Curating The Collection – How Storage Impacts Confidence in Collecting

Back when I worked for Worn & Wound, I interviewed Aaron Sigmond – a.k.a. Sig – about his cars and watches and his habit of writing excellent watch books. In that conversation, he spoke at some length about how storage is just as sexy as the items being stored – provided, of course, your storage is actually sexy. From there Sig and I mused on the impact that storage can have on how one conceptualizes one’s watch collection, and later this idea re-emerged in a conversation with my BTD colleague David Flett in which he revealed how watch boxes give (perhaps literal) shape to his collection. All this storage talk was just talk, until I got some sexy storage myself.

I found myself in the middle of 2020 with two main watch boxes, each Wolf 12-watch affairs, one in cream and the other in dark brown. These boxes have windows in the top, and so provided me an opportunity to see my watches as I passed by. But I didn’t really look at them much, and the real impact of these Wolf boxes on my collecting was that I felt stressed out about which watch to put where. Somehow these two boxes revealed what I assumed were flaws in my curation. Rather than a collection, I saw a plethora of strays, a couple of compelling pairs, and not much else. It was depressing, frankly, even though individually my watches were anything but.

Part of the problem had been that once I decided to become A Cartier Guy, my collecting halted after promptly acquiring two rather pricey Cartier Tanks. I love these French additions to my collection, but they represent (among other things) a huge gap between the reality of my nascent Tank collection and my vision for what it might look like in full swing. Here we see the downside to capital-F Focus: a self-imposed restriction on impulse purchases, bizarre risks, and other frivolous joys of watch collecting. Focus is a topic to explore more fully in another essay; the relevant point here is that my collection not only currently lacks the focus required to be taken seriously by anyone who’s serious about watches, but, as follows, my plethora of strays also lacks the visual allure of a fully realized curatorial style. It’s a motley crew made up of rather lovely individuals.

A motley crew of rather lovely individuals.

I stopped smoking so many damn cigars, and eventually found that my stand-alone 400-cigar humidor housing just twelve Cuban sticks was as dreary as a display case at a Rolex Dealership. At some point I had even lit this humidor with a dimmable LED light system I paid exactly $88 for in China Town whilst hung over from the Bremont Townhouse Event the night before. I had spent so much of the saleswoman’s time that there was no way for me to back out of the purchase due to sticker shock, so I became the guy with the restaurant-grade LED system able to make day-old donuts look fresh and delicious. Actually, whatever I put under that light looked fresh and delicious. I can assure you this is not your average LED light. Eventually I had to restock the water in my electronic humidifier and, as one does, I came up short on distilled water. This led me to relocate the nine or so remaining Cubans into my reasonably sized box humidor, leaving my beautifully lit cabinet empty.

The humidor did time in the main house as a way to store our mail, which both of us read in bulk once we’ve accumulated a large enough pile to suggest that something we actually give a shit about might have arrived. Lighting these piles of bad mail with an exceptional LED was a criminal misuse of limelight, so I took the humidor back out to my house with the hope of refilling it with fine Cuban cigars. Alas, the price of my new Cartier Tanks and a reluctant admission that cigar smoke is poison saw me buy zero more Cubans. The humidor remained empty, yet perfectly lit.

I intentionally read in a chair across from my humidor. That LED provides the kind of light you want in the bookeh of your intellectual life. And while an empty and dark humidor may be depressing, when lit with a restaurant-grade LED even the empty pale cedar interior can appear fresh and delicious. So I kept the light on, despite there being nothing to illuminate. This was mildly appealing on the conceptual level, but ultimately I was using my humidor as a lamp.

After months of enjoying the warm crisp glow of nothing in particular, one evening I put my Grand Seiko SBGH269 inside the humidor, closed the glass door, sat back in my chair, and with the help of some other smokable plants that are not tobacco, stared at the gleaming Zaratsu polished-surfaces and the monastery-floor-inspired dial, all lit up like in a Grand Seiko boutique. I didn’t put any other watches in just yet; first, I ordered custom cut tempered glass shelves to replace the cedar bins.

The chair from which I gaze upon my watches.

The day those shelves arrived, I loaded every last watch I could find onto those shelves and everything I hated about my collection became everything I loved about it. Look at that pair of stupid Omega Seamaster redials – The Scotch Twins, I call them – off in the corner chatting. Wow, the dumb Gruen I snagged for like $25 looked incredible basking under the worlds best LED. My handful of vintage Seikos grouped themselves perfectly in an arc surrounding the Big Kahuna SBGH269. My divers looked like a gang of sailors up to no good on shore leave. And my two Cartier Tanks looked like a great start at a Tank collection rather than a lame attempt. Before I could even comprehend the meaning of all this, I simply thought: “Wow, this is a rather dynamic and interesting collection.”

Keep in mind that the only thing which changed was the box I kept the watches in. But once that change of box settled into a final decision, once the Wolf units were handed out to aspiring watch nerds, and once I had spent many hours letting my right brain explore this perfectly lit cabinet of horological diversity, my left brain finally let go of the negative idea that I had amassed a plethora of strays and accepted that there might be a modicum of aesthetic continuity in my horological amassment after all.

Getting outside the box, so to speak, really freed me up. No longer did I think in the structured and partitioned framework of the Wolf boxes. No more neat and tidy rows. No more confusion about what went where. In the new open space of my converted humidor, I could arrange my watches like flowers in a vase, or furniture in a room, or set pieces on a stage, or however I wanted. My mind reveled in this new-found freedom, and my confidence as a watch collector managed to crawl up out of the pit of self-doubt I’d boxed myself into.

