Editor’s note: We all love to read about watches, and from a variety of sources. The reason so many watch review sources co-exist is that different voices, different opinions help broaden our horizons and understanding about the watch industry. So we like to approach a number of experts in their own rights, people that matter, voices that make a difference in the watch world every day. We call this series of interview articles: Forces behind the Sources. Today we are offering the insights from an upcoming master of the vintage watch field, Alpha Hands’ Norm Harris, the duke of research. For our previous interviews, please head to our dedicated interviews page here.
There is a horology website called Alpha Hands. Chances are that some of you may not have heard of it. I hadn’t. I had never even met or heard about the force behind it personally. One day he emailed me out of the blue, for which I am thankful for I got to discover a rather different and interesting website and in turn also managed to interview the man himself, getting insights into his thinking and his website.
Alpha Hands is not a watch review website or a blog. It’s one of those obscure sources on the internet, that somehow needs to be unearthed, but when discovered, doesn’t cease to amaze. It’s got a mention on the Worn & Wound website. It’s got a couple of mentions on The Naked Watchmaker site. But that’s about it. Why it’s not more popular, I couldn’t say. What I could say after navigating the website and pouring through the answers Harris had for an interview with us is that it’s a website of unique content, pure diligence, a sincere attitude and simply insane amounts of research. The sheer volume of horological data on Alpha Hands resonates of an almost doggedness resolve; of true grit.
In the footer of the Alpha Hands website is the following statement: “This site is a compilation of what I have learned (and continue to learn) from others. So if you like what you see here, thank the communities online. If you don’t like what you see, blame me”.
In a world where people are willing to steal — as we will see in more detail about luxury watch thefts in a bit though there is also a great feature in CNN — for someone to downright acknowledge others and humbly take the fall is a rare sight. I am not a judge of how much fame is right for a website. But betting on a horse that’s not a one time wonder is every gambler’s wish. There is a famous Bollywood quote “lambi race ka ghodha’, roughly translating to ‘one for the long haul’. Slow and steady wins the race said the poet Robert Lloyd.
Alpha Hands is different and unique. Unlike others, as a free online horological database, it sure seems to chug along on a track less ventured.
When the foundations are strong and genuine, the product is equally and truly rewarding. One can feel true enthusiasm, not only for the horology world but also for research in general, that’s got us admiring Harris. There is a quote on blogger and academic coach Erika Oppenheimer’s site that goes: “without a solid foundation you’ll have trouble creating anything of value”. In the case of Alpha Hands, that sounds true.
Norm Harris has taken the rather arduous task of creating a stolen watch registry and a website with a great vintage watches’ database. And the success of it can be attributed to, as Harris puts it himself, “a guy who enjoys watches and is trying to make the hobby more transparent and accessible”.
“Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare,” says Angela Duckworth in her work Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. The first thing that appealed to me and then drew me in was the sheer amount of work on the website. I am no stranger to research myself, but this appeared to be of a different level. From the looks of it the amount of work that has gone into creating his website and its directories is commendable. After all Harris has been working at it for over four years now.
In a way Harris’ inspiration behind starting the website was quite similar to ours; we started WYGDAI because we were getting a bit jaded with the very similar ‘all praise, no criticism’ approach taken by the majority of the reviewers out there. We wanted to write what we would have ideally liked to read ourselves. Similarly, Harris found that “while there is a ton of useful information available online, it wasn’t assembled in a way that I found accessible”.
Enter Alpha Hands
Harris describes it as “a simple site with bookmarked useful reference information that I hoped would help other enthusiasts ramping up as well.
“As I read more and more posts on forums and articles online, it was a short step into adding FAQ-like content about specific topics which I would see discussed frequently,” he explains.
“(And) as I was learning more and more about the market, I started to spend more time researching specific pieces of interest. I collected a lot of information during that process, and decided to make it more thorough than I might have otherwise in order to share with others,” he expands.
Alpha Hands is a website that’s heavy on heart and content that delves into a lot of areas when it comes to vintage watches but primarily focusses on:
- Stolen watches by creating a free registry
- Deep-dives into vintage watches and specific references of interest to Harris
- Database on vintage watches, auctions, serial numbers of vintage watches
“The goal of Alpha Hands is to educate collectors through primary and secondary research, and improve transparency of the market,” reads on the website. We asked him about how this came about, and the diligent process behind it.
“My primary goal was to locate all of the publicly known examples, and record their characteristics and prices where they traded. In a way it is like creating a provenance for each watch, though with a starting point 50 years after it was manufactured, unfortunately. That work then expanded to include descriptions and images of what is and isn’t correct for the reference, with help from what I saw from all the examples found – dial, case, hands, crown and so on. Once I felt comfortable with the level of information provided for a deep dive, I would move to the next reference. But while the focus of my research moves on, I’m always adding to my listings as I find more pieces,” Harris explains about the process.
