Developing an interest in watches during a career in finance is hardly an unusual story, but the Singapore-based collector Mr Tom Chng wasn’t your average trader. He spent several years as a forensic accountant for KPMG and Deloitte, investigating financial wrongdoings that often went on to become criminal investigations. In 2015, he founded Singapore Watch Club, a collector community based on monthly social get-togethers that has grown from eight attendees to several hundred members.
“Forensic accounting could be quite exciting,” says Chng. “It just takes a lot longer than it seems to on TV. We had a bit of fraud investigation, bribery, corruption, embezzlement. Very often we would come in before the authorities come in. We were there to find out how bad the situation was before the clients know what to tell the police, the regulators and their shareholders.
“The cases could get quite dramatic at times. We investigated an accountant who had embezzled about $2m, but didn’t have a lavish lifestyle. She had no need for that kind of money. We looked into it further and there were a lot of late nights working with her superior and some incriminating emails suggesting an affair. It got very distressing very quickly. During the investigation, she attempted suicide three times, including trying to drown herself at the beach.”
Chng now works full time in the watch industry. His collector journey has evolved with methodical precision to match his former profession.
“I appreciate quality,” he says. “Mechanical watches are made to last. They’re going to outlive us. If a watch is poorly made, it’s poorly made for ever, but if a watch is nicely finished, no corners cut, produced the right way, it’s going to look stunning for ever. I started in 2010 with a used Rolex Datejust. I wanted something that was reliable, easy to service, very versatile and that would hold its value well. The more I learnt about it, the more I got sucked in. Watchmaking has so many facets of enjoyment. An engineering buff can have his mind blown by the complexity of a rattrapante chronograph or a history buff would be amazed by the story of the moonwatch. So many different angles co-exist in an instrument that’s so close to our hearts. Fundamentally, a watch is just like a weighing scale or a ruler – it just measures units of something – but what it measures is our time on earth. That intimacy makes it very different from any other object.
“My starting point was to collect icons and I still think that’s a great starting point for new collectors. When I say icons, I mean the usual suspects: Speedmaster, Submariner, Reverso, maybe a Panerai, a Royal Oak, a nice dress Patek. These are watches that are always going to be relevant and they’ll help you hone your own taste. They’re safe bets because demand for these is quite constant. If your first watch is a Submariner and you hate it, you’re not going to lose a lot of money on it and you’ve learnt that it’s not for you.
“Nowadays, I like watches that are unusual and rare. I buy vintage and modern – double-signed watches, unusual colours, prototypes, that kind of thing. With modern watches I tend to be more stringent. I try to look forward 30 years and think, will this be a future classic?”