel” the guitar heroes of yore.
Or, as Mayer put it (referring to his Rolex Explorer II), “It has some other thing going.”
Now there’s an avenue for the Longines and Rolex research and development departments to explore . . .
Quick Facts 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard reissue
Neck and body; Mahogany, maple top
Fingerboard: Indian rosewood
Quick Facts Longines Heritage Military
Case: 38.5 mm, stainless steel
Movement: automatic Caliber L888, 64-hour power reserve
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds
Price: $2,150 / €1,840