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My Collection: John Kieu

One of the greatest byproducts of being obsessed with watches is that your natural passion rubs off on your friends and family. Since you’re always talking, thinking and dreaming about watches it only makes sense that your friend who you’ve been bugging with all of this nerdery turns around and says “find me something to wear”. This was exactly the case with my good friend John Kieu. 

As a leading sports physiotherapist in Dunedin, New Zealand, John lives a very active lifestyle. Consistently hiking, hitting weights at the gym and running onto the rugby field to mend wounds and triage injuries, John automatically gravitated towards sports watches. His small but growing collection has been a project we’ve enjoyed helping with ranging from Seiko and Tissot - this story all started with a vintage Seiko 5.

Do you remember your first interaction with watches and when you realised you had a like for them?

My first interaction was actually getting a watch as a gift from my old man when I was between 5 to 8 years old; a Casio Calculator watch. I loved that thing and thought it was the best thing ever invented, I mean a digital watch that could also be used as a calculator? Genius I thought! I'd use it all the time in primary school and was always scared I was going to get told off by my math teacher. 

[laughs] That's amazing. I wonder what kids are using now in school… maybe their phones?

Yeah, not entirely sure but it can't beat the Casio [laughs].

For sure! I had a Casio back in my school days as well and it never left my wrist. But, back to your story, I love that your Dad gave it to you, is he into watches himself?

My Dad has always loved and dreamed of watches, his prized possession is his Longines Conquest with a gorgeous black dial. Every time we travelled if there was a watch store, he'd always window shop and pull me along to point out his favourites. I guess over time that's slowly developed my liking and appreciation of watches.

It’s beautiful when someone’s hobby can be passed down to the next generation. I’m sure your Dad wasn’t forcing it onto you in any way, he just wanted to share what he likes with his son. More specifically on your Dad’s Longines, when did he acquire that? I’m sure it’s lived a full life.

Totally agree. He couldn't tell me an exact date if I asked but it must've been at least 10 to 15 years ago and it was his first luxury watch purchase. My Dad came to New Zealand roughly 27 years ago as a refugee with literally nothing to his name, so I’m sure that watch meant a lot to him when he purchased it and still means a lot to him today. I guess when you start off with nothing it's hard to imagine buying a “luxury” watch when you have to worry about bringing food to the table. But he put his head down and grinded to achieve what he has now. He has had a full life from growing up as a kid during the Vietnam War, being a police officer in Vietnam where he almost lost a leg when a vein got punctured, to an owner of a small town bakery in Te Puke, New Zealand. He's been through a lot and still has a frugal mindset from back in the day so that Longines Conquest he bought years ago is the only watch he has. He's a simple man and that also has somewhat rubbed off on me [laughs].

Honestly your Dad’s story is incredible and I bet he has interesting tales from his time in Vietnam. I can definitely relate to the first luxury watch purchase, my Dad on his immigrant story bought an Omega Seamaster at an airport with the last $250 he had after a business trip. Probably not the wisest of purchases when you’re still scraping by but he loved it [laughs]. What do you personally think has influenced your watch tastes?

It would definitely have to be my Dad. He always gravitated towards watches on the dressier side, easy to read dial and always with a metal bracelet. My two most worn watches, a Seiko SKX007 and Tissot Powermatic Gentleman are just that. To me they are watches that go under the radar but do the job. Also, how could I forget you as well? [laughs] You further plunged me into the crazy world of watches. You've made me care much more about the heritage of watches and the romanticism of mechanical movements. You also made me fall in love with the JLC Reverso and I love/hate you for it [laughs]. 

[laughs] Oh man, I definitely am not sorry. I think you’re the third person I’ve semi convinced to buy a Reverso. Is there anything else you’ve seen that fits your taste?

In all fairness I really like the most recent James Bond watch, it's made me dive into the Omega brand (no pun intended) and the No Time To Die Seamaster is now on my wishlist.

I don’t think it’s possible getting through life and not wanting a James Bond watch. It’s funny I remember our first conversations about getting you something nice to wear and it ended up being a vintage stainless steel Seiko 5. If I recall it was around $150.00 or something around there - what ended up happening to it? Does it still get much wear?

