“My passion for watches began unusually young and it’s one of my first memories.”
For Charles Tearle, it was a rivalry with his older brother that sparked his lifelong interest in timepieces. After years of receiving his brother’s hand-me-downs, everything changed for Tearle when his father bought him a brand new watch of his own. “It was a steel Timex and not only was it new, it was better than my brother’s. Of course my brother was furious but I was so pleased,” he remembers. It wasn’t long—he was just sixteen, in fact—until he left school to to join the prestigious vintage and antique watch retailer George Somlo in London.
Today, Charles Tearle has more than 20 years of experience in watch industry. After a decade at George Somlo, Tearle traveled the globe From London to San Francisco, Hong Kong and New York—working with auction houses like Bonhams, Antiquorum and most recently Sotheby’s. Currently living in Australia with his wife and two children, when Tearle isn’t researching watches online, traveling or spending time with his family, he leads an active and adventurous outdoor life. “It’s such a beautiful country and I love getting into the wilderness, bike riding, climbing, kayaking, trying to surf or just exploring.”
Personally, Tearle has a penchant for Rolex sport watches, Patek Philippe and vintage Cartier timepieces. “I mostly wear vintage Rolex sports watches, they’re a niche category that require endless research as small details can greatly affect the value, but they are also one of the few vintage watches you can wear daily. To the uneducated they just look like another steel Rolex but for the few who know, they know; it’s a bit like being in an exclusive club where knowledge is the only requirement for membership.” While we may never be fully initiated into that club, we did take the opportunity to learn as much as we could from Charles Tearle—from how to appraise a vintage watch’s value to his best advice for starting your own collection.
What was the first really special watch you purchased for yourself?
Growing up I bought inexpensive watches regularly but it wasn’t until I started working for George Somlo that I would buy my first serious watch; a steel Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust with blue dial and white gold bezel on an Oyster bracelet, ever since seeing Roger Moore as James Bond in the movie ‘Live and Let Die’ I had dreamed of owning a Rolex so it was the obvious choice.
Do you have a favorite watch in your own collection now?
My favorite of the collection, although I rarely wear it, is a 1978 Rolex Explorer Ref.1016 retailed by Tiffany & Co. It was bought from Tiffany New York by a prominent lady to be given as a gift in 1981, only it was never presented, instead remaining unworn in her safe within the original box until I acquired it. As I like to wear my watches I expect one day I will let it go but it’ll be a reluctant sale regardless of the price.
What kind of watch would you love to own?
The brand I would really like to own is vintage Cartier. Cartier watches, up until the early 1970’s, were made by hand by some of the most skilled artisans you could imagine, when you find a good well-preserved example its like holding a work of art in your hands. To me vintage Cartier defines a different age, where men were perpetually elegant and women glamorous.
Are there certain watches or watchmaking brands that you’ve noticed are particularly sought-after right now?
Right now, vintage Rolex Day-Date watches with (original) brightly coloured dials are popular, as are military watches from various manufacturers provided they are in original condition. Yellow gold 1970’s Rolex sports models and the same period oversized Piaget ladies bracelet watches are strong in demand. For modern watches, certain limited series from significant brands such as Audemars Piaget, A.Lange & Sohne and of course Patek Philippe are increasing in demand and price.
When you're valuing and appraising vintage watches, what characteristics do you look for? Are there things that can make or break a watch's value?
With vintage watches it’s usually the quality, condition and originality of the piece combined with rarity and complications that will determine a value. What usually breaks the value is condition/originality. You can have two almost identical watches, one in perfect condition and the other with parts changed or a repainted/refreshed dial that have two very different values. A common misconception is that all vintage watches are valuable, when in truth only a small fraction of watches ever made are today collectable; my time on the Antiques Roadshow in the U.S. taught me that.
Have you had any truly unique or unforgettable discoveries in your time appraising watches?
While working for Antiquorum auctioneers in New York, I was introduced to a gentleman in the financial industry who had just taken his grandfathers watch for a new strap and been told it might be valuable. He turned up at the office post-lunch with a small group of his Wall Street buddies, who all laughed at the idea that an old watch with no strap could be valuable. After numerous jokes at his expense he pulled out a Patek Philippe minute repeating wristwatch for me to appraise—and I’ll never forget the anticipation on everyone’s face waiting for me to give a value. Only, I had never seen anything like it. It was a moment when I was looking for a TV camera thinking someone was playing a joke on me. The watch appeared genuine but nothing like I had seen previously from Patek Philippe. When he prompted me for information I was a little lost for words, which of course his friends thought hilarious. After collecting my thoughts I told him I needed to do more research but it was certainly worth over $500,000—at which point he and his friends all stopped laughing. The watch turned out to be a unique piece specially ordered at an event Patek Philippe held in conjunction with Cartier New York in 1949 with oversized crown, repeating slide and subsidiary seconds, nothing like it had been seen before, or since, and it effectively re-wrote the books on Patek Philippe minute repeater wristwatches.
For those looking to invest in vintage watches, what would you tell them to look out for? Where and how should they start?
To collect vintage watches you really need to either spend time studying via select books, online forums or pay someone with a good reputation to do the studying for you. It’s an expensive business and as such there are numerous pitfalls. The auction houses are an obvious starting point but be careful, often the more famous they are the better their lawyers—and if you read the fine-print, they are guaranteeing very little as a seller. If you do find a watch you like in the auction don’t just rely on the specialists’ opinion, do your own research as well. They usually have great online archives and this is a good place to start. There are a very small number of honest and knowledgeable experts at the major auctions houses I trust but more often today, alas, the specialist themselves don’t have the experience to advise or would simply prefer to make a sale than create a collector. In short buy the person advising you, not the company selling it. Most important though, buy a watch you like. If you are buying just to make money you will always be disappointed.