A Rolex with a Fascinating NASA Past

PAST THE HOUR Gary Shteyngart’s precious watch nestled in ephemera of its era.
PAST THE HOUR Gary Shteyngart’s precious watch nestled in ephemera of its era. Illustration: JULIEN PACAUD

I AM A WATCH COLLECTOR. There, I’ve said it. While I’ve always thought that “collecting” of any sort was the province of geeky children (yes, I collected stamps for about nine months as an eight-year-old) or adults with too much time on their hands, I have now become one of these people, the ones with a safe, an insurance policy and a favorite dealer. Watches relax me. Thinking about watches relaxes me. Sometimes, on a long plane ride, I’ll look at a photo of a watch on my phone while wearing another watch on my wrist. Is that sick? Feel free to judge me.

It all started three years ago, as I was writing a novel entitled “Lake Success” about a hedge-fund manager who was also a watch collector, and who would try to use watches as a way to communicate with his autistic son. The more I wrote about these watches, the less ironic I felt about the idea of owning them. I bought one, and then another, and another, and well, nearly a dozen watches later, here we are. My favorite watch of the brood? A Rolex GMT 1675 with a gilt dial that once belonged to a storied NASA official.

My Rolex GMT is a watch of nostalgia and of parallel lives.

What makes this particular watch so special to me? The GMT, which can track two time zones, was originally used in 1955 by Pan Am pilots. As a young immigrant from the former Soviet Union arriving in the U.S. in 1979 at the age of seven, I promptly fell in love with everything Pan Am, from the gorgeous 747s that seemed to symbolize the essence of America itself to the towering Pan Am building at the base of Park Avenue (it now belongs to the formerly Snoopy-affiliated insurance company people). I lived in Queens, a borough with two airports, and while I was in love with planes, I was also in love with the space program.

My Rolex GMT originally belonged to one Charles “Chuck” Friedlander, former chief of NASA’s Astronaut Support Office, a space consultant to Walter Cronkite at CBS News, and a NASA liaison to Richard Nixon’s White House. When I put on this watch, I think of the intense history its owner must have experienced—all that American history that I have missed by dint of being born too late and an ocean away. After reading a fascinating interview with Friedlander on the internet, I can imagine him pulling pranks with Buzz Aldrin, chatting it up with Walter Cronkite and trying to squeeze more funds out of Spiro Agnew, who, according to Friedlander, was not terribly supportive of the space program. This man and this watch—first purchased at a Rolex retailer in Cocoa Beach, Fla.—were privy to some of our country’s proudest moments. The very act of strapping it on to my wrist gives me hope for the future.

OK, perhaps you’re now a little interested in the idea of a watch with history and pedigree, or “provenance” as the auction houses would have it. How did I get this guy? (Yes, watch collectors will often refer to one of their cherished pieces as a “guy.”) The key to everything is building a relationship with a watch dealer you can trust, and in Eric Wind, formerly of Christie’s and now the proprietor of his own e-commerce site Wind Vintage, I have found one of the smartest, most well-read and curious people in the business.

When I told Eric I was looking for a GMT, I expected something in excellent condition, but he went beyond the call of duty and got me a piece that not only had history but the documents to prove it. My GMT came with all of the paperwork one could hope for, including its original chronometer certificate, showing the results of its accuracy tests in Switzerland. According to Eric, watches that come with “papers,” are worth a premium of about 25% over those without. “What is notable about the watch is the condition,” Eric told me, “the glossy dial with ‘gilt’ or gold text is absolutely flawless while the steel case has also never seen a polishing wheel and can be given the rare and highly desirable term ‘unpolished’ by serious collectors.” On the occasions that I’ve taken my GMT out for a spin to horological events (yes, they exist, along with secret watch meetups in clandestine locations) the recognition my “guy” receives from fellow WIS, or Watch Idiot Savants, has been pleasing.

But collecting watches should not be a status game. I love the GMT for my own personal reasons, such as its beautiful “Pepsi” bezel, so nicknamed because of its red and blue Pepsi colors, which is used to tell the second time zone. Between Pan Am, NASA and Pepsi, the GMT is truly an All-American watch. And because I travel incessantly, I find myself constantly looking up the time back home, picturing my son dispatching his favorite hot dog at lunch, even as I’m wrestling down a nasi lemak in some tropical clime. My Rolex GMT is a watch of nostalgia and of parallel lives. It has seen humanity’s journey into space and now must content itself with merely being this writer’s muse.

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