The Collector’s View: WatchTalk with Gerald Donovan

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WatchTalk with Gerald Donovan

Gerald Donovan is a British expat who, after spending a decade in the desert in the Middle East, is now enjoying a semi-retired lifestyle in South East Asia. After many years of enjoying his two main hobbies of photography and collecting watches, he now combines the two and has an Instagram account @watchdxb that is devoted to watch photography. His website (@thegrandseikoguy) focuses on dealing exclusively in vintage Grand Seikos, and is widely considered to be the most informative website in the world on the history of these fine timepieces

How did you first get into watches?

I’ve been interested in watches from a very early age – although I personally have no memory of it, I am told that I was given my first watch (a Mickey Mouse watch) at the age of about 2 years old. Growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I worked my way through numerous quartz and digital watches, culminating in the very first thing I ever bought on credit – a Seiko UC-2000 “Wrist Computer” complete with the small UC-2100 keyboard and larger UC-2200 docking station complete with a built-in printer!

Do you still have the entire set?

Unfortunately not – it all went missing in the dim and distant past!

That’s a shame! Could you briefly take us through what is currently in your collection?

So the collection currently falls into two specific categories. 

First up are the vintage Grand Seikos, which now that I am dealing in them is an ever changing collection. I have a little over 60 pieces at the moment, which probably makes it one of the biggest collections of vintage Grand Seiko on the planet. 

Grand Seiko 6145-8030. Photography by Gerald Donovan.

The second category I sort of fell into almost accidentally about a year ago. As part of my research into the vintage Grand Seikos, I purchased many old Japanese Seiko catalogues from the 1960’s and 1970’s. 

These catalogues tell a fascinating story of how quickly quartz started to dominate the Seiko range in the early 1970’s, which ended up with the Grand Seiko line being dropped at the end of 1975. What I couldn’t help but to notice was just how amazing some of the early quartz pieces looked, and decided to pick up a few. 

Seiko 3922-5020. Photography by Gerald Donovan.

Fast forward a year, and I now have 34 quartz pieces. I’m “limiting” myself to only picking up pieces from the VFA, Superior, Grand Quartz and King Quartz ranges. 

Seiko 4882-8001. Photography by Gerald Donovan.

One of the fun things about these watches is that most of them have never really been photographed “properly” in the past, so it’s great to be able to put some effort in to share with people just how astonishing the quality of these pieces is.

You are clearly very passionate about Seiko (and Grand Seiko). What is it about Seiko – the brand and the timepieces – that fascinates you so much?

There are many things about Seiko that make them attractive from a collector’s point of view. The company has an incredibly rich history going back to the 19th century, with many notable pieces of horological history, among which are of course some notable “firsts” such as the first quartz watch, first automatic chronograph (also the first automatic chronograph in space), first 6 digit LCD, first TV watch, first “automatic” quartz, Spring Drive. But beyond the “firsts”, there are countless notable pieces from their history which are highly sought after today, such as the early divers, world timers, chronographs, and of course the entire vintage Grand Seiko range.

Seiko 4843-7001. Photography by Gerald Donovan.

For me it is the vintage Grand Seikos which were the real draw, as Seiko had a very singular and – most importantly in my view – chronometry-driven perspective to quite simply create the best watch in the world, and beat the Swiss at their own game. As they ably demonstrated at the Neuchâtel Chronometry competitions in the late 1960’s, and followed up with the commercial Grand Seiko VFA’s and Seiko Astronomical Observatory Chronometer, they achieved their goal.

Could you tell us about a few of the more interesting vintage Grand Seikos that you have acquired for your collection?

The fascinating thing about collecting vintage Grand Seiko is that despite the fact that the brand was only on sale for 15 years, and there is nothing more complicated than a day-date, there are no fewer than 140 different references available, with an incredible diversity of design. 

Grand Seiko 6146-8050. Photography by Gerald Donovan.

No collection could be complete without an example of the “First”. Despite this watch being on sale for just three years, there are at least 14 different variants, with the early print dial examples perhaps being the most desirable (excluding the almost unicorn-status platinum cases references).

Grand Seiko First Print Dial. Photograph provided by Gerald Donovan.

