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Buying Myself a Birthday Present

by MJ
©1996-2008 by Marc Rochkind. All rights reserved.

It's my 50th Birthday today (June 12), I'm in New York for a little vacation, and I've decided to buy a nice watch as a gift to myself. I'm not sure I'll succeed, but I'm pretty sure I'll have loads of fun trying. I don't want to get too extreme, so I set a budget of $20,000. No tourbillons, and I'll have to adjust the date at least once a year.

I decide to start with the gift shop in the hotel lobby.

This isn't as dumb as it sounds, because the hotel is the Waldorf-Astoria, and the gift shop is Cellini, probably the premier watch shop in New York. Even if they don't deserve that position, everyone would agree that they have more good watches per square foot than anyone, by a very wide margin. Passing the small shop on my way to breakfast, I'd taken some notes on what I saw in the window: 51 Audemars Piguets, 50 IWCs, 47 JLCs, and 25 (yes, 25) Langes. They have room for all of this, and lots more, by skipping the usual Tag Heuers, Omegas, and Raymond Weills. They don't have Rolex, but that's the only high-end watch I can think of that's missing.

Now, breakfast is over, I've got my umbrella and raincoat, because it's raining outside, and my tools: an eye loupe, a fiberglass caliper, checkbooks, and credit cards. But, I'm not yet ready to hit the streets.

I head into Cellini a few minutes after 10. Of course, I am met at the door by a young man who asks if he can help me. "I'd like to buy a watch," I respond. He directs me to an intelligent-looking man standing off to the side, where the watches are. Philip introduces himself. I say, "It's my 50th Birthday today, and my project for the day is to buy myself a nice watch." He wishes me a happy Birthday.

I'm wearing a JLC Reverso Duoface, and not by accident. I don't want to wear a Rolex, because they're much too common and don't say anything at all about one's taste in watches. I'm also afraid to wear anything even slightly obscure, such as my Zenith, which most salespeople have probably never seen, or my Ventura, which could easily pass for a Swatch. The Reverso is the perfect thing to get noticed by people who judge a man by his watch. Since that's how I'm going to be judged today, I came prepared. Turns out this doesn't matter in Philip's case, as he knows a lot about watches.

We chat a bit about the Reverso, I tell him I'm from Boulder, where few brands are sold, even if you go to Denver. I tell him there are a few watches I've sort of decided on, but which I have never seen in person: An AP Royal Oak in tantalum and pink gold, and a Patek 5035. I quickly decide I don't really want the 5035 today or any of the other Pateks that Philip shows me. I don't want a dress watch, because that would mean I would rarely get to wear it, and today's watch is a special one.

We focus on the Royal Oaks. The tantalum and gold one looks great, but it's $15,000 or thereabouts, and I'm thinking, if I ever get into that range I'll start looking at Langes, not Royal Oaks. What's more, tantalum, which I am seeing for the first time, is a dead ringer for titanium, but many times heavier and more expensive. The watch looks just as good in stainless steel and gold, and even the all-steel version looks good. Philip shows me the new Royal Oak chronograph (a reasonable size and weight, not like the Offshore) and a dual-time version, but the automatic is good enough for me. I ask Phillip if he can weigh the tantalum and gold one, since I'm afraid it will be too heavy for me, and he asks someone to go to the mail room and weigh it. It turns out to be nearly 160 grams, which might be too much for me. (I know this because my Bell & Ross Space Two weighs that much, and it is too heavy.)

I'm also hesitant, because as much as I like the Royal Oaks, they just don't look as good as they should for their price. Too industrial, I guess. But I still like them.

So I'm not ready to buy any Royal Oak yet, and I've seen them all. I'm not in the mood for a Blancpain, Breguet, or IWC. Some of the JLCs are exciting, but I'm wearing a JLC, and I want something I don't already have. I ask about Hublot, but Philip says something disparaging, and it's obvious why. They look OK in pictures, but terrible in the flesh.

