The Wrist Watchers

It takes more than a pretty face to impress this exclusive society of collectors

Slide Show >>

I often agonize about what to wear for a night out on the town. But my invitation to observe the Watch Enthusiasts of New York monthly meeting proved especially challenging. This secret society of New York watch collectors known as "The Weenies" (after their WENY acronym) is one of the most exclusive in the watch world. What kind of timepiece can I wear that won't make me stand out like a bumpkin at a debutante's ball?

Since my own watch collection is pretty limited—think Swatch, Ebel, as well as the Polar wristwatch that goes with my heart-rate monitor—I end up borrowing my mom's classic Rolex, a blue dial with an 18-karat gold-and-steel band from the 1980s. Believe me, the Weenies notice. Wrist-gaping is the main activity at a Weenie meeting.

Formed by two watch lovers in 2005, each monthly Weenie gathering is a moveable feast with a prix fixe dinner at a different location, typically a New York City restaurant or bar. Sure, you'll find hedge-funders and real estate moguls among the 32 members, but the roster also includes a Malaysian artist, an engineer, and an acupuncturist. While a few wives and girlfriends tag along at meetings, there are only two female members.

Nearly all of the Weenies met online at the "watch porn" Web sites, TimeZone and The Purists. (Some have since migrated to HoroMundi.) Membership is by invitation only, but you don't have to own a ginormous collection. What you do need is an appreciation of watches as an art and craft. "We prefer watch geeks to watch snobs," says co-founder Paul, 31, an engineer who, like most members, asked to be identified by his first name. "A lot of watch guys are a little tightly wound," says Matthew Morse, a club member and editor of Revolution magazine, a watch bible. "But this is a group of genuinely nice people."

I don't understand why the Weenies insist on a shroud of secrecy until I meet them: These guys collectively are packing at least $1 million worth of bling on their wrists, including a beefy limited edition F.P. Journe Chronomètre à Résonance ($100,000 and up), which has a platinum bracelet and is as heavy as a brick.

Aside from an occasional watch gathering, these collectors do not wear their most highly prized timepieces in the real world because the wear and tear can diminish the value. And because they keep them in safe deposit boxes, many Weenies do not insure their watches, except for their rarest timepieces. With no private security at club events, they like to keep their profiles off the radar.


So what makes a Weenie tick? "We are weenie-ish in our unbridled pursuit of something other people don't pay much attention to," explains Gene Stone, a club member and author of The Watch, a book about collecting. These geeks focus on the nitty-gritty of vintage and modern watches: the faces, hands, movements, weight, and other fine details.

Like connoisseurs, they speak in a language of their own. Conversation is peppered with millimeters (the size of the face), tourbillon (a device that helps regulate the watch), guilloche (decorative engraving), and other technical terms. Their descriptions are entertaining. Vincent, 48, a hedge fund manager and the group's other co-founder, breathlessly describes watches he admires as "stealthy," with "sensual curves" and an "immaculate finish."

At most meetings, the members just chat informally about watches. The other main activity is taking off watches and passing them around. Sometimes the Weenies invite special guests to speak. The night I attend a meeting at the New York Wine Co. in lower Manhattan, Julien Tornare, North American president of the storied Swiss watchmaker, Vacheron Constantin, shows off some new models. As the members dine on braised short ribs with creamy polenta, they "Ooh" and "Ah" over a PowerPoint presentation of new models. A highlight is the $130,000 Patrimony Skeleton Perpetual Calendar, which is transparent. You can see the innards ticking away—hence the name Skeleton. Although many of the Weenies look like average Joes in Oxford shirts and khakis, the clout of the collectors in the room is clear: This is only the second time these watches have been seen in public since they were introduced at a Geneva watch fair in April.

Many Weenies wear their own Vacheron Constantin timepieces, including Vincent, who sports a Skeleton Automatic in yellow gold. He ticks off the preferred brands of other members. Michael, a fiftysomething real estate developer and software entrepreneur, favors Officine Panerai, an Italian brand known for oversized faces. Michael keeps photographs of every piece in his massive collection of more than 400 watches, worth more than $5 million, on his Palm Pilot (PALM ).

Brad, 36, an investment manager, collects F.P. Journe, one of the few super-high-end watchmakers that is not owned by a luxury goods conglomerate. When I get a chance to chat with Brad, he explains that he is in awe of the technology of Journe watches; the one he is wearing uses two independent movements that feed off each other's energy. "Francois-Paul Journe is a modern-day genius in the world of horology," he says of the company's founder.

Bigger, more established manufacturers are also represented in these collections. Paul, who owns about 125 watches, says his primo treasure is a 1954 Rolex "Kew A" Observatory Chronometer, one of three in the world known to exist in original condition (out of 24). "Finding it occupied a year of my life," he says.

Paul purchased his prized Rolex through Watch Commander, a vintage dealer in Miami. Before they buy, the club members often research models on TimeZone or The Purists forums; then they make their purchases through dealers, other club members, or at auction. Sometimes they even travel to Switzerland to buy directly from the manufacturer.

While they collectively own more than 1,000 watches, some of their most prized treasures include the trio above.

Adam, who owns a medical-supply company, explains why he is watch-obsessed. "We are surrounded by so much technology. Everything is digital," Adam says. "When I need to relax, all I do is watch this tick." He owns 15 watches, although he estimates he has bought and sold 35 more. "I'm a watch slut," Adam says. In fact, when a female guest admires his Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronometer in stainless steel with a white face ($11,000) and mentions she would like to buy one for her husband, Adam doesn't miss a beat. He takes the watch off his wrist and says, "Want to buy this one?"

By Lauren Young

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.