Look, I'm going to be honest I lost it! [laughs] I wore it to work everyday and I distinctly remember taking it off at the gym, putting it in the locker with my jacket and then just completely forgot about it when I left. Even though it was relatively cheap compared to other watches, I'm still mad about it. The small case size (34mm) made it so easy and comfortable and it was an everyday beater. As I'm reflecting back on it I think I need that watch again... so I guess the search is on for that specific vintage Seiko 5...

I’m sure there are plenty of stories of people losing watches at the gym. While that is really annoying and inconvenient it does spark the search for something else! Speaking of losing at the gym, you live a very active lifestyle. From being in your physiotherapy clinic everyday to then a high performance sports physiotherapist for one of Dunedin’s top rugby teams - how do you balance all of this?

Not that well to be completely honest! [laughs] Similar to my Dad I tend to put my head down and do the work which makes me put in some pretty ridiculous hours... During the peak of rugby season I could be putting in anywhere between 55 to 65 hours a week due to the early starts, late finishes and travel time. I'm actually very introverted and I need alone time to recharge which I divert into the gym, it's almost meditative for me. I'm in my own world lifting, hopefully, heavy things up and I’m just competing with my mind. I find it calming and centering since I have a very social job.

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Exercise is definitely key to mental clarity and I do find my worst days turn into my best days after a session at the gym. So how do you handle those 55+ hour weeks? Is there a secret?

It's just a routine I guess. I wake up at 5:30am for gym training with the rugby team or my own gym training, work my standard 8:00am to 5:00pm then head along to afternoon/evening rugby training form 5:30pm till it’s over (usually 8:00pm). Everyday is not like this of course, if I can't be active early in the morning I'll go after work and push myself to go. I'm usually mentally exhausted after work but I know it'll help me clear my mental space and allow for that "me" time as you said. I do also need to be strong whenever I have to do deep tissue work or joint manipulations on a 110 kg prop forward as well so the gym helps with that [laughs].

I can only imagine the sheer amount of force you have to exert to do that [laughs]. Because of your schedule, which watch sees the most wrist time in your collection?

Well, if I hadn't lost my Seiko 5 it would've been that... but now it's my Seiko SKX007 on a NATO strap. I usually wear it during rugby training or match day. It helps with timings by using the rotating divers bezel since I can't whip out my phone in the middle of the rugby pitch while the game is on [laughs].

Recently I've been wearing it to work as well. At first I was reluctant to wear the SKX to work since it's quite a big watch and thought it would get in the way since I am hands on with my work. My flatmate Rahul would always push me to wear it and would say "It shouldn't be sitting in your watch case all week, it's meant to be worn.". That struck a chord with me as I always say to myself with my clothing and shoes - if it's just a display or collectors piece sell it for something you'd wear. I try to be practical so if I'm not using something I'd let it go to get another piece that I'd use. Since that realisation I've been wearing my SKX basically everyday.

Definitely agree with that, there’s not much point in your watch collecting dust and needing a service just to run again. Recently you just celebrated a birthday and splurged on a new watch for yourself. Firstly why did you go with a new watch instead of vintage and secondly what led you to purchasing specifically the Tissot?

I've only always been gifted watches or bought used watches so for my 25th birthday I thought it'd be fun to mark the occasion by buying a brand new watch in-store and have that retail experience. I actually bought the Tissot a week prior as I was flying back home for a week so I left it in the box for a whole week before wearing it. The will power I had to use to not wear it early was ridiculous. I wanted to be diverse in my collection so firstly I wanted a watch that was Swiss made or had Swiss heritage.

I've seen vintage watches here and there and just thought “Oh that looks cool." but you've made me much more aware of the vintage world. I don't really know why I'd want a vintage watch in all honesty. I guess it'll have to do with the history behind the piece, how they have influenced the modern market and the patina that most vintage pieces have.

Those are fair points, vintage watches are a whole other world to get into and there are positives and negatives for both new and vintage. So how did you end up on the Tissot?

