Now, contrary to popular belief, the people who write about watches are not all "BFFs". There is a certain amount of competition, professional envy and occasional mischief and skulduggery that goes with the territory. But there are a handful of people out there who are pretty much universally liked. And today's interview topic is one of those people. Robert-Jan Broer started with a pretty simple idea and developed it into one of the most respected sources for watch news. Thanks to the work he and his colleagues have put in, Fratello is definitively a go-to resource for people around the world. And me personally? I am proud to call him my friend.
And now, a few minutes with Robert-Jan Broer -
And now, a few minutes with Robert-Jan Broer -
|Courtesy of Fratello|
JH - What was your first watch? Was it a gift? Is there a story behind it?
RJB - The first watch that I can really remember wearing, was a digital watch. Not a Casio, but just some cheap thing with a black strap with white and blue colors on the front. When I was 9 years old or so I got my first Casio during a holiday with my parents in 1986. I vividly remember buying that one, at a Dixons (electronics) shop in the UK. I was in love with that watch, and you know what? I still have it and always make sure it works. My first ‘real’ watch was an Omega Constellation I received in 1998 from my mother. It was an emotional moment, as I finished my secondary vocational education and was about to leave the house to go to university in The Hague. She wanted to give me something special, something that would tell me when it was time to go home (to her) but also to remember. It was a gift out of love. I cherish that watch and still occasionally wear it. It also shows where the love for this brand, and this model comes from. My great-grandfather had an Omega (Constellation), my grandparents, my parents and now me.
JH - Tell us a bit about you - where did you grow up? What did you study in school?
RJB - I grew up in the east part of The Netherlands, near the German border. In fact, in the small village I lived in, shops often had prices in two currencies. Deutsch Marks and Dutch guilders. My father was working for this accountancy firm and my mother worked as a secretary for various companies. I lived in two different places when I was young, very close to each other. After high school, I did this secondary vocational education in IT. Think system administrator, network engineer, and software development. I quickly found out that I didn’t want to become active in those fields. With a schoolmate and friend, we decided to go to university in The Hague and I got my ‘ingenieur’ title in Information Management. After that, I did a post-graduate in IT auditing. So, nothing to do with journalism or writing in general (other than boring management reports).
JH - When you were a boy, what did you want to be when you grew up?
RJB - Other kids always had their answers ready: police officer, fireman, detective, pilot, nurse etc. I didn’t. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, so I just echoed the other kids. Funny, I just remember that for a certain period, I wanted to become cartoonist. Almost no-one knows (until now J), but I can draw quite nicely. I sometimes draw a bit for my daughter, an existing comic character or something I come up with on the spot. However, I also realized I wasn’t good enough to really pursue this. Lack of talent, unfortunately. Anyway, when I was 15 or 16 years old, I decided I wanted to be active in IT. So that’s the direction I went into, and actually had a job in IT (for an investment bank) until 2011.
JH - When we were in a group meeting some years back, we were discussing what got us all into writing about watches in the first place, and you said to clarify - "what was the trigger?"
I've always loved that expression, by the way. So, for you, what was the trigger?
RJB - Well, I always loved reading magazines. Computer magazines, photography magazines, car magazines, and watch magazines. I was always reading. Watches being my passion at young age, those magazines had my absolute preference. German magazines, Dutch magazines and the US WatchTime, for example. I studied those harder than any of my schoolbooks. With the knowledge I gained from watch magazines and books, I also started to participate on watch forums. It was late 1990s, and there were only few big ones out there, like TimeZone, WatchUseek etc. It was also around the same time I started to collect watches, my Speedmaster Professional being the perfect start in 1999. From that moment on, I bought Bulovas, IWCs, Omegas, and many other brands at watch trade shows and via eBay, for example. After a while (in 2004), I decided it was time to start my own platform, where I would be in control over my own produced pieces on watches. I already had registered fratellowatches.com in 2002 or 2003 (initially I wanted to use it to sell pre-owned watches) and decided to use it for a blog about watches. With my background in IT, installing the Wordpress CMS on a webserver was a piece of cake and I just started writing. And never stopped.
JH - You are known far and wide for being Mr. Omega Speedmaster. What is about the Speedmaster that originally pulled you in? Or to quote you, what was the trigger?
RJB - Apparently so, and quite logical, as it is the watch that started this craziness for me, and basically changed my life (from having a boring job at a bank to traveling the world, discovering new watches, organizing events etc.). It is a story I’ve told many times during our Speedy Tuesday events, but it was actually my dad who always told me that Omega was the brand that astronauts were wearing on the Moon. I was 11 or so when he told me, so I didn’t realize what it took in the 1960s for mankind to travel to the Moon. I also didn’t know which watch it exactly was (only later on I learned that my father exactly knew that it was the Speedmaster). So when I got more serious about watches in the 1990s, an Omega catalog that I received from a jeweler explained the entire story. Besides the story about being the Moonwatch, I just felt (and still do) that it was one of the cleanest looking chronographs out there: very readable, and a timeless design. I didn’t have the funds to buy one, but in 1999 – while being a student – I found one for sale in The Hague and freed up some funds (= selling my car) to buy it. I still have it today; it is a 145.012-67 from 1968 with a caliber 321. At the time I bought it, much cheaper than a new one. Something you can hardly imagine today. A lot has changed.
