Several months ago, I received a DM on Instagram from the Alpha Hands account. Actually, I should be more precise: I noticed the DM several months ago, but because I didn’t follow the account, it was almost certainly lost in the void of unprioritized IG messages that come from spam bots and random accounts promising thousands of followers for a nominal fee.
Once I saw that the content of the message was clearly watch related, I struck up a conversation with Norm Harris, the owner of the Alpha Hands website, about his project. I noticed right away it was unlike any other watch website I’d seen (and I’ve seen a lot), focused almost exclusively on exhaustive research devoted to various topics that tip Norm’s interest for one reason or another. The site is a treasure trove of information that includes detailed production tables, serial number databases, and a stolen watch registry unlike anything else available (for free) in the space. I hit “Follow,” and mostly kept up with Norm’s posts, but like so many social media endeavors, it wasn’t something that was at the top of mind. That’s not a slight to Norm and his work, but in this strange time with so many serious issues pressing on our brains from day to day, it’s hard (at least for me) for anything remotely frivolous to live rent free in my head, as they say.
But then on July 15, a particular Alpha Hands post caught my attention. “FOUND,” read the caption, “Nina Rindt’s personal UG.”
Nina Rindt’s personal UG? Really? This seemed like the kind of thing that should have more than 85 likes (as of this writing) on Instagram. It is, after all, one of those iconic watches that’s known more by the name of the wearer than its reference number or model designation. While not in the league of the “Paul Newman,” in my estimation the Rindt is probably at least on par with the Siffert (the Pogues and Ed Whites belong in a category of their own, and TinTin and Batman, being fictional, shouldn’t count at all, in my humble opinion). Anyway, here was a story about Ms. Rindt’s personal watch, the woman behind the nickname, which to me seemed like quite a discovery.
I reached out to Norm to congratulate him on a scoop that I thought should be amplified, and after returning to Alpha Hands to read more it seemed clear that his whole endeavor deserved some attention. We ran a story and recorded a podcast recently on sleeper watches, and it struck me that Alpha Hands is a sleeper in the world of watch media.
Norm is an enthusiast and watch lover first and foremost, and Alpha Hands began as a way for him to keep track of his own progress in the hobby as he researched and learned about watches that were of personal interest to him. “I began to collect and organize details so I could learn what original pieces should look like and the prices at which they traded,” he told me, “and in turn shared this information with others to hopefully help in their purchasing decisions.”
His initial area of focus was the Zenith A386, and during the research process Norm learned a lot about what kinds of detail to include and how to organize them. “With each additional reference I refine the process a bit more, so the sections for the more recent references are a bit more comprehensive,” he says. New references are added regularly, but the focus is strictly on vintage, at least for now, as there’s so much information to uncover, and pricing trends are constantly shifting. “The work never ends,” he says, a recognition of the enormous scope of the project.
Norm’s path to the deep level of watch enthusiasm displayed on his site came well after his initial exposure to watches. He had inherited a number of watches through the years – everything from 19th century pocket watches to 1960s chronographs – but the idea that these mechanical devices could serve as a talisman for someone’s life story didn’t hit until a night out with his wife a number of years ago, when he heard a friend relay the origin story of his own watch. “He shared that it had been gifted by his father and the personal story behind the watch,” Norm told me. That dinner sent him on a path of learning about his own watches, having them properly serviced, and eventually stumbling onto the various watch forums and blogs that readers of Worn & Wound are likely intimately familiar with. “I spent ridiculous amounts of time learning about not just my pieces, but others as well.”
A big part of the site, and a product of the research Norm has done along with the connections he’s made, is the Alpha Hands stolen watch registry. While there are other similar registries out there, Norm’s project distinguishes itself with the fact that it’s free. “I think any cost creates a barrier for collectors, so I decided to make the Alpha Hands stolen watch registry free to both search and to post.”
According to Norm, this section is the most time and labor intensive on his site, but it’s worth it to him if it keeps someone from purchasing a stolen watch, or enables law enforcement or a watch’s owner to track something down. With more than 10,000 watches in the registry (and growing), Norm is hopeful that it can be of use, and he’s recently optimized the database to be SEO-friendly, which should make it easier to find, and differentiates it further from similar registries.
Service to the watch community is a thread that runs through each section of the Alpha Hands site. If enthusiasm for a hobby can be defined as seeking and sharing knowledge with others on a topic, Norm fits the bill perfectly. He seems particularly focused on making sure people are armed with information in the context of making a purchase, which narrows the focus of the site somewhat, but increases the likelihood that it could prove to be valuable in a literal sense for a prospective buyer of, for example, the previously mentioned Zenith A386.
