How Claude Sfeir Ended Up On a Bicycle With Philippe Dufour
Watchonista talks to one of the world’s most important watch collectors about dismantling Patek Philippes for gold, photocopying auction catalogs, and biking in the forest with Philippe Dufour. It’s the stuff that films are made of.
Claude Sfeir’s love for watches has come a long way since his grandmother offered him a Seiko calculator watch.
During the 1980s, young Sfeir left war-torn Beirut with his family and settled in Dubai. His father worked as a taxi driver, and he and his two brothers worked summer jobs at a diamond cutting workshop to pay for their schooling.
At 18 years of age, he started working in a small shop in a souk in Dubai. “I would take Rolexes and Patek Philippes and break them up for the gold, for eight dollars per gram,” he shudders.
Later, he started buying and selling watches and traveled the world, seeking out what he could find, from Geneva to London and New York. He began by buying what he liked, what caught his eye, without any real knowledge of the watch world.
A Love Of Auctions
He loved the auctions and reminisced fondly about photocopying the auction catalogs from the likes of Antiquorum, Christie's, Sotheby's, and Bonhams. He still has the photocopies, keeping them as a souvenir of his early days in the watch business.
But not all the memories are sweet. He was cheated, lost a lot of money with watches that turned out to be fakes, or revamped using non-original dials, so he read books on watchmaking, visited museums, and expanded his knowledge. “I learned the hard way, making plenty of mistakes along the way. I went from kindergarten to a Ph.D. in 41 years!"
His story is a fairy tale of sorts, especially when you learn that he has one of the most impressive watch collections in the world today. Sfeir is revered for his watch knowledge and has been on the jury of the Grand Prix d'Horlogerie de Genève for numerous years, and he calls Philippe Dufour one of his closest friends. It is a scenario fit for a film.
A 40 Year Friendship
Sfeir and Dufour have been friends for over 40 years, since the days when Dufour was repairing pocket watches. They would always meet up at the fairs across Switzerland, and Dufour would advise Sfeir about what to buy.
Dufour recently put out a press release announcing a partnership with Sfeir, who will be helping him on the commercial side, so that he can concentrate on making watches. “No one realizes just how much time goes into his watches,” says Sfeir about his friend’s work. "He can spend a whole year working on a grande sonnerie, for example, and that includes Saturdays and Sundays too.”
Upcoming Production And Lottery
Last month a Philippe Dufour Simplicity 20th Anniversary timepiece was presented in Phillips’ “Retrospective 2000-2020” auction. The estimate was between CHF 200,000 and CHF 400,000, and it sold for the outstanding sum of CHF 1,369,000.
Sfeir then announced that this watch was the first of 21 watches to be made over two years – seven pieces in white gold with a light-gray dial, and seven pink gold pieces with a brown dial. “Once the news was out, the response was crazy, and I was getting between 4,000 and 5,000 emails a day, many from which were from close friends, and we didn’t want to make anyone angry, so we decided on a lottery.”
There will also be a watch dedicated to the next Only Watch auction where the proceeds will support research into Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. This watch will be even more special as it will be a collaboration between Dufour and his daughter, who is also an accomplished watchmaker.
Sfeir's affection for the Dufour family shines through when he speaks of them. He always stays at their house when he is the Jura, and the two friends often go for a bike ride in the forest in the morning. In fact, it is this photo of them on their bikes, smiling like 10-year-olds, that accompanies the press release announcing their official collaboration. An image can tell a thousand words about their friendship, and this photo says it all!
Their stories prove that hard work and perseverance can bring extraordinary success, but also that what counts in life is doing what you love with the people you love, and that's a story that is good to hear as we end 2020.
(Images © Phillipe Dufour & Claude Sfeir)