In Conversation with the One & Only, Santa LauraBy Wei Koh
One of the collectors I respect the most is @Santa_Laura. Because, for him, collecting has been a path of self-discovery and appreciation in its most authentic form. It would be easy to look at the seemingly endless cavalcade of horological riches, from gem-set Daytonas to Richard Milles in multiple colourways to bespoke engraved URWERKs and pièce unique Greubel Forseys, and imagine him to have simply assembled a “greatest hits” list of the world’s most desirable timepieces. But the reality is quite the opposite.
He has always pursued his affection for watches with a sincerity that in many cases vied with the common consensus or opposed prevailing trends. In many instances, the categories of watches that he had affection for — the aforementioned Daytonas, for example — were something that he loved before they were co-opted by celebrities. There is a precision, a decisiveness and a fearlessness with which he has built his business, led his life and collected the watches that he admires. He loves family, colour, contemporary art, wine and, most of all, sharing his passion for watches, food and wine with other people, and there is a genuineness to his character that makes him truly admirable. It was a pleasure to look through just a small sample of the extraordinary watches he’s collected over the last two decades and learn about him both as a collector and a person.
What is your philosophy for collecting?
I think the worst way to collect is from the perspective of investment. I know a lot of people look at purchasing watches from that perspective, hoping to see appreciation from their collection. But then you end up buying into trends that are already ascending and that have already been created, either organically or intentionally, but are not really an expression of what you like.
A lot of times those collectors are looking to wear something that is instantly recognisable, that people, even relatively uninformed people, will look at and recognise the material value of and, by extension, the net worth of that individual. I hate that.
Basically you are curating a collection based on what other people think of you. And this is fundamentally an expression of insecurity or desperation, looking to be validated in some way. I actually feel the opposite. If you collect watches from a place of very genuine passion and appreciation, if you buy what you love, because of the aesthetics of the watch, because of the people who created it, because it appeals to you in some way, even if no one else understands it, I feel that you will ultimately be rewarded for that genuineness from an investment perspective.
But the first and only rule should be [to] buy what you love. The second rule for me would be to love what you can afford. When I started, I had a limit to what I could spend, and I was aware of the other brands like Richard Mille. But because I couldn’t afford them, I never looked at the case when I went into the watch shop. You can spend your whole life being dissatisfied with what you have, but to me that would be a mistake. The passion and pleasure your first watch gives you can be as great, even greater than your biggest purchase.
What were your first watches?
They were an IWC Big Pilot and one of the earlier Hublot Big Bangs. Both [are] great watches which I still wear today.
What was your first big purchase?
It was definitely the first-generation Ulysse Nardin Freak. You know, I am not a technical guy. I don’t know the reference numbers of calibres or how many rubies they have. But when I saw the Freak for the first time and understood that it was the rotation of the movement that gave the time, I thought it was incredible. I remember writing the check for this watch and thinking to myself this was all the money in the world. But it was a great watch because [it] opened up the expressive possibilities of time-telling to me.
Your collection expresses a certain exuberance, perhaps represented by the gem-set Rolexes. I understand you started liking these before their recent surge in popularity…
I’ve never really cared what the prevailing or consensus opinion was on watches. I’ll give you an example. I have always loved Rolexes with coloured gemstones. I love colour in general, I love it in clothing and I love the effect it has on uplifting your mood. When I got into Rolex, I quickly ended up collecting “Stella” dial watches because I loved these colours. It was so surprising to see Rolexes which you normally associate with pragmatic tool type sports watches in an array of incredible colours, baby blue, oxblood… it was just great. So once I had [a] nice collection of Stella dial watches, including one with Omani khanjar [the national emblem of Oman], an 18078 from 1980, I started thinking what else I could collect.
That was when I saw my first gem-set Daytona. Now at the time no one wanted them. People would actually make fun of you in a good-humoured way if you expressed your interest in them. But I loved them right away. I loved the “Leopard” Daytona 116598 SACO launched in 2004 from the very first time I set eyes on it. I love leopard and tiger prints in general.
I think as an entrepreneur and someone who built his own business, I’ve always loved the idea of elegant aggressivity and there is no better embodiment than these predatorial cats. I remember 15 years ago when I wanted to buy one, people actually couldn’t believe it. I loved the audacity of Rolex and it revealed a side of this brand which I thought was great. I mean you are taking a Daytona, meant to be a tool watch with a tachymeter, tossing that out and making an expression of beauty instead. So in 2019 when they came out with the new Leopard, the 116588 TBR, I knew I had to have it as well.