The watch registry doesn’t seem to be something Harris was specifically targeting, but rather ended up as a by-product of Covid-19, which coincidentally he feels hasn’t had a direct impact on his work.
“My interests are less tied to industry events and manufacturing of new pieces, so I don’t feel the impact that others do in those areas. Given my focus on vintage, I can see the shift that Covid has forced on the auction industry, including more frequent online auctions from houses including Sotheby’s. My sense is that there have not been as many high-quality pieces offered this year, but the exceptional pieces are still performing well.
“Attending auctions and get-togethers are a big driver for the deep-dives, so with limited ability to attend events due to the pandemic this year, my time shifted to creating the Alpha Hands stolen watch registry, now the largest free registry in the world,” informs Harris.
As an architect myself, I think the following quote by American religious leader and author Gordon Bitner Hinckley fits the Alpha Hands website: “You can’t build a great building on a weak foundation. You must have a solid foundation if you’re going to have a strong superstructure”.
The Time Consuming Bit
I reckon its safe to say that an extensive task like this is not an easy one.
“The time required varies widely depending on (the) section. In the “FAQ” portion of the site I work in small blocks, adding a new post here and there based on a topic that sparks my interest from a forum, podcast, or reader question. The writing for those generally doesn’t take a great deal of time, but is dependent on the level of research needed to ensure everything is accurate.
“The reference deep-dives, on the other hand, are another manner entirely. The time to complete those depends on the number of watches I am able to find. This includes exhaustive searches of auction house catalogs, forums and other social channels, and reaching out to owners for details. Some sections, such as Zenith A386, take a lot of effort due to the sheer number of pieces found (lesson learned!), whereas I can complete others much more quickly, such as the Heuer 3646 first execution dial and second execution hands, or the Vacheron Constantin steel 4072, due to relatively few examples,” tells Harris about the time extensive process he employs.
The amount to work that seems to have been poured into it, it’s only relevant to call it a passion project. But behind all passion projects there is usually a personal story, hiding under the mask of the public side of that venture.
“Thankfully, I have not had a watch stolen. But with so many owner stories, I wanted to help in some way,” tells Harris.
Justice, Where Art Thou?
Crime is nothing new. Blame Cain & Abel if you like. Stolen watches are a thing. Europol reported that 42 Rolex Thieves Who Stole Over €1 Million In Jewellery Arrested in Spain and Romania in March this year. Yahoo has a report on Man City’s Mahrez has watches worth £300,000 stolen. Bloomberg talks about Azeris Wonder Who’s the Man With the $1.3m Watch Stolen in Spain. These are all relatively recent headlines. And this is nothing new. There is a LA Times Story from back in 1990s titled Watch Thieves Put the Arm on Wearers of Costly Rolex. It’s a fact of life, part and parcel of it. Unfortunate, yes. Reality, yes. Add to the mix the Instagram flashy stories and show-offs such as Richard Milles to the mix, and watch enthusiasts are basically presenting watches to thieves on a silver platter.
But as the world morphs into one homogenous cosmopolitan arena, it’s also gradually becoming easier to track and locate some of these stolen watches. Or rather at least there are efforts being made to turn this into a possibility.
Thankfully there’s a growing list of sites one can access to avail services that claim to help retrieve stolen watches. Some of the names that repeatedly come up are MyStolenWatch, The Watch Register, and Art Recovery International’s Christopher Marinello. But like the luxury watches themselves, these could cost an arm and a leg.
Harris’ free stolen watch registry comes in handy here. But like all the content on his site, it is a laborious effort.
“The stolen watch registry, still much in process, has probably required the most time of all, due to manually cataloging stolen pieces from sources online and working with police departments, insurance agencies, retailers and manufacturers. As with the rest of the site, I’m learning as I go”.
Now picture this – you are on your anniversary, enjoying the much needed getaway (especially when one is allowed after this pandemic tires itself out). You take a couple of precious timepieces along, casually and mindlessly posting pictures of your coloured time. Next thing you know, your precious darlings are stolen. You are aghast, that joy has turned to dust. But what if there was a way to try and recover those, other than simply post it on social media and hope for the best? Or say you are on the said vacay — Australian for vacation — and you discover this obscure shop that’s selling a vintage timepiece you immediately fall in love with but are somehow apprehensive about it?
“While stolen watches are posted on some dedicated forums and on a variety of social channels, I haven’t found them to be easily searchable,” begins Harris.
“And while there are other watch registries, I feel that offering one that is free to search prior to purchase will both increase the odds of watches being reunited with their rightful owners and collectors avoiding purchase of stolen goods. In the grand scheme very few watches are reported stolen with uniquely identifying information such as serial numbers unfortunately, but I’m hopeful that will change. The Alpha Hands registry is just a few months old, but there are already over 10,000 pieces included,” says Harris.