Naturally I went window shopping and saw it staring back at me, it was a Tissot Gentleman Powermatic 80 Silicium with a green dial. I instantly fell in love, so I did what I always do for bigger purchases: watch countless reviews and read everything about it, which further perpetuated my need for it. What I love about this watch is its movement, a nod towards their history as the first brand to make an antimagnetic watch in the 1930's. As for wearability, while it's a 40mm it doesn't feel oversized at all, in fact because it's so simple and elegant it makes for easy everyday wear. It was a worthwhile purchase that I'll hopefully keep and possibly even pass on to my future kids. Also green is my favourite colour so that was a no brainer.

It definitely suits your style and was a great way to bring in your 25th birthday. I know you’re always on the hunt for another watch so realistically what’s going to be the next addition to the collection

Realistically it'll be that vintage Seiko 5 but I definitely want a vintage piece more in the line of an Omega, I’ve been tempted by the PX that you have. Another option is a Seiko Alpinist, either the SARB017 or SPB121J1. I've always loved Seiko’s and the Seiko Alpinist is just something else. Bold gold markings on a deep forest green dial, a contrasting brown leather strap and a cool compass integrated into the watch as well. It sounds busy but everything is grounded and it isn’t like anything that I have in my collection currently. Definitely a consideration in the next few months.

The gold Omega or the Seiko Alpinist would both be nice additions to your collection and you’d definitely allow yourself more range. Why do you think you’ve yet to purchase a gold watch and have yet to veer away from steel

Personally I’ve always thought of gold as a mature metal. Coming from an Asian household most of my uncles, older cousins and my Dad wear gold jewellery with the only exception being a steel watch here and there. Gold watches are starting to grow on me especially on more vintage pieces. I find they are not as "blingy" compared to modern gold watches.

Definitely age and patina play a big factor into how gold looks. That’s why vintage pieces look a lot more muted and toned down thanks to scratches, marks and the like.

100% and I like that look a lot more. Also I didn’t think my budget would allow for gold watches [laughs].


[laughs] Well yes gold watches do tend to fetch a higher price depending on the finish. But in fairness you can find gold watches without the need of breaking the bank. Last question that I’m really curious on -  if there was an unlimited budget given to you, what are the three watches you’d purchase and why?

Oh that's the tough question... number one would have to be a Rolex Explorer 36mm, maybe a 1016 if we’re talking rarity but I’d be happy with a new 124270. We've talked about this watch a lot

Probably too much [laughs].

Yeah I don’t think it’s healthy [laughs]. I've always considered it the most everyday Rolex you could buy but also dress up with no problems. Actually, I can draw a few parallels to my Dad's Longines on why I love the Explorer - big Arabic numerals, deep black dial and set in a stainless steel case.

My second would be a 1993 Jaeger-LeCoultre Tourbillon reference 270.2.68. I find it amazing how they could fit such a complicated movement into a small case. I was amazed when I tried on a regular sized Reverso last year and how you could literally flip the case so adding in extra complications are just the cherry on top.

Finally I'd have to go with the A.Lange & Söhne Datograph Perpetual in platinum so the 405.035.

Wow, I was not expecting you to choose that!

Well just for the sheer complexity, functions and insanely immaculate finishing this watch has, how could I not? I think it’ll forever be a grail and if I ever was in a position to buy one I think either a) I’m crazy for spending this much money or b) I have way too much money [laughs]. I probably wouldn't even wear it out since I’d be looking at my wrist way too much if I had it.

Any of these three would be happy to have you as their owner. I’m looking forward to the day when we’re maybe in our 40’s comparing your Datograph to my Patek 1436 [laughs].

I very much look forward to that day also.

On that note, thank you very much for your time my dear friend. I’m wishing you all the luck in your future, your career and your growing watch collection. I appreciate you sharing stories of your father and collection. I think everyone can take something away from this and realise it’s not always the most expensive or flashiest watches that maketh the collection. It’s about substance, connection and honesty - all traits you hold.

Thanks for having me and it was a pleasure! Hope we can do an update when I’m 40 with my Datograph [laughs].

Photography by Sam Barton

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