French Revolution: Seconde/Seconde

The art of vintage watches; the auction is strong; Feeling blue with the Tudor Black Bay 58

The art of vintage watches; the auction is strong; Feeling blue with the Tudor Black Bay 58

Meet the Han Solo of vintage, fighting to make art of patina

Are watches art? It’s an oft-debated question: To answer in the affirmative is to imply that there are artists using watches as a medium of expression and creativity to explore new ideas.

“I feel more and more comfortable saying I’m an artist,” says Romaric André, the founder of France-based (Design studio? Art studio? Vintage dealer? “I play with hands on vintage watches”, Romaric modestly puts it with a mischievous smile) Seconde/Seconde. “But that puts some pressure on me to say I won’t do anything that’s not true to me as an artist. An artist has to say ‘fuck the convention, fuck the norm.’ I want to be edgy. I don’t want to do the simple things.”

Ostensibly, Seconde/Seconde is in the business of taking vintage watches and swapping out the original hands with emoji-like icons offering a play on the vintage piece. Think a Tiffany-stamped Patek Philippe Calatrava with a croissant for a hand, or a Dunhill-branded alarm watch with a flame. If you don’t get it, that’s on you.

“The watch hands are so figurative, so I try to compensate by being a little abstract,” Romaric said. That means you won’t find explanations of the pieces on Seconde/Seconde’s website or in Instagram captions.

Seconde/Seconde Limited Edition for  MB&F M.A.D. Gallery
Seconde/Seconde Limited Edition for MB&F M.A.D. Gallery

To keep purists pacified, Seconde/Seconde has a trick up its sleeve: It always includes the original watch hands with the customized timepiece. Still, Seconde/Seconde doesn’t just swap in any hand on any piece.

“I decline a lot of requests to put icons on watches when there is no link between the icons and the watches. I won’t do things just for money,” Romaric explains.

But to simply define Seconde/Seconde by what it does is to miss entirely what it is.

Just a Seconde

Seconde/Seconde officially launched at Baselworld in 2019 (RIP), where its first client was industry veteran William Massena. Since then, Seconde/Seconde has continued to inject life in an otherwise conservative industry. Romaric has displayed a capsule collection with MB&F’s MAD Gallery, which you’ll now find in MB&F’s new online shop, and continues to entertain Instagram followers daily.

Romaric is something of an industry veteran himself: A previous business of his slapped a tourbillon into a mobile phone, attracting interest and investment from members of the avante-garde like Richard Mille and Eduoard Meylan (the latter of whom served as co-CEO). His years in the industry have given him a network of manufacturers and friends in high places that he’s drawn on in the launch of Seconde/Seconde.

“At first they were scared, then they thought it was cool, then they understood,” Romaric says of showing his concepts to collectors and friends. That the original watch hand was safe and sound in a tube included with the watch was crucial to their grappling with Romaric’s work.

Why so serious?

Take a look at Seconde/Seconde’s website or social media presence, and it’s immediately clear this isn’t some cruel joke being played on vintage purists. Not only is Romaric sourcing quality vintage watches, but he’s also doing it with respect. Every aspect of the brand is thoughtful, fun, and a little bit subversive.

“There’s a delicate balance between sacrilege and respecting the pieces. I do both,” Romaric said. He doesn’t just want to be “the guy making funny watch hands”; he’s meticulous and thoughtful about every aspect of Seconde/Seconde’s production and branding.

Take production: he wanted to manufacture the watch hands in France, but since there is only one workshop left in the entire country that produces watch hands, he had to convince them to work with his brand. Because Seconde/Seconde is making hands in extremely limited runs and always testing new ideas, it wasn’t easy. Eventually though, the family-operated workshop in the French Jura relented, and Seconde/Seconde found a home for its super-limited production (any particular hand might have a production run of 1-30 pieces).

Last laugh

While Seconde/Seconde takes production of its watches seriously — indeed, it must when tolerances are tight and manufacturing is done at the level of microns — when it comes to design, Romaric’s approach is more instinctual.

