In Conversation with Ex-Paratrooper, Gentleman & Watch Collector Gabriel BenadorBy Wei Koh
If Ahmed “Shary” Rahman is one of the kindest people I know, Gabriel Benador is without a doubt one of the coolest and most modest. Benador grew up in New York with the occasional sojourn to Switzerland, where his family is deeply entrenched in the Swiss watchmaking business. In his early 20s, Benador felt the calling to ditch a life of privilege in Manhattan and volunteer for military service in the Israeli Defense Force. Excelling in basic training, Benador was seconded to the Paratroopers where he saw active duty for several years.
Benador recalls, “It was strange to come back to civilian life afterwards. I remember being on a date with my wife in Geneva. Fireworks went off and I instinctively grabbed her and pulled her to the ground.”
Gabe and I met each other at the 2017 Phillips auction in New York, where the horological universe witnessed the full-force unrestrained bidding war of the Paul Newman Daytona belonging to the eponymous actor and which broke all past watch auction records. (The watch sold for USD17.8 million.) We were sat next to each other and I immediately clocked the Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon worn on a red rubber strap on his substantial wrist, which I would later learn allowed him to keep this timepiece on during his regular visits to the gym.
Auctions are where you inevitably strike up conversations and talk inevitably turned to the watches we had homed in on. After I expressed interest in the Omega Speedmaster Alaska III, Gabe discretely told me he was eyeing the A. Lange & Söhne Pour le Mérite Tourbillon, which was a watch that had also piqued my interest. However, etiquette dictates that you bow out when someone’s called dibs. And considering he could have easily choked me out, I’m relieved that I adhered to this tradition. He eventually won the Lange, and a year on, I now count Gabe as a good friend.
Over that time I’ve found him to be a fiercely brilliant businessman. He runs his family’s office that includes significant real estate holdings in New York, and he’s an incredibly savvy collector with a genuine affection for independent watchmaking and exquisite taste. Moreover, he is also an incredibly genuine, kind, warm person whose defining character is all about humility and understatement. He is simply a great guy and whose natural inclination is to perform unceasing acts of menschkeit without seeking credit, and it was a pleasure to swap horological perspectives with him as he unveiled his personal collection.
Tell me about the Lange Pour le Mérite Tourbillon. What piqued your interest about it?
For a long time I wasn’t a Lange guy at all, but I saw it and I find it to be one of the few pieces that really pulls you in an emotional sense. I love that it is in many ways (along with the Lange 1) the watch that is at the very foundation of the modern brand that elevated German watchmaking to an all-new level. I love the story behind it, where they (Günter Blümlein and Walter Lange) launched the brand with this as their showpiece and that a chain-and-fusée mechanism was never before put into a wristwatch. Add to this the inclusion of the beautiful tourbillon and what an incredible way to launch a brand in 1994. And that it was Renaud & Papi that helped prototype it. I believe Carole Forestier worked on the chain-and-fusée mechanism. What a great story to launch a brand like this. And the size at 38.5mm? It’s so wearable. It’s something we don’t see a lot today, wearable complications.
There are a lot of brands now that have done chain-and-fusées or big complications watches, but invariably, they turn out to be really big movements.
Yes, we see a lot of them today, but as you say, they’re massive. To see one, especially the first one, you’d assume it’d be a lot bigger because in 1994, you didn’t have technologies such as the widespread proliferation of CAD/CAM or LIGA to build something miniature. You’d think it would be bigger, but it’s actually the opposite.
It’s in phenomenal condition, I have to say.
Yeah, I actually wear it and take care of it and it’s never been serviced to my knowledge since it was made and it still keeps amazing time.
So let’s go from an already rare Lange (200 pieces of the Pour le Mérite were made) to a real unicorn, the steel Lange 1. Tell me about how you got this — because it’s something of a miracle to be able to find one — and why it appeals to you.
The Pour le Mérite got me interested in early Lange watches. I thought it’d be kind of fun to find the rarest Lange pieces. They’re not like the rare Pateks like a 3449 or the rare Rolex pieces like a “lemon dial” Paul Newman that are untouchable. It’s nice to have something that’s a little bit different and I think the early pieces are just stunning. I was really curious about the mythical Lange 1 watches that were made in steel cases.
