[Editor’s word: Phillips “Game Changers” auction, to be held on December 10, 2019, in New York Metropolis, will embody two watches owned by astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn. The watches are a Breitling Cosmonaute Ref. 809 “Scott Carpenter” mannequin and a custom-made Jaeger-LeCoultre Ref. 3027 “Fortunate 13” watch. Each watches had been bought at an property sale of Glenn’s private property in March 2018. HODINKEE contributor Jeff Stein bought three watches in that sale. Right here he tells the story behind the sale, how he pursued John Glenn’s watches, and the way that pursuit led to the invention of a beforehand unknown watch issued to NASA’s seven authentic Mercury astronauts.]
As a watch collector dwelling within the Jap time zone of the USA, mornings are probably the most thrilling a part of the day. By the point my display wakes up by 5:30 or 6:00, my “watch pals” in Europe and Asia have been chatting. There are new watches listed on the market on many web sites and there may be normally some breaking information within the watch world. On the perfect days, there are updates from UPS or FedEx package deal shall be delivered in the course of the day. The chats proceed all through the day, however the agenda normally kinds within the first couple of hours.
Late-morning on Thursday, March eight, 2018, I obtained a terse message from a buddy: “What’s this all about?” He hooked up a display shot from an Instagram account “Watchknut,” mentioning Breitling Cosmonaute chronograph had simply been bought within the John Glenn property sale. Watchknut requested whether or not any of his Instagram pals may need purchased this watch. The picture on Instagram confirmed 4 watches, with the massive, black Cosmonaute dwarfing the opposite three. The Instagram feedback supplied extra questions than solutions. Why had nobody heard in regards to the John Glenn property sale? The place was the sale being held? Can we buy watches on-line or by telephone? The questions could possibly be collectively summarized as “WTF?”
My fast response was a sort of gut-wrenching ache which may be distinctive to those that accumulate uncommon, outdated issues and endure the trauma of seeing a singular treasure disappear, most often, by no means to be seen once more. I’ve been a fan of Colonel John Glenn since 1962 and have been occupied with his watches since 2006. This explicit model of the Breitling Cosmonaute, worn in house by Scott Carpenter, had been on the high of my “Most Wished” checklist for a number of years.
How may a tray of John Glenn’s watches have been supplied in an property sale with out me listening to about it? Checking the same old dialogue boards and social media, it appeared that the property sale had gone beneath the radar of your complete watch gathering group. Most troubling was the psychological picture of the native property “pickers”, strolling out of the Glenn home with these watches.
There was no Christie’s or Sotheby’s. No on-line catalog. Only a native property sale firm promoting off John Glenn’s belongings, as if he had been simply an peculiar man.
My rage rapidly morphed into analysis. A Google search confirmed that an organization referred to as “Better Washington Property Sale Companies” was conducting a sale of the property of John Glenn, Thursday, March eight, by Sunday, March 11. It was being held within the former Glenn house, in Potomac, Maryland, 641 miles from my workplace in Atlanta.
So, there was no Christie’s or Sotheby’s. There was no on-line catalog, nothing to look or browse. No press launch or full-page commercial in The New York Instances. Only a native Washington, D.C., property sale firm, promoting off John Glenn’s belongings, in his former home, as if he had been simply an peculiar man.
A web page on EstateSales.web supplied 263 small pictures, exhibiting the 1000’s of things on the market. There was the leather-based flight jacket that Glenn wore whereas within the Marines, and two Beanie Child dolls named “Bongo” carrying house fits. From crystal to cologne, and backyard instruments to cuff hyperlinks, the home was filled with on a regular basis gadgets, in addition to a whole bunch of presents that Glenn had obtained as an astronaut and a United States senator. And in the course of all of it, there was this tray with eight wristwatches.
Mickey or Willie?
Flipping by all of the pictures of Glenn’s private gadgets took me again to the 1960s. Again then, children rooted for the Mercury astronauts the identical means they rooted for sports activities groups, athletes or musicians. Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays; the Dodgers or the Giants; Ford or Chevrolet. From every pairing, a child may root for one (and just one). There have been John, Paul, George and Ringo, with my pals declaring their favourite there, as effectively.
