“Let’s be clear,” said Marquis d’Arnesano Max Bernardini, the owner of Milan’s Bernardini Luxury Vintage. “A watch is a man’s only jewel—together with cars. But cars you can be ostentatious about. A watch is something that you have on your skin, and it speaks about you. The truth is that today a watch gives a lot of false information, because people buy watches based on what they would like to be and not on what they really are. I see it as quite aspirational in a sense. Explain to me why people who have a wrist this big”—he made a gesture suggesting a tiny wrist—“buy stuff as big as this plate?
They suck! It’s the opposite of elegance! You’re not telling us anything about you. I have this idea that things are as they are, and not how we wish they were.”
Bernardini is certainly not your average watch merchant. He has an artist’s passion for the goods he sells. Above all, he said, a watch must express something essential about the man who wears it, fashion be damned.
“I believe that when a man chooses a watch, he does so out of his own personal taste, and not for what the market says or fashion says,” he continued, speaking from a sofa in his Milan apartment. “It’s something very intimate. A watch, for me, is the most exquisite combination of technology and design. I have a photograph that we found in Portofino. In the picture there’s Clark Gable wearing a superchic Patek Philippe from the fifties, with a pullover over his shoulders in the winter. Do you think Clark Gable consulted magazines to choose his watch? Clark Gable looked at his wrist and said, ‘I am Clark Gable, and I’ll tell you how I dress.’ ”
From Andy Warhol’s steel-and-rose-gold Rolex to French film director Roger Vadim’s entire watch collection, Bernardini’s treasure trove is characterized by the subtle element of sound.
“There are watches that sing and watches that don’t sing,” he said. “One of the great threats in the world of watches are fakes, and you’ve got to open watches and look inside them—but it’s actually bullshit, because when a watch is good, you shouldn’t even open it! The watch speaks to you. There is a whole series of little details that when they are all in harmony, you look at it and you say, ‘The watch is singing!’ And if it doesn’t sing? You give it to the technician and you say, ‘This watch doesn’t sing! Why? There’s a false note, and I can’t understand which one it is.’ And he uses his tools and tells you, ‘Here. They redid its nose….’ And you look at it under various lights, and in the end, it sings. I can’t explain it to you.”
Bernardini conceded that not everyone is sensitive to the whispered melodies of the antique watches he prizes.
“My clients certainly have to have means, because these watches are expensive, but money isn’t enough,” he said. “On the contrary! You need culture, sensitivity. My clients are enormously demanding and eager to learn. When they come to me, they are not just buying the product, but the whole package. They buy the product with the whole story behind it, with all the anecdotes, with the guarantee of [my] expertise.
“Luxury is a world of details,” Bernardini continued. “Last week, I bought back a watch that I had already rebought multiple times. One of the first Rolex chronograph watches, from 1930—it’s a damn cool watch! Made for a doctor. This is a watch that I kept for myself. The case has tarnished so much that you don’t see the numbers anymore, but they’re all there. It took on a certain shade, and it looks like a panda. The case was white, and it darkened because of the metal components.”
For twenty-five years, he has been at the pinnacle of the business. Located on Via Caradosso, across from the fifteenth-century Santa Maria delle Grazie church and convent (site of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper), Bernardini Luxury Vintage is a contemporary wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, where he expresses his own deep notion of luxury.
As a boy, Bernardini accompanied his father from Liberia and Nigeria to Yugoslavia, and then, later, his mother’s second husband to Argentina, where he went to school for a time. He was raised a globe-trotter, which taught him to perfect what he calls the “art of getting along.” When his father returned to Italy and began a career as an antique-jewelry dealer, opening the shop on Via Caradosso, Bernardini was a high-school student in Naples who made spare cash as a Spanish-to-English interpreter for Argentinian soccer player Diego Armando Maradona. He did not fit in with his classmates.
“In Argentina, I had attended English schools, with a blazer and tie,” he recalled. “So in the midst of the paninari era [an Italian youth movement in the eighties], I showed up at school wearing a tie—they beat me black-and-blue. For two years, I was a kind of pariah. No one paid any attention to me. I wasn’t invited to parties and, sure enough, I learned to play the guitar alone. And then one day Diego came to pick me up at school, and my stock value increased slightly. He came to get me with a white [Ferrari] Testarossa. My shares went up from one day to the next.”
Around this time, Bernardini made his debut in the antique-watch arena.
“You want the truth—it’s shameful,” he replied after I asked him how he had made his first sale. “I sold the watch that my father had given me when I was 16, to a big player in the advertising industry, Vittorio Ravà. For ten years, he managed the advertising budget of Fiat, and Benetton before that.”
