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The World of Watches

Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
cigar case, Summer 93

(continued from page 1)

Because the Oyster is so desirable, however, it has spawned a deluge of fakes. That's especially true of the Paul Newman style because it's no longer made. The fakes are often built upon a genuine Rolex Oyster case and movement; the difference is in the newly manufactured dials. This attention to quality and detail explains how some of these watches have slipped into the marketplace as the real thing. And, at a manufacturing cost of about $100, the Rolex forgery can still be sold for as much as $8,000. How difficult is it to tell a fake from the original Rolex product? Extremely. Vileshin says, "We take the watches apart and examine them under a microscope. There are certain small things--they cannot duplicate age, although they try. But we can see that. We know what is going on in the market."

Although Rolex makes over 600,000 new watches a year based on industry estimates, there are never enough Daytonas to satisfy the market. According to vintage watch expert Edward Faber of the Aaron Faber Gallery in New York, "The Rolex Daytona is the only watch that still trades at a premium over its own retail price." A new Daytona listing at $3,900 in steel is snatched up by dealers and resold immediately in the secondary market at prices up to $5,500, and sometimes more. D'Ambrosio says Tourneau maintains a waiting list for Rolex Daytonas but has stopped adding names because it will take two to three years just to satisfy the customers already on the list.

For those who prefer a dress watch to the racy, sporty Daytona, the choice is often a Patek Philippe, particularly the Nautilus model, although almost anything with the Patek name is very desirable. Patek's new production of wristwatches is very small--an estimated 15,000 to 17,000 annually. Combined with some extensive promotional campaigns and the company's recent 150th anniversary, there is a great deal of buyer interest in Pateks. The more people who want such a watch, the more difficult and expensive it becomes to buy one. And of course, such demand creates a snowball effect, with greater demand driving prices up, with demand rising ever higher.

The best of Cartier generates similar excitement. Stewart Unger, whose Madison Avenue shop, Time Will Tell, offers a wide range of vintage watches with service to match, says, "The old Cartier stuff is getting high prices; they didn't make a lot of it and the name has magic about it." Jeff Hess, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based watch dealer, agrees: "Cartier is the only thing that's happening in our market that's hot--everything Cartier, although newly made, is as hot as the vintage."

Cartier's classic Tank Watch remains at the top of the market. Cartier maintains an active program to root out fake Tank watches, once dramatically crushing a huge cache of them under a steamroller. Several years ago, Cartier also introduced its Pasha line. The elegantly named Pasha is a bold watch, with some models sporting crowns all around the case. The design is based on a Cartier model from the 1940s, although the new designs are much more complicated and ornate. And for those who want to leap into the water wearing a $19,000 watch, Bonnie Self of Cartier says, "It can go in the swimming pool and steam room."

When you reach a point where your money can buy almost anything, then one of the only remaining one-upmanship games left is to have a watch that only the favored few can afford. D'Ambrosio says, "Asians are interested in vintage watches. Besides having the money, when they're in a Japanese boardroom, they like to show the rarity."

If you're looking for a very well-made, elegant watch that's not priced out of sight, Audemars Piguet offers a good selection. Audemars Royal Oak model is drawing particular interest. When a company produces only 13,000 to 15,000 watches a year, which is true of both Audemars and Vacheron Constantin, increased attention can only be satisfied in the secondary and auction markets. And that's where prices spiral upward.

These valuations are strictly marketplace ratings: The watches themselves are equally fine examples of the watchmaker's skills. Vileshin says, "A Patek Philippe gets twice as much money for models comparable to Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet." Yet there's no intrinsic difference in quality among these brands. It's all in the eye of the beholder. "At a certain point," Vileshin explains, "Vacheron and Le Coultre were associated and Vacheron was using Le Coultre movements. Yet in the collectible market, it's not as acceptable." Hess agrees: "Vacheron is a wonderful watch, and undervalued, especially some of the more exotic models. Some complicated Vacherons are rarer than Patek." An exotic Vacheron, circa 1950, that displays cloisonné enamel maps of North and South America on the dial was sold for $40,250 at Sotheby's recently. At the same sale, a flamboyant Rolex Oyster with a cloisonné enamel dial also brought in $40,250.

Among serious collectors, Hess notes, "Audemars has surpassed Vacheron. They have been gaining more respect among Europeans, especially in Italy and Germany. Audemars is a fantastic watch-- good quality workmanship. At one point, they made a lot of movements for Patek."

Perhaps the smallest of watch manufacturers is Breguet, with an annual production estimated at about 2,700 pieces. Occasionally Breguets and Breitlings, which are often described as some of the oldest chronographs, will turn up for sale at auction and at retail shops. A major exhibition of Breguets, including the company's antique Tour de Force clocks, was held at Tiffany. Although the show generated a good deal of excitement, it didn't push prices up.

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