Not all my financial decisions have been impeccable, but I did make one very sound call. I bought vintage watches before the current craze commenced. Given my too-small pension, the increases in value are reassuring: $500 paid for an early Rolex Explorer 20 years ago has turned into something like $7,000 today; ditto for the same spent on a 1952 IWC Mk 11.
The rebirth of the mechanical wristwatch in the late 1980s has created a mature collector’s culture. If you accept the arbitrary definition of a “vintage watch” as one that’s over 25 years old, then the earliest examples of the “new wave” mechanical wristwatches are now soaked in the desirability and gravitas of age. By contrast, watches less than a quarter of a century old are referred to, sniffily, by the trade as “pre-owned”. The $1.4m paid in May 2015 for an ultra-rare 1971 Rolex Daytona once owned by Eric Clapton represented a new benchmark.
“Vintage watches” used to mean pocket watches, and wristwatch collectors had no network to speak of, no magazines or collectors’ guides to help them appreciate what was worth pursuing. Aside from the perennial yen for Patek Philippe, Rolex and Cartier, there was no hierarchy of desirability. That trio had earned cult status by virtue of their reputation and the good taste of their customers. When auction houses like Antiquorum started to devise wristwatch-only auctions, vintage watches began to attain the credibility in horological circles that had been previously reserved for clocks and pocket watches in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Those early auctions ran concurrently with the recovery in sales of brand-new mechanical watches, after quartz had nearly killed off the entire Swiss watch industry in the 1970s. Visionaries such as the late Günter Blümlein, saviour of IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, A. Lange & Söhne, Gerd-R Lang, founder of Chronoswiss, Nicolas Hayek senior of the Swatch Group and a host of “auteur” watchmakers including Franck Muller, F.P. Journe and Daniel Roth, kept the mechanical faith. Then, as now, they valued authenticity above all.
Watch enthusiasts know that, within reason, any mechanical wristwatch can be serviced, repaired and maintained in perpetuity by a skilled watchmaker. With the exception of certain cosmetic details, and ignoring the obsession among certain collectors for original parts (like the apocryphal Japanese car collector who expects to see the original tyres on a 1928 Bugatti Type 35), a watchmaker can reproduce or adapt a component to keep a watch running.
A quartz timepiece, by contrast, becomes scrap when its electronic parts become obsolete. Pity those who bought solid-gold quartz watches in the 1970s, and now find that they’re about as serviceable as a Betamax VCR. Some of the larger brands may have kept stocks of parts, but eventually the only solution will be to find a replacement movement – quartz or mechanical – that might fit with some modification.
Part of the lust for vintage is clearly about rarity: anyone with enough money can buy the latest watch, but a new model will always scream “arriviste”. I once attended a dinner in 1998 – nothing to do with watches – and seven of the eight gents at the table were wearing Panerais, then considered screamingly rare. Any thoughts of coolness or discernment vanished.
Vintage watches, by virtue of age and – usually – much lower production numbers, tend to survive in the wild by being in the right place at the right time. The chances of finding a dream watch decrease with specificity. You want a vintage Rolex Day-Date? At any given time, there are a few thousand for sale. But you want one from 1968, because it’s your birth year? And you want it with a “Stella” dial? And in coral? Expect to hunt around, to scour the auction catalogues, to put your name on a waiting list at David Duggan, Somlo Antiques, Watch Club and with other specialist dealers.
As for chance finds, think lottery-level odds. Unlike the glory days, when a visit to a Salvation Army store would yield a 1930s Gruen Curvex for $5, or a pawn shop in Atlanta could provide you with a 1950s Girard-Perregaux Gyromatic for $35, everyone and his brother is now an expert. Between the ludicrous results at auction – which have turned vintage watches into a cash cow on a par with rare wines – and the increase in the number of collectors worldwide, the odds of turning up a rare piece in a car-boot sale are lengthening with the same rapidity as finding a lost Turner in your loft.
As the finest watches were usually kept in the families that first owned them – because only the well-to-do ever bought Vacheron Constantins, Audemars Piguets and Patek Philippes – such pieces do not turn up in jumble sales. They enter the marketplace only when someone dies. Bonhams is in the middle of a series of sales of over 2,000 watches amassed by “a European nobleman”, and most entries in top-level auction catalogues have a note somewhere in the description along the lines of “property of a gentleman”. Less common is “found by some lucky schmuck in a garage sale”.
Certainly, the biggest money is still found in pocket watches, such as Patek Philippe’s Henry Graves Super Complication, which sold for $24m in 2014. More frequently, though, wristwatches – especially Patek Philippe minute repeaters and perpetual calendars – are topping the $1m mark, while Rolexes are getting there too. Aurel Bacs, a fashionable auctioneer working as a consultant to Phillips, conducted a sale made up solely of 60 Rolex Day-Dates, and another of 88 stainless-steel chronographs. Six- and seven-figure bids are his norm.
“Don’t buy anything you won’t want to wear” remains a good watchword; but for those with an eye to investment, the blue-chip brands remain Rolex, Cartier and Patek Philippe, while Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin are curiously undervalued but still highly desirable. Omega is on a high, and Longines is – at last – in the ascent. Elder Breitling, Lemania, Heuer (before TAG) and Universal Genève chronographs are coveted by enthusiasts; watches issued to the branches of the armed forces – especially from IWC and Rolex – always hold their value; classics like the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso never go out of fashion.
Those buying for long-term pleasure or investment should ask themselves a useful question: if a new watch is bizarre, and the manufacturer is tiny, and it features bespoke technology, is the company likely still to be around in 20 years’ time? Watch brands are not guaranteed immortality, and a dearth of parts is a deal-breaker.
Do not pay attention to price guides. They have the shelf-life of a croissant. Last year, nobody expected $1.4m to change hands for Clapton’s Rolex, let alone 375,000 Swiss francs ($389,410) for a unique but brand-new Tudor with a retail value a 100th of the price. Both sales caused an upward trend in the prices of similar, more common models. And you never know when an influential pundit is going to fall in love with some minor brand and push up its prices with a mouse click.
My good fortune 30 years ago was down, I guess, to a mixture of a taste for beauty and dumb luck. I was lucky to be living before prices went stratospheric, and vintage watches were easier to come by. I once bought a fabulous Leonidas calendar chronograph from a guy in Las Vegas for $900. While I was walking along and looking at it, a collector I knew buttonholed me and offered me first $1,000, then $1,500, then $2,000. Watch-dealing, it seemed, offered an even faster way to make a buck than all the vices of Sin City.