Q&A: Charles Tearle, Vintage Watch Expert

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Charles Tearle is a vintage watch expert.  He first started out as a 16 year old at Somlo Antiques in London, where he stayed for over a decade gaining a wealth of knowledge on watches.  Mr Tearle subsequently went on to work for prestigious auction houses Antiquorum, Bonhams and Sothebys.  He was also an appraiser on the US version of the Antiques Roadshow.  Currently he runs his own website www.charlestearle.com, where he sells vintage watches and also helps private clients acquire that special piece they are looking to add to their collections.

Charles was kind enough to answer some questions for Deployant.

Q&A With Charles Tearle

Deployant: You have previously worked for Antiquorum, Bonhams and most recently Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Could you tell the readers of Deployant, what your current job scope entails?

Charles Tearle:  Right now I facilitate transactions for rare watches between private clients, as well as acquire, research and sell watches myself. I also undertake projects for select individuals wishing to document their collection.

Deployant:  When you worked for Somlo Antiques in London, Peter Speake-Marin was a part of the restoration department. Did you have any personal interactions with him? How was he like in those early years? Do you have any interesting anecdotes to tell? Are there any independent watchmakers including PSM, whose timepieces you are drawn to?

Charles Tearle:  Peter was my manager and mentor for many years while working at Somlo Antiques and through him I learnt about the mechanics of a watch, what makes one superior to another and in theory at least, how they work.

Peter is remarkably passionate about watchmaking and watches in general which really comes across when you meet him; I am pleased to say in that regard he hasn’t changed. I recall back in the early 1990’s when we worked together he would sometimes talk about making his own watch and how he would improve certain design aspects to prevent wear, he had the advantage over many others that he had seen first hand while at Somlo’s how watches would age after 10, 20, 50, 100 years of use.

When I bought one of his watches for myself it made me smile to see ideas he’d talked about so many years prior actually implemented. Another independent watchmaker I worked with while at Somlo’s was the younger McGonigle brother, Stephen. The McGonigle’s have worked behind the scenes for years developing movements for brands and now design and create their own watches. Stephen and I shared a love of watches, cars (Ferrari), Formula One racing and beer.

I have lots of stories about young McGonigle, but as they all involve beer, none I can talk about. Of course there are lots of independents and semi-independents I follow and respect; in short, I have huge respect for Roger Smith, who is frankly without equal, MB&F, Richard Mille (for what he has achieved) and if I won the lottery, my first modern watch purchase would be a Greubel Forsey.

Deployant: You were an appraiser on the US version of the Antiques Roadshow. What was the experience like of being on a television show? How difficult is it having to make appraisals on the spot? Can you walk us through how you would appraise the value of a watch?

Charles Tearle: It is the hardest days work you can imagine, not just to stay on top of the sheer volume of watches you see and not lose your voice, but because you often see the same type of watch again and again (think Elgin ladies gold plated fob watch circa 1890) that doesn’t have a high value, only someone just waited in line for an hour to see you because they think they will retire on great-grandmas precious watch; you have to be quick but you also have to be entertaining and sympathetic.

Then after the 1000th Elgin, something amazing turns up, hopefully. Once the producers agree to film it you go back to the Elgin’s and Waltham’s until the cameras are ready, usually hours later, then someone grabs you and a minute after that, ready or not, your filming. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting but definitely genuine, all the regular experts really know their stuff and love what they do, if not they simply wouldn’t last.

In terms of making appraisals on the spot, as I’ve been doing it now either for television or auction houses for so many years I either go by memory or just trust my instinct. I’m fortunate to usually have a remarkable memory for watches, alas according to my wife I have a terrible memory for everything else.


Charles Tearle appraising a timepiece on the US version of the Antiques Roadshow. Picture (C) PBS

Here is one of the appraisals Charles did on a 1954 Rolex Chronograph, that a gentleman brought to the Antiques Roadshow.  Please click the link to view the video:http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/season/15/washington-dc/appraisals/1954-rolex-chronograph-wristwatch–201006A30

Deployant:  Which is the most exciting watch you have sold in your auctioneering career?

Charles Tearle: I love the chase and discovery so value isn’t necessarily the most exciting part; in-fact the most valuable watch I’ve sold (over AU$1.6 million) is one of the least interesting as it was really only about money.

One of the most entertaining was in 2005 when I first arrived in the U.S. to launch Bonham’s watch department there, I met this eccentric lady in her 90s who had, among other things, a wonderful 1950’s men’s Cartier Cintree on a bracelet, apparently her and her husband had visited Paris post war and been advised by her uncle, who was a Dr stationed there, to buy it. Upon retuning to California they put it straight into the safe and it had remained there, untouched, ever since.

I valued it for auction at US$25,000-30,000 based on previous examples sold, but the more I looked at it, the more I realised just how special it was. Soon important collectors and dealers were asking for details, a few flew in specially and shortly after I was getting calls from all over the world asking when the next US watch auction was; the Cartier sold for $115,000 and the US watch department was launched.

