Founder of the legendary (and definitive) online database of vintage Heuer timepieces ‘OnTheDash’, Jeff Stein is a Heuer hero and veritable human encyclopedia of the brand’s history, as well as owner of an enviable treasure-trove of rare and ravishing watches. Insta-celeb Fred Mandelbaum (aka @watchfred) is a star in the firmament of vintage watch connoisseurs… and please note we didn’t say ‘collectors’. Because Mr. Mandelbaum is no mere collector, as we’ll soon learn…
Fred: OK, I’m ready. I just ordered a coffee.
Jeff: First things first here in Atlanta too. It’s a Diet Coke for me!
The Edge: Fred, what’s your order? Are you an espresso man?
The Edge: The connoisseur’s choice! Ok, so now we’ve got the caffeine running through our veins, first question of course, arms up – what’s currently on both of your wrists?
Fred: You first, Jeff!
Jeff: This is a bit surprising. I’m known as a collector of vintage Heuers and chronographs and mechanical watches, primarily from 1935 into the 1970s. But today I’m wearing a TAG Heuer watch from 1989 that’s quartz-powered. I’ve gotten a recent interest in the Heuer dive watches from the 80s into the 90s. Many collectors look down their noses at these watches because you can buy them day and night on eBay for $400 to $1,000. But I think it’s an interesting chapter that bridged the gap between Heuer and TAG Heuer. They’re fun to wear, inexpensive to buy, reliable and come in lots of colours. Some people don’t like the quartz, but I’ve gotten really interested in them just the last couple of months.
The Edge: Have you taken it underwater? What’s the diving like in Atlanta?
Jeff: Oh, the shower would be as close to water as it gets!
The Edge: But it’s holding up well in the shower?
Jeff: Absolutely. They’re very accurate and reliable.
The Edge: And what about you right now, Fred?
Fred: I’ll let Jeff guess what watch I put on for today…
Jeff: It will be a gold triple calendar chronograph… with a black dial ?
Fred: Yeah, you’re right. It has a bit of a story because years ago, this was the watch that actually started the communication between Jeff and me, because it’s, well, you can never say unique… but up to now, it’s the only black dial version of this particular model that’s known to collectors. It’s a rare piece. And we both did a bit of research about it. And out of this watch came what I think both of us now see as a truly close friendship, even if we’re thousands of miles apart. There’s barely a day that we don’t communicate, and we’ve really become close friends – and it was this particular watch that started it. So it’s an important piece in a way, for Heuer history, but also for the friendship between Jeff and me.
The Gold Triple Calendar chronograph that Fred wears, with a black dial.
The Edge: A watch and match made it heaven! So, one of the first questions we wanted to ask both of you, was this: Fred, your professional career started in electronics, computer technology, and you’ve always said what attracted you to watches was the mechanical, analogue element. But yet, you’re also kind of famous for cataloguing your collection online. And Jeff, similarly, OnTheDash is this kind of crowning and unbeatable reference point for vintage Heuer watches online … A real biblical achievement. Given that you both have this intersection of classicism and the Internet, we just wanted to talk about watch collecting in the Internet era. How has it changed the market and the experience of collecting? And in a world where anyone can set up a Google alert, is that levelling the playing field kind of democratic or does it remove some of the thrill of the chase? And maybe we could start with you, Jeff.
Jeff: Sure, it’s interesting, I registered on eBay and bought my first Heuer timepiece in late 1998, a Heuer dash timer and actually launched OnTheDash in 2003. And people always ask, ‘When you launched OnTheDash, how did you publicise it? How did you know people?’ And the answer was… well, very interesting. In the early days of eBay you could see the identity and even get the email address of the winner and the other bidders. So basically, the community was formed between 1998 to 2003, through discussions between eBay bidders about Heuer timepieces. When I launched OnTheDash in 2003, I had about 80 email addresses and that’s really what the community was, and where it was from: all compiled from people who bid on watches on eBay.
What’s interesting is how you see the successive generations. First there was email and then we had discussion forums. Now it’s Facebook and Instagram in terms of buying, selling and chatting. Recently, I think most members of our community have probably bought and sold more watches from Instagram friends than they have on eBay. I’d be interested to hear Fred’s generations of collecting, but they really have changed dramatically. And more interesting is the question how are we going to communicate and even buy, sell, and chat five years from now….
