It’s All in the Wrist: JJ Owens On Collecting Luxury Watches

Leading watch connoisseur and collector J.J. Owens is here to hype up horology. As a young girl growing up in Chicago, Owens would listen to her father talk about films that had memorable wristwatch cameos (Steve McQueen in 1971’s Le Mans was a particular favourite). He’d also share stories about the watches his father wore and the machinations that went into creating the enduring timepieces. By the time she was 12, Owens’s passion for horology – the study of the measurement of time – had seeped into her consciousness. Now 26 and based in New York, she is espousing her own haute take on the venerable pastime as the founder and editor of Daily Grail.

J. J. Owens wears gold GMT-Master II by ROLEX, Serpenti Spiga by BULGARI on counter

Sarah Cristobal: How did collecting watches become such a prominent part of your life?

J.J. Owens: It really didn’t click that it could become a career until I was about 21 after I worked for a couple of seasons as a viewing assistant at [the auction house] Phillips. It was exciting to be around once-in-a-lifetime watches and that environment. It was the best way to learn. I could read a book about watches every day for the rest of my life and there’d still be more information to absorb. I think the best way to delve into the hobby is by being around people who share that same passion and have more knowledge than you. At that time, I thought, this doesn’t feel like work, so to have that [eureka moment] in my early twenties was inspiring.

SC: Can you talk about being in the watch world as a young female connoisseur?

JJO: I’m incredibly shy and I don’t like going to things where I don’t know anyone, so it was very challenging. Sometimes I was the only woman. Not even a woman, I was a kid at that point. I was very young and, in all honesty, it was very off-putting. Even going to some community events in New York, like collector events and meet-ups, it was a challenge.

SC: How is it now?

JJO: Now it’s completely different and that change really happened in five years, which is not a vast amount of time at all.

SC: How big is your watch collection?

JJO: I’ve never been able to sell a watch, which brands love to hear. I’ll conservatively say I have a watch for every year I’ve lived, which is 26. But I started collecting when I was 12.

SC: What was your first one?

JJO: The 1969 Cartier tank [a gift from her father]. When I was 16, I bought a Rolex for myself, a 26-millimetre two-tone, in Paris. I got it with money from my summer job.

SC: Chic.

JJO: I remember my dad was livid with me. He said, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to have this and you can only wear it on Fridays” and da da da. He was very aware that this wasn’t normal for a 16-year-old and he was basically like, “Yeah, no,” which, looking back, was probably right. But also, I said to him, “You sent a 16-year-old to Paris with her friends.”

SC: Where did you buy it?

JJO: At the equivalent of a 47th Street booth, but on Rue de Rivoli across from Jardin des Tuileries. I went with one of my girlfriends and she was confused, like, “What are you doing?” I just told her, “Dude, don’t worry.”

Royal Oak with a turquoise stone dial by AUDEMARS PIGUET

SC: What are your top five all-time favourite watches?

JJO: Rolex ref 6062 with a Stelline dial, Audemars Piguet x Carolina Bucci Black Ceramic, Patek Philippe Nautilus 3700, Bulgari gold Serpenti (three wrap), Patek Philippe REF 96 HU Heure Universelle World Time. Vintage watches were the iPhones, the PlayStations, the gaming systems of their time. Looking at some of the old Pateks from the 1940s and the complications that were put into them, it is really incredible from a technological perspective. Looking at where the rest of the world was from that perspective compared to what could be on a wrist is really incredible.

SC: Love that perspective.

JJO: But then the modern piece that I really love is anything Carolina Bucci does with Audemars Piguet. I love her as a jeweller. I’m fortunate to have many of her pieces, but her watches with AP are the best. AP is probably my favourite brand to wear. There’s such a whimsical element [to the AP x Bucci watch]. Typically, watches are looked at as so serious. So whenever a brand is a little irreverent and has some fun, I’ll always give them props even if I don’t exactly like the watch. I think a level of irreverence is important when you have the privilege and luxury of this hobby.

SC: What five watches do you hope to add to your collection someday?

JJO: Bulgari Serpenti Spiga, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak with a turquoise stone dial, Cartier pavé Baignoire bangle, TAG Heuer Carrera Date in pink and the gold Rolex GMT-Master II.

SC: What’s your approach to buying watches?

JJO: I’ve never bought [a watch] as an investment, ever. I’ve never bought one with the intention to sell. I’ve always just bought what I like and that’s never led me astray. I’ve never regretted purchasing a watch when I buy what speaks to me and buy what I like.

SC: There seems to be more collective consumer interest in buying things that are of high quality even if they cost more.

JJO: My father has pieces from the 1930s and ’40s. Find me a handbag or a pair of shoes that will last that long. The craft-based pieces are made to last. I think it’s so important for my generation and the younger generation to get interested in watchmaking. There are sometimes three people in the world who can make a component. If that [skill] dies with that person, it’s gone. When you think of these craft- based pieces versus how quickly an iPhone is replaced, you realise what an art form it is.

GMT-Master II by ROLEX

SC: How do watches inform your style?

JJO: I have a uniform and my friends make fun of me for that. There was a quote I read once that really resonated with me from a style perspective – if I had a rolling rack of my closet, and I blindfolded myself and picked two or three items, they would all go together. That’s really kind of my MO with style. I wear a ton of neutrals and typically live in a T-shirt and jeans when I can. So my watches are one of the louder accessories. I accentuate the fun in my personality with my accessories. A watch is the first accessory I go to. If I’m not wearing anything else, I will wear a watch. I know it sounds really watered down but I really just wear what I want. I don’t pay attention to the formality of the day or the occasion. If I feel like wearing a watch, I’ll wear one. I grew up with the mentality that watches are meant to be worn. They’re not supposed to be kept in a safe. I’d wear a vintage watch that I’ll probably never come across again on a morning walk just because it makes me happy. But if I go to Basel, or when I was in France for the Formula One race, I definitely brought more fun watches.