To that end, a sizable chunk of the information Norm shares with his readers is on the subject of watch auctions. He sees participating in auctions is a necessity if you’re truly interested in learning about vintage watches, and owning the best examples (or least understanding the difference between the good, bad, and ugly). And Norm isn’t afraid to be brutally honest in how he discusses the auction world. “If you are bidding, seeing pieces in person is a must, as catalog pictures often don’t reflect how a piece really looks,” he says. There’s also an extensive section of Alpha Hands that discusses “auction house frankens and deception,” with well researched information broken down by auction house. It’s an interesting commentary for sure that virtually every reputable auction house is represented in this section, and underscores the potential minefield that vintage watch collecting has become. Norm also includes a seemingly never ending compendium of auctions to come and those that have passed, all with links to catalogs and results, as appropriate. This kind of information is a priceless research tool for a serious collector, and it’s all compiled in one place, which is impressive by any measure.
But the heart of the site, and the purest expression of Norm’s interest in watches, is in the detailed histories of the watches Norm has selected. These sections of the site include extremely detailed accounts of each watch, including the type of deep dive into dial and case details that you’d want if you were looking at an example of one of these watches as a potential purchase and had questions as to its originality. Norm has compiled a head spinning amount of information here, including, where applicable, detailed information on the current status and condition of individual watches.
And that brings us back to the Universal Geneve 885103/02, the “Nina Rindt.” This racing chronograph, powered by the Valjoux 72 movement, was produced between 1964 and 1967, and features a classic white dial with black sub registers. Even if it weren’t made famous by Rindt, a Finnish model and the wife of Formula One driver Jochen Rindt, it seems likely that the reference would still be popular in today’s collecting climate, where anything sporty, steel, and made in the 60s is highly sought after. But the fact that Rindt, a style icon, favored the watch and brought some real racing credibility to it by virtue of her ties to Formula One, makes it something special and easily sets it apart from similar watches produced during the same time period.
The “Nina Rindt” is one of Norm’s personal favorites for its easy wearing comfort and timeless aesthetic. Researching the 885103/02 started in the same way it always does for Norm: by scouring the internet for information on the history of the reference, including locating as many individual case numbers as possible to find every known piece, a lofty goal that takes a great deal of time and effort.
As part of his effort to track down every known example, Norm reached out to Rindt directly, on the off chance she’d be able to provide information about the watch that she helped to make famous a generation ago. To Norm’s delight, and to our benefit, Rindt not only still has the watch in her possession, but was willing to share information about it. As it turns out, Rindt’s watch is a somewhat unusual example.
“The main hour, minute and chronograph seconds hand are not standard for a 885103/02,” according to Norm. As we can clearly see in these photographs of Rindt’s watch compared to a completely original example, the time telling hands are noticeably thinner and a smidge less legible, while the chrono seconds hand is a nonstandard and bright red. Norm is unsure if the change was made according to Rindt’s instructions, perhaps to aid in tracking elapsed time at the track, or the result of a service at some point by a watchmaker who didn’t have the correct replacement parts.
Of course, either scenario is completely plausible, though the former is undoubtedly more romantic, or at least fits into a more appealing narrative than yet another case of a watch losing much of it’s value due to a watchmaker simply doing his job decades ago. The fact that the watch is tied directly to Nina Rindt naturally makes the question of originality somewhat moot. It’s her watch, and if she should decide to part with it (and Norm gave me no indication that was remotely the case), one would think the replaced hands would hardly factor into the buying decision of most collectors.
The discovery of Nina Rindt’s personal watch and its unique character is flat out exciting for fans of vintage sports watches. That excitement, in my estimation, goes well beyond the prospect of acquiring something rare for your own personal collection, but has more to do with a genuine enthusiasm for the hobby. It’s about acquiring knowledge and information, in this case, not an actual watch, and that’s what Alpha Hands is really all about. For watch lovers who thrive on research, minutiae, and the occasional unvarnished opinion about critical institutions within the watch economy, Alpha Hands provides content that is both literally and figuratively valuable, and wholly unique.
Header image courtesy of Analog/Shift
The post It’s in the Details: A Look Inside Alpha Hands, and the Discovery of Nina Rindt’s “Nina Rindt” appeared first on Worn & Wound.