William & Son’s Bruton Street emporium is a shrine to British craftsmanship, finery and taste: a place that demands gallery-pace perusal, in order to properly take in all the fine jewellery, silver, glassware, watches; a place where bespoke, handcrafted shotguns can be acquired in the same visit as quirkier pieces such as exquisite leather renderings of traditional board games.
Its founder William Asprey – a seventh generation member of a family who have been in the thick of luxury retailing for two centuries – clearly has collector tendencies: Balthazar and Melchior, robot clocks created by his good friend Max Busser of MB&F fame, mingle on the shelves with photos (including one of their owner in a cordial meeting with Prince Phillip) and other curios, while two beautiful decorative glassware pieces by Lino Tagliapietra keep a watch over Mayfair on the window sill behind his desk.
But the artefacts Robb Report UK has come to pore over are spending today in a tall winding cabinet in one corner of the office above this splendid emporium. We could fill these pages many times over, discussing the curiosities that lie within…
A timely introduction
My interest in all things horological came partly by osmosis from my father, a keen watch and clock collector. He started out collecting old Breguets and old English clocks for himself and for clients, and we used to retail them. I suppose I took the view that all those antiques, at some stage, were new, and I thought, “Well I don’t have the budget to buy antique watches and clocks – so I’ll buy modern ones.” I also spent some time working in a watch workshop, which was fun.
To adore and adorn
Women have so much choice with jewellery – earrings, rings, necklaces, bracelets, broaches, pendants – and, there are many women who collect watches now, of course. But for a man? I don’t wear earrings or pendants so that leaves me with signet ring, wedding ring, cufflinks and watches, and therefore it’s nice to have a variety of the latter. A watch shows a certain amount of personality.
The craft within
Mechanical obviously isn’t more accurate than Quartz – but it’s more durable. If you don’t use a mechanical for a long time, you can rewind it and start it again. If you leave a quartz neglected the battery will die and leak and you’ll have to replace the movement. There’s no craftsman ship or value or skill in a quartz movement. It’s a disposable unit, and all the money or value is in the packaging of that movement. With a mechanical watch, it’s been hand-finished, hand-assembled, hand-regulated by a human being. You sense the value just looking at the finishing and the polishing of the individual screws. For some, knowing that painstaking decoration is all there but not visible to anybody is quite a romantic feeling, because a lot of that is specially commissioned and built to the individual’s taste. It’s all part of the personality of whoever bought it.
I use Hodinkee, Watchville, QP Magazine – whatever I come across – and I go to trade fairs to see what catches my eye too, but I don’t have a strategic plan. If I see something I like I research it and take it from there. There’s a lot of luck involved. Have you heard of “The Flat Four” Rolexes? Someone noticed that the top of the four on some Rolex watches is flat rather than pointed. I was told about it, and I thought “Well let’s have a look”, and it turned out I’d got one… Pure luck, no judgment. People are constantly looking for differences. I always take the view that you buy what you like and, if it becomes an investment in the future, then great. In the meantime they’ll give you a lot of pleasure.
In the name of the father
This old annual calendar watch Omega did for Asprey was destroyed in a fire, and my father rebuilt it himself. Another of my father’s old watches is this fully skeletonised Audermars Piguet: the lovely thing about it is, look carefully and his initials, JA, can be seen on the rotor at the back.
I find the annual calendar to be the most useful of all complications, because it gives you everything you need on one dial. My second favourite would be anything with two time zones, because I travel a lot. Such as this annual calendar with a second time zone by Ulysse Nardin – I have number 10, and my father has Number 11. When [former Ulysse Nardin owner] Rolf Schnyder was alive we knew him, and got them through him.
We did a limited edition of 10 Laurent Ferrier Galet Travellers for William & Son, and the UK on the enamel map on its face is in red – the rest is blue – so I call it my “Brexit Watch”. It displays two time zones and the date. I love the finishing on the micro-rotor automatic movement, which you can see from the back. I have some older pieces which have been engraved by people with ether their initials, or a thank you message. There’s one piece which François-Paul Journe did for our tenth anniversary of which there are only three and I have one.
On the carbon Audemars Piguet Alinghi I acquired when we used to distribute their watches, one from the first batch issued, the Alinghi logo has a white line around it. It’s not meant to – they tried to recall them because they weren’t correct, but I said “no way”. It’s huge, but it’s very light because it’s made of pressed carbon. A friend of mine had a Patek on which they’d missed a letter out of “Patek”. Again, they said “We’ll take it back and fix it” and his response was “Whoa – no thanks!” It suddenly becomes a unique piece.
Subtlety’s sex appeal
When Lauren Ferrier first brought out this watch, the Galet Square, he made it in steel. It was very expensive for a steel watch, so I said “Well why don’t you do it in gold?” We had him do a limited edition of 10 and if you look very closely you can see William & Son etched very, very lightly on the dial. Very subtle! I’m not into overt branding… I am into fine detail though – take this very beautiful watch by one of our independent watchmakers, Roman Gautier. The incredible finishing work on the micro-rotor and the blue enamel dial are very striking. Every edge is perfect; you could look at it under a microscope and you’d see no flaws. Incredible! And all done by hand…
Photographs by Sam Tinson