The Digital Death of Watch Collecting
Why I'm optimistic about the future of collectors
Today’s ‘sletter: An essay on the effects Instagram has on the very active pursuit of collecting; Bloomberg says watches are better investments than cars, gold. No more photos in this issue, just the forgotten art of prose.
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It’s hard to define a “collector” without quickly devolving into aphorisms about how you know it when you see it.1 Here’s how Breitling historian Fred Mandelbaum defined a watch collector in our Significant Watches interview:
“Being a collector is not just about owning watches. You start being a real collector when you start to understand how little you know and how much you have to learn. It’s scholarship, it’s research, it’s very often friendship and understanding who to trust. A true collector needs to have an urge to pass it on — to pass on that scholarship and knowledge. The most important thing is that people can say they trust in your word, and to me that is the definition of a true collector.”
With all the hand-wringing about hype, waitlists, and the usual litany of things we complain about, Fred’s perspective was downright refreshing.
One of Fred’s points is that before you collect watches, you have to collect information and knowledge. This used to come from books, magazines, auction catalogs, and other collectors. Nowadays, it comes from social media, mostly Instagram.
Instagram has changed the watch world in a dozen ways good and bad. But I want to focus on what it’s done to this very deliberate act of “collecting” — collecting information, knowledge, watches.
In a world where we can scroll through hundreds of digital photos of rare watches every single day, it’s easy to forget that we have physical relationships with these things. We even have IRL relationships with the little pieces of culture — books, catalogs, other tchotchkes — surrounding a watch.
Collecting — books, watches, whatever — was once a way of interacting with the world around us, of engaging with it and accumulating a bunch of things that only made sense together because they were yours. Owning things is an active way of engaging with the world around us. Only you can decide what you own; how it’s organized; what you pull off the shelf to flip through on a Sunday morning.
A couple years ago, Charlie Dunne explained to me why he enjoyed collecting books:
“Rather than going out and searching for an answer on Google, where it’s so accessible and easy, books allow you to stumble upon information and almost naturally find your way to learning. For me, it’s very therapeutic to get lost in a book that I’ve stumbled through numerous times but I might find something interesting that I haven’t found before.”
Something about flipping through these books, magazines, and auction catalogs feels personal. Of course, it’s a manual, IRL experience — like wearing a watch — in a way that scrolling through 2D images on IG never will be. But it’s more than that.
It’s a deliberate, personal choice — you, the collector, decide what books you own, which ones you pick up, and what knowledge you compile. There’s no algorithm intermediating what you see or don’t see.
Instagram the Collector
Instagram is something different. Of course, screaming about the black box of “THE ALGORITHM” is a punching bag for all the problems that ill society, not just watches. But I wanted to focus on the way in which we offload the function of “collecting” onto the algorithm.
With Instagram, collecting can easily transform from an active pursuit to a passive one. Create an account, follow a few others, start double-tapping, and the algorithm goes to work, serving up an endless stream of mildly-interesting posts. No need for you to ever do anything again if you don’t want to.
Ironically, the promise of Instagram is a personalized feed, but what seems to happen is something deeply impersonal: massive aggregation around a few hype watches, and then a long tail of random things getting some traction — microbrands, independents, obscure vintage brands (to be sure, these are prone to hype too).
While only you can organize the watches, books, and catalogs that you own, on Instagram, what you see is completely subject to the whims of the algorithm, even to the layout of the app itself. You don’t own anything. Remember when Instagram changed the button at the bottom center of the home screen? It swapped out the “New Post” button for its new Reels feature when Instagram decided video was the future. This was Instagram becoming becoming more passive and less active. “No, you don’t need to post that avocado toast photo, sit back and watch this Reel of a guy wrist-rolling his Royal Oak to ‘Big Poppa,’” the change said.
The active choice — the responsibility — of collecting has been completely removed, all the difficult work of actually having to do something offloaded to some black box of an algorithm that promises to know your tastes better than you know them yourself.
When you read books or flip through magazines, it can be difficult to find your interests. But it’s also a ton of fun. There’s no joy like stumbling on a watch you didn’t know existed and learning more about it. That’s exactly what happened to me when I stumbled on those trippy Falcone watches I wrote about last week that everyone seemed to love, originally flipping through a 2013 Christie’s catalog looking for something completely different.
But with Instagram, there’s no incentive to do any of that work.
Now, the algorithm itself is the collector, our curator. It takes all the disparate pieces of information and data that we give it and spits out a few wristshots it thinks we might double-tap.
This has been kind of doom-and-gloom so far, huh? I mean, “death” is in the title. But I’m actually hopeful there’s not going to be any “digital death” of the collector.
The truth is, Instagram also exposes us to all kinds of things that we might not have seen otherwise. We don’t have to wait for a bigger publication with a name in all caps to cover something before we find it; with a little bit of work, there’s a whole world of horology right at our fingertips.
What are the odds I would’ve learned about the exciting work of South Korean watchmaker Minhoon Yoo if not for a few friends stumbling across him on Instagram? Eventually, Minhoon got the HODINKEE treatment, but not before a few discerning collectors had the chance to slide to the top of his waitlist.
The problem is that the algorithm can make it harder to stumble across these completely off-the-radar watches. Usually, it’s friends or other collectors who introduce me to this type of stuff. That’s the point: your Instagram feed should be just one of many inputs in building your taste as a collector. Otherwise, you’re not a collector. You’re just another passive observer, idling scrolling through the gram and buying whatever it tells you to — NFTs, APs, those leggings.
Before Instagram, we had to decide for ourselves what to own and what to keep close. When collecting is no longer a reflection of an individual and their choices, it completely loses its meaning.
Because Instagram isn’t a collection at all. It’s a beautiful, overwhelming morass of endless information, hype, and wrist rolls. While this accumulation of information allows more and better collecting than ever before, it can also prevent it.
Collecting, at its core, is an active pursuit. Unfortunately, Instagram seems to want us to sit back and watch the wrist rolls. but there’s so much more to be discovered if we dig deeper.
The inspiration for this article was Kyle Chayka’s essay “the digital death of collecting.”
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THROUGH THE WIRE
A Collected Man’s June Auction. ACM has started doing monthly online auctions. The June auction is a tight curation of 5 neo-vintage watches, exactly what you’d expect from the proper online dealer. Auctions will be closing right around the time this ‘sletter hits your inbox, but it’s worth mentioning (1) because of the watches, obviously, and (2) it’s another exciting entry into the world of online auctions, which I think are generally good for the collector in providing some market transparency. Of course, my favorite of the bunch is the 90th anniversary Santos-Dumont (it also seems to be getting the most bidding action of the selection). Elsewhere, Wright Auction is hosting its monthly online sale today.
🤑 Bloomberg: Rolex and Patek returns beat vintage cars and bitcoin. At this point, lighting money on fire also yields better returns than BTC though.
🌚 Neo-Vintage Blancpain And The Six Masterpieces. An excellent reference article exploring neo-vintage, Biver-era Blancpain and the six complicated masterpieces the marketing master brought to the brand in the 1980s.
📸 An exploration of ‘Koda’ watch photography. “In this article, then, I wanted to talk about the lifestyle type of photography which I propose to call “Koda Watch Photography,” in reference to the legendary Kodachrome camera film that was used to create most of the historical and iconic documentary photos of the 20th century.”
🕰️ Significant Watches Episode 18: We talk our favorite American retailers, New York auctions, and is the Hodinkee travel clock…super in demand now?
😋 In Chicago: I’ve been binging The Bear on Hulu, perhaps because it’s a great show, perhaps because it was filmed at the beef shop mere blocks from me.