Time Well Spent: An Interview with the One and Only, Mr. Jeff Harris

Virtually every important watch on planet earth has passed through the hands of Jeff Harris. He's a horological pioneer of sorts, an esteemed expert, a world-class dealer, and a great guy with an exceptional sense of humor and outstanding watch-flipping skills. Usually, I'd say Jeff doesn't even need an introduction, but for those few who aren't familiar with his name, it's time you learn.  Here is TWA's interview with Jeff Harris. 

THE WATCH ADVISER: What sparked your passion for watches and when and where did this occur?

Jeff Harris: My passion for watches actually started when I was about ten, although I was a gadget freak as well. In the 70s, I was in love with the yellow dial Seiko chrono 6139, the Wittnauer 2000, and the Heuer chronosplit. I got the first two, never the third. After my dad passed at an early age, my mom remarried a high end clock dealer, based in New York, in the Eighties. When I was out of college, and just as I started working as an investment banker, he took me to many NAWCC meetings--which fascinated me. Very few people were dealing in wristwatches in the mid-eighties, but I noticed the Italians coming over and scooping up watches in droves. I figured there was something to this.

What really stirred my interest in the business was one profound incident. In a Dearborn NAWCC meeting in September 1987, the biggest European dealer at the time (and certainly a mentor to many of us), Osvaldo Patrizzi, was arriving at the show. Many of the dealers were saying "Patrizzi is paying $1,000 for steel Daytonas" (and there was little, if any, discernment of Paul Newmans or normal Daytonas). A few dealers I knew at the time scrambled around to save them all for Osvaldo. When Osvaldo arrived, he said, "I am now only paying $800 for Daytonas," and because no one else was buying, everybody sold to him for $800.  I then just followed him around, and bought a few things like he was buying. Then I flew to Europe with another dealer. We met up with some Italian dealers in London, and I sold Daytonas at $1,400 immediately, and for that matter, all the 20 pieces or so I had. I said "This is good." Long story short, the next year I was bringing 100 watches a month to Europe, and selling out in a day. 

Another quick story to follow up about the discernment of Paul Newmans from regular Daytonas. I went to attend the Dr Crott auction in Frankfurt in May of 1988. Joe Demesy also came, and we decided to show each other what we had to price fix what we were selling. We dumped out all our watches, and many were Daytonas, and Joe picked out one from my pile that was slightly different than the others. He said "This one looks cool, how much is this one?" I also said it looked cool, and instead of the $1,500 Daytona's were fetching, I said this one is $1,800.  He bought it from me, we went downstairs with our watches, and that one was the first he sold, to an Italian, for $2,300. This was the beginning of "exotic dial" Daytona's selling for more. And for all I recall, it could have been an Oyster Paul Newman.

TWA: What was your first “great” watch?

JH: My first great watch I bought in partnership with another dealer at the time. It was the Patek reference 2523 dual crown world time with blue enamel dial. Actually it was the one that just sold at Chrsties last November for $2.7 million. We bought it for $200,000, and put it in Antiquorum. It failed to sell. We sold it for $190,000 after the auction. C'est la vie....

TWA: How did you become so knowledgeable, and was it through research (watch books) or via experience (attending auctions, etc.) ?

JF: Not to blow my own horn (well, which I am, I guess), there weren't that many dealers doing what we do--maybe 30 or so in the high end market. Even now, there really aren't more than 50-75 dealers in the world at the high-end vintage level. All of the knowledge came from experience, and in many cases, making financial mistakes. I have been there at the beginning of every "trend". And I make sure I take notice at everything that goes on. I've attended mostly every show in the US the past 25 years, and a majority of the European shows, and pretty much all the Geneva auctions.  My knowledge is from my experience. 

TWA: What watches are in your collection currently?

JF: I go with the times. I have some nice Rolex sport watches, and I love complicated Pateks, like chronographs, perpetuals, and perpetual chronographs. But, as a dealer, I'm constantly wanting to keep pieces that I am offered good profit on. So I sell, and replace these watches with different models.

TWA: What brand(s) do you predominately collect and admire, and why?

JF: As mentioned before, Patek Philippe is a collector's staple, because of the meticulous records Patek kept. But, since the current trend is on Rolex sport watches, I am tending to keep more of them lately.

TWA: Do you see any watch acquisitions in the near future? If so, please specify. 

JF: As a dealer first, and collector second, I am always looking for watches that are trending. At the moment, in the mid-end, there is a lot of interest in Longines, Heuer and Omega. I am only looking for mint examples of these, I also prefer chronographs over time-only pieces. 

The disparity in value between mint examples and mediocre examples is growing exponentially every year. Many dealers still don't get that when they offer me a refinished dial Vacheron chronograph, I simply have no interest, pretty much at any price. In the "old times," complicated vintage watches with refinished dials might have had a value of 60-70% of an original dial counterpart. Now it could be as little as 30% of the value. And it will still be a bigger gap in the future. Buy condition, not price.

TWA: What is your "grail” watch, and have you owned this watch before? 

My favorite watch is a white gold Patek reference 3448. It is masculine, chunky, yet still a work of art. And I've had many. But I keep selling them, and it always ends up costing more to replace it. Again, this is the business.

My "Grail" watch is a steel Patek reference 1518. And yes, I bought one in the early 1990's from a German dealer, who was known for telling stories and crying wolf. But one day, at the Geneva auctions, he said he may be getting one. I said sure, sure, I'll buy it, never thinking he really would sell it. Three weeks later, my banker in Geneva called me at 6 o'clock in the morning, and said "I have Karl here and he says you promised him $300,000 for this watch--what do I do?" I said "Give it to him !!!!!" But, sadly, I did sell it relatively quickly, I needed the money for my business. I sold at probably 15% of its current value. I still did fine!

I joke with people and say, if I simply went to Thailand with my 1990 inventory, and smoked weed on the beach for 25 years, I'd probably have more money now than I do!