The Edge: It really is fascinating. So in some ways for you, the Internet actually allowed you to see the constellation of collectors more clearly. It made the network tangible in a way that wouldn’t have really materialised prior to the dawn of the internet?
Jeff: Exactly, exactly. I would bid on a chronograph and you could see the identity of all the other bidders during the auction, and so I knew that if @theedge was bidding, they were going to pay twelve hundred dollars for this watch. And if @fred418 was bidding, I was worried that he would pay anything to win it.
A TAG Heuer 3000 series from Jeff's personal collection.
The Edge: And, pardon the intimacy, but what was your eBay username?
The Edge: Keeping it classy. We like that.
Jeff: Haha, keeping it simple! Fred, I’m interested in your view of the generations…
Fred: When I started on social media, I thought there would maybe be a hundred people out there who would be interested in what I was posting. That was the first target I had … Will I ever reach a hundred followers? [He has 54.5k followers on Instagram] On the other hand, as wonderful as that immediate fulfilment environment has become, I really miss the age of the forum as a moment for really building crowd knowledge. You know, people really came together, and worked on establishing a knowledge base over many years. Before the Internet all we had were books. And I must admit, so many of those books are full of errors. It was just one guy somewhere who decided that he knew what was authentic, and he wasn’t always right! But during the time of the forum, there were really large groups of extremely motivated, highly interested people who were working together to learn.
These days, what we have is a vibrant social media community, highly active, extremely positive and friendly – something that could be a problem on forums, with the occasional trolls and people who knew everything better, even if they had no idea what they were talking about. But still, back then, we built up a knowledge base that we still rely on today. And during the last I’d say, two or three years forum traffic has dropped dramatically. It’s all social now. What I worry about is the searchability- it just isn’t there on social media. Trying to search something on Instagram just doesn’t work. And I assume it’s the same for you Jeff.
Jeff: Exactly, exactly. In the old days you would open a discussion forum and you’d see two or three hundred postings. Now we’re lucky to get 20 or 30 because… it’s so much easier on Instagram and Facebook. They’re instant, they’re easy. Everybody has a phone, they post… But I share the same regret as Fred. If somebody posted interesting information 12 years ago, I can find it on a discussion forum. Not with social media…
The Edge: But maybe that will be one of iterations that happens in the next five years, as you were saying? A way of making sure that that transition into social media doesn’t lose the collegial communal knowledge base that was growing in forum life…
Fred: Exactly. Jeff is still posting! But for me, I might post 10% of new information I find and the rest is lost somewhere on Facebook or Instagram discussions I have that I’ll probably never get back to, should I ever forget what I learnt. So one of the things that I hope is that some forum or platform will be found that really combines the two. I’d really love that and I assume it would be the same for Jeff because, I mean, crowd-sourcing knowledge is really the best thing you can do. I’ve learnt so much from people like Jeff…
The Edge: Totally. Because Jeff, you’ve had some incredible scoops with On the Dash. While we’re talking about these moments of incredibly Internet sleuthing and knowledge-sharing, do you both have a particular story of something that emerged through a forum which was a real moment of revelation?
Jeff: I think for me, there have been a couple of these moments of revelation. Oddly enough, one relates to the astronaut John Glenn and the other to Barack Obama. I think it was 2006, and there was a posting, I forget which forum it was, but somebody said “I was just in San Diego and I went to an air and Space Museum”. It was a small satellite museum, not the main NASA one. But then they said “I saw John Glenn’s stopwatch. I think it was a Heuer. Would that make it the first Heuer in space?” That’s the way they posted the question, just as casual as that. And so, I mean, doing the research on this stopwatch just consumed me for days!
The Edge: How quickly did you get on a plane?
Jeff: I was just straight to the NASA archives and started looking through hundreds of high-resolution images of every astronaut and documenting the fact that, yes, he was right: John Glenn wore a Heuer in space. It wasn’t issued by NASA, but he probably went to a local jewellery store or sporting goods store and bought the watch, and had it strapped to his wrist when he went up on his four-hour flight. So, of course, TAG Heuer hasn’t run the campaigns “First stopwatch in space”, “First Swiss watch in space”, or anything like that. They’ve kind of ceded that to Omega. But it was an exciting story that John Glenn’s Heuer was actually the first Swiss timepiece in space.
