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Meet Singapore’s Vintage Watch Don

Shawn Tan, founder of Heirloom Gallery

Buying a vintage watch in Singapore? You ought to speak to Shawn Tan of Heirloom Gallery. 

Shawn Tan, founder of Heirloom Gallery

Feted by lifestyle magazines, trade publications, expert bloggers and serious watch collectors as one of the must-visits for anyone who is interested in vintage timepieces, Heirloom Gallery certainly lives up to its reputation. The swanky boutique at The RiverWalk looks like a chic fashion enclave but is a treasure trove filled with horological rarities from World War II pilot’s watches that once adorned the wrists of actual military men, to a plethora of hard-to-find Rolexes, Cartiers, Omegas, Longines… the list goes on.

The shop is a labour of love by owner Shawn Tan, who left a lucrative career as an international tax consultant in 2000 to start the business. A collector of vintage memorabilia, Shawn was first piqued by timepieces, toys, stamps and the like, before getting hooked on vintage timepieces. At one point, he was buying a watch every other day, and would trade timepieces with likeminded collectors to finance his hobby. “Eventually, Heirloom Gallery started because the hobby really became too big,” he says. 

An amazing array of 1940s vintage pilot’s watches on display from brands like (from left) Laco, Stowa, A. Lange & Söhne and Wempe. 
An amazing array of 1940s vintage pilot’s watches on display from brands like Laco, Stowa, A. Lange & Söhne and Wempe. 

Taking us on a tour of the premises and picking out timepieces for our perusal, Shawn impresses with his depth of knowledge and the variety of his inventory. We spied many astounding offerings, including an old Tutima chronograph from the 1940s, which predated the Glashütte Original brand, a rare Rolex ‘Verislim’ from the 1960s with engine-turned bezel, and an Omega single-button chronograph with porcelain dial from the 1920s.

Tell us how Heirloom Gallery got its reputation. 

“I specialise in vintage timepieces and people know that Heirloom Gallery is a place to go if you are serious about getting a vintage timepiece. The misconception is that people equate the word ‘vintage’ with ‘expensive’, this is not necessarily the case.”

Was it hard to transition from being a collector to a trader?

“In the past, I would buy whatever I liked. I didn’t care about the so-called ‘value’ of the watch. For instance, there was a time when I would spend more on a vintage Omega chronograph than vintage Rolex Submariners and GMTs, which didn’t translate into good commercial sense – but I did so strictly because of my preferences. But being a dealer, I realised that I have to be attuned to market needs to grow my business.”

Omega single-button chronograph with porcelain dial from the 1920s
Omega single-button chronograph with porcelain dial from the 1920s 

Describe your vetting process. 

“I only buy from reliable sources, meaning partners that I have been working with for many years. This is important because I can go back to these guys should there be something wrong with the watches. Vintage watches can be tricky to authenticate. Today, there is a wealth of information on the internet and customers can do their research on the watch – the movements, dials, hands, what has been changed and so on. I believe in a transparent process and I will provide all the necessary documentation, and even have the watch opened in front of them to inspect.” 

How does one build trust in this business?

“Money is important but it is not everything. Customers need to know that they can come back to me and should there be something wrong with the watches that they have bought from me, they can expect a full refund – reasonably of course, given that they did not damage the watch in their possession. There is a warranty for the watches that I sell, and I also provide technical service for my customers.” 

Longines chronograph from the 1940s
Longines chronograph from the 1940s

What advice do you have for people who what to get into vintage watches? 

“When buying your first vintage watch, start with a lower end timepiece. That goes easy on the budget while allowing one to get the feel of owning a vintage watch. Of course, make sure that you go with a trusted source, from a reliable dealer that is known and vetted by existing customers.”

Heirloom Gallery
#01-37, The RiverWalk

Ex Editor-In Chief

Alvin promises not to be a douche when talking about watches. He may have scoured the Basel and Geneva watch fairs for the past 15 years, and played an instrumental role to the growth of Singapore's pioneering horological and men's lifestyle publications, but the intrepid scribe seeks to learn something new with each story he writes.