Ross Povey in Conversation with the One & Only, Eric Ku
In the world of vintage Rolex, there is one man who runs ahead of the pack. Known for his absolute integrity and unrivalled knowledge, Eric Ku is one of the most important Rolex dealers on the planet. He took over the reins at the Vintage Rolex Forum in 2012 and is involved in numerous watch-related businesses all over the globe. His wider passions include good food, fine wines and sports cars. I feel honoured to call Eric one of my great friends and I caught up with him recently to discuss watches and the finer things in life.
A lover of watches – specifically analogue mechanical ones – for as long as he can remember, Ku credits his father’s stash of watches for his early interest: “Although my father isn’t a collector per se, he did have a Rolex and a few other pieces and I have fond memories of sneaking into my parents’ room to play with his watches. Fast forwarding to college, I remember purchasing my first vintage watch around 1997 – it was a Rolex ‘Red’ Submariner. It cost me $2,500, which was a tremendous sum of money for me at the time. The watch is long gone, but the memory of the hunt is still as vivid as ever.”
Drawn to Rolex through the stories surrounding the specific models and individual watches, Ku says that he is a sucker for history. “I have always appreciated the history behind the brand,” he confesses. “Its sponsorship of various historic feats of human endurance, and the quality of the product. Rolex has always been tied to exploration – from conquering the peaks of Everest to descending to the depths of the Mariana Trench, there was always a Rolex watch present. Aside from the history of the brand, Rolex watches have always struck me as the highest quality and most durable of the Swiss manufacturers.” And, of course, this was all additionally fuelled by the brilliantly powerful marketing of the brand, with Ku remembering vividly all of the vibrant advertisements he flicked through in his favourite magazine, National Geographic.
Over his years in the business, Ku has owned some of the biggest “grail” Rolexes – so many, in fact, that he finds it hard to pick his favourite pieces. “Having bought, sold and owned so many watches, it is hard for me to point out particularly special ones that are my favourite,” he says. “Over time though, I have realised that condition is something that I value over rarity and I have been fortunate to accumulate a collection of truly new-old-stock (NOS) watches. The collection is small right now, but hopefully it will continue to grow. It’s truly amazing to be able to look at a NOS watch from the 1950s and see how the pieces were supposed to look when they left the factory.”
And this love of pristine examples is something Ku is keen to pass on to his clients, saying: “Increasingly, it is all about condition, condition, condition. When you’ve seen what a really great example of a watch looks like, versus an average one, there really is no comparison. Always buy the best you can afford.” But Ku is also keen to point out that a watch is something to be worn, loved and enjoyed, adding: “Some collectors like to buy things as if they are on a checklist, but I’m not a fan of this approach. At the end of the day, a watch should be enjoyed on the wrist and you should really love it – not because of collectability or what others might say about it, but because you will smile when you glance at your arm.”
Another detail important to vintage collectors is when a watch is found that still belongs to its original owner – something that Ku specialises in. “One of the best was a NOS 6542 GMT that the original owner had bought for his newborn son in the late 1950s,” he recalls. “It had resided in a safe, first belonging to the father, then to the son when his father passed away. It took my breath away and was truly a time capsule, complete with every bit of paperwork, box, receipt, etc. I get excited even thinking about it. It currently resides in a very important collection and I think will continue to ‘sleep’ there for a long time.”
In 2012, Ku acquired the Vintage Rolex Forum (VRF) – the most visited vintage Rolex resource in cyberspace and a website that I have long contributed to. But why did an already uber-successful Ku feel it was important to get so involved in it? “VRF is one of the most important resources for vintage Rolex collectors,” Ku explains, indicating his pride in being the custodian of this invaluable facility. “It has been around since the early days of the internet and there has been much lively discussion over the years on many different topics. Countless amazing watches have been discovered and shared on VRF and many facts that we now take for granted were originally researched, discussed, debated and vetted right here on the forum. It is a valuable tool for everyone, and I take my position as steward for this history very seriously. I want to ensure that VRF will always be around for everyone to use and enjoy.”
Beyond the Crown
As a true watch lover, it is not just Rolex timepieces that Ku loves, and he expresses a passion for many brands – from other large manufactures, to the smallest one-man workshops. “Recently I have become very passionate about Cartier,” he says. “It is amazing to me that, in the 1980s, the auction kings, so to speak, were early Cartiers. They lost favour over time as people started preferring large watches with complicated movements. The truth is that the genius of Cartiers lay in their design and that to me is just as important as any mechanical complication. Designs like the Tank Cintrée are simply timeless and you see that a Cintrée from 100 years ago is still relevant and looks relatively unchanged from the current versions.
“Rolexes have been getting more and more expensive, with many simply becoming unaffordable to anyone but the ‘one per-centers’,” Ku continues as he explains the burgeoning market for emerging trends and undiscovered watches. “This has brought renewed interest to other brands and marques, as you can see there has been tremendous interest in dive watches and chronographs of other brands that we never used to pay attention to. Ultimately, I think we collect watches that reflect our personal tastes in design regardless of brand. Buy what you like whether Rolex or not, and you can’t go wrong.”
Beyond all the obvious things the watch world knows Ku for, such as his most well-known outlet for vintage Rolex watches, 10PastTen, there is a plethora of other projects and collaborations that he is also involved in. “I do have my fingers in several other pies as well,” he says. “I’m a partner in a company that does fashion retail of vintage watches in Asia, and I also started a repair/restoration company called Los Angeles Watchworks in 2016, which specialises in high-end restoration and servicing of vintage watches. It’s a project I am particularly passionate about, as we all know a good watchmaker is very hard to find.”
And, as Ku’s Instagram posts reveal, he is also a noted epicurean and car fan with more than a few non-horological interests. “Admittedly, I’m a bit of a glutton and do enjoy a good meal and wine here and there,” he laughs. “Wine and food to me are like consuming art – what goes in your body is a reflection of the creativity, genius, and hard work of the maker. You could be sitting at a fancy Michelin star restaurant in Paris, or at a hawker centre in Singapore, but good food should elicit the same smile and satisfaction, irrespective of price.”
But Ku’s love of quality and enduring design in horology and all areas of life is best summed up in his attitude to cars: “I do love cars as well, and have been fortunate to own and drive some pretty good ones. I’m a Porsche guy at heart, and there’s something to be said about the lasting love affair that people have with the 911. The 911 is as popular as ever, even after 50-plus years. And as we in the watch industry know, you don’t mess with perfection.”