The Edge: It’s incredible…
Astronaut John Glenn simulated flight training
Jeff: And another big moment was when somebody from TAG Heuer contacted me in the summer of 2009 and said “I think Barack Obama is wearing one of our watches”. And that set off the same kind of search. He was a candidate then. I’m not sure whether he was even the front runner yet! It was Obama and Hillary Clinton. But the tip was right: Obama was wearing a TAG Heuer Series 1500 dive watch from the early 90s. And so, again, that set off night after night after night in photo archives to identify the watch and tell the story. Even after twenty years in the hobby, there is still so much information to discover.
The Edge: And when you get a lead like that, is it a kind of physical reaction? Does your heart beat faster? How would you describe those moments when you have the beginning of thread to follow?
Jeff: It’s adrenaline and just high energy, followed by exhaustion and a crash. How many images of Obama on Getty Images and the White House Flickr site can I look through? I’m just going click, click, click, hoping to find the perfect image of the watch or Obama and the watch or John Glenn and the watch. But, yeah, it’s exciting! There’s no sleep when you’re trying to develop something like that.
The Edge: We love that.
Fred: And sometimes he then finds John Glenn with a Breitling on his wrist!
Jeff: Exactly. You never know where the search will lead!
Fred: With Breitling, we didn’t have a Jack Heuer who survived. Who could tell us everything about history. So we’re just going through archives and looking up names and early management of US distributors, etc.. And then the name popped up, Jack Karasick, who was sales manager in the 1940s. And we started to research – looking for his sons or daughters or grandchildren, hoping there’d be some archives in their attics. So we started to research and it was really hard. Total failure. I wrote to people, I called people in the US named Karasick, left messages. Nobody got back to me. And then I asked my friend Jeff here in Atlanta. I knew the guy I was looking for’s family lived in New Jersey and I asked “tell me, Jeff, do you happen to know somebody there?” And he said “Yeah. I mean, actually, my daughter-in-law is from that particular city. You know what, I’ll ask around”.
In the end, it turns out that the son of that Breitling sales manager of the 1940s was the next door neighbour of Jeff’s daughter-in-law’s parents. Actually the neighbour. And that isn’t even the end! In the end we found out that we weren’t just talking about papers in some attic. No, the guy himself, the sales manager, then president of Breitling America, was still alive at the age of 97! He was living in New York and five weeks later I met him. I flew over and got his archives and listened to his memories of everything… including memories of Jack Heuer, by the way! So, yeah, that was also one of those eureka moments.
The Edge: Well, that also consolidated your friendship! Your rare connection. I know this is a question you’ve been asked many times, but how did you start? And when was the decisive moment when you knew collecting watches and horology was going to be a really significant part of your life?
Jeff: For me, it began with cars, I went to vintage car races in Monterey, California, for several summers. And in 1996 I was walking around in the paddock at the racetrack and there were different exhibitors, people selling art and people selling books. And I walked into a little shop that had some watches and there was a pair of Heuer dashboard timers, a Rally Master pair. And I just picked them up and looked at them and played with them and wound them and shook them a little. And I just couldn’t believe the beauty of the objects. The style and the design were perfect to my eye. The feel, the build… all of it was great. There was the fact that they were used on the dashboards of race cars – incredible. I didn’t take a huge interest in chronographs until four or five years after that, but that was certainly the “Ahah” moment.
The Edge: And did you buy them?
Jeff: The first dash timers? No, no, no. That seemed crazy. They were twelve hundred dollars, which seemed like a lot of money in the late 90s. The first one I bought was on eBay, in November 1998 from South America. I still have the timepiece. It’s a Super Autavia dashboard timer and as you might expect, it came all the way from Brazil via eBay, and when I opened the box, and wound it up, nothing happened. It was broken. It just didn’t run. And I thought, oh, my God, this hobby seems to have a lot of hazards! Oddly enough, I sent it back to the stranger in Brazil, who, at that point, had both the timepiece and my money… But he simply fixed it and sent it back! And it’s still part of my collection. So that was the beginning of it.
The Edge: What about you, Fred?
