Watch collectors


The birth of collectors’ fever

A MEETING WITH ANTOINE PREZIUSO

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April 2021


The birth of collectors' fever

The current success of collectible watches was by no means an inevitability. Without the handful of visionary watchmakers and entrepreneurs who fought tooth and nail to keep craft watchmaking alive through the difficult years between 1970 and 1990, the situation might have been very different. Independent master watchmaker Antoine Preziuso, who experienced the emergence of modern watch collecting from the inside, and made a significant contribution to it, recounts what went on behind the scenes, including the improbable but important history of pioneering auction house Antiquorum.

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ogether with figures such as Franck Muller, François-Paul Journe and a handful of other watchmakers, Antoine Preziuso had a front-row seat at the birth, so to speak, of the great collecting vogue (whether authentic or opportunistic) – the “collection-itis” that has seized hold of the watchmaking sector and raised the appeal, valuation and prices of watches to previously unknown heights.

The story began in the mid-1970s, in Geneva and the watchmaking valleys of Switzerland. Some great collections had been created. The auction houses spotted a lucrative opportunity. Helped along by the revival of mechanical watchmaking, the brands jumped onto the bandwagon, and then the watch lovers rushed in.

Antoine Preziuso tells us of the beginnings from his perspective, as a young watchmaker freshly graduated from the Geneva school of watchmaking. The year is 1979. Antoine is one of the final cohort of students to conclude their studies with the creation of the famous montre d’école, the “school watch” built entirely from scratch by students in their fourth year. For the students of subsequent years, it was a thing of the past.

“People talked of nothing but electronics, quartz and printed circuits. The companies gave the watches we were to work on to the schools for free.” Antoine Preziuso remembers a Bulova Accutron, a Swiss Sonic and an ESA-Quartz, among others. “It was a quartz pandemic! Mechanical watches were fit for the bin, or for antique dealers.”

A behind-the-scenes journey into the emergence of the contemporary watch collecting scene with master-watchmaker Antoine Preziuso
A behind-the-scenes journey into the emergence of the contemporary watch collecting scene with master-watchmaker Antoine Preziuso

“It was a quartz pandemic! Mechanical watches were fit for the bin, or for antique dealers.”

The watchmaker continues: “At about the same period, the movement manufacturer Lemania threw everything into the Lac de Joux, or into the foundations of their new factory: whole cratefuls, the stamping presses, tools, the whole lot. At flea markets you could find absolutely everything you wanted: wristwatches, pocket watches, movements, ébauches, tools, spare parts...”

Despite the way the wind was blowing, mechanical watchmaking was what young Antoine was all about. On leaving school, he went to work in the “cardiology department”, as he calls it, at Patek Philippe. There, for two years, he adjusted escapements, pallet forks and balances, and tested shock resistance. It was a tough, exacting education. “Then I got a really bad case of the blues. I was fed up of the factory. I wanted independence. I quit.”

A crucial encounter at Antiquorum

Antoine Preziuso set up his own business. He got himself a little workshop in Geneva, in a district where craftsmen could still be found, and began repairing watches and clocks. One day, along came a certain Nathan Schmoulovitch, a renowned watch expert who was working on behalf of the Galerie d’Horlogerie Ancienne. “He was a fount of knowledge. He knew everything about everything. I was astounded and really impressed. Sadly, no one remembers him now.”

The expert had heard about Antoine’s work, and asked him to join him in opening a watchmaking workshop for what was to become Antiquorum. This Galerie d’Horlogerie Ancienne was founded in Geneva in 1974 by Osvaldo Patrizzi before becom- ing Antiquorum, the pioneering auction house specialising in watch sales. At that time, Osvaldo Patrizzi’s business partner was Gabriel Tortella, who went on to create the Tribune des Arts and founded the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.

The Galerie d'Horlogerie Ancienne was founded in Geneva in 1974 by Osvaldo Patrizzi before becoming Antiquorum, the pioneering auction house specialising in watch sales. At that time, Osvaldo Patrizzi's business partner was Gabriel Tortella, who went on to create the Grand Prix d'Horlogerie de Genève.
The Galerie d’Horlogerie Ancienne was founded in Geneva in 1974 by Osvaldo Patrizzi before becoming Antiquorum, the pioneering auction house specialising in watch sales. At that time, Osvaldo Patrizzi’s business partner was Gabriel Tortella, who went on to create the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.

“As far as the workshop was concerned, there was nothing but an empty building. Everything had to be done from scratch, absolutely everything,” Antoine Preziuso remembers. “Gabriel Tortella gave me the money, I borrowed their expensive car, which made a nice change from my little 2CV, and went off to buy the necessary equipment. I put together a complete watchmaking workshop. Tortella and Patrizzi turned up with a whole load of supermarket bags brimming over with watches – lots of pocket watches at the time. Their workshop in the historic quarter of Geneva was even worse! You didn’t know where to put your feet for the heaps of watches strewn across the floor. It’s crazy, thinking about it today. And there, the whole world of watchmaking passed through my hands. I saw the whole history from the inside: the periods, the styles, the types of steel, the techniques, the solutions... Among the movements there were Jürgensens, Piguets, LeCoultres, all the master watchmakers of the Joux Valley. Museum pieces!”

The singing bird

Antoine Preziuso cannot resist recounting one anecdote from this period. Let’s assume the statute of limitations has run out by this point! One day, he received a magnificent singing bird, an automaton dating from the 18th century, for restoration. The enamelling was beautiful, but the bird had lost all its feathers, the mechanism was rusted up, the bellows were punctured and the gut that activated the birdsong had dried out. But Tortella was insistent. He wanted to take it to Hong Kong to sell.

In the 1980s, the restoration of old timepieces was a common trait among several young new watchmakers.
In the 1980s, the restoration of old timepieces was a common trait among several young new watchmakers.

