The Watchmen

Collecting fine timepieces today is about more than mere wrist bling. Those who embrace this obsessive hobby appreciate aesthetics, mechanical precision, and of course, history. The most hard core among them also seek to cheat time
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FAST TIMES: A Richard Mille RM 050 owned by Jeff Hyland. The split-seconds chronograph is one of ten made by the Swiss Firm
FAST TIMES: A Richard Mille RM 050 owned by Jeff Hyland. The split-seconds chronograph is one of ten made by the Swiss Firm

Photograph by Joseph Shin

Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills styles itself as the intersection of luxury, fashion, and entertainment—a tourist mecca where well-heeled shoppers flock to make five- or six-figure impulse buys. For a select group of L.A. watch collectors, proximity to this exclusive retail district means having one of the world’s great timepiece capitals in their own backyard.

There are signature stores from Swiss horologists Breguet, Hublot, and Panerai and watch dealers such as Gearys Beverly Hills, Westime, Tiffany & Co., and Harry Winston. You can begin by trying on a deluxe chronograph with the sticker price of a 2015 Toyota Camry and work your way up to a diamond-encrusted dress watch that costs as much as three new Ferraris. It takes a certain kind of collector to seek out a limited-edition watch so rare, he may be the only American to own one. These men—yes, most collectors are men—have money, of course, and they share an obsession with intricate machinery, elegant design, and pursuit of the elusive. Some call them “watch idiot savants,” and there are even WIS jokes. Ever hear the one about the WIS who memorized all the Rolex serial numbers but couldn’t remember his wedding anniversary? Or the WIS so besotted with his watch that he lost track of time?

Ask a watch fanatic, meanwhile, and he’ll take umbrage at any suggestion he is narrow-minded. He sees himself as a man of the world and his watches as emblems of sophistication. He will also tell you how unfailingly punctual he is.

For a serious collector watches aren’t about telling time so much as transcending it. Whether he yearns for Timex wind-ups of the ’50s or solid middle-class Hamiltons of the ’60s or the upper echelons of what Breitling and Audemars Piguet offer today, these men lust for the everlasting. Friendships may fade, business partnerships may sour, marriages may disintegrate, and generations of iPhones and digital Apple watches may be sent, soon enough, to e-waste disposal sites. A love affair with a classic timepiece is futureproof.

 

Connoisseur’s Connoisseur

Some watch collectors can trace their obsession to a Mickey Mouse wind-up that ticked away the hours of childhood, or a gold Rolex that Mom and Dad presented as a high school graduation gift. For 43-year-old Billy Ruvelson, one of L.A.’s most ambitious collectors of Patek Philippe, the ardor for watches began in Alsace, France, in the summer of 1991, under the soaring Gothic vaults of Strasbourg Cathedral. The first timepiece Ruvelson fell for was the cathedral’s astronomical clock—nearly 60 feet high, wrapped in gold, flanked by angels, and guarded by saints. It told him not just the time but the current positions of the sun and moon and the arrival of solar eclipses. “I think it’s still one of the most complicated astronomical clocks in the world,” Ruvelson says. “It was alive with animation.”

BILLY RUVELSON: The chef turned real estate mogul is passionate about the works of Geneva-based Patek Philippe. A version of its complications model in rose gold (opposite) tells time in 24 zones and bears a cloisonné rendering of the continents
BILLY RUVELSON: The chef turned real estate mogul is passionate about the works of Geneva-based Patek Philippe. A version of its complications model in rose gold (opposite) tells time in 24 zones and bears a cloisonné rendering of the continents

Photographs by Kenneth Cappello

He was 19 then, with a palate refined beyond his years. All through high school he had honed his skills in French cooking at a West L.A. restaurant called Champagne, and he had skipped college in favor of furthering his haute cuisine education. Ruvelson’s Strasbourg revelation came while he was in the midst of a two-year apprenticeship in kitchens across France. “I was living literally across the Rhine River from Basel,” he says, “and a lot goes on with watches in Basel, specifically Baselworld, the world watch fair.”

