A box-fresh timepiece may win you admirers but true exclusivity comes when you buy a pre-owned luxury watch. Learn the mechanics of choosing vintage from a master.
The cultural significance of the wristwatch continues to grow as its necessity as a functional object declines. I was speaking the other night to a man of fashion and taste who has a fondness for mechanical watches and he told me that he looks at the time on his watch and then, such are the vagaries of clockwork, verifies it on his iPhone. Logic dictates that ipso facto the wristwatch is about as useful as the human appendix and yet, the last 25 years has seen interest in mechanical watches soar.
There are, broadly speaking, three ways of approaching watch buying. For some there is nothing to beat the rush of strapping a brand new, box-fresh piece of ticking time-telling equipment to their wrist; like buying a car from the main dealer it comes with all the razzmatazz and the new car smell.
Others, however, prefer to buy pre-owned, viewing the purchase of a watch rather like the acquisition of a motor vehicle, allowing the first or second owner to take the hit on the depreciation.
And there is a third type of buyer for whom the watch is a receptacle of history, a visitor from the past that brings with it a sense of the style and romance of days gone by: this is the sort of car buyer who is in the market for a short-wheelbase Ferrari 250 or a Blower Bentley.
Why buy a pre-owned luxury watch?
When I first started writing about watches in the late Eighties, the big news was that some vintage Rolex Daytonas were beginning to overtake the prices of the new model. Of course, today the Rolex Daytona is arguably the most widely known (and widely hyped) of vintage timepieces. It is far from being the most expensive vintage watch you are going to come across; nevertheless, if prices keep on heading in the direction they’ve been going during the last 27 years, soon you will need to be looking at investing a six-figure sum in a piece of 50-year-old wind-up machinery, the value of which resides in tiny cosmetic differences in the dial.
Think of this type of watch collecting as more like a distant cousin of philately and you get an idea of the complexity that awaits the casual purchaser.
Rolex has not tended to make things easy for its collectors as there are no archives to be consulted, so unless you are well-versed in what the auction houses like to call “Rolex scholarship”, you are in the hands of the person selling you the watch. So the simplest advice is buy from someone you trust. And, if you can, make sure that you can get the watch with its original box and papers as well as any corroborating documentation.
To return to the car-buying analogy, think of this as a car with a documented service history and avoid anything that has been too heavily polished – it may look nice and shiny on the wrist, but polishing wears away crisp edges and renders those all-important serial numbers and hallmarks indistinct. Photographs, whether online or in auction catalogues, may look seductive but they should only be a precursor to examining the watch.
The best advice when investing in watches is don’t – buy a watch because you like it and let the dividend be the pleasure you derive from looking at it.
I do not like to talk of investing in watches; it makes an interest in horology sound like a branch of speculation rather than a pleasurable pastime, but if you insist on viewing watches as financial instruments then it may help to think of the likes of Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin as gilt-edged securities.
These two Geneva-based brands, one operating under the sign of the Calatrava Cross, the other taking the Maltese Cross, have been in business 176 and 260 years respectively, and they undertake to be able to repair any watch made at any time during a combined history of 436 years of watchmaking. Better still, both marques have kept extensive archives and can supply you with an extract from the archives stating when your watch was made, when it was first sold and adding any noteworthy facts such as whether it was supplied on a strap or bracelet.
This sort of track record and careful husbandry of history builds the sort of confidence that propelled one buyer last winter to part with £15m for the legendary Graves Supercomplication; a Patek Philippe pocket watch that previously changed hands for somewhere in the region of £7m at the end of the last century. When the watch was delivered in the early Thirties,
it cost its owner 60,000 Swiss Francs, around £3,000 (or roughly £160,000 adjusted for inflation), showing that buying new and paying top dollar can prove to be a staggeringly good investment. ML