Deployant: Tell us about two interesting people you have met over the years that you could tell our readers about?

Charles Tearle:  I had read somewhere the British actor Orlando Bloom collected vintage Rolex, one day I had a meeting in a hotel and walked straight past him sitting there in the foyer casual as can be reading a book on watches, I knew the book and author so introduced myself; we talked watches for a while and said goodbye. Shortly after I was attending a New York watch auction and in walks Orlando, looks around, recognises me so comes over to say hello, of course from then on everyone thought we were best friends.

For a while we met occasionally to talk watches and motorbikes, he’s a really down-to-earth guy and quite intuitive on vintage watches (he knows a lot more than me about motorbikes) but in the crazy ‘Bling-Ring’ robbery he lost not only some of his watches but also his passion for collecting them.

I wouldn’t say interesting, but certainly memorable for me was when I worked for George Somlo’s store in London back in the 90’s, one day a elderly thin man in an worn out overcoat, large skull rings and who was partially deaf comes in looking at pocket watches, now I don’t usually judge people but I couldn’t imagine why this man was interested in pocket watches; we chatted for a while and he bought one on credit card. When I had to call the card company to verify his identity (as was common then for high-value purchases) the representative asked if I recognized the client, when I replied no, he asked the man a few questions then told me, “yep, that’s Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones”

Charles Tearle, Vintage Watch Expert with a tray full of watches ready to be looked over.

Deployant:  Are they any modern timepieces in your opinion that will be future collectables?

Charles Tearle:  Yes, many, its knowing which ones that’s the problem. For modern watches it largely depends on the company and how It’s managed; take for instance Richard Mille, it’s a relatively new very casual and sports oriented brand aimed at the uber-wealthy, in recent years through clever marketing they’ve gained more mainstream ‘aspirational’ attention, which means even if you bought one new 5 years ago you could possibly sell it for a profit. Does that make them a good brand to buy for investment? No, but demonstrates how prices can alter so fast based on public perception.

Certain Patek Philippe watches have been the most reliable of modern investments but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will remain so. Personally I would look out for independents, manufactures such as A.Lange & Sohne and certain popular limited editions. Often overlooked but well worth trying to buy are the unique examples made by a handful of watch company’s for the Charity auction ‘Only Watch’ held every 2 years, the next will be held by Phillips Watches in November 2015.

Deployant: Would you like to see James Bond back with a Rolex on his wrist in films?

Charles Tearle: Of course, who wouldn’t? Alas, unless the new Rolex CEO moves the company into a different direction regarding paid cinema placement, it won’t happen anytime soon. Hopefully one day Bond will once again wear a simple Submariner; it really is the perfect watch for the character as it goes with everything from a wetsuit to a tuxedo and is recognizable, yet forgettable, just as a secret agent is meant to be.

Deployant:  The late Paul Newman had a number of Rolex watches, one in particular now known as a “Paul Newman” Daytona.   His first watch had an engraving from his wife Joanne Woodward on the back.   Did the rest of his watches also have engravings on the back?

Charles Tearle: Yes, all the Daytona watches Joanne Woodward gave him (3) were engraved ‘Drive Slowly’ on the back, my personal favourite was the last one, it’s a white gold automatic Daytona with black dial she gave him in his later years that read simply ‘Drive Very Slowly’. I think that says a lot about her and their relationship.

Paul Newman’s personal Rolex Cosmograph Daytona 6263. Picture (C) Charles Tearle

The back of  Paul Newman’s personal 6263 with the inscription “Drive Slowly” Joanne. All of the Daytonas that Joanne Woodward gave Paul Newman have this inscription on the back.  Picture (C) Charles Tearle

The Rolex Daytona 16520 pictured below belonged to Paul Newman as well.  Charles Tearle:  It was awarded to him for winning his class at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 1995.  He donated this watch to the 1999 Antiquorum Famous Faces charity auction in New York where it sold for $39,000 US Dollars. All proceeds of the auction went to charity.  Presumably Mr Newman was the winning bidder, since he retained the watch.

Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona 16520 for winning at the Rolex 24 at Daytona.  Picture (C) Charles Tearle

Deployant: What watch is currently on your wrist?

Charles Tearle: Right now I’m wearing a steel Rolex chronograph Ref.6238 with a rare transitional dial, at 35mm it’s a little smaller than I usually have on but I love the white dial with black and blue scales.

Deployant:  Do you like to rotate the watches you wear often?

Charles Tearle: Yes, sometimes daily, the watch I wear usually depends on what I am doing, where I am going or even what I am wearing. My go-to one though is a Rolex ‘Red’ Submariner date as it’s vintage enough to be different but modern enough to be practical, I actually have two of them, both from 1973 that I rotate.

We would like to thank Charles Tearle for taking the time to answer our questions and sharing his personal pictures of Paul Newman’s personal 6263 and 16520 Rolex Daytonas.


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