He began crossing over into the Swiss city regularly, developing an appreciation not just for the craftsmanship and design of the watches on display, but for the courtesies extended to a customer, even one as cash-poor as he was. “They’d greet you as you went in,” Ruvelson says, “then you would sit down, and you would get coffee and chocolates. I knew I wanted a fancy watch back then. But making $140 a month, working 18 hours a day—that was not going to happen.”

Returning to L.A. in 1992, he landed a job at Luma, a trendsetting Santa Monica restaurant, where eggs, sugar, butter, and most animal protein were banned from the menu. “They didn’t serve beef or dairy,” Ruvelson says. “I was frustrated.” The environment seemed designed to dash the dreams of a young chef steeped in the French classics. Six months later Ruvelson quit the restaurant, forever walking away from cooking as a profession.

Plunging into real estate, he bought his first property at 23 and began building a series of investment funds to acquire multi-unit housing in Greater Los Angeles. As his business grew, he gained the means to purchase a Rolex and then many more Rolexes than he had wrists. He also amassed a collection of new and vintage Italian sports cars.

Given Ruvelson’s affinity for Europe’s most rare-fied luxuries, it may have been inevitable he would fall for Patek Philippe. An entry-level Patek retails at approximately $19,000, more than three times the cost of the cheapest Rolex. Patek makes about 45,000 watches a year at its factory in Geneva, while Rolex mints an estimated 800,000. Advertisements featuring Patek’s slogan—“You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation”—are often easier to spot than the watches themselves. “Everything Patek does is the best,” Ruvelson says. “They represent the best of the best, and if it’s not the best, they just don’t do it.”

Patek tends not to be a young man’s watch. There’s the price barrier, the emphasis on posterity, and the demure profile of the timepieces, which calmly announce that one has arrived. Maybe that explains why, during the seven years Ruvelson collected Rolexes, Patek never made it onto his radar. “It was just one of those fancy names,” he says. “I didn’t know what it meant.”

Ruvelson’s watch dealer is Gearys Beverly Hills, which operates Patek Philippe’s only stand-alone boutique in the United States. Store manager Daniel Chen had begun as Ruvelson’s go-to salesman and, after years of repeat business, became a friend. Sometime in 2006, Chen suggested that Ruvelson have a look at Patek. “I was kind of taken aback,” Ruvelson says. “I had bought all these Rolexes. But I said, ‘All right, what have you got?’ ”

What Chen showed him was a Patek Aquanaut. It was a petite diver’s watch with a rubber strap and stainless steel case. “It was very sporty,” Ruvelson says. “I didn’t pull out the credit card immediately, but it didn’t take a ton of convincing.”

watchmen_2
Photograph by Joseph Shin

On a recent summer afternoon, Ruvelson invites me to the Beverly Hills office of the Icon Company, the real estate firm where he is a principal, to show just how committed a Patek enthusiast he’s become. His beard is slight, accenting more than concealing the fine-boned architecture of his jawline. A gold Calatrava Cross—a symbol of medieval Spanish knighthood that Patek adopted as its own at the end of the 19th century—glimmers on the lapel of his gray tweed jacket.

“This is one you have to see,” Ruvelson tells me, uncoupling the black alligator strap of a platinum chronograph, with a face as unfathomable as the night sky. He places the watch on a presentation pedestal with the tenderness of someone who once handled fillet of sole in France’s best kitchens. “This is a very rare piece, part of the collection to celebrate Patek’s 175th anniversary,” he explains. “They only made 100 of them in platinum.”

He follows up with a feather-light platinum-and-gold Patek Advanced Research 5550P. “This may be Patek’s last Advanced Research piece, and they made 300 of them,” he says. “It’s an ultrathin perpetual calendar that uses a lot of silicon.” Next he pulls out a Patek Grand Complications model in rose gold, which factors in leap years and tracks phases of the moon, and another version featuring 24 time zones and a world map with a cloisonné display of the continents on its face. “Fine artists who still do enameling are few and far between,” Ruvelson says. “And Patek has the best enamelers out there.”