“The moment I’m not hesitating and just do it — when I put the watch hand on the watch and say ‘fuck the rest’ — that’s when it works,” Romaric said. In the beginning, he says he made too many jokes, wanting to be the “bad guy” in the watch industry.

Since then, he’s dialed it back, instead seeking balance to put the simplicity and beauty of the vintage watches on full display. For example, Romaric loves to play with paper: Because his hand icons are so bold and colorful, he strives to be clear and sober in the surroundings he creates for his pieces. The stark white gallery walls in which to display his artwork.

“The patina [of vintage watches] are the perfect canvas for the colors I’m putting on them. It’s the perfect contrast. What works is putting my hands on sober, simple dials. I’m just playing on contrasts,” Romaric said. He likens this approach to another form of subversive art.

“It’s like street art: there are walls, but let’s put spray paint on them. I saw walls where nobody saw them. There are millions of walls — those old dials and vintage watches — let’s have fun with them and consider them as a canvas.”

Solo Flight

“Solo Flight”
“Solo Flight”

As Romaric feels more comfortable thinking of himself as an artist, his work and vision raise the question: Where is the line between art and brand anyway? Romaric says he views himself as on the border of “artist’s way of thinking”, but that he’s also aware of the need to build a recognizable brand.

But when one can find popular artists like Koons or Murakami collaborating with brands like Louis Vuitton, Virgil Abloh (himself more brand than anthropoid) and Uniqlo, where is that border between art and brand? Surely, art critics have grappled more capably with this question as the art world becomes increasingly subject to the whims of the all-consuming “market”, but Romaric, in addition to the efforts of modern artisans like F.P. Journe and Max Busser are forcing the watch world to come to grips with the same.

As for Romaric, his work brings to mind a “shortcut” that Mr. Abloh himself often invokes: changing an existing object “just three percent” is often enough to make for a successful design. This gives short shrift to Seconde/Seconde’s work (and Abloh’s, for that matter), but the sentiment remains: Romaric saw canvasses all around him — why create something wholly new when there are vintage watches readily available? The backdrop of existing brands — and our preconceived notions and expectations that come with them — serve as the canvas for Romaric’s work.

Every aspect of Seconde/Seconde is infused with Romaric’s artistic vision. Sure, each timepiece is thoughtful and thought-provoking, but it’s more than that: Each Instagram post is photographic art, each webpage dripping with the reverent flippancy of an artist, who at once adores and is tortured by his patinaed muse.

Perhaps Romaric’s most subversive move — his most artistic moment, illustrating at once how he views himself and his position in the industry — came in that very first piece he sold to Mssr. Massena. It’s a piece he calls “Solo Flight”, and features an icon of the Millennium Falcon in place of the chronograph hand on a 1950s Zenith caliber 143-6. Of course, the Millennium Falcon is the dilapidated-but-powerful spaceship of Star Wars’ most famous smuggler, Han Solo, an instrumental leader in the Rebellion. Solo offered a sense of levity throughout the Rebel Alliance’s war against the Galactic Empire, with George Lucas describing him as "a cynical loner who realizes the importance of being part of a group and helping for the common good". Try as he like, Solo never totally ridded himself of the “bad guy” image either. And that wasn’t such a bad thing.

The parallels are obvious and manifold: Romaric carefully fixing up vintage watches, each his personal Millennium Falcon, providing a bit of levity all the while. And like Solo, Romaric is fighting his own “war between two different time periods,” as he puts it.


Black Bay 58

Feeling Blue

Apparently, people are really into buying watches right now. More accurately: People are really into buying watches that other people are buying. Phillips’ and Antiquorum’s auctions seemed to have generally strong results, and this week’s release of the Tudor Black Bay 58 “Navy Blue” seems to prove that blue-dial steel sports watches are as hot as ever too.