I had heard the story that around 20 of these were made sometime in the mid to late ’90s. So I asked around and it turned out that somebody that I had gone to school with, his dad was the first [Lange] authorised dealer in North America (Cellini). So I asked him if he had one or knew somebody who would be willing to part with one. And he said, “Actually my son, whom you know, has one.” So I got in touch with him and we struck up a conversation. I made him an offer and he accepted.
It’s the story behind the steel Lange 1s that’s so cool. Lange will never officially confirm any of it — including the numbers that they produced or the variations that they’re produced in — but the story goes that a bunch of collectors were saying they’d like to wear this watch in a more casual setting and asked Lange to produce the watch in steel. Initially they said no, but it was early days in the company and they eventually agreed to produce the steel Lange 1. ADs were asked to put in their orders and soon these were shipped out. Not long after, Lange decided to retract every one of them. It never appeared in the catalogue and they started asking for the watches to be returned.
One AD who bought a whole bunch of these refused saying, “No. No, this is my property, I’m not sending it back.” He had received half of his order. A lot of them got sent right back and no one spoke of it, just swept it under the rug. I don’t really know why. They don’t want to talk about it. It’s said that they were made anywhere from 1996 to about 1999. But my guess is — based on my serial number — it would be around ’97. Fairly early into the relaunch of the brand. They estimate that there are about 20 floating around, but who knows? But a lot of the charm of the story is the mystery behind the watch.
Let’s go to a couple of independent watchmakers. Maybe we’ll start with one of my favourite brands: Felix Baumgartner and Martin Frei, collectively known as URWERK. Brilliant guys, amazing designer and a brilliant watchmaker. These guys basically created a whole new language for time. Tell me about how you got into URWERK.
My collection for a long time focused on independents. Almost exclusively. To me, these guys are being creative and they’re pushing that envelope and give you more interesting designs, more intellectual pieces. When you see an orbital time display, it’s a very straightforward way of telling time. You don’t have to do any weird math. You’ve got your minute track and then you’ve got your satellite hours. Yeah, they’re just super cool.
Your watch, the UR- 210 with its retrograde hour hand, is kind of like a nod to the Opus V as well.
Yeah, exactly. And the retrograde hour hand returns with such force. You can hear it in a quiet room. I brought the watch to Agenhor and the guys put the watch under a Leica at 3,000 frames per second, and you can see how powerful the return is. The mechanism is brilliantly executed, you can set time backwards and forward, you’re not going to break it.
Your UR-210 is titanium. You’ve got an affection for titanium, am I right?
I love titanium. Especially for the independents because I think if you’re going to push the envelope, you should have a material that looks classic. The watch is, in my mind, something that should endure in appeal. But it should be a modern material, something that advances the story of watchmaking in the way the movements of these watches do. Kind of like cars. The basic idea of a car hasn’t changed but we do the chassis in carbon today, for example, so why not titanium for a watch?
I was in Amsterdam and there’re two amazing watchmakers living there, brothers who used to work at Renaud & Papi who’re your friends, right?
They are the Grönefeld brothers and they made me my pièce unique 1941 Remontoire. It’s awesome at 39mm, it’s thin; the movement, architecture and finishing is stunning. The steel bridges are some of the most beautiful in watchmaking. But there is something else about the Grönefeld watch and that is its strong value proposition. It is less than half the cost of the second closest remontoire on the market in terms of price. Add to this that [Andreas] Strehler had a hand in designing the constant force mechanism and you’re looking at a watch that’s beautiful, has incredible watchmaking pedigree and on top of that, is very well priced.
Let’s continue with the independents to Kari Voutilainen.
I have a Vingt-8, which I think is one of the things that we’re missing in this generation of watchmaking, a great time-only watch. There are so few of them. The last great icon in this category was probably Philippe Dufour’s Simplicity.
Next, let’s look at one of my favourite watchmakers, Vianney Halter.
So, the Antiqua is probably the most important early independent watch in my opinion because of the sheer brilliant originality of its design. It is a round watch with cantilevered subdials. And to my knowledge, one of the first automatic watches with the mysterious rotor. It’s also an instantaneous jumping, perpetual calendar which in the context of 1997 is incredible. You’ve got the rivets here on the crown. You’ve got everything you want for a complete steampunk look. And it’s small. People who’ve never seen one in the flesh think it’s like 47 or 50mm, but it’s a 36mm case. It’s an incredible watch.
Back in the day when he created these, people looked at it and went, oh, my God, what the hell is that?
Today that’s a modern classic. A lot of the independents today in terms of style and mechanics were built off of this base. Vianney provided a sense of creative liberation for watchmakers.
If I’m not mistaken, this was made unique by a typographical error.
Yeah. It’s a very, very early one, one of the first ones that he did. And when he writes the number of jewels in words, he writes “tree” instead of “three”!
Let’s finish off the independent roundup with Romain Gauthier.
So this is the Logical One. For me, it was the natural progression, in terms of the chain-and-fusée from the Pour le Mérite. Sure, it’s not a chain-and-fusée, because it uses a chain and a snail cam. So instead of a chain wrapped around a multi-tiered cone which exerts more force on the barrel as it unwinds, you have a chain wrapped around an eccentrically shaped cam. The chain which is made of synthetic ruby links travels in a straight line. There is also a unique system of winding. It’s the only one to my knowledge, with a button winder. You apply the force and it only moves one millimeter, but it winds the whole thing. It’s cool because it uncouples from the mainspring and there’s another system here that engages it, so a lot of people make the mistake of winding it really quickly but because it’s switching systems, you need to actually let it go for a second. For me, he’s really the youngest relevant and exciting independent watchmaker.
You mentioned the burgundy section of the dial is in enamel and it’s made by Anita Porchet.
Yeah, this was his first collaboration with Anita Porchet. Initially he finished the watch and it came with a white dial. I thought it was too harsh and sterile. So I asked if we could contrast sombreness of the piece so I asked for something a little darker, warmer. He asked if I wanted to go through the experience of his first collaboration with Anita Porchet and of course I was happy to do so.
I’ve noticed that you’ve stepped away from the larger watches to a more regular 38 to 40mm range now. But the industry also seems to be transitioning out of an era where it was all just technical pyrotechnics in huge cases.
There’s something to be said about the size of bigger watches when you get that depth on the dial. But at a certain point it’s uncomfortable to be wearing something that massive all the time and it also draws a certain amount of attention and people ask about your watch. It’s cool when it’s your buddies, but when it’s a stranger or when you’re doing business… I don’t want to say I’m influenced by that but it does take a little bit of a toll and you do find interesting stuff in smaller wearable sizes like the Pour le Mérite.
OK, let’s discuss vintage watches. You mentioned you collected them back when they were a little bit more affordable, and now they’ve become extremely expensive. One watch that’s risen dramatically in value is the very first Nautilus, the 3700/1A. And you have a really nice one.
Mine’s from 1978 and sold in 1979. I got it with box and papers and I was just looking for a good one with box and paper. Back in the day when I picked this up, they were already expensive, but they weren’t anywhere near what they’re going for now, which takes some of the fun out of it.
For me, I just like all the classic details. And it’s thin, much thinner than today’s 5711. You really get all the good characteristics from the iconic design. I think this is probably my favourite sports watch, it’s a real toss-up between this and the Royal Oaks.
Let’s talk about another Patek that you have as well. The first is the watch they launched for the 30th anniversary of the Nautilus [ref. 5980] in 2006.
To me the 5980 is a great sports watch. It takes the iconic design of the Nautilus and adds the performance of a vertical clutch automatic chronograph. I like the mono counter here where elapsed minutes and hours are combined together, it’s such an easy way to read that information.
But yours is a very specific iteration. It’s a Tiffany stamp one, is that right?
I got this when nobody cared about Tiffany stamps. I think the premium you see now, to charge more for something so minute, a lot of it is the vintage Rolex mentality crossing over to other brands. Do I care that it was stamped for that retailer? Is it part of my family? Is it somebody that I know? I don’t understand the phenomenon but I can only say, I think it comes from that Rolex school of, “Is that a Sigma, underline double Swiss, etc.”? I think a big part of this is people trying to leverage small details to create greater values in the secondary market.