Some of Patek’s most desirable limited editions are available only by formal request. Ruvelson’s petitions are evidently looked on with favor. According to Jonathan Martinez, a sales specialist at Gearys, there are watches that would never have been sent to the store—and might not even have made it to the United States—had Ruvelson not been the designated buyer.

Midway through Ruvelson’s guided tour, his Calatrava Cross starts to resemble less a company logo and more a symbol of consumer knighthood. Buying a Patek, as Ruvelson describes it, can be an ennobling experience. “It’s about becoming part of the Patek history, the Patek culture,” he says.

The company sends him glossy semiannual journals to enrich his Patek education and alert him to upcoming releases. With each acquisition, Ruvelson’s name, along with the watch’s serial number, is added to a registry Patek has maintained for the past 170 years. One summer, when he attended Patek’s Arizona

golf retreat, Ruvelson received a Stetson; another year he was given a pair of Lucchese cowboy boots. Twice he’s visited Patek’s museum and factory. “When you see the people who are making the watches,” he says, “you understand that at the end of the day everything is pretty much handmade by someone who has trained hundreds of hours, often to make a part the size of a fingernail clipping.”

Ruvelson is on a first-name basis with Thierry Stern, Patek’s president and scion of the family that has owned the company for four generations. When Patek threw a party for its 175th anniversary at New York’s Rainbow Room last year, Ruvelson was seated at Stern’s right. “I speak French with Thierry,” Ruvelson says, “when it’s just the two of us.”

Ruvelson is confident that “with just some routine maintenance and care, these watches will last 100 or 200 years. They will way outlast me.” He remains unmarried, without children, which raises a central Patek question: Will there be a next generation of Ruvelsons to look after the timepieces when his stewardship comes to an end? He laughs when I ask and accuses me of secretly talking to his mom. “Who knows?” he says. “Maybe because of this article I’ll find the right wife and we’ll have children to give my watches to.” The clock, as they say, is ticking.

 

Wealth Whisperer

In Los Angeles Jeff Hyland is the dominant force in what some might call “extreme residential real estate.” He had a hand in selling Aaron and Candy Spelling’s former estate for $85 million. His company, Hilton & Hyland, landed the $135 million listing for William Randolph Hearst’s former Beverly Hills digs—29 bedrooms, 40 bathrooms. Also listed on the firm’s Web site this summer was a cute three-bedroom, two-bath number in Pacific Palisades that was essentially a $25 million tear-down.

JEFF HYLAND: For his wrist the real estate broker prefers see-through skeleton watches. From top: a Parmigiani Fleurier limited-edition Kalpa XL Hebdomadaire and a Greubel Forsey double tourbillon 30° technique
JEFF HYLAND: For his wrist the real estate broker prefers see-through skeleton watches. From top: a Parmigiani Fleurier limited-edition Kalpa XL Hebdomadaire and a Greubel Forsey double tourbillon 30° technique

Photographs by Kenneth Cappello

People in the market for such houses tend to be movers and shakers. Hyland is good at cultivating this type of customer, and his watch preferences reflect a similar currency. Don’t get him wrong—he has enormous respect for heritage brands like Patek, but they don’t much interest him. “I’m more into the fun of the here and now,” he says.

When it comes to timepieces, what “fun” means to Hyland are see-through skeleton watches or, as they’re often described, “race cars for the wrist.” Like a Formula 1 vehicle, the extreme skeleton is a precision-built machine designed by technicians who don’t so much follow tradition as tear it to shreds. It can perform functions that even the most imaginative watch freaks might deem impossible were the proof not visible through both sides of its clear case.

Extreme skeleton watchmaking is only about 15 years old, launched by a handful of maverick companies, most in Switzerland. Production is low. Richard Mille, the leader in the field, makes fewer than 4,000 pieces a year. Prices are stratospheric: The cost of entry can be more than $70,000, and things go sharply up from there.

Hyland is on his third Bentley and is conversant in collectible fashionable artists such as Ed Ruscha and Sam Francis. Nevertheless he arrived rather late to the WIS party. During the ’90s and most of the aughts, he sold multimillion-dollar homes sporting a rubberized knockabout watch that set him back no more than a few hundred dollars. “Wearing a watch,” Hyland says, “was like wearing a pair of Keds to me.”