And even though he hasn’t had a chance to witness someone using his website to get rightfully re-claim what was there’s so far, he is optimistic – “No stories of recovery to share…yet!”
The World of Vintage Watches
There is a quote by the author Anthony T. Hincks that reads as follows: “The thing about being vintage is that it never goes out of fashion”.
Vintage watches are a well established trend. The New York Times says that the Secondhand Is Moving Up in the Watch World. The Esquire looks Inside The Booming World Of Vintage Watches. Popular magazine GQ informs that Somehow, the Vintage Watch Market Is Thriving Despite Coronavirus.
So given vintage watches are booming, it is only imperative that we take for granted that consumers and watch enthusiasts are buying these. But the world of vintage watches can be tricky to navigate, especially due to the lack of information and just sheer volume of watches. And for a new watch collector or enthusiasts this could be even more daunting. Harris intends to help with his website.
Vintage watches are (a) completely different world; you wish to buy a new watch, you go to either a boutique or AD, and buy one with box and papers, the whole lot, authenticity guaranteed and warranty included. You wish to buy a used watch, a relatively recent release, one perhaps within the past decade or two, you visit your trusty local used watch dealer or browse through the pages of Chrono24. But what happens when you wish to purchase a vintage watch, one who’s patina may be genuine, a work of someone’s life and sweat, or silly faux aged? Or what happens when you see a watch online and can tell it’s genuine but unsure if it’s stolen or not. Alpha Hands helps you navigate these twisted and challenging waters.
“I believe the number of individuals interested in vintage is still a fraction of where it can be. I’m completely biased, but I think there will always be an interest in mechanical watches, and perhaps vintage specifically, as a balance to the technology in our lives. I hope the growth is slow and steady, with stable prices, and that we don’t see highs and lows in relatively short periods that we have seen recently. I think that would be good of the long term health of the market.
“I used to think that every collector had the same goals in collecting that I do, but that is far from reality. There is an incredible range in interests of collectors, which is one of the many fun aspects of this hobby. Some focus on originality and provenance, and others don’t mind if a watch has been polished and re-lumed to look like new. Some collectors are guided by attempting turning a profit on every piece, and others driven to buy as much as they can, regardless of whether they will wear the watches. Those aren’t “collecting” to me, but there are so many pieces and such variety that there is room for everyone, regardless of focus,” details Harris.
He also has advice on how to go on about starting a dedicated vintage watch collection.
“Spend as much time as possible handling vintage watches and make an effort to look at pieces that you might not ‘like’ on Instagram. I’ve fallen for pieces in person that I never expected to appreciate, and have failed to be excited by ones I expected to love,” explains Harris.
“Accept that you’ll make mistakes, so start slowly. Meet with other members of the community and participate in forums. Building a trusted network is key, from auction houses specialists to dealers to collectors. Don’t blindly follow others and always do your own homework.
“Lastly, consider joining the Horological Society of New York or your local society, taking online classes such as those from Christian Lass, and listening to podcasts such as Calibre and Off Hours. All of those will help expand your base of knowledge and will influence your collecting,” expands Harris.
Et tu, Brute?
All said and done though, the world of online shopping, especially for vintage and used watches can be more untrustworthy than Brutus himself. People can be often apprehensive of buying or selling on the internet. Accordingly, Harris has tried to be straightforward from the start.
“My goal is to be as transparent as possible, so this means sharing serial numbers, descriptions, and links to watches and articles. Unfortunately, the vintage watch market thrives on asymmetric information. You have to be very, very careful,” he advises.
And he is right. One has to extra cautious. And it’s not like the pandemic has diminished people’s luxury watch buying appetite. Earlier in the year and ate the height of the pandemic The New York Times had reported how watch Sales have plunged, but brands are getting ready for re-entry. More recently, Marketplace has an entire story on how Pandemic is giving the luxury watch market its moment. The Australian Financial review talks about how Not that everyone suffered equally. Demand for sought-after watches from Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet has remained constant while luxury brands including Chanel and Bulgari have enjoyed strong local sales. The Business Wire has a report on how New Luxury Watch Market Research Highlights Recovery Path for Businesses from COVID-19 Based on End-Users.
“Strange as it is, I’m not sure enthusiasts are cutting back due to Covid, but rather using dollars previously spent on travel and eating out for watch purchases,” even says Harris.
Long story short, with more consumers siting at home and trying to buy watches online, especially vintage watches, need to be more cautious and careful with their purchases so as not to buy as what Australia watch legend Nick Hacko calls in his recent video to be ‘lemon watches’.