SC: What can you tell us about your site, Daily Grail Official?

JJO: It’s more of a consulting business than anything, but really I wanted a platform where I could humanise the luxury space in a way that is more welcoming. The language in the watch world can feel so foreign and you become desensitised to it the longer you’re in it. Also, my girlfriends would reach out to me and say, “Oh, I wanna get into this, but I don’t know how. I don’t necessarily trust a fashion-based platform with telling me what watch is the best, but I don’t understand the jargon of a watch platform. Where is this middle ground?” So the site brings people in through food, through fashion, through all these different things. It’s definitely watch-based but sprinkling it in with other hobbies because you’re rarely just into watches, you’re into other things, too. I want to destigmatise the intimidation that I felt. Any luxury-based hobby is intimidating and it’s really hard to break that down.

SC: Why do you think it’s so intimidating?

JJO: There’s such a barrier to entry and at the end of the day everybody feels a desire to belong. It’s the lunchroom effect of when you walk in on your first day of school. You wanna know who you’re gonna sit by and you have that anxiety. Plus, I mean, the price, it’s excessive. It’s so much more than a handbag or shoes. It’s such a steep investment.

SC: What’s your advice for people who are just starting in the watch space?

JJO: I would follow DimePiece, which is by my very good friend Brynn Wallner. I think her approach to watches and watch collecting is unlike anyone else’s. She really breaks down a lot of the snobbery associated with it. But also, go to a watch store and just try things on to see what your taste is.

SC: What are you looking for in a watch? What kinds of characteristics are going to catch your eye?

JJO: What I really love is when I see someone with a watch on that fits them to their core, not in size. I don’t think size ever matters. It’s more feeling like, oh, that watch fits them in terms of their personality, their life, everything about them. I have so many memories of the first time I met someone in the watch space. I remember the watch they’re wearing and, to this day, I will associate that watch with them.

Carrera Date by TAG HEUER

SC: What’s your relationship to time? Are you punctual?

JJO: This sounds awful, but, as of the past month, I’ve tried to be less punctual because I am detrimentally early. My tennis coach from when I was 12 put it in my head that being on time is late. So that was always my thought process. But nobody else is on time. So I’ve tried to be five minutes late and that’s hard for me.

SC: It tracks that you’d be time-conscious.

JJO: I have no excuse not to be [on time].

SC: How many times a day do you look down at your watch?

JJO: Probably every hour. Especially if I don’t have my phone. If I don’t need to be on my phone, I don’t have it next to me. I try. It’s a work in progress.

SC: What do you think about Apple Watches?

JJO: I used to be very brutal on the Apple Watch. I think as a piece of technology it was brilliant and absolutely serves a purpose. That watch fits certain lifestyles, a thousand per cent. But I’ve yet to see an Apple Watch styled in a way that I think is interesting or looks nice. So from that perspective, I don’t like them. The first response you have to a watch is how it looks
aesthetically. That response is the same whether you know nothing or know everything about watches. So the lack of aesthetic appeal is where I take issue.

SC: Even when they did the collaboration with Hermès?

JJO: I really tried to like it. But here’s the thing, I’m a math and finance person, and at the time that watch came out, for the price, you could get a vintage Cartier Tank or a vintage Rolex. I mean, the [Apple] Watch now is technically obsolete because you’ve had to update it so much. I really have an issue with that factor. From a waste perspective, from every kind of perspective, I’m against that.

SC: You’re very linear in your thought process.

JJO: I’m very black and white. There are tech watches that do look much nicer than an Apple Watch. I mean, Tag made a watch that I feel from a tech perspective was probably the best-looking tech watch. But there was a vast price difference between that and the Apple Watch, which made the TAG watch less accessible. I don’t necessarily think the Apple Watch is at an accessible price point to most of the world. But it is in terms of relativity to an Apple product.

SC: Also, you actually appreciate a watch for how it’s made and the backstory.

JJO: Yeah, there are so many elements of a watch you can appreciate, whether it’s the cultural significance, even just the aesthetics. A lot of people talk about the difference in movements, whether it’s quartz or automatic or manual. A lot of collectors raise their noses at quartz watches because they’re battery-operated. Cartier and Patek each make a quartz watch, so you can’t argue that there’s not a demand for them.

SC: Do you recommend them?

JJO: When my friends are asking me for advice on their first watch, I always tell them to get a quartz. From the perspective of maintenance, it’s a battery as opposed to a movement so it’s much easier. If you’re not used to winding a watch or not used to the mechanisms or if you’re not even used to wearing a watch, it’s much easier to get quartz.

SC: You’re obviously a highly knowledgeable connoisseur of timepieces, but do you spend a lot of time looking and thinking about watches in addition to collecting them?

JJO: At this point, not so much. What takes up my energy are the people in the watch space. I say that in the best way possible. I have met some of my closest friends in the watch world. I don’t really seek out watches anymore. If one comes or I get called for an allocation, I’m very happy, obviously. But I’m not actively shopping for watches any more because I feel very content. In order to stay passionate, to stay involved, you do need to learn. For me, that means keeping up with what [NYC-based watch website] Hodinkee releases and what brands are releasing. I’m very careful because it’s also my job, so it’s not about getting too consumed and then deciding, “Oh, I’m gonna just never wear a watch and I hate this because it became too much.” That would be the last thing I want to happen.

Photography by Christopher Currence. 

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