The timepiece in question was a white-cased 1944 Rolex Ovetto, the so-called “Bubbleback.” “It’s a project from ’37 that evolved into the Oyster Perpetual. It’s the first watch that a Rolex collector buys. Today it’s not very popular, because it’s not very big, but it’s a beautiful watch. It’s called Ovetto because the bottom of the case is shaped like an egg. “I was in Naples, and I read in the paper that in Milan there would be an auction of watches. I show up with the Ovetto and my blue jacket, 17 years old. There are all these vendors of out-of-auction collector’s watches, showing the watches they had on their wrists. There were three or four veteran collectors whom I had heard of—it was my first time entering this world. I tried to follow what was happening, but no one knew me. And at a certain point, while I’m wandering around the auction, this man stops me and says, ‘What do you have around your wrist?’ ‘I have an Ovetto from ’44.’ ‘Very nice. I like it. Is it for sale?’ ‘No, it was a birthday present.’ ‘Ah! Well, if you decide to sell it, I’ll give you 2 million lire.’ ‘Thank you, thank you.’
“I had 50,000 lire in my pocket. At that point, I felt like a player. I left the auction that hadn’t even started yet, and a taxi pulls up and a man gets out. He asks me, with a thick Spanish accent, ‘Has the auction started?’ and I reply in perfect Spanish, ‘It starts in another twenty minutes.’ ‘Oh, thank goodness it’s running late. Hi, I’m Juan from Madrid.’ By now, I was really cool, I was totally in, and I said, ‘Juan, are you a merchant? What did you bring?’ And so he pulls out a case and shows me some of the things he had brought, and in the middle of all these things, there was an Ovetto just like mine, with a black case that is much more rare, and with the original, extendable wristband. ‘This is beautiful. How much is it?’ ‘Thirty-four million pesetas—1,800,000 lire.’ ‘Listen, I like it. If you agree to 1,650,000 lire, I’ll take it.’ ‘Oh, I can’t—1,750,000 lire.’
“I put my hands in my pockets, give him 50,000 lire, and say, ‘Hang on to this. I’m going inside to get the guy who offered me 2,000,000.’ That way I could buy a watch much more beautiful than mine, and, in addition, I’d turn a profit. I couldn’t find him, I was having a panic attack: Oh God, I lost my 50,000 lire! How the hell will I get home? I can feel the panic rising. I can’t find the guy! In the end, I find him and I ask: ‘Is your offer still valid? I thought about it, and for 2,200,000 lire I’ll sell it to you.’ He looks at me and smiles. ‘OK, I’ll take it from you for 2,200,000 lire.’ He reaches into his pockets and pulls out the cash—which I was seeing for the first time in my life—and he puts 2,200,000 lire in my hands.
“I take off my watch and go to Juan and give him 1,700,000 lire and go home with a more beautiful watch than I had when I left, that was worth more, and with 500,000 lire in my pocket. And I decided this would be my job.”
In college, Bernardini was more interested in selling Swatch Chrono and Scuba models to other students than hitting the books. “Was I doing crazy kid stuff ?” he said. “There’s a story behind everything. My father is noble—we’re marquis of Arnesano.” Eventually, he gave up on school and joined the family business.
“I started working with my father, doing shows with him, contributing to the costs of the shows. My father was really good. I am not a manager. I am a merchant, a really vulgar merchant! My dad immediately helped keep me grounded and real. At the time, nothing was moving, everything was paralyzed, and I was already doing business at an international level. And so when my dad’s business in Italy had come to a standstill, I picked up his business. It was ’93. When things started getting bigger, I started hiring people, and when I was done paying my dad for his store, he took all the money I’d given him for his share and set it aside for me. ‘Now we start a new type of business,’ he said. ‘I manage, and you handle the sales.’ I’m CEO, and he is CFO. I handle everything related to communication, image, and style, with a team of eleven people, broken down by specialty. I invested almost everything I own in watches, except for two apartments.
In twenty-five years of work, I invested everything in watches, and they never let me down.”
Letting go of beautiful timepieces is sometimes not easy, Bernardini admitted, even if merchants should not grow attached to the objects in their possession. “You are a collector until you wake up and turn into a merchant,” he said. But even merchants have hearts, and Bernardini couldn’t contain his emotions when talking about two items: the object of his desire, a Patek Philippe 1518 in steel, valued at 3 million euros, and his electric guitar, a Rickenbacker formerly owned by John Lennon.
“I hope never to sell this,” he said. I asked him if it was easier for him to feel attached to things that are not watches. “No,” he replied. “Watches are intimate, but, in the end, if you’re a merchant, you always need money. I never have a dime, because I’m a compulsive buyer, just like my clients! The pleasure comes from buying the watch, not selling it. In fact, when you sell it, you feel almost disappointed, because you have this bi-polarity: On the one hand, you sell and you earn and this is your job, your goal, but then you don’t have it anymore. There are objects that go through your hands just one time, and then you don’t have them anymore and you know it. You support them and you defend them, and then an offer arrives that satisfies you, and you immediately get crocodile tears.”