So, too, with the seven Mercury astronauts. Their names are nonetheless etched in my thoughts – there have been two Cs; two Gs, and the three Ss: Carpenter and Cooper; Glenn and Grissom; Schirra, Shepard and Slayton. Some pals selected their favorites primarily based on the department of the navy that they had served in – Navy, Air Power, or Marines. The media confirmed us their smiles, their wit and – after all – their wives.
Colonel John Glenn had at all times been my favourite of the Mercury seven. He was the one Marine among the many seven, and had flown in World Struggle II and Korea, incomes six Distinguished Flying Crosses. In 1957, he accomplished the primary transcontinental flight to common supersonic velocity. And naturally, in February 1962, he was the primary American to orbit the Earth, turning into such an necessary hero to his nation that he wouldn’t be allowed a second flight on Gemini or Apollo, for worry that he could possibly be misplaced.
I reminisced in regards to the Mercury astronauts, however rapidly returned to the duties at hand – finding out the pictures of the seven remaining watches, attempting to determine whether or not there was one which I would wish to pursue, and whether or not it could even be doable to buy one among these watches.
Figuring out the seven watches turned out to be the simple half. I may see two “time solely” navy model watches, Hamiltons from the 1940s or 1950s; two watches from LeCoultre, one with a real 24-hour indication dial, the opposite with every hour marked “13”; a two-register Bulova chronograph from the mid-1960s; a plastic Seiko Pulsemeter chronograph; and a gold-plated Hermès world time pocket watch. (The sale additionally included a couple of base-metal watches, together with a pendant watch and a cartoon character watch.) It didn’t take lengthy for me to make my imaginary “choice.”
A Poor Man’s Heuer
I accumulate mechanical chronographs from the 1930s into the 1980s, and there was solely a type of on the tray, the two-register Bulova chronograph. As I studied the blurry picture of the watch, I grew to become extra enthusiastic. For a very long time, I’ve been an enormous fan of the “poor man’s Heuers,” the chronographs made by Heuer however bought beneath different model names (for instance, Hamilton and Zodiac). I knew that Heuer had made some chronographs for Bulova, and this actually gave the impression to be one among them. The dial and case gave the impression to be similar to the Heuer Reference 404.
The following problem was probably the most daunting: the right way to purchase the Bulova chronograph from an property sale a whole bunch of miles away, with no preparations for on-line or phone purchases.
The web site for Better Washington Property Companies included an e-mail deal with, a contact type that could possibly be submitted and a phone quantity. By 12 midday on the primary day of the sale, I had pursued all three channels. Nobody answered the telephone and the mailbox was full. I despatched a short textual content message expressing my curiosity in any or all the remaining watches. I referred to as each hour. By eight o’clock within the night, it was time to stop.
I’ve purchased dozens of classic chronographs over my 20-year gathering profession, however placing this watch on my wrist was completely different from all of the others.
Late Thursday night introduced a breakthrough. Karen Jones, the proprietor of Better Washington Property Companies, responded to my e mail message. She instructed me that a number of the watches had been bought in the course of the day, however that a number of remained accessible. Subsequent late-night messages forwards and backwards confirmed that the Bulova chronograph was accessible, together with the LeCoultre with 24-hour indication and each Hamilton navy watches. She instructed me to name her the next morning, and we may focus on doable preparations for a purchase order.
I spent a lot of the night looking for pictures of John Glenn carrying this Bulova chronograph, with out success. Nonetheless, the truth that John Glenn owned the watch was sufficient for me, with the damage on the strap suggesting that he had worn it usually.
On Friday morning, earlier than the doorways opened for the second day of the property sale, I referred to as my new greatest good friend, Karen. I dialed up the Southern accent (and appeal), dialed down the watch-hustler tone, and confirmed that I needed to buy the Bulova chronograph. By the tip of the day I had organized for cost, and the Bulova chronograph arrived safely a few days later.
