The World of Watches

| By Ettagale Blauer | From Cigar Case, Summer 93

Under the impatient eye of our fathers, we learned to tie four-in-hand knots. Much later, there were long sessions with the salesman for that electronic video camera with automatic focusing and exposure controls. But if you thought you'd learned everything there was to know about telling time on a watch by the age of five, guess again. With the purchase of one of the new collectible men's wristwatches, which cost up to $350,000, many stores are offering training sessions and on-call advice services to help guide buyers through the intricacies of these exotic timepieces. "We have specialists who offer customer training," says vintage watch expert Alexander Vileshin of Tourneau. "For a $70,000 Patek Philippe, we offer a mini seminar. We have on-staff support. People still call after two or three years because they've forgotten how to do something. We have customers who don't know that a perpetual calendar changes automatically."

These hand-holding services reflect a major change in wristwatches, as they have become more and more complicated and more and more extravagant. While many men shudder at the thought of wearing elaborate jewelry, the same strait-laced gentlemen will cheerfully spend $8,000 on a wristwatch-- if it's the right one. It may have everything from a solid gold case to a diamond-studded, exotic leather band. And it won't matter if it looks like a fancy bracelet.

The familiar brands are almost house-hold words: Rolex, Patek Philippe, Cartier, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin. But there are a number of lesser-known names on the market, too: Breguet, Breitling, International Watch Company (IWC), Kriëger, Jaeger, Le Coultre and Ulysse Nardin. Even a ubiquitous brand-name like Swatch has spawned a high-priced collectible market--would you believe $25,000 for a plastic watch? There are, of course, vintage American watches, too, such as Hamilton and Gruen. They are more modestly priced, but with their eccentrically shaped cases and uncomplicated styles, they are attractive buys from as little as $500.

Where did the idea of collecting watches begin? In a sense, it got started because watches became virtual dime-store commodities. During the 1970s, accuracy was the "watch-word," and newest was the best. Manufacturers vied to create watches that kept precise time. The quartz movement made this accuracy possible; the new technology could be had at remarkably low prices. Today, if all you're looking for is the right time, about $20 for a watch bought in a drugstore will do the job.

Quartz technology nearly put an end to quality Swiss watch making. Reliability, once associated with fine Swiss watches, moved to Japan, where the quartz movements were manufactured. With no demand on the horizon, few young Swiss embarked on the long process of becoming highly skilled watchmakers-literally people who could make a watch by hand. But in the cold, modern efficiency of the quartz watch, the fine watch was reborn. Turned off by mass-produced watches and their often ugly styling, watch buyers once again looked to Swiss watchmakers for the quality only they could create--the warm touch of a fine, handmade mechanical watch.

Now, traditional watchmakers are racing to make increasingly complicated watches. While the quartz watch has virtually no moving parts--other than its hand--the new mechanicals boast more parts than ever before, hundreds of them in fact, with prices to match. For instance, IWC's Grande Complication Perpetual Calendar Chronograph, in pure platinum, costs $350,000. Even the more modestly priced complicated watches such as Ulysse Nardin's Astrolabium can run $56,000--with a simple leather band. For the price, you don't just get the time. An Astrolabium Galileo Galilei indicates the height and direction of the sun, moon and fixed stars, the sunrise and sunset, dawn and dusk, the phases of the moon and eclipses of the sun and moon. The Grande Complication will chime on the hour, the quarter hour and every minute if you wish, with different tones for each. Or with the Patek Philippe, you get the moon phases and windows for the day and month, and the perpetual calendar automatically shifts without error, including leap years, for 100 years.

With an intentionally complicated watch, one that takes two months of a watchmaker's time to create, production is necessarily limited. Peter Bigler, President of Ulysse Nardin U.S.A., says since work began in 1985, the firm has produced only 200 of the Astrolabium, a handsome watch which appeals to the man who appreciates the wizardry of miniaturization it contains. It was followed by two other series, the Planetarium and, most recently, the Tellurium. Of the latter, only 30 pieces have been completed. But most men aren't looking for that kind of extravagance, and that's just as well, given the extremely limited supply of such watches.

