Top Bartender Josh Harris’ Current Obsession: Vintage Watches
Josh Harris, the owner of acclaimed San Francisco bars Trick Dog and Bon Voyage, has amassed an impressive collection of more than 40 vintage watches in only four years.
About four years ago, Josh Harris received an envelope of cash from his father for Christmas. This came in lieu of the traditional gift-in-a-box-with-a-bow—and Harris immediately knew how he wanted to put it to use.
The owner of acclaimed San Francisco bars Trick Dog and Bon Voyage, and co-founder of the cocktail and spirit consulting company The Bon Vivants, had gotten married a few months prior, shortly after undergoing what he felt was a significant style update. He’d long wore a collection of sterling silver and turquoise rings, but he knew that he’d soon be wearing a gold wedding band that would clash with his jewelry—and that wouldn’t do.
“I took off five [silver] rings and put on one gold ring and one watch,” he says, adding that both were pieces he already owned, but had felt they were too “adult,” so he’d never really worn them before. “It worked. I didn’t have a gaping hole making this transition, which is the honest way I thought about it.”
So when he received the gift from his father, Harris decided right away that he’d begin the search for a new watch.
“I went out and started scouring the four corners of the internet trying to determine what styles and eras I was excited about, the different looks, the vocabulary, the functionality, trying to make myself as quickly a novice expert about it as possible,” says Harris. “That’s a thread that runs through a lot of other things that I collect as well, where it becomes a conduit to learning histories about things and places and people.”
Harris eventually landed on a Valgine Swiss dive watch that checked all of his boxes: “It’s obscure, it’s one of a kind, it had a look that I liked at that time, and it was what I considered a good entry level watch price.”
The watch also has a day-of-the-week dial in French, which set it apart for Harris, who has an affinity for the country, after living there, getting married there and regularly visiting.
After that, Harris was hooked on vintage watches and willingly jumped down the rabbit hole. Not long after, he purchased a Hamilton watch—the company stopped manufacturing watches in America in 1969. Four years later and Harris has amassed a collection of about 40 antique watches, ranging from mid-century Italian dive watches with two-tone bezels to World War II-era military watches to one of his most prized and most worn watches, a 1978 Rolex GMT.
At this point, Harris has gotten deep enough into vintage timepieces to have a very good idea of the designs and options that he likes. For one, he’s really into strange color combinations like on the aforementioned Italian dive watches from a brand called Squale, which he refers to as “Italian disco-y dad watches.”
“I also wear a lot of vintage clothes and I like things that look a bit tattered, and I like watches that sort of have that look about them—they show that they’ve got life stories in them,” he says. “There are a lot of expressions used to describe certain types of features; one that’s been coined by watch nerds is ‘tropical.’”
The term refers to a watch dial that’s been, essentially, aged or discolored by exposure to the sun. For example, a black dial might turn a bit brown or spotted. He says that “tropical” was likely coined by those buying and selling vintage watches as a way to “manifest value out of something that looked like it was trashed.”
Either way, it’s a look that he often finds in well-worn military type watches and in one of his most recent acquisitions, an Omega with a coppery dial that looks like it’s seen some things.
Harris has long harbored an affinity for collecting vintage items, particularly those that have already proven that they’re built to last.
“I really like the idea of the permanence of things,” says Harris. “I think it’s the coolest thing ever to find something that’s incredible in a pile that has tremendous value, whether that value be emotional for you or financial in the case of people who sell professionally.”
During his weekly visits to estate sales (“my wife and I do it most Saturdays and plan a route”) and vintage markets (“on Sundays”) around the San Francisco area, he keeps an eye out for sculptures (like his three-foot-long carved wood shark), bizarre ceramics that “look like they were made by a famous artist, but maybe were also made by a five-year-old” and mid-century Gainey planters to add to his existing collection of nearly 20.
On these outings he also picks up items that could potentially be used in his many “half-baked” bar and restaurant concepts.
“The way that I like to go through the world is, ‘Where is the antique and vintage?’” he says. “When we travel, I want to go to all these places, but then I’m only interested in if they have a flea market. If they don’t it’s probably not a place that I want to go to.”
His most recent opening, Bon Voyage, showcases items he picked up at countless yard sales and design inspiration taken from old postcards with, naturally, the phrase bon voyage! The Packard Pla-Mor Mirror Ball, which doubles as a speaker, hangs in the center of the bar and was one of his pivotal finds when designing the space.
“Sometimes it’s the collection of the things that helps bring the concept to life rather than the opposite,” he says. “With Bon Voyage, for example, there were a lot of moments like that where things that we were finding were continuing to define design decisions about the space rather than having to go formulaically find the things.”
He admits, however, that his obsession sometimes gives his home the feel of a vintage shop—appropriate considering he’s turned his treasure hunting into a side hustle: His Instagram account @BVintageSF regularly offers items he’s looking to sell, including everything from watches and barware to textiles and home decor.
If you’re interested in taking a look at Harris’s full collection of vintage watches, check out his Instagram hashtag #joshswatches, where his posts include gorgeous closeups of his finds along with the wisdom he’s gathered during his horological hunts. But take heed: His obsession might be contagious.
“Now my wife has a couple, too!” he says. “It’s been a very fun hobby and in very stark contrast to some of the other things I collect that take up a lot of space—my wife is always like, “What the fuck?’ [The watches] totally work for us.”