I’ve obtained dozens of classic chronographs over my 20-year gathering profession, however the expertise of placing this watch on my wrist was completely different from all of the others. The watch appeared similar to the opposite Heuer Reference 404 chronographs in my assortment, however there was one thing magical about tightening the strap on my wrist. This was the watch worn by John Glenn, and 50 years later, it was now firmly hooked up to my wrist.
A Bizarre Quartermaster
With the joys of carrying this Bulova chronograph, I made a decision to have one other have a look at the unsold watches. The Hamilton navy watches had been linked to an necessary part of Glenn’s profession, however navy watches will not be actually my factor. So my focus shifted to the little black LeCoultre watch with the 24-hour dial.
I’ve at all times been a fan of watches with true 24-hour indication, however this one appeared actually bizarre. I used to be vaguely aware of a LeCoultre watch with true 24-hour indication, referred to as the “Quartermaster,” however the John Glenn 24-hour watch (which we are going to name the LeCoultre “Mercury 7”) appeared very completely different. The Quartermaster has unique utilized steel numerals for the even numbers, with dramatic arrowheads for the odd-numbered hours, evoking the model of the mid-1950s. A “railroad monitor” with finely-printed numerals circles the dial.
Against this, the numerals and markings on Glenn’s Mercury 7 watch had been very crude, the end being effectively under that of the Quartermaster. It appeared that, to make the Mercury 7 dial, somebody had taken a Quartermaster dial, stripped the markers and paint, and reapplied the numerals and hash-marks utilizing a bottle of “white-out”. I posted a photograph of the watch on a few main watch boards and obtained the type of responses that I anticipated. The LeCoultre consultants declared it to be a faux or a poor-quality refinish of a Quartermaster. The navy watch guys supplied no info in any respect. Nonetheless, there was one thing intriguing about this watch, and I desperately needed it to be genuine.
Watch collectors can spend an inordinate period of time on Google, Getty Photographs and different picture websites, attempting to identify our heroes carrying attention-grabbing watches. These researching astronauts and their watches face the problem of abundance. NASA has revealed 1000’s of high-resolution pictures of the early astronauts (from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo packages), protecting each facet of their lives – coaching for missions, at press conferences, on their flights. Clicking by pictures of the seven Mercury astronauts, searching for to determine their watches, is a mind-numbing endeavor.
Discovering good pictures of John Glenn carrying watches was particularly difficult. Greater than the opposite astronauts, he tended to put on long-sleeve shirts. And whereas most individuals put on their watches with the dial atop their wrist, Glenn invariably wore his watch with the dial on the within of his wrist, providing the general public a fantastic view of the bracelet, however no view of the watch itself.
A 24-Hour Time Coach
Visits to the “CollectSpace” on-line discussion board turned up one thing that I had not heard earlier than. A passage within the autobiography of Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra, “Schirra’s House,” recommended NASA engineer named Harold Johnson had ordered eight watches, with true 24-hour indication, for every of the seven Mercury astronauts and one for himself. Apparently, engineer Johnson believed that whereas orbiting the earth each 90 minutes, and going from daylight to darkness and again to sunlight so continuously, the astronauts would want timepieces with 24-hour indication. The Mercury 7 watches would get them accustomed to studying 24-hour time.
With so many NASA pictures, and so many watch fanatics targeted on the watches worn by astronauts, was it doable that Mercury astronauts carrying this watch throughout coaching may have gone unnoticed? We all know the chronology of the early astronauts and their watches: the Heuer stopwatch, the Breitling Cosmonaute, the Omega Speedmasters, the Bulova Accutrons. Might there be one more astronauts’ watch not recognized to the collectors’ group?
Off I went, into the NASA archives, searching for any proof that the Mercury astronauts may need worn these bizarre little LeCoultre 24-hour indication watches. Proof got here rapidly. I discovered an enormous picture of Alan Shepard carrying the LeCoultre Mercury 7 watch on the quilt of Life. And one among Scott Carpenter carrying this humorous wanting little watch, as he discusses a doc with Glenn. And John Glenn carrying the LeCoultre Mercury 7 within the days earlier than his flight, operating on the seashore in Florida and standing on the launch pad. And Glenn once more carrying the identical watch, days after his flight, sitting subsequent to President John F. Kennedy in a limousine, because the nation celebrates his flight.
