In 2018, the BBC reported that analogue clocks were being replaced in UK classrooms in favour of digital clocks. The main reason – students apparently “couldn’t tell time”. Given the proliferation of digital devices in our daily life, that’s perhaps not surprising. According to a 2011 YouGov survey, almost 60% of youths use a phone as their primary timepiece. With the rise of smartphones and smartwatches in the last decade, that figure has undoubtedly increased.
This provenance makes young watch collectors interesting – they go against the grain. Although all the profiles grew up in the digital age, they remain passionate and deeply enthusiastic about a hobby that’s more commonly associated with middle-aged men. Gen Z and their Watches is a feature series that looks at four different profiles, each representing a different facet of watch collecting. The series starts with Jarrel, who encapsulates the community aspect of the hobby. This is his watch story.
Ask anyone to name a watch brand, and they would most probably answer ‘Rolex’. Perhaps they saw a Rolex in a magazine, on a billboard advert, or on a celebrity’s wrist. After all, Rolex spends millions of dollars annually on marketing and endorsements.
Jarrel’s first exposure to the brand was in a more unusual setting – a tuition centre.
Then 16, Jarrel was working part-time at a tuition centre. He noticed his boss – a gentleman by the name of Mr. Michael Lee – wearing a Rolex Submariner ref. 1680 on his wrist. “I didn’t even know that it was a Rolex, but I was intrigued by how it looked,” he said. “He explained to me what it was and gave me my first education in watches.”
After being introduced to watches, Jarrel decided to spend his first paycheck on a watch and purchased the Seiko 5 ‘Sea Urchin’. “I liked it because it looks similar to the Rolex Submariner that my boss wore, but at a fraction of the price,” said Jarrel.
Coincidentally, Mr. Lee also had a Seiko 5 ‘Sea Urchin’, albeit in different colourway with a ‘Pepsi’ bezel. When Jarrel ended his stint at the tuition centre, Mr. Lee gave him the watch as a parting gift. “I still have that watch today – it’s a sentimental piece to remind myself of the person that kickstarted my watch journey,” said Jarrel.
After completing his National Service (NS), Jarrel returned to the tuition center to work with Mr. Lee. It was then that his love for watches was deepened.
Almost 21 years of age and on the cusp of adulthood, Jarrel decided it was time to own a “big boy” watch – a Rolex. He said: “I was enrolling in NTU (National Technological University) soon, so I wanted a Rolex to commemorate the milestone.”
He decided there was no better person to consult than the man who first introduced him to Rolex – Mr. Lee. “I told him I only had a budget of $8000, which was my entire savings from NS,” said Jarrel. Together, they combed through Carousell (a local pre-owned marketplace) daily until they came across what seemed like the perfect timepiece – a Rolex Explorer 2 ref. 16570.
“I’ve wanted a Rolex since I was 16, so holding the Explorer 2 in my hand was definitely a surreal moment,” said Jarrel.
Meeting Kindred Spirits
Jarrel didn’t just find his grail watch – he also stumbled upon a community of watch enthusiasts.
While browsing through Carousell, Jarrel discovered the platform’s ‘Communities’ section, which aimed to connect users with others of similar interests. “I chanced upon an invite link for a Singapore Horology Group and joined their Telegram channel out of curiosity,” recalled Jarrel.
An introvert by nature, Jarrel initially felt like a “ghost” in the channel. More observer than participant, he simply wanted to see what others were buying. However, when the Circuit Breaker period ended and the group decided to organise a physical meetup, Jarrel mustered up the courage
“Meeting the people I’ve seen chatting on the channel for months broke the ‘online barrier’,” he said. “It was fun to be around like-minded people, seeing the watches they own, and simply talking the same language.”
Jarrel was concerned that those present would be “privileged boomers” or “rich kids”, but those worries were fortunately unfounded. He said: “All of them bought their watches by scrimping and saving what they earned. It made me realise that watch collecting doesn’t have to be a hobby exclusive to rich people. If you work hard and save, you can still collect interesting pieces.”