Fred: Maybe these days, now we have social media and Instagram especially, maybe there are certain people who wake up and decide “OK, I’ll go into watch collecting!”. But in the past that wasn’t how it had happened. For me, I was using chronographs as a business tool to time production steps in the 1980s. Like you said, I was surrounded by electronics: the fact that it was a mechanical watch attracted me. Then, being an inquisitive person, you start to read more and more, get interested in the subject, look into it, look at relevant steps of innovations and the development of the technology. And you find that there’s really not enough books out there! You go into archives, you start to study, you start to buy an example here, an example there. And then you suddenly find that you’re spending quite a lot of time studying watches and you say, “OK, I might really be a watch collector”. It kind of ‘happens’ to you, in a way.
The Super Autavia bought by Jeff in November 1998 in South America.
The Edge: You both have an approach which is archival, historical and very rigorous. From a pure watch perspective, which decade would you like to relive knowing what you know now? If you could kind of relive it live and kind of buy that new stock or… Just from a kind of horological perspective. And maybe start with you, Fred.
Fred: If we’re honest, peak tech was 1969. Everything afterwards is really just continuing the relevant innovations of that period. So if we’re looking at chronographs, it’s actually the late 1920s until the late 1960s that were the defining times. And each of those periods – 40s, 50s, 60s – each have very, very different designs, different watches. The 50s for example were very much the time of Dive watches. Cousteau really, really kicked off a craze of interest in the silent world underwater. Then with the 60s, we are back to the tool chronographs, very much a period of car racing, etc. So if I don’t have to choose, I’d rather like all of those. In each of these of these decades, you have icons that were born and that define our industry until today.
Jeff: Fred, you’ve done everything except answer the question!
Fred: I’d like to relive them all!
Jeff: But you’ve been asked to pick one time period…
The Edge: We even gave you a whole decade. That’s very generous.
Fred: OK, OK, Jeff. Knowing that you’ll choose the 60s and the way in which Jack Heuer reinvented how watches are marketed with his Formula One connections, I’ll choose the 1940s, OK?
Jeff: OK. So Fred has now not only answered for himself but he’s answered for me! It’s true. I will acknowledge that I was a child of the sixties. I was born in 1955. So I remember where I was standing when I heard that Kennedy was shot; I remember watching TV and seeing the first man on the moon, the student protests, the music, the colours, the revolutions of the 60s. So of course Fred is right. I would love to see where the watches went in Heuer’s case from 1962 with the Autavia to 1969 with the automatic chronographs. I would love to watch that in real time. That’s the easy answer. Another interesting period for me is really overlapping with Fred. I would also go with 1935 to 1945. This is really when Heuer went from a couple of references of chronographs to a full catalogue and the movements went from one set of movements to five or six or seven sets of movements, and we went from two register to three register to the calendars to the moon phase. I would love to watch 1935 to 1945 as well, because that’s really… that’s really when the Heuer catalogue developed.
The Edge: Fred, I read an interview with you where you said the question about how many watches a person has is ridiculous, because you can have 200 watches and none of them are good. A great point. The idea of a ‘style of collecting’ and a style of watches that you like, is very interesting to us. It makes you think of an artist’s ‘brushstroke’ that develops over time. And I just wondered if either of you would like to speak to what you define as your style. Obviously you both love chronographs, but beyond that, is there a throughline that really unites the watches that you’re particularly drawn to? And maybe, Fred, if we start with you.
Fred: Yeah, actually, there is. For me, the question would be “How is that watch relevant? Which influence did it have on the market overall? Is it outstanding in any way?”. This is actually what I try to do with my collection. I have particular themes I’m interested in – military aviation chronographs might be such an example – and in that particular area, I try to have all relevant examples. But the main point really is that, for me, of all the things that makes me decide if I want to hunt for a watch – rarity is actually the least of the relevant points. The much more important factor is really ‘Why would this watch be an important watch for the industry in general.’
A TAG Heuer Autavia from the 1960s from Fred's personal collection.
The Edge: So it’s more historical relevance or anthropological relevance rather than esthetics.
The Edge: and Jeff, for you, is it the same pursuit of specific relevance? And do you have an aesthetic component that you’re looking for?
