Behind @Onlybuyingtime on Instagram is a commercial real estate broker in his early 40s from the New York City area. The watch he highlights is his recently completed, fully customized “Esprit de la Mer” (or “Spirit of the Sea”) Rolex Sea-Dweller, which has been masterfully engraved by talented artist Reinis Stripnieks (@reinis.stripnieks) of Austria. Together, they turned this robust dive watch into a piece that looks as if it could have been worn by an old ship Captain and created hundreds of years ago. But most importantly, this bespoke Rolex is a watch that tells a very personal story…
(Featured image by @waitlisted)
Brice Goulard, MONOCHROME – Where does your love for the sea and seaworthy watches come from?
@Onlybuyingtime – For all of my life, I have seen my father wear an early 1970s Stainless Steel Rolex Submariner on his wrist that my mother gave him for their wedding. My father was a long-time cameraman and nature documentarist, who at an early age, in the 1950s, began his love with the sea after my grandfather, who was in the Navy, was transferred and stationed in Puerto Rico. Being the adventurer that he is, he has worn this “dive watch” 24/7 for the last 50 years including thousands of hours under the water while scuba diving in some of the most iconic global locations and with some of the most admired and feared sea creatures. Whether it was swimming with Great White Sharks on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Humpback Whales off of Alaska, WWII wreckage in Truk Lagoon, or seals and penguins while diving under many feet of thick ice in Antarctica, he always had on his trusty workhorse tool watch Submariner.
As a child and young adult, I was lucky enough to have been exposed to many years of memorable family weekends and vacations that almost always centred around the ocean and either sailing or scuba diving excursions. With those experiences came my admiration and love of the sea, and a direct connection/correlation to what the Rolex dive watches symbolized for the wearer and simultaneously what they were truly meant to do.
What is it that inspires you most in Rolex as a brand?
As a veteran watch collector/enthusiast, my collection and collecting focus have taken many turns throughout the years, but like many collectors, it often begins with Rolex. For me, it all began over 20 years ago with my first adult watch, which was a Two Tone Rolex Submariner “Bluesy”, a clear connection to both the sea and dive watch, but also to my Father’s watch and our family’s maritime legacy. Since then, it has been a rollercoaster ride of many different watch brands, styles, functions, colours and more, but with most of my recent focus and love circling around Independent watchmakers and artisans who create incredible, unique pieces that have the highest level of design and or artistic flare. So coming full circle, I felt the need and only fitting to create an artistic tribute watch that was not only a tie to my personal story and love for the ocean but also something that best represented the “soul” and purpose of the watch that was created and so appropriately named the ”Sea-Dweller” by Rolex.
Why did you decide to take this specific model as the basis of your customized version?
For this customized fully engraved project, I not only wanted a watch that would be worthy and fitting of hundreds of hours of painstaking carving work, but also a “canvas” suitable to best showcase the artist’s incredible talents and skills. I chose a watch that was not only iconic for myself personally, but also had a nice large case and bracelet links, as well as coinciding with its 50th Anniversary of being created and stood for the exact purpose and from which it was named. The Sea-Dweller is the larger, more rugged, deep ocean-certified dive watch that eclipses the Submariner in both size and design but also has a tremendous wrist presence for the wearer.
Can you please take us through the design and production process with the engraving artist?
I have always admired and loved seeing the incredible detail of the finest engraved metalwork, whether on items like a Holland & Holland shotgun stock, fine knives, silversmith items or wrist & pocket watches. I was always intrigued by the insane level of detail, the execution, but most importantly the story that was told within the engraved artwork, which usually portrayed a landscape of animals and or nature. When it came to many wristwatches though, the majority that I had seen in person were almost always either poorly designed due to a poor choice of theme/genre, or poorly executed at the end of the day.
So, through much research and speaking with friends and fellow collectors, I was fortunate enough to come across an incredibly talented young master engraver in Europe named Reinis Stripnieks, who specializes in both deep relief and bank note engraving, two very important techniques that would allow us to achieve the elegant and rich results we were looking for. We began a spirited online dialogue in the first few months of 2022, going through many weeks and months of design brainstorming, with me telling my life story and providing as many details and images possible to help paint the picture of what direction I wanted this engraving commission to go.
Thankfully, Reinis was a seasoned professional, with not only a keen eye for design, but also the drive and design tools necessary to immediately show me several different ideas and techniques that we would be able to build off of and tweak as the project progressed. We needed to decide on not just the theme of the overall design, but how it would exactly layout, which “sea creatures” or objects would be used and where exactly they would go, how the overall flow of the design would work and last but not least, the particular scrolling design that would be seamlessly integrated and woven throughout the images.