No longer a “ghost” in the group, Jarrel found his voice and started attending more meetups. Before long, he was invited to manage the group’s Instagram page on their behalf. “Since I was a university student, I suppose the administrators assumed I would be more social media savvy and have more free time,” mused Jarrel.
After taking up the offer, Jarrel was elevated to an administrative position within the group. “We admins have a separate Telegram group, and we talk daily on it,” he said. He added with a laugh: “We do still discuss watches, but we also share about our personal lives as well. For example, one of them was just ranting about his troubles monitoring his son’s home-based learning!”
The administrators’ group eventually became one of Jarrel’s most tightknit circles. “If it wasn’t for the renewed pandemic restrictions last year, we would have attended (one of the admin’s) wedding,” he said.
Jarrel found it eye-opening to interact with those from a different walk of life. “It’s definitely different from my university friends, who are in the same stage of life as me,” he said, adding that he quickly found himself consulting them for advice on job searching and applying for a Build-To-Order flat. “They taught me a lot not only about watches, but also on adulting matters.”
Jarrel stressed that his relationships extended beyond his fellow administrators.
“I do interact and befriend regular members of the group as well,” he said. One of them was Zong, who goes by the moniker of @thatwatchwriter on Instagram.
Jarrel said: “We met at one of the meetups and instantly clicked with each other. Not only do we have similar tastes in watches – we both like neo-vintage and indie timepieces – but we have other interests in common too, such as coffee.”
It was at a boutique coffeeshop where Zong loaned Jarrel his Breguet Type 21 Flyback Chronograph to wear. “He noticed that I had taken an interest in the watch and offered to loan it to me for a while,” said Jarrel.
The Breguet Type 21 Flyback Chronograph is not an inexpensive watch – it has a retail price of S$22,100. “I felt really fortunate that Zong was willing to entrust me the equivalent of a car’s downpayment,” Jarrel said. “It shows that he trusts me enough to not only not run away with the watch, but also to take good care of it.”
Since then, Jarrel has exchanged multiple watches with other members of the Singapore Horology group. “It’s a way for me to experience watches that I currently cannot afford,” he said, adding: “I think I wear other people’s watches more often than those I own nowadays!”
Building a Community
By chance, Jarrel got connected with fellow NTU student Benjamin Lum (our next profile) when the latter joined the Singapore Horology Telegram channel. “We met up and realised that we shared the same idea, which was to start a horological club in NTU.”
He added: “Both SMU (Singapore Management University) and NUS (National University of Singapore) have their respective watch clubs. We felt it was about time NTU had one too.” Thus, the duo – along with a freshman they met through a Facebook watch group – started NTU Horological Society.
Inspired by the rapid growth of the Singapore Horology group, they decided to emulate its modus operandi, creating both a Telegram channel and an Instagram page. “We roped in our university friends that we knew were also into watches, they did the same, and it just grew organically from word of mouth,” said Jarrel.
They had also submitted the necessary paperwork to be recognised as an official student society. Unfortunately, the university ultimately rejected the application.
Although initially disheartened, Jarrel and his fellow co-founders took it in stride and continued growing the community. “We currently have over 80 members, which is more than some official student CCAs,” said Jarrel.
He added: “We just held a get-together at the McDonalds on campus – it’s not a fancy café or restaurant, but it’s the people that counts.”
For Jarrel, watch collecting is very much a social activity. “I’ve made so many lifelong connections through this hobby. It’s a close-knit community that I hold dear to my heart.”
Sometimes, friendship can be more valuable than a Rolex.
Photos courtesy of Jarrel, unless otherwise stated.
P.S: Check out The Shiok Store here – it serves as a curation of my favourite products from my favourite brands.
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P.P.P.P.S Shiok is a common word Singaporeans use to express admiration or approval. As of 2016, you can find the definition of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary.