Buying Watches


One series of advertisements was enough to explain why some people prefer to spend a small fortune on a watch, even though a £3 quartz throwaway from a corner store will tell time with greater accuracy: ‘You never actually own a Patek Philippe watch. You merely look after it for the next generation.’

Supreme arrogance? Er, no. Those two sentences tell you that (1) the watch is probably too expensive ever to be thrown away, (2) fine watches, like collectors’ automobiles, should be serviced rather than replaced (and thrown away), and (3) the makers have enough confidence in their watches to suggest that it will outlast its purchaser. Full marks to Patek Philippe for grabbing the slogan, but – to be fair – it also applies to a select group of its rivals.

Patek Philippe is at the top of the horological tree, as it has been almost since its birth over 160 years ago. At this rarefied level are other equally evocative names, much in the way that ‘Ferrari’, ‘Maserati’ and Lamborghini’ signal superior cars. What items other than watches could wear names such as Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Girard-Perregaux, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breguet or Blancpain? And like their automotive equals, they are finely-tuned, partly hand-made, exclusive, expensive and demanding of their owners.

Prior to the late 1980s, such watches also suffered (or enjoyed) relative obscurity, as they were known only to the privileged few. For the nouveau riche or other arrivistes, there were less elite – though not necessarily less-expensive nor less ‘good’ – timepieces from far more commercially-minded brands including the ubiquitous Rolex, Omega, Longines and countless others. What happened to make watches more appealing in the 1980s was the backlash against the cheap and nasty quartz watches of the 1970s. Along with retro-revivals such as LPs versus CDs and real coffee versus instant, mechanical watches were rediscovered. As with most boys’ toys (despite the jewellery aspects, women seem content with but one or two watches) a culture was created, one of collectors and investors, cognoscenti and wheeler-dealers, ‘auteurs’ and counterfeiters.

Now a mature collectors’ field, watches are sold by nearly every major auction house, as well as a few such as Antiquorum in Switzerland and Dr. Crott in Germany devoted exclusively to watch and clock auctions. Most of the finest pieces, especially those of historical interest such as Lawrence of Arabia’s chronograph, end up in auction rather than private sales. As one New York collector – a female collector, no less, in itself a rarity – said to Money with a wry smile, ‘I’m surprised that the script writers of Sex & The City didn’t set an episode at an Antiquorum watch auction. I’ve never seen so many available millionaires in one room.’

A major part of a watch’s appeal for enthusiasts is that you carry your treasure with you. You don’t have to bring friends to your home to show them your latest acquisition. If your watch is ‘cool’ or interesting enough, it might even start a conversation, breaking the ice at a cocktail party. For nowadays, a canny businessman will gauge a client or rival by his wrist-wear, just as he might have once passed judgement by the cut of a suit. It is one of the most telling of modern accessories. As Theo Fennell’s Chris Cameron-Gudge observed, ‘Taste in watches has improved considerably. A watch that would have been purchased as a fine gift a decade or even five years ago has been replaced by a Patek-Philippe, a Breguet or a Vacheron Constantin. The benefactor is saying, “I have more taste than to give you a Rolex.'”

Unlike a selection of paintings, sculpture or vintage cars, which require special conditions or ample display space for their housing and storage, a sizeable watch collection could fit in a shoebox. Aside from their inherent appeal to burglars, watches need only a reasonably constant climate and occasional servicing to survive a lifetime. Buy well, treat the watch with care, and you have something that you can enjoy on a daily basis, something that will not diminish or disappear with usage, like a bottle of wine.

‘Buying well’ is the key, and it’s not as tricky as you might think. As master watchmaker Peter Roberts told Money, ‘There really are no bad watches out there, because they all have to perform the same basic function and perform it well: tell the time. Manufacturing standards are impossibly high. So beyond that, you buy according to your taste and your budget.’ With that in mind, any of the established Swiss or German brands will sell you a watch that will probably keep you informed of the time for the rest of your life. Quality mechanical watches start for under £500, from brands such as Oris or Tissot, but the ones that will enjoy collector’s or investor’s appeal are, naturally, of a more rarefied nature.

While no two watch enthusiasts will agree, it seems that the entry level point for ‘serious’ watches is above £1000-£1500, while a modicum of exclusivity begins above £3000. To taste the high-end of watchmaking, expect to start at £5000. And if you want to wear something unlikely to be seen on the wrist of a fellow guest at a dinner party, start thinking £10,000 and above. This places you in the field populated by brands such as A. Lange & Sohne, Breguet, Patek Philippe, Roger Dubuis, Parmigiani Fleurier, F. P Journe, Franck Muller and others, and it’s also at a point above even their entry level lines. Think of it this way: they may both wear the same badge, but there’s a world of difference between an A-Class and an S-Class Mercedes-Benz. So, too, with wristwatches.

What are you getting for the extra outlay? Leaving aside diamond encrustation, in itself not necessarily enhancing a watch’s value let alone its tastefulness, the more you pay, the more you get in the way of what are called ‘complications’. This is the watchmaker’s term for any time-keeping function beyond minutes, hours and seconds. The most common and useful are the date, followed by the day of the week, month and year, while the most popular among collectors are chronographs, which add stop-watch functions, and moon-phase – the latter only of use to sailors and werewolves. Then you get to the extreme high end, where the prices go as high as six figures: tourbillons, which feature a segment of the movement that rotates to counteract gravity, and minute repeaters, which chime the time. Because the more complicated watches are harder to manufacture and cost more, they tend to be the most rare, the most desired and therefore the most likely to hold a greater portion of their value.

The alternative to new watches are ‘pre-owned’, where a collector bought a timepiece, grew bored and traded it in after a short period. Again, we find a similar situation with exotic cars, where the classifieds are filled with low-mileage Porsches and Ferraris, whose owners may have lost their licenses. Unlike cars, though, high-end watches – unless VERY special – tend not to appreciate over the short term. Thus, you have dealers such as David Duggan and Second Time Round able to sell you very recent watches with all of their papers, often for a truly substantial savings. The only downside is that you are not buying from a ‘main agent’.

But there is one more alternative to new watches, if watches appeal to you but you want something different. The vintage watch market encompasses both shops such as Somlo Antiques and auction houses like Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Antiquorum, as well as boot fairs, flea markets and general antique fairs. The selection is enormous, the prices often attractive. But, unlike new watches, there are two major downsides. The first is that you are buying something old, and gauging its condition requires knowledge and experience. If, however, you stick with reputable dealers or auction houses, the risks are minimised. The other ‘negative’ is availability, both of the watches and spare parts.

As for the watches themselves, vintage timepieces are found solely by being in the right place at the right time. However much your heart may be set upon owning a rose-gold Rolex Bubbleback from the late 1930s, you cannot go to your nearest Rolex dealer and order one as you would a new DateJust. You may end up leaving your name with a selection of dealers, or poring over auction catalogues for months or even years. As for the spares, well, don’t even bother with vintage watches if you don’t have access to a master watchmaker and deep-ish pockets. If your watch needs a spare part which cannot be ordered from the original manufacturer, then it will have to be made from scratch. And that means an expensive repair.

The auction route is as fraught with peril as any other type of auction, and the rules are the same: study the catalogues, know your financial limits. The advantages, though, outnumber the risks if you have a bit of knowledge and self-control. Often, the more recent watches will sell for substantially less than in stores that stock used pieces, and – unless you get involved in a battle with another bidder – you might find yourself bidding for a watch with little competition. There are bargains to be had, but don’t count on it. Richard Chadwick of Christie’s has four tips for buying at auction: ‘First, accept that there is no need to fear anything. Second, always stick to your price limit. Third, always ask for a condition report on the items you’re after. And fourth, go to the viewing before the auction.’ Antiquorum has taken buying at auction a stage further: it has created a grading system that covers every detail so you know with great certainty exactly what is on offer.

As with any specialised field, whether it’s vintage wines, art or automobiles, there is only one substitute for knowledge and experience: using the services of an expert. A watchmaker, an enthusiast, an honest retailer – any of these will minimise the risks of buying or investing in fine watches. But, as one vendor of high-quality, pre-owned pieces told us as advice he’d give to someone who wanted to acquire watches for their investment rather than intrinsic value, he said, ‘Forget it. The only watches that will appreciate are those that currently can be purchased only at their market value, which means that only a lengthy passage of time will increase their value. And even that’s not a certainty. Instead, why not simply buy a watch because you actually want it?’


The Dealer/Collector

However comfortable he looks, Richard Marriott-Smith of Time Out is the last person who’d tell you that buying and selling vintage watches is the way to an easy life, let alone a fortune. Constantly on the road, Marriott-Smith buys and sells mainly at antiques and watch fairs, although he maintains a small shop. He seems to spend a quarter of his life packing and unpacking watches, setting up stalls, dismantling them. But he has no interest in changing careers.

He loves watches too much, loves shmoozing with collectors, loves the constant variety of timepieces passing through his hands. ‘I began as a collector and, like most dealers, and eventually ended up trading pieces so often that I made it a full-time occupation.’ Granted, this was after a quarter-century as a collector, so it wasn’t a decision made in haste; Marriott-Smith will mark his first decade as a buyer/seller next year.

Although his stall always boasts a large selection of military watches and chronographs, they’re not his specialities. It even surprises Marriott-Smith to learn that he has a reputation as a source for such pieces. ‘As with my personal collecting preferences, I concentrate on selling the earliest wristwatches, those made prior to WWI, after which they became commercially viable.’

