When Swiss master watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet unveiled a new style of wrist ornament for Napoleon’s sister in 1810, little did he know what he was starting.
Breguet spent two years creating the first known wristwatch in his little Paris workshop for Caroline, Queen of Naples.
Since that first creation, watches have grown in impact and popularity. We now have watches that can track your movements via GPS, operate voice searches over the internet and pay your hotel bill at check out. From its humble beginnings as a pocket-clock on a wrist-strap, the watch has become a mini microcomputer.
At the same time, however, something different has been happening in the world of high-end watch collecting. The value of antique and classic mechanical watches from the past has soared. If Breguet’s original masterpiece surfaced again today it would be worth many millions.
All over the world, traditional watches are becoming more and more sought after. Forget microchips and transistors, these mechanical timekeepers are being acclaimed for the masterpieces of miniature engineering that they are: a machine with hundreds of intricate parts, including tiny springs, gears, levers and jewel-lined bearings that is small enough to wear on your wrist.
With no hi-tech features, old watches have no risk of becoming obsolete. In fact, the older they are the more rare and sought-after they become. Some second-hand models from makers such as Patek Philippe, Universal, Rolex and Heuer have seen their value soar by as much as ten-fold in the last three years, according to Julien Schaerer of international watch auctioneers Antiquorum.
Among this classic world of high-class timepieces, smart watches are considered no more than gadgets. “Chronometric luxury and long-lasting value cannot be found among these newfangled inventions,” according to watch expert, author and historian Gisbert Brunner. Or, as the financial website thisismoney.co.uk tells us: “The Apple Watch will soon become worthless – it’s a good time to buy a classic second-hand watch instead”.
As a demonstration of how the watch market is turning, less than a year ago, auctioneers Phillips sold a one-off Patek Philippe 5016A for a new world wristwatch auction record price of $7.3m (£5.5m). Phillips had set an estimate of less than a million dollars for the four-year-old steel-cased timepiece.
The 5016A was subject to an intense nine-minute battle between two telephone bidders before eventually selling to an anonymous English-speaking buyer. The room erupted into to a standing ovation.
But even that was overshadowed by the sale of another unique timepiece, a 1925 Patek Philippe Supercomplication pocket-watch. The rare solid gold piece originally took seven years to build and sold for $24m (£18m) to an unknown buyer at a Sotheby’s sale in Geneva in 2014.
These were headline-grabbing examples of how luxury mechanical watches are now rivaling classic cars and fine art among high-end collectors.
“Vintage collecting has always been big but in the last five years, it has exploded,” says Paul Altieri, CEO of leading California-based pre-owned and vintage Rolex dealer Bob’s Watches. He estimates the vintage watch market has grown 20% in the past two years, 50% in the past four.
For example, a 1969 Heuer Monaco that cost £2,800 ten years ago is now changing hands for £7,600 and a ‘3646’ – a rare Second World War watch by Panerai Radiomir that was used by Italian and German navy ‘combat swimmers’ – has soared from £16,000 to £58,000 in a decade.
Antiquorum’s MD Schaerer suggests particular brands and styles to look for: “Vintage Rolex and Patek in outstanding condition continue to reach amazing prices. Smaller brand chronographs from the 1950/1970’s as well as divers watches have also shown to be of strong interest to collectors. The only drawback is to buy the best examples as spare parts are virtually impossible to find,” he says.
As the market has boomed, the major auction houses like Christies, Sotheby’s and Antiquorum have been joined by a host of specialist watch outlets.
In London’s Burlington Arcade, for example, you’ll find a series of world-renowned specialist dealers. At number 63, David Duggan sells pre-owned Pateks, while at number 35, Somlo Antiques is the official vintage Omega dealer. At number 24, The Vintage Watch Company offers a unique rare collection of Rolex Sports watches.
Another watch-buying option is to take advantage of the new service offered by Watchfinder. This booming business, based in the leafy English county of Kent, has recently grown to become one of the world’s leading ‘e-tailers’ for pre-owned luxury watches, turning over up to £70m worth of watches a year.
Watchfinder has a stock of more than 2,500 watches covering more than 50 of the leading brands and uses a highly skilled in-house servicing department to service and repair watches from a wide array of manufacturers and eras. The company has opened a discreet office in Mayfair to show watches to private clients.
With a massive database of buyers and sellers around the world, Watchfinder aims to be able to unearth almost any pre-owned watch in existence. And if you need inspiration the company even presents a free archive of dozens of vintage watch reviews at its website: http://www.watchfinder.co.uk/articles/.
Watchfinder’s colourful co-founder Lloyd Amsdon, who used to run a car sales website, says: ‘it’s not that hard to be enthusiastic about luxury watches. Lots of people associate them with a luxury lifestyle. I wish I was more like that – I just like holding and wearing them because they’re shiny.”
But which high-end watches make the best investments? Specialists like Altieri say Rolex dominates the vintage market and he structures his whole business around that single brand. “They’ve held their value the best,” he says. You have to know which Rolex to buy though. The more casual, less formal watches are doing best.
“The watches that have done the best over time have been the sport watches: The GMT, the Submariner, and the Daytona,” says Altieri. He suggested that watches older than around 25 years start becoming classed as vintage rather than just pre-owned – and that’s when values climb. “They’re not making any more old watches,” says Altieri. “There’s a finite amount of those left and every year more and more die off.”
Although the world of watches is based around money and prestige, Altieri advises customers not to purely treat luxury timepieces as investments. “I always tell people to buy something they like, not something for an investment,” says Altieri. “It’s not a bar of gold, you get to enjoy and wear it.”