Regardless of the bells and whistles, the engine that still drives a buyer today is style, a quality that is spelled out in subtleties and nuances, details rather than extreme technical advancements. Anthony D'Ambrosio, Executive Director of Tourneau, says, "People today are much more interested in quality than they were in the '80s. In the '80s, they were looking for more trendy, flashy status items. Today, it's a Patek Philippe on a strap, not easily identified as being an expensive status watch. It's quite expensive, one of the finest quality watches, but understated. In the '80s, the same money would go for a bold bracelet watch with diamonds, more identifiable."

For collecting, the names that count the most are the familiar ones, principally Rolex and Patek Philippe. Others--equally fine products--are beginning to appeal to collectors who appreciate that quality doesn't always generate headlines at auctions. But recognition counts for something. The most desired watch is the Rolex Oyster, introduced in 1927 and still being made today. It certainly is not a subtle watch: It's big and round, thick in its dimension from back to front, but it's as hot as a watch can get without being stolen. A new 18k gold Oyster costs $13,150 at Tourneau in New York City; the stainless-steel and gold model runs $4,500. The Oyster is a lovely name for a watch that's as tightly sealed as its namesake. Even quite old Oysters will retain their water resistance, although, D'Ambrosio says, "Don't expect to take a watch out of the drawer after ten or twenty years and jump into a swimming pool."

Despite its popularity, the Oyster takes second place to the Oyster with the racy "Daytona" dial. While the Oyster is hot, the Daytona is even hotter, with its contrasting color band around the outer edge of the dial. This simple stylistic difference results in a dial known among collectors as the "Paul Newman" and generally adds $2,500 to the price over a comparable Daytona model. And bear in mind that this is a stainless-steel watch. Why Paul Newman? Because he probably wore this watch in the movie Winning, made in the 1960s.

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.

There are also some specialty watchmakers who have come on the market in recent years. For instance, when Ira Kriëger found he couldn't get back home by boat under the local bridges because the tide had come in, he created a watch that shows the ebb and flow of the tides. The tidal watch was chosen by a boating magazine as the Christmas gift of the year, and Kriëger found himself packing and shipping watches from the back of his law office. The tidal watch was soon followed by a hunter and fisherman's watch, which allows calculations based on the feeding habits of fish and game. Every one of Kriëger's watches is a chronometer, which means it has been certified by a recognized body to perform according to certain standards of accuracy. The certificate is specific to each watch. The watches are now carried by over 300 retail outlets across the country.

Apart from the new models put out by the top names, there is also a thriving market in vintage watches. Most shops sell a range of vintage watches for well under $10,000. In Los Angeles, Ken Jacobs took the shady phrase "Wanna Buy A Watch?" and turned it into a successful retail business. He says, "These watches became popular during the time that contemporary styling was horrible, in the '60s and '70s. These watches are still uncollectible."

Jacobs sells many lovely old American watches for $500. "You can get a great classic Hamilton or Gruen from the '30s and '40s, very stylish and in great condition. You can get gold-filled Hamiltons from the '30s, '40s or '50s for under $500. It's a fashion look and a reliable timepiece; you can find the same watch in 14k gold for $1,000.

Buying a watch that's only slightly old--one or two years--is a bit like buying a one-year-old car; it's nearly new yet the appraised value depreciates dramatically as you drive out of the showroom. Jacobs advises, "A year- or two-year-old Audemars Piguet or Patek has plenty of life left in it, and you can get it for 40 percent to 60 percent off list price."

In the final analysis, the choices run the gamut from vintage collectibles to the latest thing from the biggest names. If you're not satisfied with just any old plastic watch off the counter, then there is plenty of opportunity. And, over the long run, if you invest in an outstanding timepiece, you may end up with an object that increases with value over time.

Ettagale Blauer is a freelance writer who frequently covers jewelry and watches.