Vintage watches: An Interview with Heirloom Gallery

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Heirloom Gallery

Owner of Heirloom Gallery, Shawn Tan, believes that watch collecting is an art, a lifestyle. Shawn has been operating Heirloom Gallery for the past 15 years at Upper Circular Road. Heirloom Gallery was set up to source for special vintage pieces and at the same time keep his hobby going. Many of the piece seen on Heirloom Gallery’s site may have originated from Shawn’s private collection whilst others have been sourced and selected with much care.

Shawn’s passion for watch collecting has even led Heirloom Gallery to be featured and recommended by Louis Vuitton in it’s 2015 city guide. With it’s long standing track record HG has even been named ‘Vintage Watch Website of the Month’ by WUS thrice.

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Shawn’s passion led him to leave his Tax Consulting Profession to set up Heirloom Gallery

Justin: Thank you for the agreeing to have the interview Shawn,  could we start by hearing a short backstory of your first mechanical watch?

Shawn: The first mechanical watch that started my collecting journey is a 1920s “Moeris” silver case watch with porcelain dial, one that closely resembles an old pocket watch my grandfather used to have when I was very young.  I remember asking him why he had to wind up the watch every day and how it could keep accurate time.  Seeing that I was too young to understand the complexity, he merely said: “It is the same reason why you have to wind up your favourite toy car before it will move”.

JustinHow did you get started in watches? Were there anybody who had a strong influence on you?

Shawn: Although I started collecting vintage watches only from the age of 18, my affinity for vintage stuff started since young as I grew up in an environment filled with nice vintage stuff.  Other than his beloved pocket watch, my grandfather used to have some old chiming clocks, vintage cars, record players, turntables, gramophones and old cameras in the house.  And while my childhood friends were catching spiders during our primary school holidays, I was helping my eldest brother organising his coins, stamps and first day covers collections, so I think the penchant for vintage stuff somewhat rubbed off on me since young.

Shawn reminiscing his childhood days as he recalled
Shawn reminiscing his childhood days as he recalled his younger self tinkering with all things vintages

Justin: Can you tell us more about how you started Heirloom Gallery?

Shawn: Heirloom Gallery was set up in year 2000.  To my family and close friends, it was the most natural thing for me to do when I gave up my tax consulting profession to deal with the items I love most, vintage watches.  For me, it was a hobby that became too big and turning it into a business was a dream come true.

Setting up Heirloom Gallery enabled me to bring special items to fellow collectors and at the same time keep my hobby going.   Back then, there were a few vintage watch dealers in Singapore but most of them concentrated on major brands like Omega, Rolex and others that sell well locally.  As a collector who likes unusual stuff, I realised through my research and personal purchasing experience with overseas dealers that there are many other interesting and unusual watches out there that are worth exploring and collecting, and I take much pride and joy in hunting down special watches and sharing them with fellow collectors.

Justin: What was your first watch you sold?

Shawn: I do not remember exactly but it would probably be an old Omega Seamaster from 1960s. They were quite popular back then.

An Omega Constellation, available for sale at HG
An Omega Constellation, available for sale at HG

Justin: Must have been good times back then! What do you usually have on your wrist?

Shawn: I usually match my watch with my mood and attire of the day and almost certainly a vintage.  Although I also like the new technologies that new watches offer but new watches will stay on my wrist for no more than a week or two.

Why vintage?  For me, the answer is simple, they don’t make them like that anymore!!!    Each vintage timepiece has its own historical value and many offer a peek of the past from each era. Every vintage watch is Piece Unique and gives the sense of exclusiveness as no two vintage watches are the same; they age differently like every one of us.

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Not something you’ll see everyday. A  A.Lange & Sohne 52mm WWII pilot
Here's a side by side comparison with the Hulk
Here’s a side by side comparison with the Hulk
It's huge!
The giant sized B-Uhr. The King crab of all pilot watches.

Justin: Are there any brands that you feel a special inclination towards? Why?

Shawn: I do not have any tendency towards particular brand per se but am more inclined towards collecting unique and rare art deco, chronographs, moonphases and military pieces.

Justin: I see, what about your customers? Is there a difference in what customers in the past and the customers now look for?

In the past, local vintage watch collectors tend to “buy the brands” i.e. watches with big brands.  Of course, brands are important but in recent years especially with the continuous exposure and discussions on watch forums as well as astonishing auction results, collectors are starting to look beyond the few key brands and warming up slowly but surely towards vintage watches which are lesser known but equally if not more collectible than the branded ones.

For the past 10 years or so, collectors were going for BIG watches measuring 42mm to 55mm.  Recently, discerning collectors are demonstrating increased interest for smaller pieces (35mm to 42mm) that are more wearable on their wrists; something classic, less showy, to match their sartorial taste subtly.

Easily one of our favorite pieces!
Rolex 1675 GMT with nipple dial. Gilt font with patina bezel and markers. The dial is gaining a tropic hue.

Justin: What is your opinion on restoring/polishing vintage pieces? 

Shawn: As a vintage watch collector myself, I like my vintage pieces with scratched but original unpolished cases, faded tritium markers and original crystals and would not usually encourage over-restoring or over-polishing a watch unless it is absolutely necessary, in order to retain its originality as much as possible

A finely aged Rolex GMT Coke
A finely aged Rolex GMT Pepsi, more collectible credit to its gilt dial.

Justin: Ah I see.. in that case, what are the things to look out for when buying vintage watches?

Shawn: Finding a good vintage piece requires hunting, research, and sifting through dozens of examples to eliminate fakes until you find “the one”. The thrill is as much in the chase as it is in owning the watch.

There are several key components to making a successful purchase. The first and most obvious is to know what you are buying.  There are countless websites, blogs and forums on the internet with troves of useful information on almost any kind of watch imaginable, collectors could tap on these virtual libraries to determine the authenticity, history and value of a watch they intend to purchase.  For the less discerning collectors, it is always advisable to purchase from reputable auction houses or dealers.  Unless you know what you are buying, the potential for fraud, particularly online, is great.

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A Jaeger leCoultre Club, in great condition!

Justin: Do you have any final advice for budding watch collectors?

Shawn: The quest for the right vintage watch is as much about the journey as it is the destination.  Buying vintage watches goes beyond looking for the original hands, movement parts, case etc.

Part of the pleasure of buying a fine watch is the experience. Talking with people who are knowledgeable is essential, so is developing a relationship with a dealer as you will be first in line for the rare, hard to get pieces.   A good dealer would also be able to recommend an experienced watchmaker who can service your watches.

Another important part of watch collecting is meeting other collectors, who usually hang out at their favourite store as if it were a club, they meet and share their collections and knowledge regularly and many form lasting friendships.

In respect of vintage watches, we have more than a century to choose from, it is important to develop a collecting criteria, do your research, set a budget, buy what you like, the best example you can find, what evokes your emotion and not what some expert, magazine or your friends said you should buy.

Always remember that watch collecting is not about how expensive or big your collection is. I am happy wearing my anonymous early 1920s watch with exploding numbers and not bothered by the alphabets or the lack of it stamped on the watch.  It is a game, not a competition.  A game that can only be played, not won as there is always a better watch out there.  So have fun collecting, vintage or otherwise.

Shawn sharing tips with the gang!
Shawn sharing tips with the gang!
HG also has a great selection of straps for sale!
HG also has a great selection of straps for sale!

Heirloom Gallery

20 Upper Circular Rd, 058416
6438 6178

Opened: Tues – Sat (12pm – 6pm)

Closed: Sun, Mon & Public Holidays

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