With endless curiosity—and impeccable taste—Jaclyn Li owns an assortment of grails from Cartier to Patek Philippe
To explain how the pandemic placed a rocket booster on luxury watch sales, the industry has embraced an overarching narrative: Stuck at home, watch world aficionados and newcomers alike suddenly had nothing but time—and extra cash—to indulge their passion. Jaclyn Li is the embodiment of that phenomenon. An Ivy League undergraduate student pursuing a psychology degree with a minor in economics, who also worked part time for a Singapore-based venture-capital firm during COVID-19, Li discovered her interest in timepieces in 2019 and homed in on her passion during the lockdowns of 2020, the same year she and four fellow watch lovers founded the Waiting List podcast. She’s since bought and traded some of the most sought-after wristwatches on the market, including vintage and modern styles from all the heavies: Audemars Piguet, Cartier, Patek Philippe, Richard Mille. Li spoke to Robb Report on a call from Harbin, China, where she was visiting her grandparents before the Chinese New Year. The conversation has been condensed and edited for space and clarity.
How did you get into watch collecting?
I don’t wear many jewels, but I wore the watch my parents gave me when I got into college: a Rolex Yacht-Master II with an Oysterflex bracelet. I never had a need for another watch until the end of 2019, when I wanted to gift my mom something for her 50th birthday. I bought her a Patek Annual Calendar 4947 with a linen dial at the Tiffany salon in New York. I’d never spent that much on anything before. When I gave it to her, I wanted to buy one for myself. So I went down the rabbit hole.
Any early mistakes?
I bought a vintage Rolex Daytona on eBay, a 6234 Pre-Daytona from the early ’60s, because it was the cheapest one I could find. It had a patina on the dial that I liked, but it had wear and tear that didn’t show well in photos. I lost a lot of money when I sold it.
What’s the focus of your collecting?
When I first started, I was living by myself in Canada. It was the pandemic, and school wasn’t happening, so I had a lot of time to look at stuff and read. I began acquiring things at a very fast pace. Looking back, I was a little out of control. But I was just buying pieces to touch and feel—primarily vintage Cartier. At the end of the day, I’m a vintage geek at heart. I love the stories that come with older things.
Was this just before the market for vintage Cartier exploded?
Prices were very reasonable at the time. Cartier really blew up in late 2020 and early 2021. When I got my Cartier Crash Radieuse on trade, nobody wanted that watch. I traded an F.P. Journe Chronomètre Bleu plus cash for it because I thought it was too big and heavy. I had just gotten the Journe, but I don’t keep watches I don’t wear.
You’re also into independent watchmakers. You recently commissioned a piece by Kari Voutilainen, correct?
I still don’t have the Voutilainen. I commissioned it at the end of 2020, and it was supposed to be done in March 2022. Since then, I have acquired other independents. My collecting trajectory went like this: vintage Cartier, vintage Patek (starting in the summer of 2020), and then at the end of 2020, I started exploring independents. I commissioned Kari V., then a piece from Atelier de Chronométrie, based in Barcelona. And 2021 was a big Patek year for me: I bought two 5004s, a 3970EP and a 3971P. I continued in 2022 with a full-set vintage 1526—the first perpetual calendar made by Patek in a series. It’s probably my favourite vintage Patek in my collection because of the story it carries. I bought that watch in May, and in November I bought another vintage Patek Galatea 2526G.
What’s your most unexpected purchase?
I just got a Richard Mille tourbillon, the 74-01. I had been interested in Richard Mille but didn’t see myself as someone who would own one. They’re so bulky and masculine. And the ladies’ pieces had a lot of diamonds. I never considered tourbillons because of the price—they’re in a different league. There was something so intriguing about it. I just got the watch last week.
Have you discovered any lessons through your watch collecting?
Being patient. Especially when commissioning orders through independent brands. I’m on a waitlist now. The brand is Charles Frodsham; they’re based in the UK. What I like about them is they take their time—they produce fewer than 10 pieces a year. When I inquired about them, the gentleman told me it was a 10-year wait. I had to think about it. You don’t know what the world is going to be like in 10 years, or if I’m going to be here. It’s really about trust.
This story was first published on Robb Report USA