Sporting heritage sets the pace for vintage stopwatch market

by Admin
Sporting heritage sets the pace for vintage stopwatch market

Back in 1932, one Omega watchmaker took 30 stopwatches from Switzerland to Los Angeles to enable judges at the Olympic Games to time 117 events. These chronographs were accurate to the nearest 1/10th of a second.

Later this month, the brand will supply 350 tonnes of equipment for 329 events at this year’s games in Paris. And it will have the capacity to time to a millionth of a second. As the official timekeeper, Omega will also introduce a new photo-finish system that can capture up to 40,000 digital images per second on the finish line.

But, while sports timing has moved on, vintage stopwatches still appeal to collectors.

Indeed, today, watch dealer Eric Wind is launching a selection of 10 for sale online, ahead of the Olympics. “They’re such an interesting artefact in the history of timekeeping, but also related to watches in terms of their construction, the companies that made them, the quality and the design of the movements,” says Wind, founder of the US company Wind Vintage. “How some of these more famous chronograph companies [like Heuer] were known was through stopwatches.”

Timing the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles © OMEGA

Heuer identified itself as a specialist in stopwatches from the 1880s, says Nicholas Biebuyck, heritage director at Tag Heuer, which was formed when Heuer was bought by Techniques d’Avant Garde in 1985.

By 1916, Heuer had launched the Mikrograph, the first stopwatch accurate to 1/100th of a second and, in 1960, marked the brand’s 100th anniversary by redesigning its stopwatches for the Century collection. Features included new typography and the use of colour to improve dial legibility.

Biebuyck notes that, after acquiring fellow stopwatch producer Leonidas in 1964, Heuer had more than 300 different stopwatches in its portfolio — for everything from parachute jumping to filmmaking — with 60-70 per cent of turnover coming from timekeeping equipment. “We were a timekeeping equipment [brand] that happened to make wristwatches,” he says.

Biebuyck says this foundation of timekeeping provided the brand with “storytelling and a legacy which has become super powerful”. Tag Heuer displayed three stopwatches — all chronographs — at the Watches and Wonders fair in April to support the launch of its Monaco Split-Seconds Chronograph. Among them was a Heuer Reference 11.402 1/10th second rattrapante chronograph (c 1970) from which Biebuyck says the new watch draws “colour codes and design inspiration”.

a luxury watch with a square-shaped case and red strap. It has a black dial, white hands and markers, accentuated with red and white colours
Tag Heuer Monaco split-second chronograph

Wind’s selection features seven Heuers, including a rowing stopwatch Reference 403.914 (c 1980) with a red outer scale to measure average stroke rate per minute. A 59mm Heuer Yacht-Timer stopwatch (1960s) features blue and red accents on the dial to help track the 15 minutes before the start of a race.

It is yacht-timing stopwatches that particularly appeal to Indiana-based collector Scott Sawaya because of the sectors marked on the dial for countdowns, and the often “very beautiful” colours. The first he bought was a Gallet Yachting Timer from the late 1950s to early 1960s.

He says stopwatches play “second fiddle to wristwatches” in the collecting community but that prices are “extremely reasonable” by comparison. “You still feel like you can almost get a deal in this world, and I love that,” says Sawaya, who works in marketing and shares his hobby through his 10thWatch website. He owns about 24 stopwatches alongside a watch collection.

a vintage-style stopwatch with a round metal case held in hand. The crown and the loop are located at the top
A 1960s Heuer yacht-timer
A vintage-style stopwatch with a white dial and round metal case held in hand. The loop and crown are at the top. The pusher is at the north-east side of the face
A 1960s Lemania Nero

Wind’s stopwatches are priced under $1,000, whereas he says chronograph wristwatches by the same brands can cost $10,000 or more.

His selection of stopwatches spans the 1960s to the 1980s, by which time digital watches had replaced the need for mechanical stopwatches. It includes a “unicorn” Universal Genève (1960s) and a 65mm Lemania Nero (1960s) that Wind believes BBC staff used during broadcasts.

“Lemania made some watches themselves but they were primarily a movement maker — they made for Omega in particular and their movements went to the Moon [in Speedmasters] on the Apollo missions — so it’s neat to have some of these lesser-known brands that are very important in watch history in this selection,” he says.

Jonathan Darracott, global head of watches at Bonhams, says there is a “limited market” for stopwatches, as people tend not to collect them alone but as part of a wider interest. The auction house includes examples linked to motorsport in its car sales. This autumn, it is offering more than 800 watches with timing stop features, including an inking chronograph (c 1850), an early stopwatch with a pointer that marked the dial with ink when a button was pressed.

Darracott says stopwatches linked to particular sporting events have a “different calibre of collectibility because it then turns into a historical, iconic item”. He says, however, that the general appeal of stopwatches is their aesthetic. “They are utilitarian rather than beautiful, but that adds a different sort of beauty, a different sort of interest.”

Wind recalls that 11 stopwatches sourced for a collaboration with US running brand Tracksmith for the Tokyo Olympics, held in 2021, “sold out within hours” of being publicised, and resonated with people who had not collected stopwatches before, he says. More recently, the 2023 biopic Ferrari, set in 1957, may have boosted interest in Wind’s latest selection. The car empire’s employees are shown using stopwatches while attending mass to time a lap by rival Maserati at the nearby racetrack, using the sound of gunshots.

Wind suggests some stopwatches featured “were not appropriate for the time period”. “They didn’t ask [for] my help on the movie,” he says, laughing. “But it was really fun [to watch] nonetheless.”

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