Bernard Cheong: On Collecting and Literary Pursuits
Passionate watch collector Bernard Cheong tells us about that first piece that kick-started his collection, and his next monumental task - writing a book
Highly revered in the world of watches, Bernard Cheong has a deep passion and appreciation for the art of fine watches, counting well over 3,000 timepieces in his collection. We catch up with the internationally renowned watch collector about his decades long passion and his upcoming book on the life of one of the greatest watchmakers of this century.
Asia Tatler: What is it that you see in watches?
Bernard Cheong: Watches were originally tools and their prime function was to tell the time. Nobody really paid much more attention to that other than maybe decorating it to give it a bit more value and increasing its efficiency. But after the quartz watch was invented - and the computer and handphone - watches have become totally redundant. And that's what makes it so beautiful. Although it is so redundant, it is a tour de force of technology if you look inside a watch. There is enough engineering and research there that have given rise to medical instruments. Many cardiac stents, valves, and materials like silicium, all come from the watch industry. They were not originally manufactured for medical use. If you look at that one square inch of material, whether stainless steel or gold, it carries 60 to 100 man-hours of sheer labour. There are very, very few other objects in the world like that.
AT: Tell us about your first watch.
BC: I got my first watch when I was a student. The most expensive watch I could afford then was a Seiko chronograph. I saved up by working part time as a gardener for Wesley church and as an office boy, without my parents' knowledge. I had to be very discreet about wearing the watch around my parents, though. My mother had actually bought me a much cheaper watch, but it was not high status enough to show off to my friends - I still have that watch somewhere. But it was the Seiko chronograph that started my collection. I went through a lot with my first watch - from medical school and national service to girlfriends; every little scratch on it has a meaning. It's like a diary with a code that only I would understand. Then for graduating from medical school, I got myself an Omega.
AT: You have an impressive watch collection. How do you decide what watch to add to your collection next?
BC: After collecting for over 30 years, I don't buy by brand any more. I buy a watch because it is beautiful, it appeals to me emotionally, or it's an incredible status symbol. These three key things usually point to a watch's rarity. When I say rare, I mean scarcity in terms or numbers, because such watches are very difficult to make.
AT: How do you feel when you strap a rare timepiece onto your wrist? Do you get a certain rush?
BC: It's a great honour, like wearing a medal.
"At the moment, I think it's important to collect anything that is an industrial object. You just have to have a good eye and read a lot."
AT: You have a very diverse collection with everything from independent brands to established brands. How would you compare them?
BC: If you're in it as an art collector, it is easier to examine independent brands and find something you like, and chances of you acquiring it as an investment rather than as a paperweight are higher. And if it's a beautiful watch, your chances of owning something rare (which is a given, because they make very few) and something of value is very high. The growth rate of your investment is the same as that of a piece of art. The big watch brands are also becoming independent in their own ways. They make watches that are obviously not replicable. Cartier is a good example, and brands like Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe and Breguet are also starting to issue watches that cannot be replicated.
AT: What trends do you expect to see in the watch industry in the next 10 to 20 years?
BC: Authentication will be a key focus. Whenever there is money to be made, fake goods start to pour in, so authentication is the biggest problem. Now they need to make their own movement because it would make it easier to authenticate a genuine watch when it has a movement that is easily identified with the brand. Every brand is slowly manufacturing its own layout of bridges and plates and wheels. This allows easy authentication, and eliminates the use of experts and makes your watch a tradable commodity. This will take two to three years from now. And when that happens, the market will see another acceleration.
AT: You've seen millions of watches in your lifetime. If you could create the watch of your dreams, how would it turn out? Is it a work in progress?
BC: Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Viot has created this watch. No one has heard of Jean-Baptiste Viot because he has yet to deliver his first piece, but he was one of the top watchmakers at Breguet. When Breguet shifted back to Switzerland, he stayed on in Paris. He spent the last two years making this watch. It's a simple time-only watch in solid white gold that will cost €24,000. The insides are made of German silver, which means the watch cannot be serviced without his approval. German silver is very delicate, so it cannot be replicated and this pushes up the watch's value. Another thing unique about this watch is that it has its movement on both sides - half the movement on the front and the other half on the back. It's also very easy to repair, simple, and a watch that will hold its value well. It's called ‘Paris', and I've ordered a piece. He makes everything by hand, except the case of the watch. Jean-Baptiste makes everything by hand, even the tiny parts. He's that crazy; he does it just because he wants to be able to say he made everything. The only thing he doesn't make is the jewel and the glass covering.
AT: You're also a keen art collector. Tell us more about your other interesting collections, hobbies or interests.
BC: At the moment, I think it's important to collect anything that is an industrial object. It's strange, but many people do collect art and individual paintings, and it's become almost passe. To collect industrial products that have the potential to become rarities, however, is a great challenge. These things are available to every man on the street. You just have to have a good eye and read a lot.
AT: What else have you been busy with lately?
BC: Top of my list is to record the life of Rolf Schnyder of Ulysee Nardin. He played a pivotal role in changing the course of watchmaking, He was a powerful force that would benefit Swatch, Richemont, his own company, everybody. He was a very generous man with a wealth of information. His death was unexpected because he was a very healthy man and afraid of death. It was his widow, Datin Chai Schnyder, who asked me to write a book. It's a monumental task, and I've been going through his diaries, and his stuff that he wrote, his thoughts. I spent a lot of time with him. It's a funny thing - although watchmaking has grown, it lost a lot of its great leaders early. The greatest leader they lost was first Günter Blümlein, then Hayek, and within a few months of that, they lost Rolf Schnyder. The most promising watchmaker I see now who has the potential to become an icon of tomorrow is Max Büsser.
Find out more about Bernard Cheong in Singapore Tatler's September 2011 issue.