The Nature of Uniqueness Between Vintage and Modern Wristwatch Markets

London Lectures – 18 July 2019

This article is a version of one that appeared in Antiquarian Horology, Number Three, Volume 40 (September 2019). Lectures are free to attend for all AHS Members. If you would like to join the AHS, please visit the Membership Page. Members also get a host of other free (fully searchable) digital resources, including the Horological Journal from 1858.

Dr Andrew Hildreth (Ph.D Cantab) gave a lecture on the nature and value of uniqueness in vintage and modern watches, particularly those at auction. Supported by numerous examples and a bespoke valuation Index for vintage watches, Dr Hildreth set out his thoughts on the proliferation of limited edition wrist watches, the drive for unique watches at auction and the potential “bubble” that might be forming in the vintage watch market.

Dr Hildreth began by asking why people still felt the need to wear a mechanical watch in an age where mobile telephones, smart watches and other forms of accurate time are available to nearly everyone. He suggested that there might remain a sense of theatre in the wearing of a mechanical watch, or that it might be an emotional response to a mechanical object imbued with life by a watchmaker. In a time when nobody really needs a watch, he asked why they are becoming increasingly valuable as an asset class, and what might be causing this growth in popularity.

He traced this growth to the rise of the internet, and the sense of “cool” that has been attributed to vintage watches over the past years. An increasing amount of information is now available on ‘blogs and webzines which may, in the past, have been closely guarded by collectors and dealers. Paradoxically, he said, the internet has not just made information more available, but also simplified the way in which vintage watches are described, moving from an academic pursuit to ‘blog posts “stacked with mad facts”.

At the same time, he continued, brands and auction houses have sought to confer “uniqueness” on watches that may previously have been considered relatively commonplace. Such uniqueness may be considered to be contrived, rather than genuine. He used the example of truly unique watches, such as the Graves Supercomplication pocket watch made by Patek Philippe in 1933 or the recently sold 17th century blue enamel and diamond verge pocket watch by Jehan Cremsdorff, comparing these to a search for uniqueness in serial wrist watches. Such watches are often given names, to further differentiate them from other, similar pieces, and to further emphasise their stand-alone nature.

Why is it, he asked, that a relatively unremarkable Rolex, reference number 6239, owned by the actor Paul Newman should sell for $17.8m at auction, when a truly unique watch such as the Patek Philippe, reference 2458, made in 1952 for legendary American collector J.B. Champion fetched $4m. Perhaps, he suggested, celebrity adds a higher premium to such watches than the horological interest.

The Paul Newman Daytona reflected three general trends in vintage watch collecting: celebrity; rarity; and steel-cased. Other watches from the same brand with no celebrity link, that were uncommon but cased in gold, such as the Rolex Kew A chronometer-tested reference 6210, were still available for $50k. To further cloud the definition of rare, Christie’s held an auction in 2013 of 50 Rolex Daytona chronographs, which saw the first example of this reference to hammer for over $1m.

Andrew asked whether there was anything to be learnt about the potential future value of vintage watches from analysing past auction results? He illustrated his answer with a bespoke Index, created from ten watch references with long production runs, which included Rolex Daytonas and Explorers, Patek Phillipes and references from more recent brands such as A. Lange & Söhne. Using auction results, foreign exchange rates and an estimation of the probable numbers of each reference produced, he created an Index for value which suggested not only that there had been relative over-supply in such watches post-financial crisis in 2008, but also that a similar bubble might be beginning to form.

Uniqueness, he said, came from historical design or accident, and not from any horological base. Uniqueness in controlled markets causes over-supply, leading to a market in which these watches are as likely to be sought after for bragging rights as they are for investment value.

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