In Brussels, Sharing a Passion for Watches


Michael Luther, 48, an entrepreneur who works with start-ups, right now in Brussels and London, just had to strap on the watch. He had brought to the meeting a previous iteration of the Daytona, the 6263 — “the famous Daytona from the 1970s,” he said — as well as an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore.

Suddenly, everyone pulled out phones and began taking pictures, something you might expect when a bunch of predominantly 20somethings gather. Lieven Desmet, 25, who works in sales and marketing for his family’s antiques company and studies watchmaking at night at Technicum Noord-Antwerpen, just had to photograph the new Daytona.

Then, Nick Huysmans, 24, an information technology auditor for BDO Belgium and the club’s communications and marketing director, took a photo of both Daytonas strapped to Mr. Luther’s wrist. Mr. Kothari did the same, and the two members compared pictures to see which was crisper.

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Club members compare models of the Rolex Daytona.

Credit
Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Other members looked on, offering opinions. And everyone had an opinion, for the members gathered at the hotel’s Crystal Lounge were all passionate about one thing: watches.

“I started this group because I knew no one in Belgium with an interest in watches,” said Geert Van Steen, an event organizer and the club’s president. “I would have to go to London twice a year to meet other watch enthusiasts.” He went on the Rolex watch forum, sent out some emails and got responses from three people.

That was in late 2013; today, the club has 17 members who meet monthly, sometimes for dinner and sometimes just for drinks at various spots around the city.

Open houses are held twice a year where as many as 50 prospective members are invited to attend. “We are a private club; you get asked to join,” Mr. Van Steen, 42, said. “When you’ve got these watches on the table, you want to know who you invite.”

Friendliness is considered a key qualification, and one potential member was ruled out because “all he talked about was the monetary value. That’s not a passion for watches,” Mr. Van Steen said. Most of the members have from four to 10 watches each, although some have quite a few more.

Occasionally members travel together: They rent a house to attend Baselworld, drawing 10 members this year; they went to a watch event in Düsseldorf, Germany, where, Mr. Van Steen recalled, they were greeted with ‘Wow, you’re from the Belgium Watch Club!’ ”

It’s not as if theirs is the only club, of course. “There are plenty of other watch clubs or communities,” Mr. Huysmans said, listing Oyster Passion Club in France and the Dubai Watch Club among his examples. And, he added, “there are a lot of people who randomly meet up but do not belong to a club.”

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The club has 17 members who meet monthly, sometimes for dinner and sometimes just for drinks.

Credit
Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Each of the Brussels club members has his own passion. ”I brought only Omegas today,” Mr. Desmet said, referring to the Constellation, Constellation Calendar, Ranchero, Dynamic and Seamaster Chronograph spread out before him. “I only buy vintage. They’re completely affordable. And some of them have the same movement” as more expensive models today, he noted.

Robin Van Laer, 21, who also is studying watchmaking in Antwerp, said, “I always bring a Rolex.” On this particular night he had brought a Rolex Explorer II, as well as a Sevenfriday P2. “Sevenfridays are quite famous for their design,” noted Stijn Busschaert, 27, who works in real estate in Ghent. Mr. Van Laer’s Sevenfriday is stainless; Mr. Huysman brought one in gold.

Bernard Jeremy Lechaunteur, a 24-year-old student at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, is another fan of Omega and brought a Speedmaster that he noted was the same model as the one American astronauts wore on moon missions. “I found it on the internet, and I just had to have it,” he said. “I’d never sell it.”

“Not even to me?” Mr. Tombeur asked and the men chuckled.

Mr. Lechaunteur also brought two Rolex Submariners — “Like Steve McQueen’s,” he noted — and the Ariadne by Christiaan van Der Klaauw. “That’s a Dutch brand specializing in astronomic pieces,” he explained. “I like that it is independent.”

Mr. Busschaert also brought an unusual brand — in addition to a Seiko SRP77 and a Rolex GMT Master 1675: a Heuer Autavia 1630 Kenyan Air Force. “I like the history of it, that it was on someone’s wrist, flying a plane over Africa,” he said.

Mr. Tombeur, the watch dealer, leaned over to take an admiring look. “My taste goes to old vintage watches, too,” he said, turning the Kenyan Air Force model in his hand.

Talk turned to the state of the watch industry.

“How’s business in China going?” Mr. Kothari asked Mr. Tombeur, whose online operation is based in Hong Kong.

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“I started this group because I knew no one in Belgium with an interest in watches,” said Geert Van Steen, an event organizer and the club’s president.

Credit
Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

“There are still a lot of mainland Chinese buying,” Mr. Tombeur replied. In the Macau casinos, he continued, “everyone is wearing a gold Daytona with lots of diamonds. But the dealers won’t sell them to you. They only sell them to their clients. They say ‘Not for you!’ ”

Everyone laughed knowingly. Mr. Kothari recounted how the same thing had happened to him in Geneva, at the Patek Philippe boutique: “They won’t sell to you. They want you to go to your dealer.”

“We can learn a lot in this club,” Mr. Desmet said. “The members are so knowledgeable and have incredible experience. They know what to look for, and they share their knowledge.”

As the evening continued over pints of Belgian draft, the members’ photos ended up on various social media sites, with Mr. Huysman posting directly to the club’s Instagram page. “Between our various Instagram sites, we’ve got 100,000 followers,” Mr. Luther pointed out.

That following has attracted the attention of watch brands, which regularly invite club members to private dinners and other events. “We’ve all had a chance to sit down with Max Büsser,” Mr. Huysmans said, referring to the gregarious founder of the Swiss brand MB&F.

Some companies even are offering to sponsor meetings, which is being considered, although some members worry that commercialization might lead to a loss of control. “But it can be expensive to run the meetings, especially the open houses,” Mr. Van Steen said.

“If other watch clubs can do it and maintain their integrity, so can we,” Mr. Huysmans countered.

As the evening wore on the talk turned to other matters, like sports and jobs and families, the things any group of good friends would talk about over beers.

By 10 p.m., the watches were cleared off the table, jackets were back on, and pats on the back shared as each member, his thousands of dollars’ worth of watches back in cases and tucked under arms, slipped out the imposing hotel doors onto Avenue de la Toison d’Or and headed into the dark Brussels night.

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