A TALE OF TIME
The journey of a hobbyist watchmaker as told through his collection of vintage timepieces and horological curiosities.
Many watch enthusiasts are content to enjoy their passion by buying new timepieces and being in a Facebook group or two. Despite having a hectic schedule as a father of two and a director at a life-science MNC, Alvin Sim still finds the time to service watches and conduct watchmaking courses on the side. His recent projects include assembling a new limited series of enamelled watches produced locally under the name Project Coalesce.
“I literally make time,” says Sim with a laugh, pointing to the watchmaking tools on his desk in his makeshift workshop at home. He elaborates, “I work during the day, and I spend time with my family in the evening. When they are asleep, around 10pm, I crawl out of bed and work on my timepieces until 2am. I’m also at my work desk on weekends.” Such is his passion for watchmaking that Sim went to WOSTEP (Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Programme) in Neuchatel, Switzerland for a three-week chronograph course in November 2019.
AROUND THE CLOCKS
The mostly self-taught hobbyist watchmaker, however, began his horological journey more than a decade ago. It’s a story that can be told through the vintage clocks, pocket watches and horological curiosities in his workroom.
Sim, a mechanical engineer by training, became intrigued by horology after seeing anniversary clocks. Dating back to the 19th century, these slow torsion pendulum clocks can run for 400 days on a single winding. He owns about 10, which are displayed at the top of his shelves. His favourite is an elaborately engraved model made by German company Kieninger & Obergfell in 1965.
He shares, “I was curious about how these clocks could run for so long. For about four years, I would service or repair such clocks on the weekend. I didn’t have any experience, so when I first started dissembling them, I would take many photos for my reference. I would take a picture of every screw I removed.”
FROM PAST TO PRESENT
He moved on to pocket watches – an interest sparked by two pocket watches by American company Elgin that he found on eBay. He bought most of his vintage timepieces during his travels or online. The intricacies of these early timepieces, which date back to the 16th century, intrigued him. “I’m amazed that people could perform such fine work without the technology we have today, such as CNC machines,” says Sim.
His collection of pocket watches is arranged on stackable trays. It includes chronographs used in World War II, railroad pocket watches (used by railroad operators in the 19th century to ensure that trains ran on time), and small, exquisitely decorated pieces.
Needless to say, he has disassembled most of his timepieces to service them. In keeping with his love for vintage horological objects, he often uses vintage tools. One of his prized kits is a 19th-century Jacot tool, a hand-powered watchmaking tool used for burnishing, polishing and rounding pivots. Sim purchased the set from a London shop specialising in vintage watch tools a few years ago. “It required a lot of cleaning and restoration, but it is now fully functional.”
Sim credits his years of experience with clocks and pocket watches for helping him build a solid foundation when he moved on to wristwatches. Starting with basic, time-only pieces, he then progressed to more complicated pieces such as calendar watches and chronographs. During his WOSTEP chronograph class, says Sim, the greatest lesson he learned was the importance of getting the basics right before moving on. However, Sim had known that right from the get-go.
A PATH OF HIS OWN
Tired of hype and skyrocketing prices, a horology enthusiast now only buys what he likes, regardless of “brand, make or model”.
“I’ve always been very sensitive to time,” says the reticent collector who owns the horological objects on these two pages. The 41-year-old father of three, who wants to be known only as M for this story, shares, “My mum instilled that in me – if you had to be somewhere at 3 o’clock, you’d better be there by then, if not earlier.” He began collecting modern wristwatches by popular fine watch brands after receiving his first proper wristwatch, a Tag Heuer Kirium, from his parents when he turned 21.
After a few years, he became disillusioned with the watch-collecting scene. “It started to bore me. As certain watches became so common and their prices skyrocketed, I couldn’t collect them anymore. After gradually selling my collection, I decided to collect what I like, regardless of the brand, make or model.”
These days, he likes vintage wristwatches, pocket watches and collectibles, such as a Heuer chess clock, and accessories from bygone days, including watch display stands, stamps and boxes. He smiles and says, “I like oddities like these.”
FORM AND FUNCTION
Ten years ago, the horology enthusiast first began collecting pocket watches, intrigued by their historical significance. It started with a Breguet 18K gold pocket watch, which features the brand’s signature guilloche dial, that he bought from a seller on Carousell. “I’ve always liked the dials of Breguet watches, so when a pocket watch with its original lanyard came up for sale, I got it because I thought it was beautiful.”
After collecting time-only or calendar vintage pocket watches for a while, his tastes became more specific. One niche he became interested in was large chronograph pocket watches, such as an Omega split-seconds chronograph pocket watch made for the 1966 Olympic Games. Housed in a red case, the watch would have been worn around necks of the Games’ timekeepers then.
Another big (literally) favourite are railroad pocket watches. He owns a trio that range in diameter from 8cm to 14cm, each housed in a heavy leather case. They date back from the late 19th century and early 20th century. “They are hard to find,” says M, only acknowledging that he discovered them “through a friend in Europe”.
More recently, his tastes have evolved towards beautifully decorated, enamelled pieces, which are the exact opposite of those railroad models. He currently owns two of these pocket watches. One is a yellow gold Patek Philippe dating back to 1846. The back case is decorated with a floral design and mother-of-pearl and has a vibrant blue enamel finish.
The other is a chiming quarter repeater by Vacheron Constantin that was likely made in the 1880s. An enamelled floral design distinguishes the back case of this delicate timepiece, which also has an enamelled dial. Pocket watches, he notes, are becoming increasingly collectible. Says M, “I’m drawn to the art pieces.
Pocket watches are gaining more traction at auctions. Everyone wants big Henry Graves complications by Patek or the complicated ones by Breguet, and this has given pocket watch collecting a little boost. You can start at a very low entry price and move your way up.”