It hardly matters if we approve or disapprove of someone’s collection, because, either way, we’re deploying judgement. And while it might seem that we’re judging a person’s watches, what we’re really judging is that person’s aesthetic and conceptual sensibilities, their way of thinking and feeling and sensing, who they are “on the inside” as Mr. Roger’s sometimes put it so well. We collectors of superfluous things are to some degree always putting our inner selves on display for others to check out. Just admit it: you, like me, give more than two shits about what people think of your watch collection, and the reason is clear: our collections represent us. Every little detail that we’ve allowed past the velvet rope into our personal horological disco is out on the floor for others to judge. We really wouldn’t give two shits about that judgement if we didn’t understand that what’s being judged is not watches but our most intimate expression of our mostly solipsistic and, thus, often lonely subjectivity inner lives. You, dear reader of horological essays, like me who writes them, likely give two shits about how people judge you if not your watches, I’m sure of it. The question is really whether you accept my premise that watch collections are extensions of our inner lives. Mine sure is.

Indeed, I am happy to be lighting my deepest self-expression with an excellent (if overpriced) LED light in a humidor that houses no cigars, and I’m happy to say that what improved the most from this lovely display is my confidence. And with confidence comes the sweet freedom of really not giving two shits what other people think of my watch collection. No more fussy insecurity for me; it was time to get real with myself about what made it past the proverbial velvet rope and why. My revived confidence is a dynamic force propelling me to work harder toward the perfect watch collection for me.

That confidence kicked out a few presumed keepers, and saw a number of previous “junky things” become focal points in my collection. The first to go were my Doxa 1200T Searambler and my Seiko SPB143, two divers that were competing a bit with other divers in my collection. I’ll be frank: I’m like The Other Guy Who SCUBA Dives with Watches, the first and most excellent of us being Jason Heaton. Jason is so strongly identified with Doxa that owning one really felt like I was stepping onto his turf. I know that sounds pretty 7th-grade of me, but as a quasi-public figure in an arena in which I basically represent 50% of the population, it weighed on me to rock what I think of as Jason’s brand. I’m happy to report that the Doxa went swiftly to England where its new owner has become a friend and, clearly, an excellent steward of this rather hard-to-get Doxa.

SPB143

The tossing-out of the Seiko SPB143 came down to one thing: I never chose to wear it over my Bremont 40mm S301 Super Marine Black, because the Seiko just wasn’t as good as my Bremont. Also, I had the pleasure of spending time with the Seiko SLA017, the watch anyone with an SPB143 wishes they had,. The SLA017 is basically a Grand Seiko diver in a vintage 62MAS format with no GS branding. I mean, the SLA017 is a perfect brute of a dive watch: utilitarian, boxy, and monochromatic. Even when trading for well over MSRP on the flipper’s market, I need the crew here at BTD to strap me to the mast whenever our ship of fools sails past the Sirens’ song of the SLA017.

Seiko's first ever diver's watch is re-born in Prospex. | News | Seiko  Watch Corporation
Seiko SLA017

I recently learned that the Sirens in The Odyssey were horrible brutes, not the sexy women we highschool boys and our careless teachers just assumed they must have been. The Sirens’ song is the thing that allures, not the Sirens themselves, which makes perfect sense because if The Sirens really were the hottest chicks in all of Hellenic Greece, then Odysseus, a man who indulged his share of infidelities along the way, would have swum to shore and tried out his best pick-up lines on these superior singers. But he asked to be lashed to the mast, and for good reason. Alas, I, like Odysseus, must endure the sweet torture of the SLA017’s music and, also like Odysseus, accept that nothing good could come from swimming my way onto Seiko Beach. Alas, I no longer own a Seiko diver. The Bremont was my Penelope, knitting me an endless blanket and feeding my lonely dog until I returned from my little Japanese odyssey.

Dropping the Doxa and the Seiko SPB143 left me with a handful of great divers, none of which I felt conflicted about wearing. There’s my Oris Divers 65 Momotaro limited edition, my Aquadive Bathyscaphe in Bronze, my Ianos Avyssos from Greece, and my modern Alsta, which I’ve come to adore. This little gang of sailors is rowdy and tough and from all over the world. I love this gang.

The real revelation were the way that strays were brought into something like a family. I own a number of quite beautiful, if invaluable, time-only dress watches hovering around 35mm in diameter, and they’re just fantastic in this humidor display. I don’t even know why. Maybe it’s just the great lighting, but there’s also something decidedly democratic about just setting the watches all together on a glass shelf and letting them mingle visually. You only really see the whole of the watches in the front row, and those rows suggest a ranking of sorts, which I play with. But I have enough of these stray vintage time-only watches to really look pretty cool as a group, much the way the paint cans in my garage look less than dreadful when I gather them together on a shelf rather than strewing them about willy-nilly.

Speaking of hierarchy, I’ve learned that I absolutely adore a handful of my watches, and those have recently landed on the top shelf of my new storage cabinet. These are timeless keepers, deeply loved friends and companions from over the years, and they include: my Grand Seiko, of course, my Rolex Datejust 36mm 1603 from 1972, my Bremont S301 40mm Supermarine, my Oris D65, surprisingly my Zenith Victorious Calatrava-style that got cleaned up nicely, my two Cartier Tanks, and my vintage King Seiko from my birthyear, 1970.

The lessons I’ve learned from switching up my watch storage are many, as is evident at this point, but among those lessons the most important one for me was the strange phenomenon of new storage upping my confidence as a collector. There’s something about seeing everything mingled and seemingly in conversation that just lights me up, and I don’t feel I have “slots” to fill or arrangement grids to box in my thinking about the watches I own. Frankly, you could probably come steal a watch or two and I might not notice right away, but you’d never do that, would you, dear reader?