Meet Emilyn Lee, a watch collector who likes her tickers old, big and wearable
Emilyn Lee’s watch collection is a love letter to the past and to her partner in time – her husband George Tan.
In partnership with Diageo.
Collectors, be it of wine, cars or memorabilia of the British royal family, are a passionate lot with an unwavering love for the things they want to amass more of. But for Emilyn Lee, her watch collecting journey sprung from love in its most romantic sense.
“My husband and I have known each other since our polytechnic days, and once we hit our twenties and the beginning of our careers, we would trawl the streets of Sungei Road together looking for old watches. I wanted to find pieces that people didn’t already have.”
Now more than 20 years later, her husband, George Tan, has made a name for himself in the watch community as an ardent collector of Omega, with hundreds of watches in his collection that also include pieces from other established brands. Lee’s own stash of 30 to 40 pieces may pale in comparison, but her interest and knowledge in horology do not.
She uses Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso as an example of why she finds this ancient craft so fascinating. “As if it weren’t already hard enough to make a watch, they had to go and find a way to make one with two different sides and then synchronise them. Why make things so hard for themselves?” she quipped.
“But that’s the whole idea right? Watchmaking takes us to places we would never think of, and all these ideas came from a time without computers or digital technology, relying just on one’s brains and hands to work out the formulas. I am totally in awe.”
Because of her small wrists, Lee’s attention was directed toward the more dainty creations in her early days of collecting. She shows us a vintage Omega in gold with a bracelet shaped like two leaves. “Look how fine the lines on these leaves are, and they bothered to hide the crown from view. Back then, people really took pride in their craft,” she said.
While she admits models like the 25mm Tudor Princess are watches that fit her best, her favourite case sizes these days are 38 to 39mm, and is partial to metal bracelets rather than, say, leather straps. Which is why the references most often in her rotation are her 2003 Omega Speedmaster Professional Snoopy and the yellow-dialled Speedmaster Racing Schumacher. The latter is Lee’s “happy watch”, and the one her husband has begged to switch out from time to time. “Because I wear that one so often, he’s worried people will think he never buys me anything.”
“Watchmaking takes us to places we would never think of, and all these ideas came from a time without computers or digital technology, relying just on one’s brains and hands to work out the formulas.”
But the pair believe in wearing what they buy because being overly precious with their watches takes all the fun out of the experience. It also gives them the opportunity to show off “his and hers” pieces like their respective Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot Travel Time watches and the Omega Marine 1932 models.
The watches Lee goes for may have gotten bigger, but they aren’t always newer. “I have an Omega Constellation Grand Luxe that has tarnished so much over time that I could just get it polished to make it look like new again, but I want to keep what time has given me. I’m old-school like that.”
In fact, the watch that holds the most sentimental value is the now-discontinued Patek Philippe Aquanaut Ref. 5165. “We were just starting to collect watches, so my husband had to trade in three watches and top up a few thousand dollars in cash to buy it from a secondhand dealer. And it turns out he wanted me to have it because he knew I loved it too. I was touched, because once I resized the strap, he wouldn’t be able to wear it anymore.”
These days, watch hunting can be as easy as clicking “add to cart” but Lee only uses the internet for research purposes. “I do the research for both of us, and I would never suggest we buy a watch just because it has investment value, because there are plenty of other things we can put money in. I want to know more about the brand I’m connecting with, and what it’s trying to convey in its watches.”
Lee recalls a time she brought in a vintage Patek Philippe watch with a hunter case to a retailer for servicing, and the sales representative mistakenly told her that the leather strap it came with was not the original one. “It’s understandable because retailers are used to serving customers who prefer current models. It’s another reason I love vintage watches because they were never extensively documented or featured in ads,” she said. “So it’s fun when we get to share information, learn, and talk about it.”
“I have an Omega Constellation Grand Luxe that has tarnished so much over time that I could just get it polished to make it look like new again, but I want to keep what time has given me.”
The one thing Lee wishes she had learned sooner was the value of Philippe Dufour watches. “Dufour had come down to Singapore in 1999 bringing one of his Simplicity watches. We didn’t know who he was back then, so we didn’t realise that S$30,000 for a Simplicity was a steal at the time,” she laughed. To put that in perspective, a limited-edition Simplicity sold for CHF 1.36 million (S$1.98 million) at a Phillips auction last November.
Lee admits that the watches she and her husband collect are still relatively modest, and don’t veer into six-figure price tags yet, but if money were not an issue, she would love to add high complications and gem-set watches to her collection.
“I used to think diamond watches were a little over the top, but now that I’m older, I marvel at the effort it must have taken to make bezels set with a graduated rainbow of stones.” And because her husband owns a Konstantin Chaykin Joker, she muses about the possibility of requesting a custom version of the Joker Dracula for herself. Of course, sitting at the top of her wishlist is still “any of the Philippe Dufour watches”.
“I would never suggest we buy a watch just because it has investment value, because there are plenty of other things we can put money in. I want to know more about the brand I’m connecting with, and what it’s trying to convey in its watches.”
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