Jeff: My aesthetic, I guess, is a couple of things. My aesthetic tends to be legible, rugged, tool watches. So I like something – going back to the dashboard timers for example – that’s solid, well-built, meant to be used. Legibility, and a watch that handles well, is always important to me. In terms of the throughline of my collection, well, I’ve been at this for I guess 22 years now. I think it’s important to let your preferences and your style evolve. In the early days of collecting, there is a certain kind of “check the box”. You want to see or study every reference 1163 Autavia. And then at a certain point you’ve worn them all, you’ve done them all, I think there comes the question “well, which do you really like?” either as a piece on your wrist or something that is historically interesting. You know, I’m a big proponent of collectors letting their preferences evolve and change. After doing this for 22 years, I find myself wondering why there are certain categories that I’ve never explored.
Another topic on which Fred and I probably have different approaches is I think we’re both awful at selling watches. It’s so easy to buy them and so difficult to sell them. But I’m a big fan of letting your interests evolve and change, so if you have watches in your collection that you’re forcing yourself to wear or no longer appeal to you, I think it’s important to sell them and refresh the collection with the proceeds. So I guess my summary is: yes, there are certain throughlines of legibility, durability, and historical interest. But I could see myself over the next couple of years buying watches that are in categories that are brand new for me. I think that’s an exciting part of the hobby.
The Edge: Speaking of categories: OnTheDash is so beloved by the Heuer community, and we’re fascinated looking at the room behind you. Could you talk to us a little bit about your setup there? What’s the On the Dash HQ like in real life for people who’ve been kind of following the website for years?
Jeff: Well, that’s interesting. I’m actually at my office where I’m practising law. But the footnote is that the law office and the watch room are remarkably similar. These are white binders on legal topics. I’m kind of known within the law firm for my white binders. If somebody is researching a topic, one of the first stops is often “we’ll see if Jeff has a white binder!” and my watch room at home is full of white binders on topics like, you know, first Autavia, first Carrera, Skipper. So there is clearly an inclination to document and archive and then to be able to pull it off the shelf and have a look at it. I’ve never thought about it, but I guess this style of information management, where there’s a lot on the thumb drive but also a lot on the shelves, is probably common to the law and the watches.
The Edge: Agreed, binders are crucial tools! Honing in a little closer on Heuer and TAG Heuer, what is your favourite contemporary collection from the Maison?
Fred: The current models, I assume, it’s the Autavia line and the Carreras, these are the two that I like both in vintage as well as the current models.
The Edge: And what about you, Jeff?
Jeff : From the current ones I like what TAG Heuer has done over the last year with the Carreras. I’m a big fan of the modern 42mm Carrera that just came out this year. I think that’s a great watch. To me it’s a perfect example of leveraging the brand heritage to make something that you can walk into a mall and buy. I’m very enthusiastic about that and I mean, going back to the watch I’m wearing today, I’m also interested in what TAG Heuer’s going to do with the Aquaracer, particularly reflecting on the decade or 15 years when these Quartz dive watches kept the brand alive. I’m really interested as to where that will go for the brand…
The Edge: So that actually relates to my next question, which is channelling the perspective of a young collector. What are the most underrated references from the Heuer and TAG Heuer world that haven’t had the attention they deserve, or are somewhat unsung heroes…
Jeff: Sure. Again, my interests and passions sometimes shift with the wind or the season or something, but I’ve really gotten into mid 30s to early 40s period. Again, this was the period when Heuer was expanding the catalogue and really laying the base for the next decades. The first ones were a jumble because they’re not very well documented in catalogues, but I love this period. They’re powered by the Landeron 13 movement, and there are many different shapes and sizes and looks and feels. I think those are interesting if you want to get away from the pack and of course, the pack is very much on the 60s and 70s…
The Edge: What about you Fred?
Fred: Same here, early 40s to mid 40s in general seems relatively underappreciated in market valuation. That’s what I’d really see as an interesting period. And then maybe the triple dates of the 1950s by Heuer that are extremely nice watches – and again, if you look at valuations – are surprisingly cheap at the moment. 60s, I’d say, are generally well loved… and that’s widely visible in the pricing of the watches. And then there’s some interesting watches in the 1970s. The Heuer Calculator, for example, would be one of those hidden gems because it’s very unique in its design. I really like mine a lot and wear it surprisingly often.
The Calculator Heuer from Fred's personal collection
The Edge: Given that you both wear your watches – this is maybe a facile question – but if there was one you had to wear every day for the rest of your life, no matter the situation, never get bored of it, what would it be? And I think we’ll start with you, Fred, because I can see the answer on the tip of your tongue.