Then I say, "You know, I've heard a lot about Lange, but I've never seen one close up. I never understood what the big deal was." With that Philip pulls a couple of Lange 1s out of the window, one in yellow gold with a white dial, and one in rose gold with a black dial. (It's on the cover of Watches 1998 Annual.) Now I see what the commotion is all about! These watches are sensational, especially the black one. While I'm looking at the watch with my loupe Philip is talking about it. About the history of the company, the design of the movement, the way the jewels are held in, everything. Clearly he is very excited about the Lange 1, and I am, too. We talk about the Lange for a little while longer. I tell him that I think I can bring the watch down a notch, by which I mean make it less dressy. With a black dial and a more casual strap, I think I could wear the watch any time I want. The dial is so unusual that you can consider it anything you want to. I play with the date, which you set with a rather large button at the 10 o'clock position. (Except that that isn't really 10 o'clock, since the main dial isn't concentric with the case.) Philip pulls out a red string holding at least a thousand leather samples, and says that if I buy this watch he will have a custom strap made for me by Camille Fournet in France. Philip shows me elephant skin, which he says is legal because it dates from before it was outlawed. Can't wear that in Boulder, I tell him.

I tell Philip that I'm very impressed, thank him for his time, and tell him that I have to visit some more stores, as was my plan. I tell him I'm staying in the hotel, so obviously I will return.

It's 11:55. I put on my raincoat, making sure to cover the JLC, whose water-resistance rating is about 3 cm., and head across the lobby to the Park Ave. exit. I go north a few blocks, east to Madison, and start walking north to 57th street. I'm headed for the big Tourneau Time Machine watch store. I turn east onto 57th, start to look for Tourneau, and I'm already there. I peek into the windows a bit and head inside. I'm greeted right away here, too, but I don't bother explaining much of anything. When I'm asked what I'm looking for, I say I want to look at the whole store, and probably end up on the 4th floor, where the good watches are.

But, I take my time, starting with the lower level. (I have to fend off a pushy salesperson every 5 min.) That's where the cheap watches are--Swatch, Citizen, Fossil, Levi's--as well as some pretty decent ones, such as Burrett and Revue Thommen. Also a museum, most of which is a big Tag Heuer ad for the movie Armageddon, and a few clocks that I think were borrowed from the Smithsonian. The museum is a joke. It proves only that Tourneau thinks their customers are morons. They should take it out and put in a Starbucks, or make it into a real museum.

On my way to the 4th floor I stop on the 3rd where the vintage (that is, used) watches are. I get an idea. I say to a very polite man, Michael, "I'm 50 today and I'd like to buy a watch exactly the same age I am." Michael moves to the middle of the line of cases and says, "Here is where the older watches are." I can't resist teasing him, "Thanks a lot... we only just met and already you're insulting me." Fortunately, Michael gets the joke and laughs nervously.

They have some watches made in 1948 or thereabouts, but I don't like any of them. There are three problems, at least. I really want a new watch; the only good watches made back then, the ones to survive, were what we now call dress watches; and watches back then were too small. I like a watch that's at least 37 mm. Besides, I'm not an expert, I don't have any reference materials with me, and I have no intention of trusting Tourneau to sell me a used watch at a fair price.

I say good-bye to Michael and tell him I'm heading upstairs, but he tells me he's going with me. He works both floors.

We go upstairs, and I tell him I'm looking at Pateks and APs today. No point mentioning Lange, which they don't carry. I tell him I don't want a Rolex or JLC (I have one of each), but maybe some others are in the running, and I can look at those too. And no sports chronos, as I already have several. Michael is very happy.

I look again at the Royal Oaks, but they don't look any better than they did an hour ago. In fact, worse. Since I have spent the morning looking at very good watches (Pateks and Langes), the Royal Oaks are starting to look rougher and rougher. I notice something I somehow missed earlier: The tantalum and pink gold watch lacks the waffle pattern on the face, which I like a lot. Also, their Royal Oaks are pretty scratched up. One of them has a deep gouge, and should be sent back or moved to the 3rd floor. I conclude that Tourneau must get a huge number of lookers who don't buy, and also that even the ones who buy don't want to buy a Royal Oak, or they wouldn't be sitting around long enough to get that badly scratched.