What led you to the “Rainbow” Daytonas?
The Rainbow Daytonas are a similar story. As I said, I love colour and when I saw this watch with the 36 gemstones in the bezel, each one a slightly different colour to create this rainbow effect, and with 36 more diamonds in the horns, I loved it. Back in 2012 when they first launched it, I remember seeing it in the window of The Hour Glass here in Singapore and I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Which was funny because I think I was the only one. And initially I think that watch was targeted more at women than men, but I didn’t care.
I eventually bought two of them, the 116595 RBOW with the black dial and Everose case, and then the 116595 RBOW with the Everose case and the full diamond pavé. I bought them because I genuinely love them, and at the same time there was this sudden surge in popularity resulting from male celebrities and musicians wearing them but that I didn’t care about.
I had bought mine before the hype. I had always loved these watches and was in a position to buy them from Rolex when I could afford them. Am I happy they are going at some crazy premium? Yes and no.
Of course no one is going to get upset if their watch is suddenly worth three or four times what they paid for it. But in some ways, I don’t like the notoriety and visibility that has resulted. I liked it better when you wore a gem-set Daytona and people thought that you were crazy or even strange. But that’s me. One of my favourite gem-set Rolexes is a Daytona with a mother-of-pearl dial and amazing orange sapphires that some say is even harder to get than the Rainbow. For me, it is one of the most beautiful Daytonas I’ve had the privilege of owning.
How did you get into Richard Mille and why do you collect his extra-thin watches in particular?
Like all watch collectors, I was interested in Richard Mille. I loved the idea of a watch that doesn’t have any reference to the past and that completely embraces the concept of modernism that’s inspired by aviation and auto-racing. I loved the idea of the research into new materials and new technologies.
But just like any other brand, you have to find your own path as to what appeals to you. Most guys will end up with an 11-03 because it’s one of the largest and most recognisable of his watches. I have an 11-03 as well, but for me it was the point of departure because as I start to look at Richard Milles, I saw there were other models I found more appealing.
One of them was the RM 004 Split-Seconds Chronograph, which has a smaller case than some of the more contemporary models. But I loved the split-seconds chronograph movement developed by Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi. But the more I researched Richard Mille, the more I decided that his watches should be comfortable, super light and effortless to wear. Eventually I ended up focusing on the 67-02, which is [an] extra-thin automatic-winding watch. Why this reference?
Because you put it on and you forget you’re wearing it; it is that comfortable. Because Mille created a brand that was all about revolutionising the concept of lightness, shock resistance and comfort, to me, it’s one of the best expressions of Richard Mille. But I also like that it is also one of the more obscure or less known references because most Richard Mille buyers, and especially first-time buyers, are going to want to have the biggest, most attention-seeking model on their wrist. But I wanted to go a different way.
The other thing I like about the RM 67-02 are the amazing colours that this model has been made in, thanks to the use of Carbon TPT and Quartz TPT. The other thing I like about this model is the size. It’s just 38.7mm in diameter, which to me is the perfect size. And at the same time, it weighs just 32 grams, which makes it one of the lightest watches in his collection. Finally, I love that it is extra-flat at 7.8mm in thickness, which makes it one of the easiest watches to wear.
What is an example of a watch you bought where you didn’t care what anyone else thought…
I remember recently purchasing a Jacob & Co. This is an incredible watch with a two triple-axis tourbillons and a decimal minute repeater. But there might be “serious watch collectors” that don’t think of Jacob as someone that should be making haute horlogerie. I don’t care. I love the watch. The key to enjoying watches is buy what you like, not what people tell you to like.
What is the significance of Singapore for you?
My family was based in Singapore but I was sent to school in the UK. For many years I worked there in finance. But eventually I decided that I wanted to strike out on my own and create my own business. So I moved back to Singapore and started my own shipping business.
Singapore has an advantage as a deep-water port. But the thing about the shipping business is that it is almost entirely relationship-based, and so it really taught me the value of human relationships. I have a lot of gratitude for the relationships I made with people along the way.
I think this is one of the things that drew me to independent watchmaking, where you have some amazing people like Felix Baumgartner of URWERK or Denis Flageollet of De Bethune that I really admire.
What do you think makes Singapore’s The Hour Glass unique?
