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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.

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Before and after: London Ont. 100+ years ago versus today

Culture

By Moses Monterroza and Annie Rueter

Since London’s founding in 1826, its identity and cityscape has changed dramatically. Once the ‘Oil Capital of Canada’ and the nation’s second-largest cigar-producing city, London has gone from a small military garrison to an urban centre with a population of almost 400,000.

In Early London 1826–1914: A Photographic History from the Orr Collection, local author and historian Jennifer Grainger reveals London’s history at the turn of the century through dozens of captioned photographs.

In January 2017, Gazette photographers Annie Rueter and Moses Monterroza photographed 11 images, recreating photos from Early London that were taken from the 1880s to 1914. They also spoke to Kyle Gonyou, Heritage Planner at City of London, to gain insight about London’s individual heritage properties and heritage conservation districts.

London through the ages

London’s initial development was spurred in 1826 when the courthouse was relocated from nearby Norfolk County to its current location at the fork of the Thames River.


Old Court HouseWest side of Ridout Street, north of King Street. Museum London sits across from the Old Court House today.

The fork of the Thames River

The Rebellion of 1837 happened shortly after the courthouse relocation and resulted in the creation of a British military garrison in an effort to control future uprisings. The garrison was stationed at present day Victoria Park.


Victoria Park

With the garrison came new businesses, such as bakeries and taverns, and military families that helped to grow the population of the city. London had its own newspaper, The London Free Press, by 1849.


London Free Press

But it was the railway south of York Street that helped London grow from a town to a city. The Great Western Railway saw the first train pass along its tracks in 1853 and subsequent businesses cropped up along the railway. London was named a city shortly after in 1855.

The area of Dundas Street, Richmond Street and King Street was a bustling downtown core. Covent Garden Market opened in the area in 1845.


Downtown core

Covent Garden Market

Industries such as oil and manufacturing also spurred the growth of London from the 1850s onward, but they were pushed out of the downtown core toward the east end of the city around 1900. Today, there are a number of closed factories and properties in the city’s east end.


Infirmary Building, London Insane Asylum

London eventually developed as a financial centre at the turn of the century, growing into the service-based city we have today. Historic preservation efforts are essential to maintain London’s history.

“There’s two types of designations that are enabled by the Ontario Heritage Act,” explains Kyle Gonyou, heritage planner for the City of London. “There’s individual heritage properties and heritage conservation districts … For individual properties, there are three basic criteria: physical or design value, historical or associative value and contextual value.”

St. Peter’s Cathedral at Richmond Street and Queens Avenue falls into the city’s Downtown Heritage Conservation District.


St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica

“I think that [heritage buildings] contribute to our quality of life and our sense of place,” Gonyou says. “And these are places that help to distinguish and differentiate London from other communities in southwestern Ontario, Canada and internationally as well.”

Blackfriars Bridge is another landmark within this district. The wrought iron bridge was constructed in 1875 and is currently under construction, open to pedestrians and cyclists only.


Blackfriar’s Bridge

“I’m always interested in the history of wherever I happen to be living. If I am living in a place I like to know how it got to be the way it is today,” Grainger says about her reason for writing Early London. Grainger has also written about Elgin County.

But despite these preservation efforts, there are a number of buildings that have been demolished.

“What I find interesting — because I’m interested in architecture — is just how many buildings we have lost. When you go through the book, most of what we’ve got has been demolished, some of it burned down. But large numbers of buildings have been victims of progress,” Grainger says.


London Armouries

Gonyou is far more optimistic about the valuation of London’s historic buildings.
He’s even working on his own personal sesquicentennial project showing photos of London then and now.

“I would like to think that we have a culture that respects and appreciates the past,” Gonyou says, “but sometimes I think we need some reminders to help us along with that.

The Gazette would like to thank Jennifer Grainger, Biblioasis and Kyle Gonyou for their cooperation and support during this project.

“Old London” photos courtesy of the Orr Collection, Museum London.
“Modern London” photos by Annie Rueter and Moses Monterroza.
Article by Annie Rueter.
Multimedia treatment by Amy O’Kruk.

Related: “Early London reveals the city’s history through photos” by Annie Rueter