Chris Clark is a watch guy. A vintage watch guy. However, like many of us, he hasn’t always been able to surround himself with watches and turn his passion into his full time work. However, today watches are part of his daily life and he has the time to find the right ones – including the superb and rare Rolex Oyster Perpetual Ref. 5016 Steel Bombay we’re about to discuss in our latest instalment of the Collector’s Series.
In 2006 Chris founded Sonning Vintage Watches in the UK. Before this, he worked in the asset finance industry. He went from Barclays Bank asset lender to the Bank of Scotland where he ran their North London branch before joining Experian Plc (formerly CCN) helping to build and launch Car Data Check. He went on to become Sales Director for Automotive and latterly for the Banking Division with annual revenues of around £70 million. I often have the pleasure of joining Chris at the various auctions in London. I know how keen he is on vintage Rolex. So this week on the Collector’s Series we go deep on why his magnificent Rolex Oyster Perpetual Ref. 5016 Steel Bombay is so special to him.
When did you get into watches?
I’ve always loved watches and particularly vintage. That said, whilst I’m a great fan of the intricacies of movements, histories of main springs, observatory time-keeping awards…. it’s the design of the dials and cases that really appeals. I’d built a small collection of early Rolex and Omega over the years and had the good fortune of being redundant in my mid-40’s. I decided to treat myself to a beautiful 1930’s Dunhill with some of my ‘soft’ earned pay-out and ended up working for the dealer I’d bought it off; kid in a sweetshop…. After 6 months I decided to go out on my own and created Sonning Vintage Watches.
What was it about watches that intrigued you?
Whilst clocks have been around, in one form or another for thousands of years, wristwatches for men, only became accepted in the early 1900’s. With the advent of the 1st World War men found pocket watches cumbersome and switched to wrist watches so in many ways the vast majority of the history of wristwatches is less than 100 years old. In that time, they’ve gone from being a war time necessity to a mechanical masterpiece and, with the exception of a wedding ring, one of the few pieces of jewellery a man can wear. Like a classic car or an early plane, they have a very practical use but that’s almost secondary to being of thing of beauty. What’s not to be intriguing.
What is it about Rolex that attracts you?
Rolex was formed in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law, Alfred Davis and they were based in London before moving to Geneva in 1919. Wilsdorf was the real driving force behind the company and he managed to create a business that is consistently recognised as the most respected brand, not just in terms of watches, in the world. This was done by innovation, fabulous design, consistent quality, belief in both style and mechanical movements and they understood marketing pretty much before marketing as a business was born.
They are as desirable to the young as Presidents, doctors to rock stars and oil rig workers to James Bond. If they sponsor an event, the marketing is always subtle and you’re never asked to complete a ‘survey’…. They effectively gave watches to prisoners of war and every movement is hand assembled and individually tested. The steel they use is extremely difficult to mill but they think it looks better and they have their own gold foundry, oh, and it still takes an average of a year to make one. They do virtually everything in-house and after a concern over fake diamonds they had their stock independently tested and were furious to find out that an average of 2 in 20 million were fake. They now test each diamond…
All that said, I think they have created a style that allows a watch from 60 or 70 years ago to look as relevant today as it did then. With the exception of a few brands such as Porsche & maybe Dualit, very few manufacturers have been able to do this. I can be wearing a 1950’s Oyster and see a gradual evolution to the modern day Oyster. There’s an advertisement they used in the 1960’s and the strap line was men who make decision wear Rolex. Also men and women who create great art, music, advertising campaigns, teach people to drive, fly planes, make bread…..
People often say there is a big difference between vintage Rolex and modern Rolex, in your mind, other than the obvious size differences what are the differences?
I’m not sure there are big differences between vintage and modern Rolex. They created a case and, from the 1960’s, a dial style that’s remained fairly unchanged in the last 50 years.
Why the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Ref. 5016 Steel Bombay?
The term Bombay was originally Bombe and it referred to the shape of a bomb used by the French army. All very interesting but the real reason I love this case style is its beauty. Rolex are masters of subtle change or plagiarism, I believe Omega were the first to use this style but could be wrong. Again, all very interesting but for some reason Rolex seem to do it the best. The iconic Oyster dial in the Bombay case is one of the most beautiful watches ever made. The majority were made in gold and, like a steel Prince, the steel case versions are more desirable and sadly more expensive.
Rolex has tremendous History, did this play into your decision to buy the Steel Bombay?
To be honest not really. That said, I’m human and the history of Rolex as a brand can make me like a watch more than another brand. However, if this exact watch were made by a less desirable brand I’d still love it.
Vintage Rolex is not something you see everyday on the wrist; does it get many questions/comments?
Very much so. Vintage watches, especially from the 50’s onwards, tend to be understated and wonderfully elegant. There’s also a misconception about the price of vintage with many people thinking a beautiful 1950’s Oyster would be a lot more than a modern equivalent. Happy to say they are, with some exceptions, less than a new entry level Oyster.
What powers the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Ref. 5016 Steel Bombay?
This Oyster is powered by a beautiful automatic movement – the main spring is charged by a rotor that turns as you move.
How does the Steel Bombay fit into your lifestyle?
It looks as good when I’m wearing jeans or a top hat and tails
What do you think the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Ref. 5016 Steel Bombay say’s about you when people see it on the wrist?
Hmm, a difficult one. I hope it says that I’m not driven by the latest fashion.
Does it get much wrist time?
2 or 3 times a month.
What is your favourite feature of the watch?
I just love that case!
What is more important to you when buying brand heritage, accuracy or aesthetic?
I’d love to pretend it was all about aesthetics but I do love 4 or 5 brands for their quality and heritage
Is ‘vintage’ making a resurgence?
I’m delighted to say yes, especially in the emerging markets which is driving prices up and supply down. Vintage watches are very much like classic cars, how ever many there are today are the most there’ll ever be and demand is increasing every year.
What, if anything have you got your eye on next?
We’ve recently bought 5 or 6 Vacheron Constantin watches from the 50’s and 60’s and they’re some of the most beautiful watches we’ve ever had. Sadly or gladly they seem to sell as fast as we list them so I don’t get an opportunity to wear them.
What three words would you use to describe your Steel Bombay?
Elegant, Classical and Beautiful