I found it most helpful for us both for me to search and provide pictures from the internet of the exact images or pictures I wanted to incorporate and many of these were in the forms of drawings, sketches or tattoos which were easiest for us to digitally overlay and immediately progress the overall design layout. So, after months and months, many pictures, many hours and many, many changes, we landed on a beautiful design that hit every button and detail I was looking for. This design included a non-symmetrical pattern where each bracelet side was completely unique and had non-repeating links and images. These final images included some of my personal favourites such as a diving helmet, an octopus, a seahorse, a nautilus and a scallop shell, as well some really cool optical effects including a ‘bird’s eye view’ of a hammerhead shark swimming and finally a green sea turtle on the case back. Overall, we wanted to create a look like this watch came out of a treasure chest of a sunken ship and could have been made hundreds of years ago.
After acquiring a new Anniversary Sea Dweller and sending it to Reinis without the dial, movement, crown and crystal, he began the painstaking process of transferring the design onto the watch, including the bracelet, clasp, case and case-back, followed by hundreds of hours and months of deep relief and bank note engraving, metal removal of the background and finally a special proprietary chemical treatment for proper colour contrast and shading.
In the end, we were left with a truly stunning fully engraved piece unique work of art, that showcased a beautifully flowing tapestry of sea creatures, diving imagery and intricate scrolling that we collectively decided was deserving of an appropriate name and so was dubbed “Esprit de la Mer” or Spirit of the Sea.
Can you describe the feeling you had when you first saw it?
I was absolutely blown away! Throughout the entire process, there was a steady back and forth of photos and updates regarding the project’s progress, but the pictures only did so much justice, to hold it in my hand and see all the details was insane. I immediately grabbed my loupe and spent hours just slowly going around and looking at every little engraving. There was certainly a high level of pride and happiness knowing how much time and how much effort had been put into this project and to finally be able to wear it and photograph it and see the subtle nuances throughout the watch was just overwhelming.
And when was the watch delivered to you?
The watch was delivered to me at my home in April of this year. From the beginning of the design process until receiving the watch was just over a year, which included 3-4 months of just designing, but now that we have done it, it appears realistic to be able to be more efficient in future endeavours. We are already working on other designs and themes, with several brands and models of watches that I believe are fitting of such artwork, which we are excited to discuss and share in the upcoming months as well.
Now that it was such a success, would you want to create more of these, maybe for other collectors who share a similar love for the sea?
100%!! Watch collecting at this point for me is so much more than just the actual watches, but about the interaction with the artisans and the creation and truly the “curation”….. the curating of special watchmakers, artists, memories, stories and collecting friends whom you gain through this incredible shared passion we all love so much. For me, I wanted to do this particular project to not just scratch an itch I had for wanting an engraved art piece and summarize a family legacy on my wrist, but to truly showcase the incredible talent and skill that so many artisans have out there that don’t always get the notoriety or credit they deserve. The collecting world is filled with many brands and people telling you what you should be collecting, which fuels an industry as well as ‘hypes’ many pieces as the ones you are ‘supposed’ to be buying and owning.
I want collectors to know that there is NO wrong way of collecting and that they can express themselves through many different channels of artisans who can make unique, bespoke, personalized pieces of art on the wrist and not just have to settle for something more commonly found just straight off the rack. Be a sponge, be a teacher, absorb, learn, educate, experience as many different types of watches you can and come to your own conclusion for how you want to curate your personal collection going forward. I would love and hope that others find inspiration and enjoyment from this particular piece and allow artisans like Reinis to continue creating works of art and stories to tell for many years to come. This is not about having a piece unique or a one-of-one, but giving people inspiration to pursue owning something like this or creating other designs from the ground up, which has become my true passion and which I hope to be able to help others do as well.
Does your watch get a lot of wrist time?
I have only had this watch for about 6 weeks, but yes, of course, I am in the honeymoon phase and have worn it quite a bit, mainly because it brings me so much joy, but also because I know there are many friends and family I want to show it to now that it is completed. BUT… like any watch collector, variety is the spice of life and I always enjoy wearing different watches on a regular basis since they all have deep meaning to me and there is also renewed excitement each time I put one on versus just wearing one piece all the time.
What were the reactions from people around you?
I got wonderful reactions from both collectors, family, friends and strangers and reactions can vary greatly due to the knowledge or lack of knowledge they have when it comes to watches or the specific art of engraving. All of them were positive, with the most common being “Oh my God, this was all done by hand?”, but most led to curiosity as to “Why would you do something like this” and “Who does work like this” and of course “how much does something like this cost?” Being as deep into collecting as I am, I am often looked to within my friend group as an authority on what is cool or unique out there in the watch world, so I truly enjoy any and all feedback and comments and most of all just love telling the story of why I did this, who did the work, how it was done and what the techniques involved consisted of, etc.
What would be the current market value of the watch?