Fast forward a decade or so, and Grand Seiko delivered arguably one of the greatest watches of the era – the legendary 4580-7010 “VFA” (“Very Fine Adjusted”). It is widely accepted in the collecting community that this watch represents the absolute pinnacle of what Grand Seiko set out to achieve. 

Whilst both of these references are fairly conservative in their design for their respective eras, there were also many fascinating vintage Grand Seiko references released from the late 1960’s through to the early 1970’s that demonstrate just how far Grand Seiko were happy to stray from Taro Tanaka’s legendary “Grammar of Design” rules. 

Are there any watch companies/brands other than Seiko that interest you? If yes, which ones and what is it about them that catches your attention?

Absolutely. I am a big fan of independent watchmakers and have been fortunate enough to both meet, and shoot the work of, many of them.

I have been very privileged to have been able to shoot watches from the likes of Vianney Halter, Kari Voutilainen, David Candaux, FP Journe, Laurent Ferrier, Greubel Forsey…

Close-up of the Vianney Halter Classic Janvier. Photography by Gerald Donovan.

My style of photography – where I fill the frame with the watch – really does sort out the men from the boys when it comes to finishing. With 100 megapixels per image (typically meaning the watch dial or movement could be printed up to 2 meters wide without seeing individual pixels) there is nowhere left to hide!

The quality of work from these manufactures often puts the “big” brands to shame. Perhaps only Lange can hold a candle to some of the independents when it comes to finishing, although it has to be said that Greubel Forsey are almost in a league of their own. I say “almost” because – remarkably – at least when it comes to dial and handset finishing, Grand Seiko are right up there.

A close-up of the diamond endstone on the balance wheel of the A. Lange &
Söhne Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon. Photography by Gerald Donovan.

Would you agree, then, that finishing is the most important factor that separates haute horlogerie from regular ol’ horology?

Personally, no. 

“Horlogerie” means “watchmaking”, and to me the singular most important function of a watch is to tell the time. 

“Haute”, or “high end” then, from my perspective should mean the pinnacle of timekeeping.

This is why I find what Seiko set out to achieve when launching the Grand Seiko brand in 1960 so appealing – they set out with the singular purpose of creating the ideal watch, with standards of precision, durability and beauty that led the world. 

Movement design and finishing for purely aesthetic reasons may well result in a beautiful watch that is a wonder to behold and photograph, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to high-end timekeeping. 

“Metiers d’art” pieces utilizing ancient crafts such as enameling, marquetry, engraving, gem-setting and the like are undeniably impressive to behold, but all too often a manufacturer forgets that fundamentally these are timepieces. Check that box first, and then go to town. 

Vacheron’s “Les Aérostiers” are a classic case in point. Stunningly beautiful objets d’art, but can you tell the time – with any sense of precision – at a glance? No. 

Vacheron Constantin Metiers d’Art Les Aerostiers. Objects of sheer beauty but perhaps not the most legible.

Too many manufacturers – particularly the independents – are trying to out-do each other with movement, dial and case finishing, yet don’t even bother to have their watches properly tested for precision, let alone make the results of those tests public.  I would love to see more manufacturers making an effort here, as De Bethune did recently with their “Starry Varius” Chronometre Tourbillon which recorded an astonishing result of zero seconds per day error across six postions. That’s even better than one of my vintage Grand Seiko VFA’s from 1972 that has an error of zero seconds per day in four positions, and plus two seconds in the final two .

Let’s go back to photography for a second. You’ve taken some of the most stunning macro watch photos that I’ve seen. What’s your secret?

Very kind of you to say so.

There are three aspects to it really. Firstly, I am fortunate to have a very special camera system that is ideally suited for watch photography. In pretty much every shot I take, the watch head is filling the (very large) frame – it’s typically close to 1:1 magnification, which means the size of the watch in the frame is close to the actual size of the watch. This captures an almost insane amount of detail – when I post a close-up “macro” shot, it is basically just a crop into the full frame shot that shows the whole watch. 

“When I post a close-up “macro” shot, it is basically just a crop into the full frame shot that shows the whole watch”. Photography by Gerald Donovan.

The camera is basically a computer-controlled view camera that allows me to place the plane of focus at pretty much whatever angle I want, so even though the depth of field of a typical shot will be of the order of just a few hundred microns, I can get the whole dial of a watch in focus in a single shot, even when it is at an angle. 

