How do you build a respectable watch collection without breaking the bank? In the second of this two-part series, we speak to prolific collector and arts manager Gee-Len Cham for advice on how to start a women’s watch collection under $10,000.

How did you first become interested in watch collecting? 

I’ve always been into watches. There’s a photo of me at three-years-old wearing a watch. I asked my mom if she made me wear it for the photo. Her answer was “no”. Apparently my parents had gone into a watch shop looking for a house clock and I wouldn’t leave until they bought me that watch! As I got older, I found myself fascinated by watches. First, they are a useful and fashionable accessory. And perhaps because I’m into classical music [Ed’s note: Gee-Len is a talented musician who has performed with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra], I also draw similarities between the tradition of apprenticeship of musicians under Maestros to perfect their art and that of the tradition and intricacy of watchmaking. 

What was your first watch, and why?

The first watch I bought for myself was the Cartier Panthère in steel in 1999 (see above). I became very interested in fine watches while studying economics at University London, College. London has so many luxury jewellery and watch shops that I would window shop on occasion. Cartier’s timeless elegance always attracted me and naturally a Cartier would be the first serious watch I would work towards for my collection. I still have it today.   

What’s the collecting advice do you live by?

Collect what you love and will wear. Your collection should be about you, and not the hype.

What are some of the criteria when looking for watches under 10K? 

A. Reputation of the watchmaker. Whether it’s a big brand like Rolex or Cartier, or smaller micro-independent watchmakers like Kurono or Baltic, I think it’s important that the watch is well made. I think it’s also important that the watchmaker/brand cares about what they put on your wrist, and that the wearer sees the watch as an extension of themselves as a person or brand.  

B. Does it suit one’s lifestyle? I think this is true regardless of the value of the watch. If someone leads a very active lifestyle, a more robust sporty watch would get more wrist time than a dress watch. Similarly if someone’s work requires being more discrete, a simple elegant watch would get more wrist time than a super bling one.

C. Check out as many watches as you can before deciding on what you would want. Many people tend to follow the hype but they don’t realise there are other watches out there that may be better suited to them. Go window shopping and check out watch Insta accounts and YouTube reviews. 

What’s something you only learnt later, that you wished you knew when you first started collecting?

A careful curation of the collection is truly important! When I first started collecting watches, I bought whatever caught my eye at that time. And a decade or two later, there are many watches I don’t wear and have little value in the secondary market. It is incredibly wasteful and hurtful to the wallet! Now before I purchase a watch, I consider whether it suits my lifestyle and overall style aesthetic, and it has to be different from what I already have in my collection.  

Can you give us suggestions for watches under $5K and $10K respectively, and why?

Under $10,000:

A steel Rolex like the Oyster Perpetual is always good (if you can actually purchase it from the authorised dealer). I remember someone told me a long time ago that because Rolex’s value is instantly recognisable, if you’re travelling and stranded overseas you can easily pawn it and find your way home.  

The Cartier Tank is timeless as well. I like the Tank Americaine in steel as it offers a bit of a twist on the classic Tank.

The Omega Speedmaster 38mm is another classic. Sporty with chronograph function to help time half-boiled eggs. 

Under $5,000:

I generally favour micro indie brands and think they offer a lot of pleasure and value to wear. I own these three:

Kurono Tokyo: I have the Seiji collection as I love the lacquered celadon “Tiffany” dial. Kurono usually issues limited series which are either numbered or limited by order period (and not repeated either), so this makes for an interesting proposition to the collector, as you know there aren’t many Kuronos out there. 

Ming: I have the Ming 17.09 with burgundy guilloche dial. I love the independent hour hand that denotes the second time-zone, thus making it handy for travelling. Funnily, I used to follow Ming on Instagram when he was still a street photographer (I shoot street photography occasionally) before he became this indie watchmaker. So it’s nice to be able to mix my two loves together.

Baltic: I have the MR01 with a salmon dial and Breguet numerals [Ed’s note: Breguet Arabic numerals are distinguished by their elegant typography and were first featured on Breguet pocket watches pre-French revolution]. I find it hard to say “no” to Breguet numerals even though I already have a watch with this font. I find it a truly a beautiful font for round watch dials. Additionally, I think Baltic has an incredibly cool story. It started when [founder] Etienne inherited a collection of watches from his father that he didn’t know well. It then became a work of love to create watches that were inspired by that collection. 

What’s a non negotiable for you, regardless of price?

Provenance. The watch needs to either come from the boutique or an authorised dealer. And if it were to come through the secondary market, I make sure that I get it through a trusted source, and I also ensure that I have the proper papers and checks done.