Focussing on wristwatches from 1880-1920 means that there are still plenty of timepieces available for acquisition, as the general collecting public prefers more modern (and slightly more usable) watches. But that’s changing. ‘Early silver-cased watches could be found for as little as £20-£50 as recently as two years ago; now they’re creeping up to £150-£300, while the better ones command three or four times that, especially IWCs and the earliest Rolexes.’

Marriott-Smith also notes that there’s been an increase in the appeal of ‘half-hunters’ – watches with flip-open, protective lids featuring small windows – while very early chronographs ‘sell out as quickly as we can find them.’ Other growth areas include the inevitable chronographs and military watches, as well as complications – ‘People love moonphases and triple calendars’ – and serious sport watches. If Marriott-Smith is pressed, he’ll tell you that the ones to watch are Omega Constellations, most older Breitlings and older Audemars-Piguet ‘classics’, but the safest bets are still Rolex and Patek-Philippe…regardless of the vintage.


You know that something has crept above the radar when celebrities show their interest. Forget about the freebies handed out at events like the Academy Awards: giving an A-list star a fine fountain pen doesn’t necessarily mean that the recipient is an enthusiast. Forget, too, the sponsorship angle; paying a Grand Prix driver $1m per annum to wear your leather jacket is no guarantee that he’d actually buy one himself. Rather, you know that watches have ‘arrived’ when a specialist magazine such as WatchTime in the USA can feature a film or sports star on the cover nearly every month, or a footballer – no, make that THE footballer – can garner column inches in the newspapers, as did David Beckham, when he purchased a diamond-encrusted Franck Muller. Among the most notable and serious watch collectors are actors Peter Fonda, Tom Selleck, Hugh Grant, Kelsey Grammer, Pierce Brosnan and Jim Belushi, hip-hop legends Russell Simmons and P. Diddy, footballer Paolo Dicanio and musicians Elton John and Eric Clapton.

Now they’re even contributing to the lore. Sylvester Stallone helped to put the dormant Panerai on the map when he bought a couple of hundred of their oversized watches for friends in the 1990s; the company named the series ‘Slytech’, and they’ve since become serious collectors’ items. Arnold Schwarzeneggar is so enamoured of Audemars Piguet that they created a special version of the Royal Oak Offshore model for him for End Of Days, and have just announced a newer, even beefier model for the forthcoming Terminator 3.

‘Do’s and ‘Don’t’s of Purchasing

1) Buy only watches you’d want to wear in the first place. That way, you’ll never feel like you’re ‘stuck with it.’

2) Buy from a reputable retailer. Whether it’s part of a major chain or a well-established independent, the reputation will ensure that you’ll enjoy decent servicing and back-up. Also, it’s the ONLY guarantee that you’re not buying a fake, some of which are so convincing that only a trained watchmaker could spot the difference. (The biggest victims of faking are Rolex, Cartier, Breitling, Franck Muller and Panerai.)

3) Be nice. If you form a rapport with a retailer, that store will look after you over the years, even helping you to upgrade or trade in watches without you having to feel too much of the ‘sting’ of depreciation.

4) Look to the established brands. Patek-Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Audemars-Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Rolex, IWC and others of that calibre didn’t survive one or more centuries through luck. Their products become family members, heirlooms which survive from generation to generation. And if you really must do some selling, they’re easier to place.

5) Be conservative. Nothing dates more quickly than a radically-styled watch. Ask any vendor to show you a selection of watches from the Decade That Taste Forgot, and he’ll pull out a tray full of unsaleable 1970s atrocities. (On the other hand, people like Paul Smith adore these Kojak-endorsed horrors.)

6) Don’t buy quartz watches except for knock-around sport purposes. Regardless of the price, from £2-£2m, the movements are disposable, and – after a certain period – irreparable.

7) If funds are limited, choose a watch with a strap over one with a bracelet. Bracelets add hugely to the cost, and a fine watch on a strap is better than a so-so watch on a bracelet at the same price point.

8) When buying new, keep all the paperwork and boxes.

9) When buying vintage, especially from a dealer, ensure that there is a guarantee of at least 6 months, if the watch is being sold as serviced. ‘As seen’ is a red flag telling you not to buy it if you don’t have a watchmaker at your elbow to advise you. Try, try, try to get someone who knows about watches to examine it before you make your purchase. The inside of a watch will tell a repairer how many times it was serviced during its lifetime – the more, the merrier.

10) When buying at auction, try to attend the viewing beforehand, to handle and see the target of your bidding. If you’re quick off the mark, you can even ask for a condition report a couple of weeks before the auction.