As Mastercard once put it…..PRICELESS!!! There are many different brands and individual artisans out there who do customization of watches and the pricing and quality of work can vary greatly. When it comes to someone as talented as Reinis Stripnieks and me wanting and expecting a level of engraving and finishing greater than most anything out there, I was willing to invest the time and money for the exceptional service and work. The end result that we achieved speaks for itself. Depending on the exact type of customization you are looking for, costs can add anywhere from $10-20,000 up to $50-100,000 or more on top of the cost of the original watch in order to achieve the highest level of results. There are just a few handfuls of top artisans around the world and they are highly sought after and have only a limited amount of time to work on projects, so to be able to work with one and have the patience to wait 1 to 3 years for the result is a true labour of love.
I think that this project has been the culmination of a lot of ideas I have had for several years, as well as a further step in my personal interest of finding enjoyment in creating and designing unique artisanal pieces. I’ve really wanted to work with several artists who each are masters in their specific craft such as cloisonne/enamelling, micro painting, engraving, marquetry, etc. I had previously worked with Stefan Ketelaars on a piece unique hand-painted dial of his 3D Terra model, which also was nautical themed and turned out beautifully. So hopefully I can continue more projects like these and pursue my personal passion and interest of showcasing more “art on the wrist”.
How would you describe your watch collection so far?
At this point in my collecting journey, I would describe my collection as pretty diverse and eclectic, a true reflection of me as a person and my tastes….a ‘united nations’ you might say of makers around the world with varying styles and shapes and colors and complications and metal materials. I strive for no 2 watches to look alike and try my hardest to also NOT have 2 watches by the same watchmaker in order to further my curating diversity. My true focus and love is interacting with the watchmakers and artisans themselves and focusing on small Independent brands/individuals by supporting them both financially by buying their watches and emotionally through the friendships we build.
Are there any more watches you would like to buy?
LOL, certainly a loaded question….there are ALWAYS more watches I would like to buy, some old, some new, some less expensive, some more, etc. It is a constant struggle for a collector to figure out what you can afford to buy and collect, while simultaneously prioritizing which exact ones you want most, but also which brand or person is most deserving or in need of your support as a collector/client. I mainly collect modern “indie” watches from within the last 25 years and most that I still want are either new releases or “grail” watches of recent years, like the iconic HM9 from MB&F, or the Antiqua from Vianney Halter, but I still of course love meeting new people and seeing new creations that will hopefully be in the collection one day soon, such as last year’s GPHG winner Sylvain Pinaud who really impressed me as both a person and watchmaker and was well-deserving of the prize!
Which brands do you think are doing interesting work out there?
Oh man! There are so many incredible ones doing such incredible stuff and you can really just see what I have collected and post on my IG to see the ones I truly love and support! I don’t want to leave any out or only name some and not others, but I look for very specific unique designs and cool stories behind the people that are doing them. I have been a passionate collector of some of the more well-known Indies for many years now such as Grönefeld, MB&F, Moser, Ludovic Ballouard, Andersen Geneve, Ressence, Urwerk etc…. but very excited about several small brands or individuals that I call friends who in the last year or so have been doing some great stuff such as Genus, Holthinrichs, Felipe Pikullik, Stefan Ketelaars, Florent Lecomte, James Lamb, Havid Nagan and I am certainly most excited for being part of the design process and Souscription series for a fantastic individual and now great friend Simon Brette, who in my opinion created the best new watch of 2023 and has years of incredible creating in front of him.
Are you in touch with other collectors? What do these relationships mean to you?
Absolutely! Every single day and every single hour. It’s practically a full-time job! I speak to other collectors more than many close friends or family since we are always interacting with each other, discussing the latest and greatest happenings, exciting releases, NWAs, upcoming trips, etc. These relationships are some of the strongest ones I have and reach globally to people I consider closest of friends, but I still have yet to ever meet face to face. There is something incredible about a group of like-minded individuals with like-minded passions all coming together to celebrate and enjoy what they all love most and that centres around watches!
Do you have general tips for people who want to start collecting watches?
My only advice is to truly follow your heart and personal passion. It doesn’t matter what I collect or what others collect, just use those pieces as learning material or inspiration for figuring out what your own personal taste is and then be patient and work hard to achieve those pieces. Nothing is unobtainable, but it certainly can take time and relationships and of course, the necessary funds to finally achieve. Collecting is not about buying as many pieces as you can in as short of a time period as possible, but it is more of a slow marathon of enjoying the journey more than the destination.
My main advice would be: Don’t overthink it, if you see something you like, your initial gut reaction is usually the best. It doesn’t always matter what others think or tell you, but it can certainly persuade you one way or another on what your heart truly wants. Be yourself, buy for you and you only, enjoy the process and interactions as much as getting the actual watch itself. There will always be more watches, just have fun with it and enjoy the ride and memories you create.