The manufacture of the humble wristwatch has been elevated to a fine art by generations of Swiss craftspeople, the once-utilitarian product turned into a status symbol through association with sporting events, films and even the Apollo moon landings. High retail and auction prices have followed, with producers releasing increasingly complicated and precious watches, and buyers vying for antique, vintage and limited-edition treasures.
Last year, a rare 1943 Patek Philippe, one of the most collectable luxury brands, became the most expensive wristwatch to be sold at auction, fetching $11 million. Initially estimated to fetch $3 million, the stainless-steel watch is one of only four of its kind (Patek Philippe produced most of what was then a very complicated model in gold). Indeed, the ‘1’ engraved beneath the serial number establishes undeniable credentials, indicating that this piece was the first steel device in that line. Locally, Stephan Welz & Co recently sparked a bidding war with another Patek Philippe, with offers for the piece rocketing from an initial R30 000 to R1.7 million.
Anton Welz, director of Stephan Welz & Co, says this success stimulated the local watch market, with overseas consignments and interest from new customers following. The appeal of vintage watches, he explains, ties in with a revival of mid-century design, currently seen in everything from sunglasses to light fittings. Philip Zetler, proprietor of Cape Town’s Philip Zetler Jewellers, agrees that vintage watches dating back to the 1960s and ’70s are most collectable. He has sold watches for up to R200 000 (he names the Rolex Daytona as the ultimate collector’s prize). Manufactured since 1963, the Daytona range has gone through three series and innumerable models.
Recent iterations, such as last year’s Daytona Cosmograph with black Cerachrom bezel, have caused two-year waiting lists. The ‘Paul Newman Daytonas’ (the name given to various releases from the 1960s to ’80s) attained cult status after the actor and racing enthusiast was seen sporting them on the track. They are distinguished by their ‘exotic dials’, with an outer track on the main dial echoing the colour of the smaller sub-dials, which also feature Art Deco stylings. A 1969 Paul Newman 6239, one of the first Daytonas to feature Rolex’s waterproof Oyster case, was sold on auction for around $2 million last year. At the same Geneva sale, a 1942 Rolex with split-second display fetched almost $2.5 million. This was a Rolex auction record, driven by the watch’s rarity as one of only 12 produced: the model was never publicly available for sale, but likely given to racing drivers. Both auction lots illustrate how – as with art – antique pocket watches and vintage wristwatches with provenance can often be more appealing investments than modern pieces. ‘It’s always nice if it comes in the box with papers of authenticity, certified by a dealer or agent, and it should have its original dials and hands,’ says Zetler. ‘Collectors often like a watch as it is – without doing anything to it or it even being polished up.’ That said, the pursuit of authenticity, rarity and individuality can make new watches an interesting proposition over time, as none other than the Daytona illustrates. Back in the ’70s, the watches sold for less than $1 000 and were so unpopular that Rolex reportedly thought about stopping production altogether.
A hard-to-predict factor is the value added by unintended eccentricities such as the Daytona’s so-called tropical dials, which have faded to chocolate brown – as seen on last year’s $2 million auction success. Italian collector and auctioneer Osvaldo Patrizzi famously hoarded Daytona model 16520s, which are considered rare for a brown discolouration of the chapter rings on the sub-dials. The new-watch market is certainly dynamic, as the Swiss houses of haute horology refine their technology and create pieces for special events. Omega released exactly 7007 Seamaster 300 ‘Spectre’ wristwatches to both celebrate the last Bond movie, in which it makes an appearance on Daniel Craig’s bulky wrist, and mark 20 years since Omega supplanted Rolex as the British secret agent’s timepiece of choice.
The many sports tie-ins include TAG Heuer’s long-standing Formula 1 connection, which has produced pieces such as the 2004 Monaco V4 series, which uses a unique belt-driven movement. Vacheron Constantin, meanwhile, marked its 260th anniversary in 2015 with the most complex watch ever made, featuring 57 complications developed by three watchmakers over eight years. The elaborate commission was purchased for an undisclosed sum (possibly as much as $20 million), but exceeding Vacheron Constantin’s old record of $5 million, paid in 1979 for Kallista and its 118 diamonds. The glittering new one-off took roughly 6 000 hours to construct, plus a further 20 months to encrust with jewels. While such timekeeping marvels are not exactly purchases to start a collection with, they do illustrate the importance of focusing on watches with a very high level of craftsmanship. Mechanical watches are therefore a better bet than their battery-powered quartz counterparts.
‘The demand for craftsmanship and for limited-edition releases is very high,’ says Gerald Garbers, brand manager for Omega (which is part of the Swatch Group, along with Breguet and Blancpain). ‘Look at how specifically the watch is made. For example, Breguet watches are hand-assembled by a specific person; if your watch requires repairs or services, it goes back to the person it was originally made by.’ Hallmarks of good craftsmanship to look out for include how much of the watch’s movement was made in-house; how much of the assembly took place in Switzerland, the horologist’s Holy Land, and what percentage of the parts were made there; and how much unique, often patented, technology the watch contains. If you get all these factors right, you might just prove the old saying that time is money.
Buying the right name is essential – it can mean the difference in exclusivity between a Rolls-Royce and a Tata. Blancpain The world’s oldest watchmaking brand, operating in various forms since 1735. It eschews digital displays and quartz, with each piece made by a single watchmaker and fewer than 30 produced a day. Breguet Another long-running watchmaker, Breguet dates to 1775 and produced the first wristwatch in 1812.
Technical innovations include the tourbillon (which counters inaccuracies caused by gravity) and distinctive moon-tipped Breguet hands. Cartier The French jeweller is a favourite of royalty such as Kate Middleton, who has been spotted wearing a quartz Cartier Ballon Bleu worth more than $5 000. It made an early wristwatch for aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont. Omega Its Speedmaster was the first watch on the Moon in 1969, adorning Buzz Aldrin’s wrist. Among Omega’s many endorsements is its status as the official Olympic Games timekeeper on 27 occasions since 1932. Patek Philippe Founded in 1839, it has broken numerous records with its complex mechanisms and high auction prices. In 2014, its Henry Graves Supercomplication pocket watch, produced in 1933 for the US banker of the same name, fetched $24 million – the highest auction price achieved by a watch.
Rolex The largest and most recognisable luxury watch brand produces 2 000 timepieces a day. Established in 1905, one of its claims to fame is creating the first waterproof wristwatch, the Oyster, in 1926. Vacheron Constantin The world’s oldest constantly operating watch manufacturer, founded in 1755. It began producing complications in 1790 and has graced the wrists of luminaries from Napoleon Bonaparte to Harry Truman.
Know your lingo
You’ll have to learn the terminology, if you want to be taken seriously as a collector.
The grooved ring holding the watch face in position.
A watch that can both tell the time and act as a stopwatch.
Any function of the watch other than displaying the time, including date and dual time zones.
A watch powered by a mainspring that is wound by hand, slowly unwinding and transmitting power to a system of interconnected gearwheels. An automatic mechanical does not need winding, because the movement of the wearer’s wrist moves an oscillating weight which keeps the mainspring wound up.
The watch’s engine, acting as a powerhouse for timekeeping
and complications. Quartz Usually the most accurate type of movement, powered by battery.