A Dozen Blue Chip Vintage Certs

Some vintage watches, like prime real estate, will never decrease in value. Why? Because they’re out of production, and therefore of truly finite availability. Collectors covet them, and compete for them, so you’re as likely to find them in an auction as in a top vintage watch store, such as Somlo Antiques. As one dealer said, ‘You’ll have to pay market value for these, but you’ll probably never lose on your investment.’ As with vintage cars, provenance and condition add to the price. Add a famous owner’s name, like Duke Ellington, Elvis or Lawrence of Arabia, and you can often add a zero. [Note: Prices were correct as of 2005!]

1) Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona (up to £20,000)

2) pre-1990 Panerai (£4000-£10,000)

3) Rolex Explorer 1 or 2 (£1500-£6000)

4) any Patek Philippe complication (the sky’s the limit)

5) IWC’s Mk IX, Mk X and Mk 11 military models (£1500-£5000)

6) Rolex Milgauss (£10,000-£15,000)

7) Rolex Prince Brancard white-and-yellow-gold striped (ca. £10,000-12,000)

8) Audemars Piguet ‘Schaeffer-shaped’ minute repeater (£20-25,000)

9) Vacheron Constantin 1910-1930, larger-sized original tonneau (£20,000 and up)

10) Early Breguet wristwatches, pre-WWII (£5000-50,000)

11) Cartier ‘Crash’ (£20,000 and up)

12) Early Van Cleef & Arpels

A Dozen Future collectibles?

With the watch companies issuing limited editions in droves, and with the numbers – both the production runs and the number of models – beginning to exceed the number of willing collectors, rarity itself is no longer a guarantee that a watch will increase its value, let alone hold on to it. Theo Fennell’s Chris Cameron-Gudge noted that, ‘Among the new or recently-revived brands, such as A. Lange & Sohne or Franck Muller, the first few years’ worth of watches they produced will hold the greatest cachet level for true collectors. But other high-priced pieces, once they’ve found their natural sales target, are often produced in numbers greater than the market can absorb. As a result, a coveted, hard-to-find collectible watch of three or four years ago might start to appear in sales or auctions at half of its original price.’ With that proviso, it’s worth considering the following recent or still-current watches as those that may prove to be wise investments.

1) Patek Philippe ’10-Jours’

2) A. Lange & Sohne Pour Le Merite 100 pieces

3) anything made by Philippe Dufour

4) Franck Muller ‘Black Watch’ 50 pieces only, 1999

5) most Panerai limited editions of 50 pieces or less

6) Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore, original version

7) Ulysse-Nardin ‘The Freak’

8) Patek Philippe 150th Anniversary Minute Repeater, 1989

9) 60th Anniversary Jaeger-Reverso

10) anything made by F.P. Journe

11) Girard-Perregaux split-seconds co-axial chronograph

12) Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Geographique

‘Do’s and ‘Don’t’s of Ownership

You’ve just purchased a mechanical wristwatch. Like anything filled with minuscule moving parts, a wristwatch – new or vintage – should be treated with care and respect. If they’re used and maintained with love and affection, they can provide many lifetimes’ worth of service. Here are some basic guidelines to help you get the most from your latest acquisition:

ALWAYS SET THE HANDS IN A CLOCKWISE DIRECTION. Some experts argue that this prolongs the life of the watch; others think that it’s pure paranoia. Better safe than sorry – after all, it doesn’t take much effort.

DON’T BELIEVE THE WORDS ‘WATERPROOF’ OR ‘WATER-RESISTANT’ unless your watch features a screw-back and a screw-down-crown. Even then, it may not have been waterproofed after its last service. If in doubt, buy something cheap and cheerful, like a Swatch diving watch, for underwater duties. Unless, of course, you’re actually scuba-diving, in which case a genuine diver’s watch is required to ensure that you live past your dive. You can’t go wrong with a Rolex Submariner or Sea-Dweller, certain Omegas or TAG-Heuers, etc.

TRY TO WEAR YOUR WATCH REGULARLY. Just sitting there in a drawer does it no good.

HAVE YOUR WATCH SERVICED OFTEN. If you use it every day, a service every two-to-three years will suffice. Occasional use? Aim for servicing every five years.

WIND YOUR WATCH CAREFULLY if it’s manual, not automatic. You can feel when you’re reaching a ‘full wind’, so don’t force it. Overwinding generally means a repair. Do not wind your watch when it’s on your wrist – too much strain on the winder. (Some experts reckon that you should wind your watch at the same time every day.)

DON’T BELIEVE THE TERM ‘SHOCK RESISTANT’. A car is shock resistant, too, until it hits a wall.



David Duggan

Second Time Round

Somlo Antiques

(Unpublished article for Money Mail, © Ken Kessler, 2005)