By Alex Cecala
Watch collecting is complex. Our relationship with the hobby, in general, is unlike anything else, given the combination of fashion, design, expression, mechanics, and history involved in each timepiece. And like real-world relationships, our attraction to them doesn't always make logical sense.
As a watch enthusiast, I often find myself falling in love with watches. Sometimes it's just a fling, and the next day I wake up, and I realize it isn't necessarily for me - in which case I hopefully didn't pull a late-night eBay purchase.
But then there are real emotions I can't shake. The watches that leave me lovesick are the ones I desire but are difficult to acquire; either they are extremely rare or beyond my means. Many of these watches are popular and therefore have more attainable homages or similar watches that one could purchase. However, many of the talking heads of the watch world advise against this; you'll never be satisfied with an alternative, and you'll end up still yearning for that other piece, they say.
THE IMPOSSIBLE ITCH
But that's a difficult pill to swallow when you're in love with unobtanium.
And that brings us to the antagonist of this story;
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked in black ceramic
Now Royal Oak watches have never felt right on my wrist - I always appreciated the design, respected the history, but none of the sizes sat firmly on my wrist. However, for some unknown reason, the Double Balance in black ceramic stood out as the perfect AP in my eyes.
"TO BREAK THE RULES, YOU MUST FIRST MASTER THEM"
Housed in their most iconic model, the open-work skeletonization was a handcraft AP was known for, the use of innovative materials spoke to the brand's rule-breaking mantra, and the nearly-scratch proof black ceramic exterior made it look like a forever watch. To me, this felt like a complete object - it was something I wouldn't bore of, spoke to the heritage of a great brand, all in a contemporary, robust build.
I watched every video, read every article, and even followed some new hashtags just to get more of this watch. And all that consumption just made me fall more in love.
However, it wasn't to be - despite my alerts and cold emails; it seemed impossible to get at retail. With the popularity - and price - rising, there was no way I'd get this watch I'd built up in my head to be perfect.
My infatuation turned to obsession, and I looked to alternatives. This naturally led me to consider the most similar thing, the GP Laureato Ceramic Skeleton. However, it still felt more like a GP simply pretending to be the black ceramic Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked, and I couldn't shake the association. Just like those talking heads said, I'd look at it, would think of the AP, and be unsatisfied.
But the funny thing about love is that you never see it coming.
On March 9, 2021, I was struck by a rainbow of emotions. Zenith announced a collaboration with contemporary artist Felipe Pantone in the form of the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 Felipe Pantone Edition. It was another long-named ceramic open-dial watch with a 70s inspired case shape. But it was different.
On paper, the watch scratched the AP itch for all the same reasons the GP Laurato did, but this time the scratching satisfied me for some reason.
Upon reflection, I had learned a lot about my tastes in my obsession over the AP Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked. I enjoyed the connection many of the elements had to what the brand did well, appreciated the scratch-resistant materials, and loved seeing a beautiful movement. This gave me a sort of clarity when it came to purchasing the Zenith.
Zenith has a legendary history around its El Primero movement, and though this didn't have a direct lineage of that movement inside, it carried its spirit with its El Primero 9004 featuring a 1/100th of a second chronograph. While not hand-finished, the open-work had its own unique laser engraved and PVD finish that I loved on the mainplate and bridges. And, of course, it was in a beautiful black ceramic case. As a bonus, and drawing from Felipe Pantone's work, the watch also features a spectacular spectrum of colors and a unique handset.
After reviewing the specs and a few videos to see the fit, I ordered it unseen. I didn't have to spend weeks convincing myself to like it - I knew why I wanted it right away.
It came, and my mind was blown. Despite being 44mm, it fits nicely on my wrist due to the short lug-to-lug. The chronograph is so fast on this watch; it ruined all other chronographs for me. It flies.
The poetic integration of Felipe Pantone's exploration of light frequency and the high-frequency chronograph is also an intellectually stimulating enterprise to think about when looking at the watch. The laser-engraved bridges, colors & depth of the movement all come together and create a spectacular piece to marvel at on the wrist.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO SCRATCH AN IMPOSSIBLE ITCH?
Am I unsatisfied? Do I still yearn for the AP? After half a year of ownership, I can faithfully say, absolutely not. In fact, before writing this article, I had stopped thinking about the AP entirely.
So what did I learn from my journey? That loving a watch isn't wrong, even if it's unattainable. Diving into that love headfirst helped me learn more about myself and my tastes as a watch collector.
In the end, this hobby is primarily emotional - while following our heart makes us vulnerable, it also lets us learn more about our preferences. I feel more empowered to explore lesser-known brands, mysterious vintage references, and run down rabbit holes without external validation.
There's a lot to gain in watch collecting by learning to admire things from afar, loving watches, and not having to own them. Those heavy-hitting pieces of unobtanium can inspire us to branch out to areas we have yet to explore, which is my favorite part of this hobby.