Photography by Andreas Branch
As the saying goes, it’s a small world, and nowhere does that ring true more than in the world of Beverly Hills real estate. The most jaw-dropping properties, which pass from sports icons to actors, executives, royalty and the like, are handled by a small group of realtors who are as powerful as their clients. Jeff Hyland, a founding member of Christie’s International Real Estate and the president and co-founder of Hilton & Hyland, is one such elite Realtor. The son of a Hollywood screenwriter and a successful painter, Hyland grew up in Little Holmby, a prestigious Los Angeles neighborhood filled with homes that ignited in him a love of architecture. Together with Rick Hilton (whose grandfather founded the Hilton Hotel empire), Hyland founded Hilton & Hyland, a real estate brokerage firm, in 1993.
Today, Hilton & Hyland has 100 agents, and makes $2 billion a year—the largest volume of any one brokerage office in the country, perhaps even in the world. In its twenty-one years, the firm has also handled some of LA’s most famous properties, including the sale of Candy Spelling’s $85 million estate to F1 heiress Petra Ecclestone, a transaction in which Hilton & Hyland represented both sides.Staggering sales figures aside, Hyland’s mantra remains the same today as it was when he and Hilton founded the firm. “Our philosophy is, it’s really the quality, and not the quantity,” Hyland said. “Rick and I founded the firm ourselves, with no partners. We don’t believe in having partners; you have too many cooks [in the kitchen]. You have people who end up being managers who don’t know the market. Rick and I are out every day, every night with our clients. We know anything and everything—our agents look to us for our expertise that we wouldn’t get if we were hired guns, if we were hired managers running the firm.” That same mantra of quality over quantity also goes for Hyland’s watch collection. While many boast about having more watches than they could ever wear, Hyland has quietly built one of the world’s most carefully curated collections. The real estate mogul was also one of the earliest clients of independent watchmaker Richard Mille, a testament to Hyland’s taste.
Although today you couldn’t part him from his collection, Hyland jokes that left to his own devices, he never would have entered the world of haute horlogerie. “I blame my wife, Lori. It was she who said to me, ‘Why are you wearing that little passé watch? You need to get something that’s impressive.’ It was probably a $300 watch, that had no value if I lost it – I didn’t care, that was the reason I bought it! She came home one day with a Dennison brand watch that was huge. It was like 44mm, and I was shocked. Today, it’s small. It was one of the first large watches. You could actually hear it self-wind.”While that first piece of the collection spends more time in his safe than on his arm these days, it was the spark that Hyland needed. “I really do believe, just like in running my business, that’s it’s the quality and not the quantity. So I don’t have a lot of watches, but what I do have is of the best.”
Which is putting it mildly. For his first purchase, Hyland zeroed in on skeleton watches. “One day I went to Westime, and they had this Parmigiani Fleurier Kalpa XL Hebdomadaire Skeleton, which is an eight-day self-winding,” Hyland said. “You can see on the back how beautiful it is, from one end to the other. I didn’t buy it the first day. I went back the second day, and when I was in the store, the owner came in,
and the sales rep said, ‘Oh would you like to meet John Simonian? He’s the owner.’ I said, ‘Absolutely!’ So I went up and I introduced myself to John. I think that’s now been five years, [and] we’ve become great friends.”Simonian, whom Hyland calls “the most knowledgeable person,” also introduced him to the up-and-coming Richard Mille. “He sold me my first Richard Mille, and then introduced me to Richard—we had lunch together at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and then we went to the [the Weinstein Company’s] Oscars party. At that time, when John was really growing Richard’s brand and his name, it resonated with me.” Hyland was hooked, and purchased the Richard Mille RM 014 Perini Navi, a tribute to the Perini Navi Cup, a regatta dedicated exclusively to Perini yachts that takes place each year in the Mediterranean. “You can really see the detail on the RM 014,” Hyland remarked. “The Pereni Navi Cup watch just led me to really enjoying skeletons, and after the RM 014 and my first Parmigiani Fleurier, I realized from then on it was only about skeletons.”
That’s not to say that Hyland hasn’t branched out; he also has an eye for standout pieces, as evidenced by his purchase of a Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon 30° Technique. “It’s one of the iconic brands—they only make 100 watches a year. [The Double Tourbillon 30° Technique] is a great talking piece—it’s beautifully designed inside and out.” However, when asked to choose his favorite piece, it becomes clear that Hyland’s heart remains taken by tourbillons. “My favorite watch is one that John sold me by convincing me without convincing me: the RM 050 Tourbillon Split Seconds Competition Chronograph Felipe Massa. It’s a tourbillon with two chronographs, one inside the other. You can start [the chronograph], and then if you want to do split-second timing, you can start it again, and you’ll see there’s a second hand following the first. And then you can stop it and reset it. There were only ten of them made.”
For Hyland, the RM 050 is more than just a stunning work of haute horlogerie. “Whenever I’m with somebody and we talk watches, I pull this out and they just go gaga, because anybody who has a Richard Mille knows this watch. What I love about it so much is that I can wear this on my boat, I can wear this when I’m going to Europe. Anybody in the know knows this watch. It’s a great talking point, a great way to break the ice with people.” Hyland, who also counts an IWC Schaffhausen and a Rolex among his collection, has had his watches spark conversation on more than one occasion. “When my captain first saw my Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date he said, ‘I thought only [ship] captains wore Rolexes!’ It’s kind of like the Vertu telephone,” Hyland said. “If you have one, you’ll take it with you and that’s what you’re going to put on the table at a restaurant. All your phone calls, all your conversations are going to be on either your Blackberry or your iPhone or your Android. But it’s a great talking piece and it levels the playing field. Whenever I wear one of these watches, it’s like a code.”
The watch as a status symbol also comes into play in real estate. “A lot of my clients have the same passion,” Hyland said. “Once we start talking we just get going. I had one CEO, we started talking about watches, and twenty minutes later we realized we’d gone through the house [and] didn’t even talk about the estate. I’m on my fifth Bentley, but I don’t think a Bentley gives the same prestige as a fine watch, because it takes more than just writing a check to acquire a good collection and know what’s important.”
Similarly, becoming a connoisseur requires more than simply owning beautiful pieces; it means knowing what to wear when. It’s a lesson Hyland learned the hard way, when he flew down to Miami for the last year’s Art Basel week. During a private dinner at a waterfront mansion, he was seated next to Georges Kern, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen. “I had left my IWC skeleton at home, so I had to keep my sleeve down all night so I wouldn’t show my Richard Mille,” Hyland joked. “I think Georges was too smart to ask me what I was wearing!”
With his eye already on an Audemars Piguet skeleton watch, Hyland’s collection will undoubtedly only become more impressive in the years to come. “I look at these watches as wonderful art pieces that you just collect and will keep for a very long time,” Hyland said. It’s a fitting description, considering the bargain Hyland has struck with his wife, who started him down the path of haute horlogerie. “Every time I get a watch I have to buy her some art!” Hyland concluded with a game smile.