The Hour Glass and Mike Tay really helped me to develop an appreciation for independent watches. The Hour Glass is unique in that it is a watch retail operation where people are genuinely passionate about watches.
Now this may sound like a funny thing to say, but in my experience that is usually not the case. A lot of retailers just want to sell you something, whereas here, you have amazing salespeople such as Alan Teo who will guide you in a responsible way. I have had him say to me, “Ali, I don’t think this watch is for you,” when I have been indecisive about something. I trust him implicitly and the thing is, I believe this culture at The Hour Glass really comes from Mike and, of course, his father.
Tell us about your Greubel Forseys…
I love Greubel Forsey. One of the watches that I always wanted was the GMT Earth, and so when I was able to have a pièce unique made, it was a big moment in my life. This watch is just incredible. It shows time in two zones: there is a world-time disc on the back that even compensates for Daylight Saving Time, and there is this incredible miniature sculpture of the world that rotates once every day. And of course their signature tourbillon.
To me, this is really an expression of time elevated to an art from. I also own the GMT Sport and I actually wear this watch all the time. I love the idea that Greubel Forsey decided to take something like their GMT and make a truly sporty version of this on a rubber strap. I love the sort of round-oval case they created for this model, which I find really easy to wear despite its 45mm diameter. That, plus a case in titanium, makes it lighter and more ergonomic for something so complicated. I look at this and I look at my GMT Earth pièce unique and they are such different but complementary expressions of the same concept.
Who is one of your favourite watchmakers, and why?
I love De Bethune and I think that Denis Flageollet is one of the greatest watchmakers in the world. He is able to create such poetry in watchmaking, and I have a few of his earlier watches including the Digiteur that I love. But to me, the ultimate De Bethune is the Dream Watch and I have a Dream Watch 5, which was made in rose gold but is a pièce unique. Honestly, the Dream Watch is something that you can just leave on your table and admire as an object of time-telling art.
You’ve got both the Harry Winston Opus 3 and 5 in your collection, why?
The Opus watches created by Harry Winston are some of the most historically significant watches ever made. For the first time, you had independent watchmakers given a platform to create really expressions of timekeeping art. To me, the most important of these were Opus 3 created by Vianney Halter and Opus 5 created by Felix Baumgartner.
I think everyone knows the story about how Vianney created something so amazing, a watch with these digital counters in portholes that even had a countdown function at the end of each minute. He won all sorts of prizes but he just couldn’t get the watch to work. In the end, and almost 10 years later, they had to get Renaud & Papi to sort the movement out, at which point every watch they sold represented a significant loss for them because of the crazy development cost. But I love that they never gave up.
Opus 5, on the other hand, was ready to launch almost as soon as it was presented because that’s the way Felix’s mind works. He is all about order and precision even if he makes some of the coolest watches in the world.
I love the rifle-engraved trio of URWERKs you have. What appealed to you about this unique combination of traditional engraving and ultra-modern horology?
I have a collection of five URWERK watches, three of which are pièces unique and were hand-engraved by their engraver Florian Güllert. To me, the way the watches were designed, the cases were the perfect canvas for this beautiful and artisanal expression. I know you also have an engraved UR-210 and I’m sure you agree.
What I love about URWERK is that Felix and Martin are almost anti-marketing. He’s not trying to convince you of a dream he had or whatever; he just makes amazing watches and feels like they should speak for themselves. The 111, the 210 and the EMC are all timekeeping merged with digital poetry.
When it came to engraving these watches, I wanted to find the right style for each watch. So if you look at the 210, the engraving is more floral and scroll-like, while the 111 has more a straight-line sci-fi engraving which I think complements the watch better. On my 111, I also asked for some small but subtle details, like the numerals printed in a dark green instead of the normal black colour.
Why is your Instagram account named Santa Laura?
In the shipping business we are extremely superstitious when it comes to ships, and for me the Santa Laura [a ship that he used to operate], was an incredibly lucky and good ship. So when I created my account, the name was quite a natural fit. But I started my account purely as a place where people could discuss, exchange ideas and share passion for watches.
I never post pictures of myself because that’s not interesting to me. I am genuinely only interested in the watches and what people think of them, and if they are affected and inspired [in] the same way. I recently changed the profile to private simply because I started getting so many messages about buying or selling watches, which was absolutely not the objective. So now when I admit someone, I will first look at their IG account to see if their passion is genuine. For me it doesn’t matter if they have accessibly priced watches or [the] most costly watches, what I care about is that their passion is genuine.