Photograph by Joseph Shin
Photograph by Joseph Shin

In 2007, Lori Hyland decided to intervene, surprising her husband with a stately Dubey & Schaldenbrand watch. It was difficult to fully appreciate the Swiss craftsmanship, given his concerns about its sheer weight. “I don’t have a big wrist,” Hyland says, “and my first reaction was ‘That thing is huge.’ ”

When I visit him at his ground-floor Beverly Hills office, Hyland is hard-pressed to remember the model or even the make of that first watch (he had to check with his wife later), so thoroughly has he moved on to extreme skeletons. “The mechanics of watching them is so much fun,” he says. While all skeletons are low production, Hyland focuses only on the rarest of the rare. “It’s limited editions,” he says, “that make the watch stand out.”

Hyland is slightly built. His forehead, made larger by male pattern baldness, tends to amplify the assurance of his smile and dark brown eyes. He conveys his enthusiasm in hushed tones as he begins a survey of his collection. He straps on the black alligator band of his Double Tourbillon 30° Technique by Greubel Forsey and winds it to life. Hour markers and platinum hands float almost to the surface of its transparent case. One antigravitational chamber rotates inside another. The wind-up power plant consists of four coaxial mainspring barrels, including a 120-hour energy reserve. There is something transfixing about all this visibility, unencumbered by an actual watch face, and also something disorienting, as if this timepiece has emerged from a steampunk fever dream and somehow landed on Hyland’s wrist.

Sizewise the Greubel Forsey is a monster, considerably thicker and wider than the watch Hyland’s wife had bought him (and larger than most men’s diver’s watches, for that matter). But Hyland’s slender wrist seems to be bearing its weight well. “Today this is not a very big watch,” he says. “I probably get the most comments on it because it’s so architecturally superior.”

His next exhibit is an HYT extreme skeleton, conceived by self-described “hydromechanical horologists.” The watch tells time via hour and minute hands and through the ebb and flow of green-tinted liquid that moves inside a tube at the margins of its case. The pumping mechanism resembles a tiny replica of a Harley-Davidson V-twin engine. “Two hundred years ago they discovered how to keep water out of a watch, because if you had moisture in a watch, it was shot,” Hyland says. “Then these guys invent the first watch that brings water back in.”

He shows me two extreme skeletons by Richard Mille. Hyland’s rather dressy RM 014 is an homage to the builders of Italy’s Perini Navi shipyards, who have produced yachts for media titans Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi. The rectangular see-through case is contoured like a mainsail.

Hyland lavishes more time and affection on his limited-edition RM 050, originally designed for Felipe Massa, the Brazilian Formula 1 driver. Its case incorporates a frame of polymer composite shot through with carbon nanotubes. Hyland winds up the watch, and a ghostly golden second hand begins rotating above what appears to be several hundred suddenly awakened gears and levers. A double chronograph, the RM 050 can split seconds.

Hyland remembers when John Simonian, founder of Westime and CEO of Richard Mille Americas, gave him his first glimpse of this model. “I just drooled,” he says. He returned a few days later to make the RM 050 his own. “It was love at first sight—and second sight. I had to have it.” Only ten RM 050s were produced for anyone other than Massa. Hyland will wear his only on special occasions, such as when he’s meeting with the actual Richard Mille, the bon vivant French businessman who launched his eponymous brand in the late 1990s.

At the Richard Mille boutique, you can see what elevated company Hyland keeps. There are skeleton watches endorsed by tennis champ Rafael Nadal and reigning PGA champion Bubba Watson. There’s actor Jackie Chan’s watch, a dragon slithering around the complicated movement, and a version of the model that Pharrell Williams wore to perform “Happy” at this year’s Grammys, an extreme skeleton featuring a smiling titanium skull.