|Courtesy of Fratello|
JH - You've seen a lot of them and you've worn a lot of them, so in your opinion - Best Ever Speedmaster?
|Courtesy of Fratellow|
RJB - I am pretty sure it isn’t the honeymoon period that speaks now, as I will say it is the gold Speedmaster Professional Apollo XI 50th anniversary from this year. I’ve never spent so much money on a watch, and I only did so because I believe it is the best executed Speedmaster up to today. I even prefer it over the original gold version from 1969 (BA145.022), as the quality is much higher today and the pale color of the gold alloy is just breathtaking. But, and this is a big but, if I were to choose one Speedmaster to wear for the rest of my life, it would be the normal steel Moonwatch with a Hesalite (plexi) crystal. It is a perfect watch, a direct descendent from the one that was actually worn on the Moon and quite affordable (still).
JH - And in the interest of journalistic integrity, what Speedmaster (past or present) in your estimation fell short?
RJB - Haha, there’s always the journalistic integrity thing coming up. Mainly from other journalists. And interestingly enough, a lot of them are wearing that same ol’ Rolex for over a decade now, yet they write the most poetic texts on the watches they review. Anyway, I think there’s a little distinction to be made here. I collect Speedmasters, that’s my passion, or hobby. I write about watches and the watch industry, also a passion, but that’s also my job. I know I started to mix it up myself, by writing every week (on a Tuesday) about Speedmasters, but I am always conscious of the integrity required for executing my job in the best way possible. Omega also never paid me to write a Speedy Tuesday article, or tried to influence the writing, or criticized me for having a strong opinion towards a specific Speedmaster (or another Omega watch).
|Courtesy of Fratello|
A bit of a long introduction to my answer, but I feel that a number of Speedmasters actually fell short. For different reasons, with some, I don’t think the design was good. For example, the Broad Arrow series with automatic movement. Or the Speedmaster Professional ‘Moon to Mars’, although some seem to like it. With some, I think the marketing efforts fell short. Like the Z-33 model (now discontinued), a beautiful watch, but very niche and there was only little ‘advertising’ around this piece. The biggest flaw was with the Dark Side of the Moon series. The first one was awesome, the Grey Side of the Moon was a neat variation as well, but then they came with an entire series of variations (including some all-white ones) that just diluted the original Dark Side of the Moon. Even though you can find a nice execution amongst them, I think it is a pity they did them. However, I think the Dark Side of the Moon Apollo 8, with the hand-wound movement and the beautiful laser engraved movement was a true and rich additional watch to that series. The others, not so much. People also tend to complain about the limited edition series of the Moonwatch, and to a certain extent I agree. But, and this is a big but, people – like me – who collect the Speedmaster, would be quickly done when there’s only the Moonwatch. I like to add the occasional limited edition, as it is a nice variation on the theme, as long as it is done properly. Like the Snoopy from 2015, the Apollo XI models from 2009 onwards, the white dial Alaska and the Gemini IV, for example. All neat versions. It is just not necessary to create 6 new limited editions per year. But I also get that companies like Omega that need to make money, they can’t exist on the few collectors that complain about everything that’s not vintage.
JH - You have truly become an ambassador (in the best possible way) for Omega and the Speedmaster. In this role you get to travel around and meet some interesting people. Again - who was the most interesting person you have met in this role?
RJB - You might expect I’d say Buzz Aldrin, Thomas Stafford (who is definitely my favourite Apollo astronaut), Charlie Duke, Gene Cernan, Jim Lovell or even Daniel Craig. Although it is an honor to meet these guys, I’ve met some awesome collectors and fans and some of their stories meant a lot to me. I mean, a lot of these ambassador guys have cool stories to tell, or awesome experiences to share (like walking on the Moon), but sometimes the very personal stories I hear from collectors and fans are truly moving.
|Courtesy of Fratello|
Real stories, from real customers who spend their hard-earned money on a Speedmaster. They write me about their Speedmasters and what it means to them to own one. Or telling me stories on wearing their precious Speedmaster during the most beautiful moments in their life, or during the darkest. The human aspect is what makes these stories so beautiful, or sad, but at least emotional. The watch never comes on the first place in these stories but has an important or – at least – meaningful role. Over the course of time, I made quite some friends during these encounters.