What do you think of François-Paul Journe?
Journe is an important figure in independent watchmaking in his sheer creativity as a watchmaker. My favourite of his watches has been the Vagabondage series, which shows his more poetic side in his interpretation of time-telling. The first watch has a jump hour that travels around the dial, the second watch is super technical with a jumping digital hour and minute display that needs a remontoir d’égalité, the third is a crazy watch with jumping digital seconds [and] hours, and with a traditional hand for the minute. This also features a remontoir. I’ve also got the complete steel set of Journe’s iconic complications including his Tourbillon and Résonance watches.
What watch in your collection do people not expect?
People tend to associate my account with modern watches, but I do collect a few vintage watches as well. One of the pieces I really love is my Grand Seiko 45GS in yellow gold that dates to 1970. It’s old in a very contemporary, classy way. I also think that the whole story of Seiko going to combat the Swiss in the chronometer trials at Neuchâtel Observatory is something I have always found appealing.
I like stories of underdogs that are unafraid to play in the big leagues. And even though you could hardly call Seiko or Grand Seiko independent, there is something about the brand’s spirit of fearlessness that I like. The style of the watch is cool; it reminds me of something from an ’80s movie. And it’s got the high-beat movement that is derived from the movements that beat the Swiss in the chronometer trials.
Tell us about your pièce unique Cabestan with the hand-engraved case…
I’ve always loved the Cabestan. I love it for its history with some of watchmaking’s rebels, like Jean-François Ruchonnet who designed Breguet’s Double Tourbillon as well as TAG Heuer’s V4, [and] Eric Coudray who created the original Gyrotourbillon at Jaeger-LeCoultre. To me, it [the Cabestan] is just one of the most original designs in watchmaking with its winch system, and its vertical tourbillon and digital indicators.
My watch is a pièce unique with carbon-fiber elements in the side of a case in engraved rose gold to give a kind of hand-beaten look very similar to the finish that is on my 1970 Grand Seiko 45GS. For that reason I always keep these two watches on the same shelf in my safe.
Why did you purchase both of The Hour Glass’ limited-edition Audemars Piguets?
For me, AP is a one-design brand, meaning the Royal Oak. Yet they are creative in terms of the different executions they’ve made. For me, two of my favourites are the AP Royal Oak “The Hour Glass Edition” watches. The first is a yellow-gold extra-thin AP Royal Oak with a really stunning green dial that was made in a series of 50 watches.
And the second is a Royal Oak Chronograph in platinum with a green dial and contrasting yellow-gold subdials and indexes, which was made in just 20 examples. The watches themselves are great but they also remind me of a retailer that I really respect and that has such an important role in my growth as a watch collector.
We share a penchant for vintage Roger Dubuis.
Yes. I like the Roger Dubuis watches that he created between 1995 and 2003. What is great about Roger Dubuis is he somehow takes a lot of the codes that people love in vintage Patek Philippe watches but gives them a Latin twist, a kind of exuberance and creativity. One reference I like is the [Hommage] H40 40mm-size Lemania 2310 two-register chronographs that came with the Chronometer Certificate from Besançon Observatory and also the Geneva Seal.
The finish on the movements is really fantastic and I like to think that the true artwork of these watches is at the back. What I also like [are] the details of the dial, both of my watches feature applied Breguet numerals. One has a kind of stretched lacquer dial that almost feels like enamel or porcelain, and the other is a black dial watch which has a subtle engine-turned pattern.
I also like the Sympathie, particularly with the double-retrograde perpetual calendar, which was the signature complication created by Roger Dubuis and Jean-Marc Wiederrecht of Agenhor. It’s interesting because these watches are really starting to rise in value. I bought them just because I like the way they look but now you see more and more people getting interested in them.
I hear you are a Speedmaster guy?
It’s the other watch people might not associate with me but I love them. I have all of the executions for the Tokyo Olympics as well as both the vintage and modern gold BA 145.022-69 created to commemorate the Moon landing.
I recently picked up a red dial Speedmaster from you guys [revolution.watch] which is really fun. Incidentally, that last watch was around $2,000 and I enjoy it as much as anything else in my collection. This goes back to what I was saying earlier.
People are at different stages in life and have different access to watches. I don’t distinguish between passion for something relatively accessible in price and something that is costlier. Passion is passion. And that is what I love about watch collecting. It should be an expression of genuineness and confidence in your own taste.