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No Excuse Watch Collecting

No excuse watch collecting means collecting watches that tick all the boxes that make you happy, with no excuses. There’s no “I wanted a vintage Rolex Red Sub Reference 1680, but I settled for a Ref. 16610 made five years ago because it was cheaper” here. No excuses allowed.

Granted, for us mere mortals who aren’t dot com billionaires or otherwise filthy rich, this can mean the difference between having two or three or four really good, pleasing watches versus half a dozen or more so-so watches. Adjust those numbers to reflect your collecting focus and budget, but you get the idea.

No excuse collecting means you can’t settle for an over-polished example of a grail watch and then make excuses for it. Over-polished is over-polished, and you can’t put that metal back once it’s buffed off. It means no refinished dials if original dials are important to you. (In most cases, it should be.) It means no excuses.

No excuses can make things harder on you in the short term, but also happier down the road. The short term rush you get from buying a so-so watch can’t compare to the feeling you get from owning a keeper you don’t have to make excuses for.

Many collectors gravitate towards no excuse collecting as they gain more experience. They come to realize over time what truly makes them happy. They often refine their collecting interest, narrowing their quests to a certain brand, era, or style of watch instead of collecting “anything that catches their eye” as they did when first starting out. They begin to hold out for a watch in all original, top condition.

My collecting is still rather broad compared to the collector who only collects, say, complicated Pateks. But I have narrowed it down to a few areas of particular interest. Although I’m still fascinated by iconic tool watches like the Rolex Submariner and Omega Speedmaster and many others, my collecting these days is leaning more towards this:

  • High quality gentlemen’s pocket watches from the golden age of pocket watches, from roughly 1870-1930

  • Top-of-the line American-made Hamilton watches (generally those offered in solid gold cases)

  • Watches with a known provenance that I can research

One recent acquisition checks all three of my current “collecting boxes” at once: a Hamilton Grade 400 Tycoon Series Bok pocket watch in 18K yellow gold, made circa 1930.

The watch has the original owner’s initials on the back of the case, and I was lucky enough to buy it from his daughter in law. She was able to tell me quite a bit about the original owner, and though no original paperwork has survived with the watch, it did come with its original box.

Photo courtesy of Hamilton Chronicles

The watch is a beauty. The 18K case is extra sharp, literally and figuratively—the edges are much sharper than you might expect from a relatively soft 18K case, and from a design that is very art deco and originally called for more straight and sharp edges on the bow, for example, than would be seen on a simple bassine case made a decade earlier. (Like the one found on my Hamilton 920.)

The Grade 400 is a fairly rare watch. They were made from leftover Illinois Watch Company movements after Hamilton bought Illinois in 1928. At the time, Hamilton had no 12 size movement as thin as the Illinois 528 Illini model, and the fashion of the day was calling for smaller and thinner pocket watches. It had been going that way since the turn of the century.

So it made sense for Hamilton to take advantage of the windfall presented by hundreds of thin, very high quality 21 jewel Illinois 528 movements literally sitting on the shelf, just waiting to be cased.

They had Schwab & Wuischpard, the same company who made their other top-of-the-line Masterpiece cases, produce three of the four different case styles to go with the new Hamilton Grade 400 movements. (Solidarity made the simple, elegant Nobel cases.) They introduced the new watches as the Tycoon Series.

The four watch styles of the Tycoon Series were named after then world renowned business leaders Andrew Carnegie, Joseph Pulitzer, Alfred Nobel, and Edward Bok. Not as well known today as the others, early in the 20th century Bok was the influential editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, and a leading arbiter of good taste and style in his day.

He gave us the term living room for what had previously been called, rather stuffily, either a parlor or drawing room. His rags to riches autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

Roughly 2,300 Grade 400s were made from 1929-32 and sold through at least the middle thirties. Collectors today are most interested in the first 800 made from leftover Illinois 528 Illini movements early in the run, and especially the 869 Grade 400s made as Tycoons with solid 18K white, yellow, or green gold cases.

After these were sold, Hamilton began making them up from scratch. These watches had less expensive gold filled cases and were sold as presentation watches to General Motors (mostly for their Frigidaire division) to give to employees.

The Tycoon Series was a different animal from these later watches, which were sold at giveaway prices in bulk to GM due to the Depression. The Tycoons were offered in 18K gold only, and were aimed squarely at the managers who did the presenting of the less expensive gold filled watches, and to other successful professionals who could afford them.

One with raised gold numerals on the dial, like mine, retailed for $200. That was a lot of money at the height of the Great Depression.

If you want to see more killer photos of this exact watch’s beautiful movement, completely stripped down for a service, check out Handy Dan’s Hamilton Chronicles blog. Dan is a fellow collector who graciously agreed to give this old beauty a much needed "trip to the spa."

Photo courtesy of Hamilton Chronicles

Dan said he was pleased to check out a Grade 400, if only for a short term inspection. They are rare enough that many Hamilton collectors, even some as advanced as Dan, have never had one in their hands.

This is one watch I never need make excuses for. The condition is superb, and it’s all original. It comes from the golden era of the pocket watch and was made by my favorite American watch company. It has a known history that I can continue to research, after the initial thrill of purchase is long gone.

I believe, as do many other collectors, that the chase is the best part of collecting anyway. This research keeps the chase going for as long as I care to keep digging for more information on the original owner, not to mention the rare Grade 400 series (and Edward Bok, for that matter).

The hunt for more information about this watch’s original owner alone will keep me busy for some time. I have long admired the rare Tycoon Series, and always wanted one of these svelte 12-size beauties in my collection. I’m glad to finally have this excellent example, and glad I was patient and held out for such a nice one…with no excuses necessary.

Just the Gist: Hamilton Grade 400 Tycoon Series Bok

  • 18K Case made by Schwab & Wuischpard for Hamilton

  • Sterling silver dial made in Switzerland, as were many top quality Hamilton dials of the era; 18K raised gold numerals

  • Movement: 21 Jewel Hamilton Grade 400

  • 355 Boks out of 869 Tycoons made with 18K cases; 2,300 total production for Grade 400

  • Production circa 1929-1932

  • Cost of this Tycoon Bok in 1932: $200

  • 1932 cost adjusted for inflation in 2016: $3,500+

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