Wael El Saadi, the boutique’s trim, affable director, describes the impact timepieces like these can enjoy in L.A.’s elite circles. “When you go to park your car, whether it’s a Bugatti or Lamborghini, you walk away with a piece of paper,” he says. “The valet has it, so you cannot impress the person you’re meeting with your nice car. How many diamonds on a pinkie ring can you wear? How many blue diamond cuff links or tie tacks? A man cannot bejewel himself, so wealth whispers. When you’re wealthy, you want to whisper. Your Richard Mille watch is your business card, sending a message about your taste and level of wealth, and you’re whispering.”

There are few people who can identify a Richard Mille or a Greubel Forsey on sight, but a good percentage of that group seems to be in the market for the kind of residences Hyland lists and sells. In his profession the extreme skeleton watch, spotted by a client who shares his fervor, can become, as he puts it, “the icebreaker to end all icebreakers.”

“I can be talking real estate or talking cars with a client,” Hyland says, “and all of a sudden we get into watches, and you go in a totally different direction: It’s as if you discovered you both spoke French.”

 

Memory Maker

The Omega flagship store in Beverly Hills shut down six years ago, but the main shopping district still hosts what is arguably an even greater center of worship for the brand. Jackmond, on North Canon Drive, is a retail enterprise. Hang around long enough and it appears more like a front for one man’s enduring passion.

JACK KHORSANDI: At Jackmond, his Beverly Hills store, the Tehran native specializes in Omega timepieces. Among his treasures is a military watch from World War I
JACK KHORSANDI: At Jackmond, his Beverly Hills store, the Tehran native specializes in Omega timepieces. Among his treasures is a military watch from World War I

Photographs by Kenneth Cappello

Jack Khorsandi, the store’s 53-year-old owner, will happily take you through more than a century’s worth of timepieces in their period-appropriate displays, from genteel Edwardian pocket watches to utilitarian Depression-era stainless steel wind-ups to postwar moon-phase models to Omega Speedmaster chronographs made before and after Buzz Aldrin wore one on the moon to a banana-face 1970s Omega Seamaster as weighty as an anchor.

One afternoon Khorsandi offers me a seat at the table that takes up a good portion of Jackmond’s tiny sales floor and half fills two tumblers with single malt scotch. (He also has an espresso machine at the ready should a visitor prefer caffeine.) In an accent that’s softened in the 37 years since he fled Tehran, he admits to a zeal for Omegas that even he would call a little out of control.

Some evenings, well after regular business hours, Khorsandi will come here to commune with his watches. He sees it as a form of meditation. “My wife, she’s fantastic,” he says. “She understands and supports me all the time, but you know women. They love attention, and if you take attention from them and you put it toward something else, I don’t think they like it.”

At least Khorsandi’s peak hours of Omega immersion are during the day at Jackmond or on the Internet late at night, after his better half has fallen asleep. “He enjoys the watches so much and has so much enthusiasm about what he finds, you can’t be mad about it,” says Mahnaz “Mimi” Khorsandi of her husband. “Sometimes it’s crazy, but what can you do? You have to give something to get something.”

Adding to his personal collection, Khorsandi is on the lookout for watches that have a story to tell. Ask him to choose between an ordinary vintage Omega with a compelling past and a deluxe Omega whose history is a blank slate, and the humbler watch usually wins out. That’s because he sees Omegas less as possessions and more as soul mates.

watchmen_4
Photograph by Joseph Shin

Khorsandi makes most of his living manufacturing medical devices in downtown L.A., which is just as well, since he is loath to link his love of Omegas with maximizing profits. “I hate it when people collect because they feel the value of the piece is going to go up,” he says. “That’s not collecting. That’s business. When you buy a piece because you’ve studied it, you know what it is, and you’d like to have it in your collection, then you’ve started collecting from the bottom of your heart.”

When someone comes into Jackmond to sell a vintage Omega, Khorsandi reaches for the watch as if extending a hand to a friend. In a few minutes he can usually tell what year the watch was built, what part of the world market it was designed for, how few or how many were made. What he wants to know from the potential seller is the journey this timepiece traveled—and the wrists it adorned—before it got to Beverly Hills. Who were the owners of this watch? Where did they grow up? Where did they end up? What were their struggles? What were their victories? What did this watch mean to them?