For someone who has come up with such an extensive database and has gained knowledge about vintage watches would normally be forgiven to assume he is an expert. After all, all signs point to that. But not Harris, he is humble enough to not even accept the title of vintage watch expert I am willing to bestow upon him seeing his work.
“I doubt I’ll ever consider myself an authority on vintage watches. I can say that I’ve learned quite a bit from others in the community and my own research,” says Harris.
“But for knowledge of the authenticity of vintage watches, I unfortunately don’t have the ability to spend the time in person required to become an expert. The opportunities I have with significant numbers of vintage pieces is really limited to auction weeks, and the fraction that I will see pales in comparison with the number that specialists at auction houses and dealers handle. It will take a lot of time with pieces to get to the level where I can tell what is right and what is wrong, but it’s a skill I’m trying to develop. Like learning anything, it’s really about repetition,” continues Harris.
But just because he is humble doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he is talking about.
“However. In terms of stolen watches and registries, I have a solid understanding of managing a database, collecting information, and the intricacies of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests and navigating police records departments,” he concedes.
For a lot of us our watch obsessions have begun because we have past associations with these beautiful objects, particularly association with a family member. For Harris, it’s no different either.
“I don’t remember having a watch when I was very young, and the first I wore for any amount of time was a family watch that had been a grandfather’s, an unmarked steel chronograph from the 50s. I didn’t wear it often, thinking of it as something I should hide away and protect rather than enjoy. It took a long time to get comfortable wearing it, and I’m thankful that becoming involved in the hobby has changed how I look at these pieces and enjoy them,” he recollects.
“My introduction to the hobby grew out of learning more about some family pieces that were given to me, both pocket watches and wristwatches, and finding a watchmaker so I could wear and enjoy them. I started from scratch simply searching the web and spending time on forums, which in turn was a gateway to sticking my toe in the water with a purchase on eBay. I had no idea what I was doing and fortunately, before that experience became a train wreck, I had the opportunity to purchase a watch from a collector that is now a friend, as well as attend my first auction in New York. With that I was hooked,” continues Harris.
“Broadly speaking, my favourite pieces tend to be those with complications and cases in white metal, generally from the 60s. I don’t have a very large collection, and I try not to play favourites, but the one I am enjoying wearing right now is a Universal Geneve ‘Nina Rindt’”.
You ask a snob about their ideal watch, they would perhaps say PP Nautilus 5711, without even batting an eye-lid. Nothing wrong with the watch, but it’s what everybody else wants too. Tomorrow say Patek mass produces that very watch — though I won’t put money on this thought — and everyone has it, this same self-proclaimed Instagram watch guru will rather lust after say a different watch. The point I am trying to make I guess is, that it is getting to be hard to meet someone who likes to be a part, and is a part in this case, of the watch industry but has an imagination beyond simply mimicking others. Which I personally find very ironic given we are dabbling with a creative industry.
Rant over, in short, in Harris, we have someone who seems genuinely interested in horology yet seems to be grounded in reality. A rare and respectable combination. When asked about his ideal watch he said that “probably a minute repeating wristwatch with perpetual calendar. And as long as it’s a fantasy watch… it would also have the ability to take care of my son for several hours a day”.
Another aspect about the various watch snobs I run into on a semi-frequent basis is that while they are trying to impress people, they portray a picture of perfection and complete harmony when it comes to the watch world. Harris thankfully has a pet peeve when it comes to the industry; he is not scared to say it, and again I respect him for that.
“It is without-a-doubt the lack of transparency and the difficulty in finding the right people to trust. The amount of blind faith that individuals are willing to place in others in an industry that is not transparent is amazing and frightening all at once”.
Onwards and Upwards
Those of you who have been following his work or have liked what we talked about him would be pleased to know that there’s some new things in the pipeline.
“I didn’t ever expect Alpha Hands to include reference deep-dives, and I never expected to build a stolen watch registry. There are so many different areas of this hobby to explore that I know that something else is always around the corner.
“I have a few reference deep-dives that that I am still putting the finishing touches, such as the Abercrombie and Fitch Seafarer. Once I wrap that up that reference I’ll be moving on to the Breitling Duograph,” inform Harris.
And as he discovers more watches, Norm Harris has his task cut out for himself. But somehow I reckon he is up to the challenge.
There is quote by Pelé that goes: “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”
Harris seems to be the authorised dealer of these qualities. Through Harris, Alpha Hands manages to be a success, albeit a hidden one so far. And through Alpha Hands, the world of horology manages to be enthused with some fresh content.
We wish to thank Norm Harris for his time with this interview. For our audiences, to read more of our interviews, head here. To explore the various features on Alpha Hands, head here. All Images unless stated otherwise courtesy Norm Harris / ©Alpha Hands.