They say never meet your heroes; I’ve never met Eric Clapton. But I have met my hero, his watch, and they were wrong. The 881101 in any guise is near-perfection: discreet complication, total design balance in a panda dial, a lyre-lugged 36mm steel case, and immense history. The Tri-Compax holds lore itself in watch collecting circles, but the Clapton is just that bit more special. In 1966 Hendrix and Clapton met for the first time. At that fortuitous London pub where the two were introduced, paparazzi followed. A handful of casual snaps emerged from that night, with one quite clearly showing this Tri-Compax ref. proud on Clapton’s wrist. In following months he was seen wearing it so frequently that the 881101/01 became eponymous.
Although in period the watch was something of an obscure choice, it is today generally regarded as well ahead of its time. Clapton had been attracted by the same symmetric design and mechanic complication that has seen the Tri-Compax elevated to something of a collector’s icon. The charm here really lies in that unique understated 36mm look—the Clapton Tri-Compax is piece any watch snob can spot from a mile away. The four symmetric reverse-panda subdials, unguarded crown flanked by round pushers, and bright chronograph hand lend an aesthetic like nothing else before or since.
Moreover, the watch worn to meet Hendrix was unequivocally a 881101/01, this. Rarer /03 and /04 exotic dials were also produced. It was powered by a (Martel ébauche) Universal calibre 281, also used by Zenith to lesser fame. It featured a full calendar, moonphase, and column-wheel chronograph (the triple complication referenced by Tri-Compax, often incorrectly assumed this name means tri-register). Clapton’s tastes in guitars, vehicles, and watches have always spoken to a craving for unique design and technical merit over outright opulence or luxury. It should be no surprise that, even nearly-sixty years ago when not an outrageously wealthy man, Clapton chose the best of Universal Genève. Man after my own heart.
This example is in good overall condition. Its dial shows some signs of early spotting and discoloration, but nothing drastic. Likewise its case shows small signs of polish. Neither of these are egregious. The tritium plots and handset are beautifully aged and untouched. Its bezel shows signs of moderate wear, definitely not a safe queen. But the overall look, with all the wear, I find very attractive. The watch is priced accordingly. It comes from a well-regarded Vietnamese retailer.
Find this 881101/01 here from Spacetime Vintage Watches for 15000 USD.