Depending on your own sense of adventure, there has never been a better time to indulge in collecting watches. What is missing, now that the field is so carefully documented and globally recognised, is the likelihood of discovering some lost watch, some absurd bargain in a junk shop, charity shop or general estate sale. The random element has been replaced with auctions dealing solely in wristwatches, all manner of specialist retailers, on-line vintage watch vendors and shelves groaning with reference books.
As for the element that has been eliminated, it’s been this way for 25 years. Before the late 1980s, wristwatch collectors hardly figured on the antiques industry’s radar. Any auctions involving timekeeping invariably meant clocks or pocket watches, and wristwatches were incidental. But thanks to the efforts of Antiquorum, Dr Crott and other wristwatch-only auctioneers, as well as new divisions within the traditional auction houses, most of the important wristwatches have been accounted for, and values have been established for everything from the rare to the common.
If there’s a downside to this above-ground status for collecting watches, it’s only that there are now more collectors than ever before. One cannot escape this if one attends an auction, especially for the hottest brands among collectors: Patek Philippe, Rolex, Cartier, Omega and Panerai, with Breitling, Heuer, Longines and a handful of others enjoying their own loyal followings.
Evidence of this in the sales rooms is palpable: furious, fast-climbing bidding for watches that – 25 years ago – would barely have interested the auctioneer, let alone the buyers. The result is that vintage watches are joining other investments such as wine, collectible cars and artworks because the values are increasing inexorably.
While Patek Philippe and Rolex are the two “blue chip” names – you would be hard-pressed to find any models from either brand that depreciate – a perfect example of how values can skyrocket exists in the form of Panerai. Prior to the mid-1990s, this brand was known only to collectors of militaria, while Rolex collectors – the few who existed prior to 1990 – knew of a specific model powered by a Cortebert movement supplied by Rolex for the late-1930s and WWII Radiomir.
Panerai reissued modern versions of its watches, of which precious few had been made between the 1930s and the 1990s, mainly for the Italian market. Once it came to the attention of Sylvester Stallone, who bought a quantity for friends, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, the future was set: both actors wore Panerais in films, probably the most fruitful unpaid-for product placement since Steve McQueen wore a Monaco in Le Mans, Elvis Presley wore a Hamilton venture in Blue Hawaii and Sean Connery wore a Rolex as James Bond.
In short order, the Vendôme Group (now Richemont) bought the brand, relaunched it as a high-end sport watch and created a cult. One model from the late 1990s – the platinum replica of the original Radiomir, one of only 60 – originally sold for circa $25,000. Last year, one reached 10 times that in auction. But even “normal” models among those made in the mid-1990s regularly command $10,000-$15,000, when they once sold for $2000. Not a bad return on investment.
Like anything subject to the laws of supply and demand, the most desirable watches can attain impressive values unaffected by high production figures. Rolex made a lot of Submariners, after all. Indeed, the opposite is true, too: just because a watch was produced in small numbers doesn’t mean that values will reflect this inherent rarity.
It’s worth keeping this in mind when choosing a collecting theme – which is what you must do if your collecting has any focus. You might choose to amass watches from a single brand, certainly the most popular theme, or by type, e.g. military models, diving watches, chronographs, calendars or tourbillons. It soon becomes apparent that a common Rolex Cosmograph will attract a greater number of bidders in auction than a much rarer Heuer, Sinn, Gallet or Enicar with the same movement.
What this should also tell you, if you’re motivated by what’s inside the watch rather than what’s on the dial, is that savvy collectors can build up superlative collections by avoiding the “usual suspects” and concentrating on less-obvious makes. Early sport Rolexes like Submariners and GMTs, all Patek Philippe models (especially those with complications), any minute repeaters or perpetual calendars – these represent the pinnacle of collecting watches … and investing. But less famous names are as intriguing.
Because hundreds of millions of watches have been produced in the century or so that wristwatches replaced the pocket watch, there is a huge selection of desirable watches out there, with sane prices, if you’re prepared to eschew the “Big Two” of Rolex and Patek Philippe. Taste is acquired and truly subjective, but you’ll soon discover that a 1950s Glycine is a more interesting watch than a vintage Ingersoll or Accurist from a collector’s viewpoint.
This writer, with minimal effort, found two fine 1970s Tissot diving watches (one with “compressor” case) for US $750, a TAG-Heuer 2000 Automatic with Valjoux 7750 movement for £375, an Omega Chronostop on an Omega-made “Milanese” bracelet for £250 and a solid-gold Gallet triple calendar chronograph with Valjoux 72 movement for $2400, all in the last year. (As one watchmaker told me, the price paid for that TAG-Heuer was less than the wholesale cost of just the movement.) It just takes a reasonably trained eye, eclectic taste and a willingness to look in showcases NOT filled with the obvious collectible brands.
If, on the other hand, cost is not an issue, the greatest benefit to be gained from the popularisation of collecting watches is the profusion of specialist shops. Every major city has a specialist of dependable repute, such as London’s David Duggan or New York’s Aaron Faber Gallery, that will sell you a watch at a fair price – though not as low as buying in auction – but with a warranty and the peace of mind of knowing that it is neither stolen nor a fake.
Watch collecting’s success is based on a number of factors, but one overriding aspect is that watches – unlike vintage wine or cigars – can be enjoyed without destroying their value. They can travel with the user, unlike works of art. Best if all, they perform a useful function: marking the time… with style.