Rare opportunity: The Oak Collection at the Design Museum

Explore a private collection of timepieces featuring more than one hundred of the world’s finest watches

Watches & Jewellery 13 May 2022

Rolex Daytona Paul Newman ref 6239

There’s a real treat in store for haute horlogerie aficionados and enthusiasts this month at the Design Museum. It’s almost unknown for a collector to share their collection with the public, particularly without any commercial purpose, but here’s a chance to view one of the world’s greatest privately-owned collections of wrist and pocket watches gathered together. The Oak Collection – One of A Kind – has been passionately assembled over 40 years by an individual who chooses not to be named. 

The exhibition takes visitors on the collector’s journey over four decades in assembling exceptional timepieces whose rarity and diversity are matched by the quality, provenance and perfect condition of each piece. Each of the 150 pieces on show, drawn from over 480 significant pieces in the Collection, are almost exclusively one-of-a-kind watches, watches produced in limited series as special editions or on special order, the most valuable examples of their type. Many are museum-worthy. It’s a first for such a large and exceptional collection of Patek Philippe, Rolex and other highest-end watchmakers. More than half the collection comprises antique or vintage watches from the 20th century and includes the largest number of “grail” watches outside the Patek Philippe Museum – those originally owned by the banking and railroad heir Henry Graves Jr. Many of the other Patek Philippe timepieces were made bespoke, in close collaboration with the collector. The exhibition also showcases extraordinary vintage and contemporary World Time wristwatches by Patek Philippe, displaying the time in all 24 time zones, decorated with a guilloché pattern or a colourful map entirely crafted by hand in cloisonné enamel.

Patek Philippe Calatrava ref 1518R

While Patek Philippe is the most strongly represented maker, and the exhibition includes the largest concentration of the marque’s Calatrava collection, the paradigm of the dress watch, and wristwatches made significant by their ownership history, like those once owned by Eric Clapton and Jean-Paul Belmondo, notable pieces from other marques are also highlighted. There’s a tribute to the beauty and engineering of chronographs, a complication dear to the owner’s heart since he began collecting. Over the years, he gathered together outstanding pieces by Patek Philippe and Rolex, including pre-Daytonas and Paul Newman Daytonas, plus important pieces by Audemars Piguet, A Lange & Söhne, Heuer, Breguet, Universal and more, all remarkable for their technical and aesthetic significance. 

Throughout the collection, originality is key. Not only is each and every watch in pristine condition, an irrefutable acquisition criterion since the beginnings of the collection, but they are also in perfect working order, and serviced several times a year by a certified watchmaker dedicated to The Oak Collection. 

Curated by a hand-picked team of watch world elites, the exhibition runs 19-25 May at the Design Museum before heading off on a global tour. The collector, an entrepreneur, explains he began to buy watches at a price he could afford when he achieved a moderate level of success. ‘Gradually, that amount increased and, little by little, the watches became better and the passion for collecting them became stronger. Perhaps strangely, I never thought of the financial aspect or that values might rise – but, thankfully, I seem to have bought the right ones at the right time,’ he says. 

Patek Philippe tourbillon chronometer pocket watch, made for Henry Graves Jr, circa 1932

In the early stages, he would look for rarities wherever he travelled. He built up a tight network of trusted experts who are now the only people through whom he acquires new pieces for The Oak Collection. 

‘I see being able to send The Oak Collection exhibition around the world both as a reward to myself for building it and as a unique opportunity to share it with the many people who are just as passionate about watches as I am, but have not been as fortunate as me in having the time and the means to acquire so many special pieces,’ he says. ‘I really do see owning them as an honour and, with that, comes an obligation to let others enjoy them.’