Inside the World's Largest Vintage Rolex Collection

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Stroll through London’s famed Burlington Arcade in the heart of Mayfair, an enclosed array of exclusive shops that has catered to well-dressed gentlemen for over 200 years, and one’s eye cannot help but be drawn to the extraordinary display of watches at the far end—thousands of rare Rolexes, each seemingly more valuable than the next. This is The Vintage Watch Company, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, a mecca for Rolex collectors, who include some of the most stylish men on the planet. 

Want an early “Big Crown” Submariner identical to the one worn by Sean Connery in 1962’s Dr. No? Or the 1970s Explorer II, which legend has it, was worn by Steve McQueen? Or the extremely coveted “Paul Newman” Daytona, made famous by the film and racing legend? The Vintage Watch Company has several examples of each; and it’s an incredibly lucrative business these days, with the very rarest among the timepieces made by the iconic Swiss brand now reaching into seven figures. 

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At any given time the collection, billed as the largest in the vintage Rolex world, and certainly the largest on public display, numbers around 2,000 pieces. The shop is dedicated to watches produced from c.1910 through 1980, which are the most valuable, though it has more modern sports models as well. One popular pastime among collectors is to ask to see all of the watches from one’s birth year. 

This month the world-renowned boutique is celebrating its anniversary with another item that’s bound to be highly coveted by Rolex enthusiasts: a gorgeously-produced coffee table book titled Vintage Rolex: The Largest Collection in the World, published by UK imprint Pavilion and distributed by our friends at Rizzoli. The author is David Silver, who co-founded The Vintage Watch Company with his father John in 1995, when only a handful of collectors around the globe were truly focused on vintage Rolexes. The market has since rocketed ever skyward, and the credit is due at least in part to the Silvers’ presence and prescience. 

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Asked to name his favorite Rolex decade, David Silver has a ready reply. “The 1950s bore witness to the birth of the Submariner made for diving, the GMT-Master made for Pan Am transatlantic pilots, and the Explorer, strapped to the wrist of Ranulph Fiennes when he conquered Everest,” he explains.

“We had a goal to build and maintain the largest collection of vintage Rolexes on display in the world,” as John Silver says, “and that’s something we have definitely now achieved.” Twenty-five years on, a vintage Rolex has come to be seen as one of the “holy grails” every true man of style aspires to, along with a classic Porsche 911 and and a wardrobe full of Savile Row suits. And not only are they stylish accessories, but excellent investments

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The Silvers were also among the first to truly appreciate the value of patina— what used to be considered mere wear and tear, which had a negative effect on pricing until relatively recently. Still, “We do get people in who just don’t get it,” as David Silver told Mr. Porter. “To them, they’re being asked to pay a premium for a watch that looks older.” 

Patina, he explains, gives a watch “rarity, value and individuality. And we find that now, for some people, when it comes to their sports watches, the more extreme the patina, the better.” The best and most highly-prized examples include “tropical” dials that have faded from black to brown over time; colors that have altered from their original to an entirely different hue; and “ghost” bezels that have all but faded to nothingness. David Silver himself wears a 1960s Submariner with a tropical brown dial, which is now so valuable most collectors would keep it safely locked in a vault. 

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The book was made possible by another of the Silvers’ passions: that of photographing and cataloguing every single watch that has passed through their hands, creating an archive rivaled only by that of the iconic watchmaker itself. “It’s my passion,” John Silver says. ‘I am constantly searching for new pieces and speaking with international customers—royalty, heads of state, film stars and celebrities.” 

While the company doesn’t publicize clients’ names, the likes of Gordon Ramsay and David Beckham are both known to be devotees of the shop. Ramsay is said to have a preference for vintage Submariners, while Beckham has been spotted wearing a vintage “Root Beer” GMT, so named for its groovy 1960s coloring. We’ve also heard that Daniel Craig and Jason Statham are Vintage Watch Company customers (no comment). One day their personal Rolex watches might even be as valuable as that of Paul Newman, whose Daytona was auctioned by Phillips in New York in 2017 for a world-record $17.8 million. 

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Even the best-looking vintage Rolex is relatively useless if it can’t keep time, however, so to support the collection the Silvers created a state-of-the-art workshop. They have a team of six full-time Rolex-trained watchmakers along with two jewelers to work on every piece that comes through the doors. Each watch is painstakingly brought back to its original condition before being put on display. “We completely strip down the movement, cleaning each part, and then fully re-assemble the piece to a timekeeping accuracy on a par with a modern day manufactured movement,” Silver writes. 

Rolex collectors both well established and just starting out would be wise to invest in Silver’s book to get a sense of the vast array and rarity of the pieces that it might be possible to acquire. However, Silver cautions, one shouldn’t buy a watch just because it is difficult to find. 

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“Buy what you like,” he has counseled, “don’t buy what somebody tells you is rare. Just because it’s rare, it doesn’t mean you will like it. The real question you should ask yourself is, do you enjoy looking at it? And do you enjoy wearing it? I could tell you a million things about a watch, but it’s irrelevant if you just don’t like it.” 

This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of Maxim.