You know I’m a big fan of Audemars Piguet, and you are as well. We both love the “A” series Royal Oaks. I think the new extra-thin ones are elegant as well but when it comes to complicated Royal Oaks, I think there’s none more elegant than the tourbillon you’ve got which had the record for the thinnest tourbillon watch in the world.
Yes, it was the thinnest finished production tourbillon for a very long time. Partially because ultra-thin wasn’t in fashion the way it is now and nobody cared to make another one, and then finally several brands did. I think the current record is held by the Bulgari Octo. I like the Royal Oak and I wanted a modern one. I like that in this watch there is no running seconds, there is no date and it’s a manual wind. It’s pure. It’s a beautiful Renaud & Papi movement. This one is a black dial made for the Japanese market.
You mentioned that you’re a big fan of Renaud & Papi. Why is that?
I just think it’s the most important horological entity of the last 30, 40 years. You just look at who works there, who was there and what they’re able to do. They basically launched Richard Mille, with the chronograph tourbillons. Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey met and worked together there. The Grönefeld brothers were there along with Anthony de Haas, Andreas Strehler, and Carole Forestier-Kasapi. These are the most brilliant technical minds of their generation. I think what they were able to do even back in the day, when they did stuff for Audemars Piguet such as the grande sonnerie. Even Günter Blümlein, before he went to them for the Pour le Mérite, he went for IWC’s grand complication.
You were telling me a hilarious story about how Robert Greubel was working at Migros.
Yeah, he was like a watch repair guy at the local Migros back in the day and then he kind of bounced around and ended up as the third partner in Renaud & Papi. And Blümlein ran into him when he went on to his next job after his Migros stint and after five minutes of conversation with him, Blümlein was like, “What are you doing here, assembling rivets?” This was like the lowest rung after the watch repair stint, right? And he got Robert into Renaud & Papi and soon he was working on the minute repeaters and grand complications and all that.
Now let’s talk about a watch created by the designer of the Apple Watch, Marc Newson. Ikepod was his brand back in the day. And back then it was really cool, right?
So this is the Hemipode, it’s a split-seconds chronograph and I like to call it an idiot-proof watch because when you split it, it’s colour coded here to tell you not only which sequence, but which hand you’re manipulating. And just in case, you can’t tell if your watch is running or not, they put a little hole so you can see the balance wheel. It’s just great and it’s wearable and you still get that relevance today. These were very expensive when they came out but are very accessibly priced now. It just goes to show you that you can have a cool designed complication without having to break the bank.
Let’s talk about the Jaeger-LeCoultre System G. I’m baffled by it. What’s going on here?
It’s just a Jaeger from the ’40s and everything’s inversed. Even down to the winding. It’s just a lefty watch, designed for left-handed people. It’s one of those things that I got into when I started getting into vintage, it’s tiny but it’s one of those things that really has no significance commercially. But I just think it’s great.
Let’s go from that to Tudor and you’ve got a “snowflake” military Submariner. Tell us about this.
This is the accessible Mil-Sub. I love it because it’s got all the snowflake details, and as it’s a Mil-Sub, it was issued for the French Navy and I actually have the decommission papers and a wetsuit from the owner. I know the provenance of this watch and I know the lineage directly from the diver.
From one military watch to another military watch, one that you wore during your military service in the Israeli Defense Force as a paratrooper. Tell us about what you wore and how it served you.
A lot of people (in the IDF) wore G-Shocks but I went with a Casio Pathfinder. I grew up around watches, so I wanted something a little more complicated and this had everything from the tide to altimeter, barometer, compass. I used this watch to direct mortar fire.
Last question, what motivated you to volunteer to do military service in the Israeli Defense Force?
It’s just something I really wanted to do for a large part of my life. I was starting to get older, so I just decided to just do it and did the best I could. One thing I learned was that you can suffer infinitely more than you think you can. Everything else in life afterward pales in comparison to what you endure physically and mentally when you are there. I also learned people can surprise you. You can never judge a person’s resilience or courage by what they look like or what they say. But I think one of the biggest takeaways also is just you learn how to deal with human nature in a very simple manner. You communicate very directly. You don’t have to overcomplicate it which is something I feel we do too often in life.
Thank you Gabe, you’re an absolute inspiration and a super cool dude.
Thank you, man.