Fred: If it needs to be a Heuer then it would be a 3646 Autavia, because Breitling doesn’t have anything similar without an hour count in this design segment. Otherwise, I’d have to say that it would probably be a Breitling co-pilot. But if you’ll stay with Heuer it would be the Autavia 3646.
The Edge: We’ll welcome both. We welcome honesty here!
Jeff: I have to say at this point. Some people are going to be surprised to see Fred’s name in this magazine… but it’s a cool thing to do. To invite the fox into the hen house.
The Edge: But the fox has been so friendly!
Fred: Yeah and there’s mutual respect across both brands. In their history too. And as I said in the past, when I spoke to Breitling’s Jack Karasick in New York, he considered Jack Heuer a great friend in the 1960s. They didn’t see themselves so much as competitors, but as the Swiss trying to conquer the US market and conquer new segments. So, yeah, as I said, respect amongst brands is really something to be proud of and not something to hide, I’d say.
Jeff: No, but you know, people always associate me with Heuer, Heuer, Heuer. But I really don’t see how a person can collect only one brand. You know, if you like the Autavia, I think most collectors would want to explore the Breitling co-pilot. If you like this, then why cut yourself off at the wall that “I’m only collecting this brand and if it’s not in that catalogue, I can’t own it.” To me, it’s much more fulfilling to explore different brands and shared aesthetics. Either shared aesthetics or complementary, opposing ideas. But I think both Fred and I would say that if we were just left in a silo of one brand, it would be just a small part of what we enjoy by exploring the broader market.
The Edge: And being myopic is never in the pursuit of academic rigour or any of those things which have fuelled these developments, innovations and accumulation of knowledge through time. On that note, about your intimate and close relationships to the brands, and being such pivotal figures within these two brands, does it give you a different appreciation and insight into how they operate? Starting with you, Jeff.
Jeff: I think so! Probably the most interesting and contrasting difference between TAG Heuer and Breitling right now is what the brands are doing with their reissues. Fred has been very involved with Breitling and I’ll let him tell the story, but essentially they’re doing almost one-for-one identical reissues of some of the classic watches. So Fred is pulling out his calipers and counting the number of beads on the bezel to try to recreate the identical watch that will be in the Breitling catalogue. TAG Heuer has taken a different approach in that they’re not doing one-to-one recreations, but instead are using the heritage catalogue as points of inspiration. So when you look at the Jack Heuer 88th birthday Carrera, it’s not a one for one. It’s inspired by elements of the history. Or the Hodinkee Skipper. It’s not identical to the original Skipper from 1968, but it’s essentially a marriage, a combination of two or three different Heuers from the heritage catalogue. So that’s a different philosophy and I can’t say which I like better. I like the way both brands are using their history and their heritage. Fred, but maybe you could comment a little on the experience of breathing life into the Breitling catalog.
Jack Heuer 88th birthday Carrera.
The Edge: I’m just suddenly aware of the time, and I don’t want to take up your very valuable time too much longer. Jeff, we do have one last question for you. You’ve been asked a lot about Heuer Grail watches. What to you is the grail of the Grail? Fred: I mean, what it comes down to is, we’ve got two companies with the richest back catalogues you can imagine. And of course, in many ways, the heritage of a brand defines the style of its future. We take inspiration from the past, because that is just the foundation of the company’s characters. And I think that’s extremely important here.
Jeff: The grail of the grail. It’s hard to pick just one!
The Edge: Oh, no, we’re going to have to ask for just one.
Jeff: Just one? I’m going to say the Autavia reference 3646 with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway logo on the dial. To me, it’s a unique watch. It’s the only white dial Autavia from the 1960s. It’s got the racing connexion with Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s got a great back story with how they were produced and distributed. They’re very limited. To me that just combines everything. And I’ll give the Skipperera a 30-second honourable mention.
Oh and I never answered about my everyday watch! There I’d go in a slightly different direction. I’d take an Autavia from the late 60s, manual wind, reference 2446C on the steel bracelet. Not as precious or delicate as some of the earlier ones, but very interesting, and as a good sort of grab and go watch. I think that I would be a very happy man with that as my one-watch collection.
The Edge: Fantastic… and on that note: thank you both! It’s been a ride!