I ask about the Patek Neptune, and Michael pulls out one in steel and gold with a black dial (5080). It looks great! It's dressy, but not overly so. I don't have anything at all like it, and it's one of the few Pateks whose looks I can stand. List is only $12,800, very reasonable for a Patek. I like the idea of getting my first, and probably last, Patek on my 50th birthday. Thinking of the Patek ads, I imagine my daughter (I have no son) wearing this watch. I'm now as happy as Michael, who is getting happier by the minute, because he thinks he's going to sell me a watch, and on the 4th floor no less.

Since I might actually want the 5080, I try to start some deal making. "What is your absolutely best price that you can give me on this watch?" I ask. Because Michael seems a little inexperienced, I tell him to go talk to his manager, and I'll wait. He doesn't bother, and just tells me he can knock $1500 off. I quickly calculate that that's only about 12%. Well, I say, I'll think about it, and start to leave. Michael asks me where I'm going, and I tell him. He tells me that when I come back, and I'm ready to buy, he can do a lot better. In fact, he makes me promise to let him get the last word. I follow what he is saying: Tourneau will match whatever price I can get. To protect himself, Michael warns me about unauthorized dealers. I'm not a New Yorker, but I know the town well enough to get his drift. He doesn't mind me walking a few blocks south to Wempe or Tiffany's, but not all the way to 47th St. (The diamond and jewelry district, where you can get any watch for 35% off. Well, maybe not a Lange.) I haven't been that specific with him, so I pretend not to know what an unauthorized dealer is. I get his card, shake his hand, and tell him I'll return. It's a real shame about Tourneau. They could have made this store really a lot of fun to be in, but instead it's a real chore because of those pesky salespeople.

It's 12:40. Still raining. I head east on 57th, figuring I'll bump into Kenjo at some point. I know it's closer to Carnegie Hall. As I cross 5th Ave. I notice the Piaget boutique a few doors south, and I decide to make a little detour. The doorman is abrupt. "Put your umbrella there," he commands. I look pretty casual in my yellow raincoat, made for hiking in Colorado. Obviously, his job isn't to keep the customers out completely, just to intimidate them. But, he can't intimidate me, so I ignore him and walk into the store where I meet a very nice, but cool, woman. I take off my raincoat, exposing my Reverso. I assume that watch salespeople are trained to look at the customer's watches, and this assumption turns out to be right. I tell her I'm here to look for a possible Birthday present, and she warms up immediately (I think it's 20% Reverso and 80% possibility of making a few bucks off me) and offers me champagne. I decline. We look at some watches, none of which leave their glass cages on the wall. Only one, the square classic one, is even remotely interesting. She points out that many famous people wear it, such as Frank Sinatra. I'm not sure if she means that he was buried wearing his, or if she is unaware of his departure. She also names Ronald Reagan, who at least is alive. At that point I say good-bye, retrieve my umbrella, and leave.

I round the corner to continue east on 57th and glance at the BVLGARI windows, where I see a very decent looking diver's watch. And, it has actual numbers around the bezel, not BVLGARI spelled twice. But, no more detours. On to Kenjo.

I find Kenjo and peek in. It looks wonderful, but I'm hungry, so I keep on walking to a restaurant (Mangia, for you New Yorkers). I go upstairs because I need to sit and don't want to fight the mob in the food court. I take my seat, order a glass of wine (a mistake, I guess, as I need to be alert) and an entree. I start to read the beautiful Lange catalog that Philip had given me. I read about the history of Lange, both the original company and the revival, and about the watches themselves. They are indeed very special. The one I like, with the black dial, is pictured. I'm starting to fall for it. It's either that or the Patek 5080 with black dial. Wait a minute, I think to myself, you're not buying a Lange 1. Don't be silly... the Patek will do! And, I decide that it will, unless somehow the price of the Royal Oak drops by 50% in the next few hours. The problem, is, I don't think I should buy a Patek or AP without checking my usual Internet sources, so if one of those is the choice, then I won't buy my Birthday present today after all. So what, I think, it doesn't matter. It was just a wild idea anyway.

