“The Belle Epoque of watch design.” This is how Roni Madhvani describes the post-war years 1945-65, the years in which most of the well-designed time-only watches in his collection were produced.
The series is renowned among watch aficionados, with nearly 50,000 Instagram followers drawn to his images of timepieces from brands including Patek Philippe, Cartier, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin. He seemed fascinated by vintage designs from lesser-known watchmakers such as Titus and Universal Genève, as did those of Gilbert Albert, Jacques Cartier and Same with the work of famous designers like Gerald Genta.
So what attracts Mr. Madhvani to these timepieces, while many buyers (“a flock of sheep,” he calls them) are attracted to the steel sports watches that now dominate the market?
“They are works of art on the wrist,” Mr. Madhvani, 59, said. He says he changes his watches every day, and during an interview in London last month he was wearing a rare gold Audemars Piguet watch from 1962. The asymmetrical dial of the 5182 is a repetition of the shape of the letter C.
“For men it’s difficult: women can wear jewelry or nice clothes or whatever, whereas for men it’s pretty much a watch and a suit, and I don’t wear suits in Africa,” he laughs. “A watch can tell you a lot about a person. When I meet someone, the first thing I do is look at them and then look at their wrist.”
Mr Madwani was born in Uganda but attended boarding school in Britain in 1972 when his family and thousands of other Asian Ugandans were deported by then-President Idi Amin. Mr Madhvani first became fascinated with watches in the late 1980s while studying for a degree in economics and international relations at the London School of Economics.
One day, while walking along Bond Street to university, he spotted a modern replica of a 1940s Baume & Mercier chronograph in the window of multi-brand retailer Watches of Switzerland.
“It cost £575 and it took me 18 months to save up,” he said, adding that he must have visited the shop around 15 times, much to the annoyance of the salesperson, before he finally made the purchase got this watch. .
His collecting began when he returned to Uganda after graduation and his Indian father-in-law, an art collector, gave him a watch auction catalog. “That’s when the whole disease started,” he said wryly.
Mr Madhvani initially established his own importing company there but later joined the Madhvani Group, a family-owned business with diverse businesses in Uganda including agriculture, manufacturing and tourism.
Today, he serves as a company director and manages the company’s packaging, real estate, construction and trading businesses in Uganda, as well as the family’s educational philanthropic foundation and hotel operations in India. As such, he splits his time between Kampala, Uganda; London; and cities in India, including Mumbai.
Decades ago, due to poor dial-up internet connections and slow postal services in Uganda, he gradually bought a collection of watches through dealers, relying mainly on online watch forums as his main source of information and building camaraderie with other collectors.
Lately, Instagram has become a key way to track down watches on Mr. Madhvani’s wanted list. “One of the reasons I spend so much time on Instagram is that people know what I’ve collected, and it’s my dream to wake up every morning and have someone say ‘I found this’ or ‘I found that’,” he said .
Over the years, he became more focused on his collection and was particularly interested in watches whose details could reveal their provenance and manufacturer. For example, he searched for dials bearing the names of manufacturers and retailers, a popular practice in medieval watchmaking.
“Mr. Alexandre Ghotbi, head of watches for Europe and the Middle East at Phillips auction house, said by phone: “Madhvani has a very well-curated, very knowledgeable collection. “It had nothing to do with the much-hyped watch, he had obviously been thinking about it and looking for it for a long time. “
Mr. Madhvani’s dual signature pieces include a 1950s Audemars Piguet watch with Cartier New York, a 1950s Patek Philippe watch produced by Serpico y Laino in Caracas, Venezuela, and a 1950s watch from Calcutta, India. Rolex watches produced by Cooke & Kelvey (now Calcutta). “It brings the whole watch to life,” he said. “It gives it character.”
For the same reason, antique watches with personal engravings also became his passion, although many other collectors dislike this kind of personalization.
He said Instagram was a useful source for discovering their stories, such as the history behind an early 1950s Vacheron Constantin inscribed with “20-7-54, Dolly.” .
Jewelry collector Clive Kandel told Mr Madhvani the men’s watch likely belonged to a family friend. Mr. Kandel’s family knew an Austrian Jew who fled to New York after the Nazis came to power and changed his name from Adolf to Dolly.
But he said he has recently been fascinated by casemakers who made watch parts independently before those jobs were moved to factories in the 1990s. “Those independent makers who make watch cases at home are to me the unsung heroes,” Mr. Madhvani said, adding that research on their work, such as on Patek Philippe’s professional website Collectability, is prompting a growing awareness of their expertise .
He owned two highly sought-after Patek Philippe Ref. 2546s from the mid-1950s, which had an elaborately curved case, each made by a maker named Makovsky with his own Carved from a solid block of gold. He said he paid 35,000 Swiss francs for one of the pieces at Phillips in 2017, which now costs $39,836.
“Nowadays, people are looking for watches more than owning them,” he said. Although he regretted that with the emergence of global watch groups, fierce competition among auction houses and fierce competition among watch industries, The old-fashioned “gentleman’s code” of collecting has largely disappeared. There are more and more fakes on the market.
He gave an example of the good sportsmanship he valued: He once spent ten years tracking a rare Patek Philippe Ref. 2549, nicknamed the “Devil’s Horn” because of its uniquely shaped lugs. Being in Uganda at the time meant he had to bid absentee when a work was auctioned in 2010, but he narrowly missed out. When the winner, collector Jason Singer, discovered how much Mr. Madhvani wanted the watch, he sold it to him for the same price he paid.
“It’s a great watch, but I could tell Ronnie was very passionate about his watches, and this one in particular,” Mr. Singer said by phone recently. “Ronnie’s collection is full of passionate artistry. The beauty of dials, cases and shapes is really important, and he has a great eye.”
Mr Madhvani said he tried to emulate that courtesy. He estimates he receives 50 to 100 Instagram messages a day from both seasoned and novice collectors, and he tries his best to reply to all of them, often advising enthusiasts to look for beautifully designed pieces from smaller brands or even brands that no longer exist. Vintage pieces, as they can be found for a fraction of the price of the most popular pieces from major brands.
“I try to share my knowledge,” he said, “I know very little.”