That Tudor was releasing a Black Bay 58 in blue was something of an open secret for at least a week; even Tudor started playing along, posting other blue watches with titillating Instagram captions in the week leading up to the release. Announcements from the likes of Hodinkee acknowledged the same (“hey, we know you knew, and we know you knew that we knew, but here it is…”). A local authorized dealer near me unabashedly posted a photo of it on Instagram a full five days before the official launch day. Props to you and your huge cajones, my friend.

Everyone seems to have an opinion of (1) the watch and (2) the release of said watch, so I’ll spare you mine. We’ve written about hype culture and its interplay with watches before (On coping the Kurono Tokyo Green; The Nomos for Hodinkee Tangente Sport). There’s a weird sort of entitlement mixed with dividing collectors into ‘haves and have-nots’ at play; perhaps the only explanation is that watch collectors are a deeply insecure bunch. And when you’re in the hype cycle it’s hard to tell: Am I the victim, the natural endpoint of the vicious cycle, or the perpetrator, contributing to the victimhood of others? As watches get more popular, we’ll have to learn to better cope with a big drop and the fact that not everyone is going to be able to cop the hot watch.

As for the watch itself: it feels like a more modern interpretation of the Black Bay 58, and a nice complement to the original. To me, the new “soft touch” strap is a sneaky star of the introduction. By the time I made my way to check out the watch, there were no bracelets to be found (I’ll make an obligatory mention of the mock rivets here), but the soft-touch strap — in addition to Tudor’s traditional fabric strap — provides an enticing alternative.


The State of the Auction is Strong!

I tend to balk at “great man theories” which hold that history can be largely explained by the bold, decisive actions of a few men. Especially now, when a complex set of influences are impacting not only the watch market and auctions but, well, everything, it seems simplistic to say that one man is responsible for moving auction prices upwards. Additionally, results seem relatively strong across the board, so it seems more possible that various trends have conspired to make for a particularly strong vintage market. Vintage dealers have been reporting this for the last couple months now: Collectors new and old are stuck at home, reading about watches, money burning a hole in their pockets. If 2019 was the year of the modern stainless steel sports watch, 2020 might be the year vintage returns to the front page, with independents like F.P. Journe riding shotgun.

While Phillips continues to steal auction headlines in the watch world, it remains the third largest of the “big three” auction houses. Let’s flashback to 2015, when Phillips began its transformation to take on larger auction house rivals Christie’s and Sotheby’s. As Bloomberg wrote at the time:

One of [new Phillips CEO Edward] Dolman’s first steps was to partner with Bacs & Russo, whose co-founders Aurel Bacs and Livia Russo spent a decade leading Christie’s international watch department.

‘“The reason why I am doing this is the appeal to work in partnership with Ed Dolman,” said Aurel Bacs, who helped launch Phillips’s watch department in 2014. “He could have called me and said, ‘I work for a supermarket chain and we want to do watch auctions.”’

The group decided to mix it up with inaugural sales … that were held in a packed tent in a parking lot outside Geneva rather than a hotel ballroom. Bidding for the top lot, a 1927 Patek Philippe single button chronograph, took 21 minutes, with the final price of 4.6 million Swiss francs, more than double the high estimate of 2 million Swiss francs. Bacs offered fewer lots than his rivals, and the sale tallied 29.6 million Swiss francs ($31.8 million), more than Sotheby’s and Christie’s combined during their similar events.

Dominating the watch auction market has long been a part of Phillips’ strategy, and it certainly seems to be working.

Through the Wire

🌈 The new Mido Ocean Star Decompression Timer 1961 is colorful and cheap. 👨‍🔬 The story behind Walter White’s Monaco in Breaking Bad. ✍️ The most unusual Patek case designs of the last 100 years. 🤷‍♂️ Three new Rolex records were set at Antiquorum’s auction. 📰 How Substack has spawned a new class of entrepreneurs making newsletters (including this one). 👨‍🍳 Wei Koh’s tribute to Anthony Bourdain.

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