Now that I've eaten I'm feeling much better, so I retrace my steps to Kenjo where I'm greeted by a very gruff man named Lee. He notices my Reverso immediately and comments on it, telling me that they don't sell JLC, but they have lot's more. He asks to see the Reverso reverse, and I oblige. I tell him I just want to look around the store. He lets me, sort of. He makes no attempt to actually interfere, but he keeps running to the back to bring out special items that "no one else has," a phrase he repeats at least 5 times in the space of 15 min. One of the items is a Breitling Emergency in a travel case complete with test unit and instructional video. Not the Birthday present I have in mind, I tell him.

Kenjo is amazing. They really do have lots of brands that no one else in New York has. Brands like Chronoswiss, Xemex, Van Der Bauwede, Tutima, Maurice Lacroix, Dubey & Schaldenbrand, Alain Silberstein, and lots more. I'll buy myself one of these!

But, even after spending lots of time with Lee, who turns out to be really a fine guy, nothing quite jumps out at me. Really, a Xemex for my 50th Birthday? No, I think not.

I do see an Eterna Kon-Tiki with an orange (salmon, really) dial that I like a lot, and list is only a little over $2000. I ask Lee for his best price. He asks me what I usually get when I deal over the Internet. What did I get off for the JLC, he wants to know. I tell him 25%, which is the truth. OK, says Lee, I'll give you 25%.

I am very close to just buying the Eterna right then and there. The only reason I don't is that I'm not done yet. I haven't been to Wempe, and I haven't decided against the Patek 5080. I decide to buy two watches today, the Birthday present and the Eterna, and that makes me somehow feel more at ease. Deciding not to decide. But, no need to buy it right now, so I leave Kenjo.

Now I'm starting to get tired. I'll go to Wempe, but I won't try to buy a watch today. Too tired, too many choices, too many decisions to make, and not sure if actually buying today, here in New York, will get me the best price. Well, I tell myself, at least you tried.

The large windows at Wempe, a few blocks south on 5th Ave. are filled with watches, but they're hard to see because of a scaffold covering the front of the building. I do see one interesting item, though: An aluminum case filled with 23 Omega moon watches, each celebrating a different NASA mission. Also, an extra movement in a plastic case, and even an eye loupe to look at it. It's one of the few items in the window with a price tag: $65,000. Gosh, we don't have things like that in Boulder, I think.

I go into Wempe, and am immediately turned off. There are hardly any watches in sight. They're nearly all in the outside windows. Just little tables with soft chairs next to them. Just like, well, a 5th Avenue shop. Which, of course, Wempe is. I'm ignored for 5 min. while I look around the store, but there's nothing to see. I'm about to ask one of the 4 or 5 people standing around to talk to me when Eugenia, a very pleasant woman (in her 50s, like me) greets me. Again, it is the Reverso that does the trick. (What a great watch-buying accessory! If you need to buy a watch in New York, maybe you can borrow a Reverso to wear.)

We have a long session with various watches that she retrieves from the window and puts on a felt-lined little tray. As I reject a watch it goes back into the window, and the candidate watches remain in the tray. So, eventually, the tray becomes my personal watch selection. They don't have the Patek 5080 with black dial, only with white, and I don't care for that version at all. Seeing it, I no longer want the black either. We talk mainly about Royal Oaks. I ask the price for the steel and gold version, and she quotes me one that's about 9% off list. I don't press her, because I'm not sure I want the watch at all, but I know that I'm never going to get Wempe anywhere even close to 20%, let alone 25%.

I ask to see a Lange 1, figuring that maybe everybody hates Langes, the company is in a panic, and they've told all their dealers to sell them as fast as they can at any price. Nope. She shows me one in white gold and then says the other one, in yellow gold, was just sold, not an hour ago, but I can still see it, although I don't get to hold it. So, I guess not everybody hates Langes. She doesn't have the black and rose gold one, which is the only one I would consider, and I don't want to buy anything from Wempe anyway, even though the people are nice enough. I'm tired of watches for today. I am starting to hate AP, and don't understand why I am still attracted to them. I don't want the 5080 anymore, at least not today. Time to go.

