Wristwatches that do a lot more than tell time are very much of the moment.
By Jonathon KeatsOn Christmas Day, 1969, Seiko introduced the Astron, the world’s first quartz wristwatch. While it wasn’t cheap—at 450,000 yen, it cost the same as a new Toyota—within several years, inexpensive Japanese quartz threatened to put traditional Swiss manufacturers out of business. So the Swiss responded, in typical Swiss fashion, by looking to the past. Starting in the early ’80s, they began reviving and revising the exotic complicated timepieces they’d once made in minuscule quantities, seeking to distinguish themselves from the Japanese by making Swiss watches more luxe than ever.
The strategy worked. Rescued by their heritage, old Swiss firms such as Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet are thriving, and newer ones such as Franck Muller have become major luxury brands. Recently they’ve begun to return the favor (in a manner of speaking), bolstering interest in the vintage complications that inspired them. “People start collecting contemporary pieces and work their way backward,” says Michael Friedman of Antiquorum Auctioneers, a firm that specializes in timepieces. “They start to ask what preceded this watch? What’s the history?”
The result has been impressive growth in the market for vintage complications, with some prices increasing by as much as a hundred percent in the past decade, and the most unusual watches routinely selling for more than $500,000 in major auctions. (Any timepiece that can mechanically measure more than the time of day is considered to have a complication—including watches that can track the phases of the moon or clock a horse race—as are watches with specialized mechanisms to improve accuracy.) Earlier this year, a World Time watch made by Patek Philippe in 1953, with a special bezel that rotates to simultaneously show the hour in 24 different cities, sold at Antiquorum for $1.2 million. Another example with a cloisonné dial sold at Christie’s last year for $3 million, and this summer the same auction house sold a possibly unique 1928 Patek Philippe chronograph for $3.6 million. All three were hammered down for twice their low estimates.
Without question, Patek Philippe leads the market, consistently edging out even Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, two companies with equally venerable histories. “There has always been a premium on Patek,” says Bonhams specialist Jonathan Snellenberg, who notes that a complicated watch with the Patek signature can sell for as much as twice the price realized on a comparable watch by a less-known maker. “When you see the name Patek Philippe, you know that there’s a tradition of quality control they’ve had since their inception,” explains Friedman. Patek’s chairman, Philippe Stern, has worked hard to ensure that association. Since the late 1980s, he’s paid top dollar at auction for historically important examples he wants in the Patek Philippe company museum. What may have begin as smart marketing for Patek’s current production—showing potential customers how strongly the brand believes in every timepiece the company has ever made—has also become a major factor in the strength of vintage pieces at auction. “It gives bidders a sense of confidence,” says Friedman, “and if the watch ends up in the museum it will never come on the market again.”
The symbiotic relationship between new and old complications may be most overt in the case of the Patek World Time watch, which the company reintroduced in 2008 at a bargain five-figure price, but it also applies to traditional complications—from the perpetual calendar to the minute repeater—now made by all the foremost brands. A repeater is a watch that chimes the hours and minutes at the slide of a lever, a mechanically challenging complication first developed in pocket watches to tell the time at night, and later scaled down to fit on the most privileged of wrists. Exceedingly rare in watches made before the 1990s, repeaters have become so popular in the past decade that almost every major brand, from Patek and Vacheron to Jaeger LeCoultre and Franck Muller, now manufacture at least one model. Some are exceedingly traditional. (The metal chimes on each Patek are tuned by hand to suit Philippe Stern’s ear.) Others are more experimental. (Jaeger has developed gongs using artificial sapphire crystal.) But the overall impact, as those new watches have been featured in glossy magazines, has been to bring global attention to an obscure antique mechanism. “When the number of collectors quadruples, prices reflect that increase,” comments Friedman. For instance he cites the Patek Philippe Ref. 2524, produced in the 1950s. “In the early 2000s, this watch usually brought $200,000 to $250,000. The most recent example we had did $385,000. Percentagewise, that’s a big jump.”
Perpetual-calendar wristwatches, which are geared to track the varying lengths of months and typically include a moonphase dial, have likewise undergone a renaissance, with fringe benefits for historical forebears. “The perpetual calendar is the classic complication,” says Friedman. “The whole concept is rooted in the history of horology, going back to very early clocks, when phases of the moon were important for sailing or farming.” That sheer classicism and the nostalgia that goes with it have given special status to perpetual calendars both new and old. “A chronograph is much more complex and difficult to make than a perpetual calendar,” asserts Snellenberg. “But value doesn’t necessarily correspond to the amount of engineering you have to put into the watch.” The calendarwork also goes well with almost any other complication, including a chronograph (or stopwatch), as Bonhams neatly showed late last year with a world record $338,500 for a Patek Philippe Ref. 5020P perpetual-calendar chronograph wristwatch manufactured in 1996 and still in the original box.
Nevertheless, Snellenberg is careful to point out that price appreciation is uncertain, especially in the case of modern complicated watches. “Companies are introducing new models relatively quickly now, and if there are more watches than buyers, you’ll see more volatility,” he explains. “As with modern art, you just don’t know which will retain value.” For that reason, people looking to invest would be wiser to focus on vintage timepieces than on their modern counterparts. One industry insider who would speak only anonymously claims that he sees the majority of contemporary complicated watches selling for less than a quarter of their retail price when resold at auction. “The quality is good, but the rarity isn’t there,” he says. “With major luxury brands, the whole point is to sell as many units as possible.”
For the shrewd collector, that problem may suggest an opportunity. “I think that complicated pocket watches are tremendously undervalued,” says Snellenberg. “A complicated wristwatch is now many times more valuable than a pocket watch with comparable complications, and there are no more pocket watches being made.”
In other words, consider following the lead of the Swiss. Seek the future in the past.
This article appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “It’s Complicated.”