“Sometimes I put on a chronograph from the 1940s that belonged to a pilot,” Khorsandi says. “It doesn’t matter if the watch is working—it will take me to that time, to the plane he was in.” He disappears into the back of the store and reemerges holding a pocket watch with a Star of David painted on the right side of its face. “A long time ago a very old gentleman came in with a small pouch, and he opened it and showed me this,” Khorsandi says. “He told me, ‘I was in the concentration camp, and next to me was a gentleman who had this watch with him, and he left his bunk and he never came back.” The Holocaust survivor asked Khorsandi what it was worth. On the open market? Not much. The piece was on the small side. The case was plain steel; the movement, basic; the condition, understandably rough. Khorsandi said he couldn’t put a price on it, but whatever the visitor wanted for it, he’d give it to him. A plain Omega pocket watch from that era typically fetches around $300, but for this one Khorsandi paid in the neighborhood of $1,500 to $2,000.

Khorsandi replenishes our scotch and raises a toast, his brown eyes lifting along with the glass. “I want to say l’chaim to this watch because it has such a story. Imagine the guy who owned it. He had to leave his town, leave his city. He had to let go of everything but kept this watch.”

Khorsandi’s determination to discover the intimate details of the Omegas he buys is linked to Omega’s role in his own life. Some have called the reign of the last shah a golden age for Iran’s Jews. Certainly that must have seemed the case for Khorsandi’s grandfather, whose religion didn’t preclude him from heading the nation’s postal service. In 1962, the year of Khorsandi’s birth, his grandfather celebrated his good fortune by buying a high-end Omega Constellation dress watch. Khorsandi’s father, who was a sales executive for International Harvester’s Iranian operations, eventually purchased an Omega of his own.

By 14 Khorsandi was already infatuated with watches, so much so that he became a recurring nuisance for Tehran’s luxury jewelry dealers. “I would go from one store to another. After a while they wouldn’t let me in. They had kicked me out so many times,” he says. “Imagine—after school everyone wants to go chase girls. For me it was ‘Let me see—is there a new watch I want to check out?’ ”

Khorsandi left Iran in 1978, amid the mass protests that would culminate in the Iranian Revolution the following year. He finished high school in Santa Monica, began selling Macintosh computers out of his bedroom, and became an Apple reseller with strong ties to the music industry. Lionel Richie, Santana, and Michael Jackson were among his clients.

As a lifelong entrepreneur, Khorsandi appreciates Omega’s willingness to take chances. The brand has never enjoyed the cachet of Rolex or Patek, so it has had to do more to attract attention, releasing dozens of versions of a given model, for example, and embracing the design sensibilities of the passing decades. “Omega is the only watch company in the world that is moving with the time,” Khorsandi says, fully aware of the double entendre. “That’s why they have so many variations. They aren’t stuck in some specific look or shape. They continue on.”

When Khorsandi first had the means to collect Omegas, he admits to being “a little all over the place.” Now he concentrates mostly on triple moon-phase calendars of the ’50s and chronographs from the ’20s and ’30s. Perhaps his most cherished piece is his grandfather’s 1962 Constellation. He puts it on when he has scheduled an important meeting. “You had to be so wealthy to have that watch on your wrist in that era,” he says, “and I’m so honored to have that watch on my wrist now.”

Omega history pretty much ends at Jackmond with that colossal banana-face diver’s watch from the disco era. Omega has continued moving with time, but Khorsandi has little interest in anything the company has produced since 1980. The most recent Omegas he treasures are those he might have seen in the shop windows of his youth, before the Iranian Revolution took that youth away.

Or did it? “When a young kid comes into the store,” Khorsandi says, “we will sit down together and talk watches, and I’ll take some timepieces out and we’ll take pictures.” He would never think of shooing away teenagers who are wild about watches. “Some of them are so knowledgeable, so excited,” he says. “I can really see myself in them.” Naturally Khorsandi gives them all the time in the world.

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