Every shot I take is taken with the intention of being able to create a 1.5m tall print. It’s complete overkill for Instagram of course, but it’s nice to know the potential is there. 

The second aspect is lighting. I currently shoot with two lights – I really must get around to getting a third! The “secret” with the lighting is that I had some custom light modifiers made for me to my own design. 

I had gone through maybe close to a dozen different lighting setups using “traditional” kit such as light tents, commercial modifiers, multiple different light sources (flash, LED panels, LED spots…), but the truth of the matter is none of these are really suitable for what I am trying to achieve.  Finally, I never stop experimenting. Just last month I re-built the light modifiers as I had an idea how to improve things, and am – with the exception of needing to get that third light – almost happy with what I have now.

How involved are you in the social aspect of watch enthusiasm/collecting, and how has it impacted you?

I run two Instagram accounts – a personal one @watchdxb, and @thegrandseikoguy. I used to be fairly active on forums, but these days most activity tends to gravitate around a few Facebook groups – particularly the Grand Seiko Owners’ Club.

I don’t get involved much in brand events, but when I lived in Dubai I did attend Dubai Watch Week which is rightly recognised as one of the best events of the year. I also enjoy attending auction previews and auctions when I can, and was very fortunate to get involved with Only Watch 2017 where I photographed almost all of the lots. 

F.P. Journe Chronographe Monopoussoir Rattrapante Bleu for Only Watch 2017 – movement side. Photograhy by Gerald Donovan.

Through my online activity a lot of people approach me with questions regarding advice on collecting vintage Grand Seiko, which I am of course always more than happy to share!

Moritz Grossman ATUM <<Homage>> – movement side. Photography by Gerald Donovan.

How do you define a “grail” watch? Do you have one?

Gosh. That’s a very interesting – and timely – question.  

I guess the thing that ultimately defines a “grail” is that it is something close to unobtainable. 

The problem with grails of course is that when you actually manage to obtain one, it ceases to be the grail. 

I guess in my time as a “serious” collector there are three watches that would qualify as grails to me. 

The first would be a print logo dial Grand Seiko “First” I have owned three of these, but the best quality one I have is probably the best example to come to the market in the last decade or so. I purchased it from a dealer in Japan who took it in trade from a collector on the condition that when he sold it, it would remain in Japan. When I expressed interest in the watch, the collector graciously made an exception to that condition. 

The second is a Grand Seiko 4580-7010 VFA. This is, to me, the absolute pinnacle of the vintage Grand Seikos, and as close to “the perfect watch” as one could wish to find. The example I owned (it sold just last week) is in astonishing condition. I am very sorry to see it go, as I know of just one example of this reference that is in better condition – a NOS full set that is in a collection in Japan that is without question one of the most impressive watch collections on the planet. 

Grand Seiko 4580-7010 VFA. Photograph by Gerald Donovan.

And finally, something so special that it trumps both the above pieces. 

I have just taken ownership of what can genuinely be considered to be a true piece of horological history. It is a Seiko Neuchâtel chronometry competition movement from 1967. 

Seiko movement number 052561, Neuchâtel Chronometry Competition 1967, dial side. Photography by Gerald Donovan.

This watch is the third highest scoring movement from Seiko out of all the movements they ever submitted. It came seventh in that year, and in fact is the ninth best performing movement from any manufacturer of all time submitted to the Neuchâtel trials.

Seiko movement number 052561, Neuchâtel Chronometry Competition 1967, movement side. Photography by Gerald Donovan.

Ok, so there are two Seiko movements that scored better than this one, but the likelihood of those ever coming to market are surely close to zero.  Until they do, this remains to me, the “grail of grails” when it comes to collecting Seiko.

Do you have any sagely advice for the aspiring watch collectors and photographers who may be reading this interview?

So for the collectors, it’s simple. Just buy what you love. 

For the photographers, never stop experimenting and practising!

Grand Seiko 4420-9000. Photography by Gerald Donovan.

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  1. Nice to see an article about a collector who isn’t all about the usual brand names.

    Seeing as he is a keen collector of Seiko’s, would’ve been nice to know what he thought of Credor.

    • I agree with you on all counts! I wish there was more about Credor online (that isn’t Japanese).