Might or not it’s that there was one more astronauts’ watch not recognized to the collector group?
I questioned how NASA had chosen this LeCoultre watch and the place these particular Mercury 7 watches had been made. However some issues had been completely sure. This was the watch that had been issued to the seven Mercury astronauts. This was the watch that Glenn had worn within the interval instantly earlier than and instantly after his February 1962 flight. And this was the following watch that belonged in my assortment. I referred to as Karen Jones, and three days after sending the financial institution examine, I obtained the watch.
Placing this little watch on my wrist introduced a way of shock. John Glenn wore this watch in February 1962 and now I used to be carrying it. In a number of the NASA pictures, I noticed a big dent in one of many hyperlinks of the bracelet; this stunning dent was nonetheless there, however now on my wrist. I considered the collectors who had purchased Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona and Steve McQueen’s Heuer Monaco, and questioned how they felt carrying these watches. However I may truthfully say, no less than to myself, “Neglect these guys. I’m carrying John Glenn’s watch.” Newman and McQueen had been actors forged as heroes. John Glenn was a real-life hero, celebrated world wide. Greater than that, he was my hero.
One Watch Too Many?
The exuberance of carrying Glenn’s Mercury 7 LeCoultre introduced the urge so as to add one other Glenn watch to my assortment. It was now greater than per week after the sale, however the two Hamilton navy watches had not been bought. One in all them gave the impression to be older than the opposite, with a sub-seconds hand on the backside of the dial, and navy markings on the caseback. The newer watch had a center-mounted second hand and had no navy markings on the caseback.
Some fast visits to navy watch boards and web sites confirmed that the older Hamilton would have been issued by the Marine Corps circa 1944. Wikipedia confirmed that Glenn had joined the Marines in 1943 and that he had shipped out to Hawaii in early 1944. That was sufficient info for me. I bought that watch, figuring out comparatively little about Marine-issued Hamilton watches or Glenn’s navy profession, however glad that the analysis may come later.
When it arrived and I opened the field, my first response was that I had purchased one watch too many. The crystal was someplace between yellow and inexperienced, the fingers had been lined in rust, and the crown wouldn’t budge to wind or set the time. Sure, the markings on the caseback had been good, however at this level it was a extra a memento than a watch.
All this modified once I obtained the watch again after servicing. A brand new crystal confirmed that the dial was moderately contemporary, the crown labored correctly, and the motion ran to inside the authentic navy specs. The gentleman who restored the watch confirmed that this was one of many watches issued to Marine Corps pilots on the time Glenn had enlisted.
Within the 20 months because the John Glenn property sale, I’ve had all three of the watches serviced and I put on them often. Certainly, these three watches characterize most of the issues that I take pleasure in most about watch gathering: the joys of the chase and the satisfaction of collaborating with good individuals to be taught in regards to the historical past of the watches, to purchase them, and to revive them. However in the long run, the enjoyment of those explicit watches comes from carrying them, figuring out childhood hero of mine additionally wore them, over 50 years in the past.
At the moment, fanatics debate the actual function of carrying watches. Past displaying the time, serving as trend equipment or social statements, or giving us the pleasure of working fantastic mechanical devices, watches join us with individuals or issues that we take pleasure in, maybe our heroes or our historical past. Watches can even present a way of escape, from the right here and now to a memorable period.
John Glenn wore the Mercury 7 day-after-day – whereas coaching for his flight, operating on the seashore, and using with President Kennedy. On a given day, I put on this similar watch, sitting at my desk or in a gathering. I can slide up my cuff and have a look at my watch, and it takes me again to February 1962. I see my household’s black-and-white tv exhibiting Friendship 7 blasting off from the launch pad, and I hear Scott Carpenter saying “Godspeed, John Glenn”. There may be a number of the similar pleasure that I felt as a six-year-old, seeing my childhood hero using a rocket towards the celebrities.
For extra details about the watches of John Glenn, see the OnTheDash posting, “Watching John Glenn”.