The thrill of the (cheap) hunt: Marc Ablaza collects watches

The Thrill of the (cheap) hunt
By Walter Ang
November-December 2010 issue
Asian Dragon Magazine

Pawnshop scion Marc Ablaza collects watches but doesn't have to dig deep into his wallet. He tells Walter Ang it's all about 
The thrill of the (cheap) hunt

When people find out that Marc Ablaza has a collection of Seiko, Citizen and Casio G-Shock wristwatches, the first question they always ask is "Why not Swiss watches?"

While he doesn't dismiss the pleasure most collectors derive from owning classic Swiss timepieces, he also points out that these are the pieces that most collectors deal with, and most of them are just in it for the resale value. "I want to be different," he says. "I'm in it for the fun of it!"

Like a kid with his stacks of gaming cards, Ablaza has an earnest gleam in his eye when he talks about his collection. Scion to the Ablaza chain of pawnshops, Marc grew up surrounded by plastic bags filled with Rolexes and an assortment of other well-known brands. He had, however, no particular attachment or fascination for them.

His first watch was given to him when he was four so he could learn to tell time. He'd occasionally be given a new watch or two while he was growing up, but the only appeal was perhaps some playground bragging rights since "it wasn't too often that you'd see a grade school student wearing a wristwatch." In high school, Ablaza discovered diving and had to acquire a chronograph wristwatch.

Of course, these days, he sings a different tune. His collection is young by most measures. In the mid-90s, he went to Hong Kong and scored a Seiko chronograph at "a fantastic value." That was the beginning of a new relationship with the brand he'd grown up with.

First off, he realized that he enjoyed Seiko's mechanical precision. He also notes the brand's "underdog" quality. "The Japanese took technology from the Swiss then made it even better," he says.

Also, he finds the historical perspective fascinating. "We were the second largest market for Japanese wristwatches for quite a while, so there are pieces out there that aren't commonly found anywhere else in the world," he says.

Unfortunately, there were quite a number of shrewd buyers who would purchase Seiko pieces in the country at cheaper prices and sell them off abroad for profit. So part of the adventure in collecting this brand is chasing down the pieces.

However, Ablaza doesn't have suspenseful stories of going down dingy side streets, or meeting suspicious men in overcoats in dark alleys to acquire new pieces. "I get all of my stuff from eBay!" he announces.

He usually starts off by shortlisting dial designs that he likes, and bids on them. If the bid goes beyond what he's willing to pay for it, he has no problem letting a piece go. "I'm attracted to parts of a wristwatch that have interesting elements," he says, listing features such as dials with unusual colors, multiple hands, and crowns and pushbuttons that are positioned in places other than the usual right side of the bezel.

Sometimes, in the course of his search, he will end up with just the dial or just the bracelet of a piece. Hunting down the corresponding part adds to the thrill. Otherwise, he'll simply match two parts that weren't originally meant for each other, or he takes a trip to his favorite craftsman to have a bracelet fashioned.

Purists needn't bother trying to get acquainted with Ablaza, since his tinkering has evolved into occasionally customizing his pieces. He'll have a dial in a non Seiko-issued color made from scratch or come up with a bracelet design just because.

Beyond surface aesthetics, Ablaza also usually has the watches' casebacks opened so he can determine the condition and type of the machine or "watch caliber," as it's called amongst watch enthusiasts. "The machine is the heart and soul of the watch," he says. "For example, chronograph seikos are complications because of the many functions the machine can do. The machines or modules on the quartz watches are a different matter altogether. The more functions a quartz watch has, the more complicated the modules."

Ablaza's collection is always anchored on two things. "I get designs that I like, since I wear all the pieces I acquire," he says, noting that some collectors never wear any of their pieces. "What's the point of that?" he wonders out loud, shaking his head.

"Importantly, they have to be cheap," he says. The low price of his watches helps keep the process fun. "I don't want to have to think or worry about where I have to source the funds to acquire a piece I like."

The choice of collecting Seiko watches isn't really about being different, but about being true to himself. "I'm not one to get a fancy expensive Omega watch that looks nice, because it's simply not me," he says.

For someone who collects watches, Ablaza confesses to not being too conscious of where he swings or places his arms. "And you know how it is, the more fancy or expensive your watch is, the faster it gets scratched as soon as you start wearing it," he says with a laugh. "So I get cheap ones. If I bang them up, it's all right."