JH - With the Speedy Tuesday collaboration, you have taken an important (but at the time, under appreciated) model and turned it into a star. Did you see all of this turning out the way that it has?
|Courtesy of Fratello|
RJB - No, not really. Not sure the Moonwatch was under appreciated, but perhaps it was with a big audience. To me, it always was one of the most important watches out there. You have to understand that the Speedmaster Speedy Tuesday watch was something nobody knew about. It was only the Omega management and us, Fratello. Even the brand managers, boutique managers etc, nobody was aware. So, we basically had no sound board, we did what we thought would be a very cool execution of the Speedmaster, with a clear link to the radial dial project Alaska III watch that Omega designed and delivered to NASA in 1978. We didn’t want to exactly replicate that watch, so we thought about making it a reverse panda dial. With just a few iterations (if I’d say two, it would also ready be much), we had the final product (I actually hate that word for a watch) in our hands. It was super exciting, and I remember that Raynald Aeschlimann (CEO of Omega) walked over to me during an Omega event and asked me casually how many pieces we should actually do. I told him, and this shows we didn’t see the success coming, 300 or perhaps even 500 pieces would be good. But I am happy his experience in the industry told him that we should do more, so we came up with 2012 pieces, to commemorate the founding year of Speedy Tuesday.
JH - Outside of Omega, what is one, or some of the brands and/or models that you admire?
RJB - Oh, I admire many watches and brands. I admire the Royal Oak by Audemars Piguet, the Lange 1 from A. Lange & Söhne, the Santos by Cartier, the Navitimer from Breitling, Patek’s 3940 perpetual calendar, all the cult watches basically. I admire Grand Seiko as a brand, how much effort they put into finishing a watch to almost an extent that it doesn’t make sense anymore (cost wise). Or Nomos, for their fun way of communicating and the price-quality ratio they deliver. Oris for being a fun brand and creating watches like the 65 and Big Crown Pilot, but also to show their capabilities with their in-house developed movements. I also admire Seiko, Swatch and GShock. To me, it isn’t about the price or prestige only, it is about the fun that collecting or buying these watches can bring you.
I guess I also need to mention the crown. I admire Rolex for many things, but I also feel they are mocking their clients by not delivering their pieces and allowing (and I use the word allowing as they should know about these things) their official retailers to sell young pre-owned for twice or triple the retail value (who tells me that it wasn’t stock they kept in their safes all along?) or offer a Daytona to their best clients with a little premium? That’s just bad.
Last but certainly not least, I really admire some of the independent watchmakers. It is a pity we don’t cover them as much as I would like to, but this will change soon, I hope. There’s so much to discover from these brands, but it is a relatively small crowd that is interested and even a smaller crowd that is able to purchase one of these beauties. But yeah, one of the shortcomings at the moment is the lack of writing about these independents
JH - There is a whole new generation of watch collectors and enthusiasts coming through looking to learn. You have become a benchmark for many of them to learn about the Speedmaster, Omega and to some extent Seiko. What other resources out there do you recommend for those looking to know more?
|Courtesy of Fratello|
RJB - I still believe that a lot of knowledge can be gained from the existing forums out there: OmegaForums.net, TimeZone, WatchUseek etc. The problem is that besides very knowledgeable people on there, you will also find a of things written that are simply not true. Assumptions, guesses and statements based on faulty (or outdated) information. That’s all not an issue, as long as it is stated and not presented to you as facts. On websites such as Speedmaster101, OmegaPassion.com, and calibre1040.com, you will find information that is fact-checked and can be used as guidelines. That said, you can’t expect to know everything there is to know, and especially not by reading a few books or websites. You need to go out there, go to collectors’ meetings, auctions, (Omega’s) museum etc. It will take time and even then, you still will find yourself learning new things every day. It never stops. Also due to the fact that the Omega museum for example, still finds new stuff in their archives (or in NASA’s) all the time. It sometimes makes previous statements obsolete, as new information came to the surface. It is an on-going process. Nobody expects you to know everything there is to know about Speedmasters, but also don’t claim you’re the expert. Nobody is (and yet, a lot of people state they are). I think most important thing is to stay sane and sometimes it helps to step out of the bubble and look at things from a distance to give it some perspective.
JH - If you weren't doing this, what do you think you might be doing?
RJB - I don’t know and there’s no plan b. In the last years of my work at this investment bank, I shifted a bit more towards the business side of things, so perhaps a consultancy role. Today, if I had to do something else, I’d probably be working for a watch brand or company that’s related to the watch industry (an auction house, or a company like Chrono24). In the end it is a very cool industry to be in, you’ll see interesting watches, great (and less great) marketing topics and you meet passionate people. I feel very fortunate to be part of it and it has brought me a lot.
JH - What advice do you have for the aspiring Robert-Jan Broers out there?
RJB - Don’t have a plan b. Go for it, but not at all cost. Sometimes you also will find out that things aren’t working as you’ve planned, then you need to change your strategy and act accordingly. And, collect very good people around you. You can’t do it alone, you need a team of people you can rely on, who are – perhaps – better than you in certain areas. Have thick skin, sometimes people can be downright mean for no reason, and don’t realize they get all this information free of charge, and that a lot of hours have gone into it. Don’t fight the keyboard warriors and bedroomboy123 members, just shrug your shoulders, roll your eyes and keep on going. Always make sure to listen to your readers though, those who give you honest and fair feedback are truly valuable for your work. But most of all, have fun and make sure it stays fun.