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The watchman and his timeless pieces

Culture

The watch man

Derek Dier was 16 when he found his first Rolex in the bottom of a shoebox at the Western Fair flea market. Thirty-five years later, he would supply vintage watches for the hit TV show Mad Men.

A year after his first find, he started visiting a friend who owned a pawn shop in Toronto. The friend was one of the first prominent vintage watch dealers in Canada and he exposed Dier to lots of different watches he wouldn’t have otherwise seen in London.

Dier began a career in London real estate while watch collecting remained a hobby until he decided he wanted to sell something he really loved — vintage watches.

In 1998, Dier took the plunge into the world of watches and started WatchesToBuy, making him one of the world’s first online watch dealers.

Dier and Lance are at home in the comfortable living room setting that is WatchesToBuy. Annie Rueter/GAZETTE.

Where the magic happens

Dier’s collection goes beyond watches; his store on Piccadilly Street is a haven for vintage buffs in general. Dier’s knack for picking up rare items is inspired by his mother’s love for collecting and their many afternoons spent scouring garage sales together.

By looking at the simple brick exterior of WatchesToBuy and the single neon sign that reads, “Vintage Watches Buy Sell Repair,” you wouldn’t anticipate that entering the store is like walking into a whole new era.

Flanking the inside entrance are a red Ducati motorcycle and a vintage Peugeot bike. Neon watch repair signs emanate a magenta glow on the room, and glass cases are filled with neatly displayed watches, mainly from the 1950s and 60s. Vintage memorabilia, like a working 1956 television, line the walls and every available surface. Dier’s giant schnauzer, Lance, is a frequent staple of the shop, curling up on a red leather couch. A work table to repair watch casings is in the back of the room.

Even among the dozens of vintage items, the Mad Men memorabilia — including mugs and an autographed image of Jon Hamm, who plays the lead Don Draper — stand out.

Mad Men and Hollywood

In August 2011, Dier was preoccupied with responding to emails from interested buyers and photographing watches to post on his website. But his routine was shaken up when he received a call from executives of his favourite TV show: Mad Men.

“They contacted me in a summer afternoon and they needed the watches within 24 hours for the main characters, and I was able to pull it together,” Dier says. “It was pretty exciting, and then I got to go down to LA and meet everyone on the show… I think we did 30–40 watches over the whole period.”

Dier supplied watches from the fifth to the seventh and final season, which wrapped in April 2015. In March 2013, Jon Hamm graced the cover of Rolling Stone while sporting one of Dier’s watches — a 1966 Omega Seamaster DeVille.

Dier had the chance to meet the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, alongside the full cast. “And to see the set — the set is incredibly impressive,” Dier says of his trip to LA. “Something you would never imagine. It’s all laid out over 10,000 square feet.”

Although Mad Men is over, Dier remains a key vintage watch supplier for Hollywood. Sometimes Dier will send watches off to producers for an unnamed project and later see a watch of his on the silver screen. In La La Land for example, Dier thought he may have seen one of his watches on Ryan Gosling.

“In La La Land, [Gosling] looked like he was wearing — let me go on my Instagram,” Dier says while scrolling through images of watches, “I recognize the watches. It looked like a 1952 Omega Bumper. So he was wearing a vintage Omega, but I don’t think it was mine.”

Dier is currently supplying watches for a yet unnamed Amazon series set in the 1930s. But what Dier finds more exciting than seeing his watches on the silver screen are the unexpected discoveries he makes along the way.

“Like any collector, it’s about discovering a new variation,” Dier says. “You’ll think you’ve seen everything in a particular watch brand, then all of a sudden you’ll find a new one from the ’50s or ’60s that you never thought existed.”

Watch collecting revived

Hollywood and individual collectors are a big source of demand for Dier, whose business mainly comes from American and European buyers. Only about five per cent of Dier’s business is conducted in London, and the Canadian vintage watch dealing community is very small.

“Canadians are not as apt to pay big money for rare items in that respect,” Dier notes. “But it’s starting to become more prevalent where I am seeing people buy from Canada.”

Despite the small Canadian market, there’s a revived interest in vintage watch collecting, especially from young professionals in Los Angeles and New York. Part of that rejuvenation has to do with watch blogs that amass thousands of followers. But with prices of vintage watches escalating within the past three or four years, it’s become increasingly difficult to buy timepieces at a reasonable price.

Sama Noon/GAZETTE.
A mechanical watch uses a mechanism with moving parts to measure the passage of time and needs to be wound periodically.

A Rolex Mariner, for example cost around $3,500 a few years ago, but now can easily go for upward of $15,000. At WatchesToBuy, Dier sells watches that go up to $130,000. He also has affordable items for students like watches starting at $99 and Nato nylon watch bands for $20.

But for Dier, a watch’s price isn’t necessarily the most important thing.

“Sometimes it’s not about value,” Dier explains. “It’s more about interest… it could be the colour of the watch that gets you, or the shape of it or the way a dial has aged. A lot of it has to do with patina — so when a dial ages on a watch, the face of a watch can change colour.”

Patina refers to a coloured film that appears over a watch dial as it ages. A black dial for example can age to brown, which can be “more interesting than when it was originally produced,” Dier says.

When deciding which watches to buy from collectors for resale, Dier chooses based on what he personally likes and tends to wear. He’s partial to Longine chronograph watches — tool watches that are designed to measure time with great accuracy — but values design most.

“I think I wear a different watch every day,” Dier says glancing at his wrist. “I like really clean lines. It has to look balanced on the wrist. Simplicity or, in the other direction, it could be really complicated. But not in between.”

Moving past the Timex watches Dier used to buy as a kid, he’s come a long way as a watch buff. Next time you see a period piece on TV, you might just be looking at a Derek Dier timepiece dangling off a star’s wrist.