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Greg Selch on the "overlooked" watches he treasures (and thinks you should, too).
August 15, 2022
Photos by Tiffany Wade
Welcome to '90s Week, where we're revisiting the raddest (and most underrated) watches of the decade, plus the trends and innovations that defined the end of the 20th century. Plug in your dial-up modem and grab a Crystal Pepsi.We'll be here all week.And to commemorate the occasion, this week's Watch of the Week columnist is the prodigious collector and Talking Watches alumnus Greg Selch.
When I first started collecting watches in my twenties I couldn't afford new ones, but it didn't matter all that much because I was only doing it for the fun.
Watches were very cool mechanical gems that fit nicely in my collecting "repertoire" but, like vintage Leica cameras, older cars, and electric guitars, many of the most popular pieces seemed like they were only accessible to the wealthiest collectors.
Thirty years later, I'm still only doing it for fun, but I have also acquired some of the knowledge and experience that allows me to occasionally "swim in the deep end."
A few of Greg Selch's favorite '90s watches
My love for Zenith watches is well-known. When I first started collecting the brand in the mid-'90s, I was attracted to the funk of the company's '70s El Primero-powered chronographs, and I eventually found my way to Zenith's even less-heralded '90s chronographs. They used the same El Primero movement, now known as the caliber 400, but they more closely resembled the traditional aesthetic of 1950s dress chronographs than the wild designs of the '70s Zeniths I already knew and loved.
These watches were somewhat rare in the United States throughout the '90s, but I was eventually able to find a Zenith chronograph with a black dial. It cost me less than a vintage El Primero (but more than a vintage El Primero-powered Movado Datron), and it was a revelation in my collecting career. The quality was second to none, the movement was one of the best chronograph movements ever, and the 38mm size and low profile made it just perfect for me.
A '90s Zenith chronograph alongside a '90s Blancpain Leman Chronograph
The collectors I knew back then, in the late '90s and early 2000s, considered watches made in the '90s to be "new," and not "vintage." There was even a discussion in forums and elsewhere at the time to establish a "cut-off" for vintage watches. Some said that a watch designed with the aid of a computer made it "modern," while others simply picked an arbitrary date like 1980 or 1985. No matter what, a '90s watch would have fallen into the "new" or "modern" watch category. That never made sense to me. What would future collectors think of these watches? After all, my '90s Zenith used a movement that was designed in the definitely-still-vintage 1960s. Was it not made almost exactly the same way as it would have been back then?
A few years after I first went down the Zenith rabbit hole, in the late 2000s, I was offered a stainless-steel Blancpain with a white porcelain-like dial; it was a chronograph in my perfect 37mm size. The watch wasn't running, and the seller told me that he didn't want to spend the "thousands of dollars" it would cost to have it repaired. I took my new Blancpain to a watchmaker I knew that used to work at one of the big NYC retailers, and he told me that he would try to source the parts to get it fixed up. A couple of hundred bucks and a few weeks later, it was on my wrist for good, no worse for wear.
I didn't know much about Blancpain watches at the time, but I knew my watch was a pleasure to look at and to wear on the wrist. The screw-down pushers and crown, the screw-down caseback, the engraved Blancpain name on the caseband, and the applied markers and numerals on the dial were all very subtle and balanced. Everyone who commented on it said they liked it but that "they didn't know the brand;" the few collectors I knew who were aware of Blancpain were only familiar with the vintage Fifty Fathoms dive watches.
I started to look at the other Blancpain watches that were out there in the late 2000s, including the company's newest offerings, which by this time included the current generation of the Fifty Fathoms. I remember they had a list price that was about 10 times the price of the most expensive vintage watches I was buying, with very few exceptions. Someday, I thought, I might find another beat-up Blancpain that I could afford. Well, it ended up happening sooner than I thought: A beautiful Leman Ultra Slim watch with "Aeronef" numerals and a nice bracelet was eventually offered to me. It was about double what I'd paid for my first Blancpain but as a Zenith fan and collector, I appreciated the stylistic nod to Zenith's legendary 1930s Aeronef flight clock. So I bought it.
All of the sudden, I was in the hobby far deeper than I had ever anticipated. I seemed to be the only person interested in these obscure beauties. I ended up buying a slightly larger Air Command Flyback Chronograph that was a part of Blancpain's late '90s "Trilogy" series. The quality was unbelievable. With each '90s Blancpain and Zenith I purchased, I was more and more impressed with the overall quality, not to mention the spectacular in-house movements.
I still struggle to understand why more collectors haven't gravitated toward special high-end watches from the '90s like my beloved Blancpains and Zeniths. How could these limited-edition,hand-assembled beauties not evoke the refrain of future regret: "Why wasn't I collecting these watches when they were readily available?"
I've heard so many collectors lament about currently inaccessible vintage pieces that could once have been purchased at a discount. You know the names. Vintage watches such as the exotic-dial Rolex "Paul Newman" Daytonas, and Universal Genève "Nina," "Big-Eye," and "Clapton" models fit the bill, as do now out-of-reach modern watches, such as the Patek Philippe Nautilus and Aquanaut.
I remember the days when all of those watches were overlooked by ferocious dealers and collectors as they shoved each other out of the way to wrestle over 50-year-old Rolex Submariners and Omega Speedmasters. It has always been my policy to ignore "what was in the window" and ask if there are any watches in the drawer that need repair. I'm always hunting for the unloved rare gems. These Blancpain and Zenith watches remind me of those overlooked gems in the jewelry store drawers.
And I firmly believe that, just as with the "Paul Newman" Daytona and Universal Genève "Nina" before them, people will gradually start to realize the quality of what they've been missing all these years with '90s watches.
Every dog will have its day.
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You can follow Greg on Instagram to tag along on his collecting adventures.
The HODINKEE Shop is an Authorized Retailer of Blancpain and Zenith watches.The HODINKEE Shop also carries a collection of pre-owned Blancpain and Zenith watches; you can explore our current assortment here.