I head on south. It's about 4:20. I briefly decide to go to a museum for a little while just to rest, and then realize that's silly, it's already past four, and I'm much too tired. Apparently, I'm not even thinking straight any more. So, here's the plan. I will call it quits, go back to my room to get cleaned up, have a nice dinner, and go buy the Eterna with the orange dial tomorrow for my Birthday present.

Burned out on watches, I head back to the Waldorf-Astoria. By the time I get to my room I'm perspiring all over, even though it's pretty cool outside. I'll stay in Colorado, I'm thinking, even though the watch stores are better here. At least the air is dry. I splash some cold water on my face, take off my shirt and wash the sweat off, and put the shirt back on. I look at my watch. Only 5:15. I should at least visit Philip for a few minutes. I take the elevator to the lobby and go into Cellini.

Phillip is sitting exactly where he was when I left him, only now he's reading a computer magazine. He looks up. "Hi, Philip," I call out, as if I'm greeting a close friend. "You haven't moved all day!"

"No, I was waiting for you," he jokes. He puts the magazine away and we chat for a few minutes. I rave about Kenjo, and tell him it really doesn't compete with him at all, which it doesn't. I tell him Tourneau has lots of watches, but isn't really special, and that Wempe is very off-putting. We continue to talk. The conversation turns to TimeZone. Philip has interacted a bit on the public forum, and he knows of Richard, who's he's exchanged messages with.

Philip makes no attempt to ask me if I plan to buy a watch, and I don't say I am, because I'm not. No watch today. Just two old friends talking.

There's an awkward silence, mainly because it is my turn to talk and I failed to speak

One part of my brain has decided to call it quits and has shut down, and now the other part takes over and seizes control of my mouth. "Let me see the Lange 1 again, the black one." He takes it out of the window and puts it down.

I haven't exactly jumped off the cliff, I've only just gone to the edge to look down. I can still step back and ask Philip to put the watch away.

I'm staring at the face of the Lange 1, which I thought was stupid when I first saw it on the cover of Watches, and which now I love. The Lange is staring back at the face of me. The Pateks, APs, and Eternas now recede, and the Lange 1 jumps into sharp focus. Its excellence overwhelms everything else I looked at today. If I'm going to buy a watch today, which I thought a few minutes ago I was not, it is going to be the Lange 1, or nothing. But, it is not going to be the Lange 1, because I am not buying a watch today.

Wait, you're only 50 once, I tell myself. (When I once said something along similar lines to an Indian friend of mine, he responded, "Oh? You're not Hindu?")

Should I jump, or step back? I jump.

"Philip, what's the absolute best price you can give me for this watch?"

He tells me that he is not going to play games, he shoots straight. He quotes a price.

I'm momentarily shocked. It's lower than I thought. Reasonable, even. Philip already knows he's got me, he's much too smart not to know this. Now he gives me a price that he knows is going to clinch the deal. Since I am falling off the cliff anyway, why not just give me an extra push, just to make sure?

"Well, you've just made it impossible for me to say no," I say. Which is my way of avoiding having to actually say yes. But I have said yes.

"OK," I say, "I'll take the Lange 1." I take out two credit cards, because one is definitely not going to be enough, and Philip's assistant takes them away. I tell them to ship the watch, so they won't collect sales tax. I save roughly what I paid for my Breitling Aerospace. (Interesting comparison: an Aerospace is worth the sales tax on a Lange 1.)

Moving right along, Philip takes out that string of a thousand strap samples, and we pick a medium brown alligator that will be sewn with black thread. I hope that will turn the Lange 1 into a casual watch. I joke that if that doesn't work, I'm going to put a sharkskin strap on it. It's 5:55, and we are done with the strap.

The assistant returns with the charge slips, which I sign. It's 5:58. Then a quick good-bye, because Philip says that if they're not out of there quickly after 6 the police show up. He says I should return to chat some more tomorrow, and I can see my watch. I tell him I will.

Wow! I did it. I bought my Birthday present, and with two minutes to spare. Lange 1. Good choice, I think. The obvious choice. I could have stayed indoors today!

I head to Sir Harry's bar to congratulate myself over a beer. The Lange goes into the Cellini safe. I'll toast it with a glass of Scotch when I put it on my wrist next Tuesday.

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