Hodinkee: The Road Through Britain Episode 4: Somlo Antiques
From Hodinkee: The Road Through Britain by Arthur Touchot
If you want to purchase a vintage Omega timepiece from an authorized dealer, there’s literally only one shop in the entire world that can help you: Somlo Antiques & Omega Vintage. The little shop located at the northwest corner of the Burlington Arcade has very little to do with British watchmaking – other than the fact it’s owned and operated by an Englishman with a penchant for British pocket watches – but we just had to make a stop in London to see why it’s the destination for everything vintage Omega.
George Somlo has been selling antiques for more than 40 years, starting at the tender age of 13, when his father asked him to lend a helping hand at his shop on Portobello Road on the weekends. After briefly leaving the family business to pursue a career in accounting, Somlo returned to antiques, opening his first shop on Bond Street before transferring to the arcades nearby – first came the Piccadilly Arcade, and then in 2008 the Burlington Arcade.
That move was triggered by a conversation with Nicolas G. Hayek, co-founder of the Swatch Group, who had noticed none of the many vintage dealers in the Burlington Arcade seemed to carry vintage Omega. Wanting to raise the stock of these watches, Hayek approached Somlo with the idea of opening the first legitimately authorized vintage Omega retailer. It was a totally novel idea, and at the time a bit of a shock for the industry to see manufacturer support the sale of second-hand watches. Tudor very recently became the second watch company to support the sale of vintage pieces, albeit next to wristwatches in their current collection, but this is anathema to how the watch industry has traditionally operated.
Ask Somlo about wristwatches, and he’ll be the first to admit he didn’t think they would become as popular as they are today. His own collection focuses primarily on pocket watches from the golden age of British watchmaking – the era of Thomas Tompion, John Arnold, George Graham, and Thomas Mudge. He also owns a Breguet souscription watch, a decidedly non-British (and unbelievably impressive) creation.
What his watches have in common is that they contain early examples of important innovations. Tompion was one of the first watchmakers to utilize balance springs in his watches, and Somlo’s example, made in the 1680s, is one of his earliest attempts (this was only a few decades after Huygens fitted a spiral balance spring to a timepiece for the first time, around 1657). He also has a watch made by Graham, Tompion's apprentice, that contains a very early cylinder escapement, which Graham had introduced just two years earlier, in 1725. The cylinder escapement was the first real alternative to the earlier verge, and became very popular for a time until being eclipsed by the lever and detent escapements. The watch dates to 1727.
While his personal preference still lies in antique pieces, Somlo says he decided to add wristwatches to his shop windows as a necessity, once it became obvious that not all his clients necessarily shared his love of antiquarian pocket watches. And, sure enough, a young and curious new crowd soon came through the doors to talk about wristwatches at Somlo Antiques.
A military issue Seamaster 300? A "lollipop" Speedmaster 2998-1? A Chronometer 30T2? You name it, Somlo’s got it. And, if for some strange reason they don’t, they can almost certainly find it for you. That incredibly rare Speedmaster Mission Case that brings together 23 Speedsmasters? Of course they have one of the 40 ever made. It's not even a question.
Omega isn’t the only brand Somlo carries. The boutique also offers vintage pieces from Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Piaget. But what makes Omega unique, according to Somlo, is the volume of watches the company has made throughout its history, which ensures there will be no shortage of stock. And he wouldn’t be able to carry those had Omega not been consistent in its record keeping. Most manufactures, especially those producing mass quantities, aren’t capable of telling you about each and every piece which has left their workshops, but Omega can. And for Somlo, it will.
A number of illustrious watchmakers have also gained experience working at Somlo Antiques. This includes British watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin; the man currently tasked with repairing Omega watches at Somlo, Wayne Clark, has a large tattoo of an Omega movement on his left forearm. If that doesn’t put you at ease, I don’t know what will. Clark is Omega-trained and officially on the Swiss company’s payroll. He’s capable of completing most repairs in London, receives parts supplied directly from Omega, and is in constant communication with its museum. And that explains, to some extent, why Somlo customers do not mind paying a premium for their Omegas. You know you're getting the real deal.
Somlo’s lease is expiring next year, and Somlo admits he fears specialized retailers are being pushed out by higher rents. Already, larger companies are slowly invading the narrow London thoroughfare, but he says Omega has thrown its full support behind the boutique. Years after he first arrived with the support of Mr. Hayek, the Burlington Arcade is now full of Omega watches, but none quite matches the collection which can be found at Somlo. And that isn't changing anytime soon.
For more on Somlo Antiques, visit Somlo.com.