During a visit to our Singapore boutique, watch collector Michael Hilton shares his love of collecting IWC timepieces and how he's passing the tradition on to his children.
What was your first IWC watch?
My first IWC watch was the only IWC that I’ve ever bought and sold, and that was the IWC GST Chronograph Automatic. I bought it in 2000 or 2001. I first saw it in Puerto Rico on our way to a cruise. It was beautiful – polished bracelet, white dial and yellow gold accents. I couldn’t afford it, obviously, since I was fresh out of school. But I was fortunate enough, a couple of years later, to treat myself to my first luxury – what I thought was a luxury and still think is a luxury – watch purchase when I passed my actuarial exams. The GST Chronograph Automatic actually marked a milestone in my professional career.
Up until that point, I had only been gifted watches because my dad would decide he needed something newer and better, and I would end up with the previous version. That was the first time I actually bought my own luxury timepiece.
What other IWC watches do you have in your collection? And what are the stories behind them?
Like I said in the beginning of our conversation, the first and only IWC I have ever bought and sold was the GST Chronograph and the only reason I sold it was because I wanted the Ingenieur Mission Earth. The personal story behind that, for me, was that I had grown up always knowing IWC and, to me, the brand had always felt out of reach because it was a maker of luxury timepieces. It was my dad who pushed me to acquire from IWC at that time, and his passion came from his older brother, who was a jeweler back in the ’70s and was given an IWC Ingenieur Jumbo by a grateful client.
From there, when I was still in San Francisco - and this was up until eight or nine years ago - the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch had always been known as the pinnacle timepiece. And I thought that it would be the watch that would stop me from buying more watches which, we know, is not correct. The IWC Big Pilot’s Watch was and still is one of my favorite timepieces and that piece, for me, screams of IWC in terms of heritage.
Those two watches – the Ingenieur Mission Earth and the Big Pilot’s Watch – will always have a special place in my heart. If push came to shove and I had to run out of the door with two watches, without hesitation I would say the Ingenieur and the Big Pilot’s Watch.
Since living here in Singapore for the last eight years, I’ve started collecting pieces – some planned and some not – including a vintage collection Aquatimer. We must have been in Singapore for maybe two months, just having arrived from the US, and my wife Samantha spotted that piece while I was looking at one of the Aquatimer 2000s at that time. Five minutes after she spotted that vintage Aquatimer, the credit card was out and it was on my wrist, so this particular model reminds me very strongly of my time in Singapore.
Other pieces like this special edition from Watches of Switzerland in Australia [20th Anniversary Pilot's Chronograph], which is a limited edition of 50 pieces – was actually created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Watches of Switzerland in Australia, so it’s got that connection for me to Australia and, more importantly, was a gift from my wife for a matching anniversary.
Other key watches in my collection are obviously the IWC Yacht Club, which was picked up here in Singapore when I turned 40. That is a very memorable piece for me. And then the other one would be the BFI [Hand-wound Portugieser Edition ‘British Film Institute’ London Festival 2016], a beautiful watch that’s limited to 59 pieces. The story behind this one revolves around the IWC community. I was traveling to London just for five days and had caught up with some friends from the IWC community for lunch and we decided to visit the IWC Boutique after our meal to have a look as collectors typically do. And after being inspired by some close friends, I walked out of the boutique with this watch. I have fond memories of this one, of meeting with great friends within the IWC community.
How would you describe your watch collection?
Watch collecting is something very personal and my collection, relative to a lot of people in the IWC community, is very contemporary in terms of style. I haven’t gone to the point of having lots of dress watches. Most of my watches have been collected over the last 10 years. They have fairly simple and legible dials. Given the maturity of my collection now, I might start introducing complications!
Going back to your question about watches being tied to a particular occasion, milestone or memory, I couldn't imagine walking into the airport and buying a watch because there’s no connection to any experience there and that, to me, is big part of the luxury experience. Luxury should come with the experience of sharing, teaching and learning.
For me there have been very few impulsive buys. Most of the time the study and research have already been put into place and several viewings have occurred. However, with a watch like the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition “150 Years”. I already knew the size worked for me; I really enjoy the enamel-like lacquer dial; and when I saw the watch in real life, that’s when the rules changed.
As you frequently travel to different countries, have your watches ever been conversation starters while on the road?
Yes and there have been a couple of recent examples. The vintage Aquatimer is fairly distinctive with its two crowns – this goes back about five years when I was sitting in an airport lounge in Manila and I had it on my wrist and the gentleman across from me had the exact same watch. I made a comment, “nice watch!” and he looked over at mine and then we started a conversation for a couple of hours while waiting out our flight delays. That was a great connection.
There was another time when I was wearing the Big Pilot’s Watch on a flight to Hong Kong and, again, just as I was waiting for the doors to open a gentleman started up a conversation because he was wearing a Pilot’s Watch Chronograph. So all the way, up until immigration, we had a nice conversation on watches.
Those two examples were quite spontaneous but then there’s also the connections through the IWC community no matter where I go in the world. Last week when I was in Rome, there’s a guy who I’ve known for many years from SIHH [Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie Genève] who lived in the city. I contacted him and he was really instrumental in helping us plan for our trip and he even took us out for dinner. Those sort of connections within the IWC community help tie me to the brand as well.
At this point, Max Hilton, Michael’s 13-year-old son, joins our conversation.
What is your favorite watch in your dad’s collection?
Max: The Big Pilot’s Watch is a very iconic timepiece and, personally, I really like its style: It’s simple, versatile; then also there’s the Jubilee collection, which is so symbolic of the heritage of the brand having been around for 150 years so I think that watches from those two collections really stand out for me.
Michael: We have individual stories but there are also the generation stories. Like I said before, my dad always passed down his timepieces and so, a couple of years ago, I managed to sort of reverse that and gift him an IWC. He’s got the black-and-yellow Aquatimer 2000 3568.
I have two sons and one daughter and the deal is that, when they turn 21, they can take a pick from my existing collection, which would hopefully have been expanded by then. Otherwise it’s going to be a trip to the IWC boutique to choose something more personal since styles will change.
What does IWC mean to you?
Max: IWC stands out from the other watch brands. When I see someone wearing Rolex or Omega, at first glance, you cannot tell which style that is. That doesn't seem so special to me. When I see someone wear an IWC it stands out instantly and I know the name of the watch specifically.
Michael: When a new IWC collection, like the Jubilee, comes out, Max and I sit down and look through it together and critique the references, narrowing down the ones which we will end up with.
During Father’s Day last year, IWC had an event here in Singapore and it was great! There was a watchmaking class and for us was good because Max has a passion around mechanics and not just the aesthetics.
And the other point is, when we talk about generational sharing, above the physical watch and what drives my passion, is having the opportunity to sit down and chat with Kurt Klaus. That was a fantastic experience and one of my favorite photos is the one taken of us there with Max and Kurt Klaus. I think it’s such a great connection between my passion for the brand and what Max is picking up.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to make their first IWC purchase?
My first piece of advice is go with your gut instinct. You’ve got to go with what makes you smile at the end of the day and it’s interesting when I look at different forums and see different people talking about the same watch and I don’t always feel the same way.
So my advice is: don’t try to like something – you’ll know straight away whether you like it or not and make sure that it is a watch that you can use a lot. The watches I enjoy the most are the watches I never have to take off my wrist. For me, those are the perfect watches. I look after my watches but I am not overly precious with them, but the perfect travel watch is the one that I never take off from the time I leave the house to the time I get home. And the end of the day, it’s got to speak to you.
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