Antoine went round all the aviaries in Geneva in search of feathers, and stuck them on as best he could. “I don’t know what indeterminate kind of bird I recreated,” he says, chuckling about it today. “But for the gut that activated the bellows, I didn’t know what to do. Then I had an idea. I went to a pharmacy and bought some tough, stretchy condoms. And it worked. Tortella went off with the bird, but not before yelling at me, when he found out, that I was fired. But the following Monday, back from Hong Kong, he was waiting for me with a bottle of champagne. He’d sold the bird. And for a good price!”

“I don’t know what indeterminate kind of singing bird I recreated,” he says, chuckling about it today. “But for the gut that activated the bellows, I didn’t know what to do. Then I had an idea. I went to a pharmacy and bought some tough, stretchy condoms. And it worked.

One of the gang, with Muller and Journe

Weary of the permanent stress, Antoine Preziuso left the workshop and again set up his own business, working on his own first creations while continuing to carry out restoration work for Antiquorum and others.

He was not alone. Franck Muller, with whom he had stud- ied at the school of watchmaking for a time, was working at Svend Andersen. And he was also doing restoration work and selling restored watches to Antiquorum. “In Geneva we were almost the only ones, there were virtually no more independ- ent watchmakers.”

“One day, Franck Muller said to me: since we’re in Paris, let’s go and see a guy I’m told makes great watches. It was François-Paul Journe.”

The two young watchmakers often bumped into one another at flea markets all over Switzerland. They also scoured French antique fairs in Annecy, Barjac and Paris, including the Foire à la ferraille et aux jambons – the scrap metal and ham fair.

“We’d go in the middle of the night,” recounts Antoine Preziuso. “We’d wait for the lorries to unload their hardware while the hams were turning on spits just nearby. We rummaged around a bit in what was unloaded from the lorries and sometimes we came across some really beautiful items. That’s how we made a living. One day, Franck said to me: since we’re in Paris, let’s go and see a guy I’m told makes great watches. It was François-Paul Journe, who worked at his uncle’s, a watchmaker, and also did restoration. A short time later, he decided to move to Geneva, where I found him a workshop next door to mine. And he started to work for Antiquorum too.”

The euphoria of modern watch collecting

In the early days of Antiquorum, pocket watches took pride of place in the sales catalogues, and wristwatches played only a marginal role. But from the mid-1980s, in parallel with the gradual renaissance of mechanical watchmaking, the first collectors of modern wristwatches arrived on the scene. They were looking for pre-Daytona Rolex chronometers, Patek Philippe and Cartier watches.

Little by little, a certain euphoria began to build up around mod- ern watch collecting. “Just prior to the auctions, all kinds of unofficial exchanges were taking place in the big hotels, under-the-counter sales. The atmosphere got more and more feverish!”

 The first Antiquorum catalogue
The first Antiquorum catalogue

Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, Antoine Preziuso frequented American watch fairs, flying to New York, Atlanta and Miami. “I took Swiss watches that I sold – I remember a Corum with a Rolls Royce radiator grille, for example – and I brought back beautiful antique watches, such as tiny pocket watches for ladies, worn as a pendant. I made use of their superb movements. For example, I’d add a perpetual calendar to a minute repeater and turn it into a wristwatch for men, in a case that I commissioned. It would become a magnificent collector’s item.”

Ten years late, the brands finally realised what they stood to gain from their own legacy.

Nouvelle Lemania bought some of these “American” watches off him, then asked him to produce a series of 500 minute repeaters and perpetual calendars, to be sold as Breguet subscription watches. [Note: Breguet belonged to the Chaumet brothers until 1987, when it was taken over by the Investcorp group, a Bahraini investment fund. It was sold to Nicolas Hayek in 1999.] “That just goes to show the infatuation, sometimes beyond reason, that had suddenly seized hold of the fine watchmaking industry,” underscores Antoine Preziuso.

“I was supposed to deliver the whole order in 1994. I had to do everything from scratch: the plans, the R&D without any real computer assistance, find subcontractors, launch production. It was great at the beginning, but after I’d completed about 50 items, I negotiated my way out and at last began producing my own watches.”

A portrait of a young Antoine Preziuso in 1994 in Europa Star. He had already acquired a solid reputation both at restoring masterpieces and creating his own complications for the collecting scene.
A portrait of a young Antoine Preziuso in 1994 in Europa Star. He had already acquired a solid reputation both at restoring masterpieces and creating his own complications for the collecting scene.
©Europa Star Archives
“Obsessed by complication”: Antoine Preziuso and Kiu Tai Yu, the first Asian watchmaker to specialise in tourbillons, in 1993 in Europa Star
“Obsessed by complication”: Antoine Preziuso and Kiu Tai Yu, the first Asian watchmaker to specialise in tourbillons, in 1993 in Europa Star
©Europa Star Archives

In 1996, the watchmaker exhibited for the first time at the Basel fair, on the stand of the AHCI (Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants). “There, a Japanese visitor came along and ordered 150 copies of my Siena model, a watch I’d had in a drawer for ten years.” That marked the start of the “Japanese” venture by independent watchmakers – and collectors. “I even forced Philippe Dufour to go to Japan! He didn’t want to go, but he gave in in the end and now he’s a living god over there. But that’s another story.”

That marked the start of the “Japanese” venture by independent watchmakers – and collectors. “I even forced Philippe Dufour to go to Japan! He didn’t want to go, but he gave in in the end and now he’s a living god over there.”

The Rolex craze

About the same time, in the mid-1990s, when auction sales were attracting ever greater interest and the numbers of collectors, antique dealers and interested brands was steadily rising, what Antoine Preziuso calls “the Rolex craze” took off.

“The virus affected absolutely everybody. All of a sudden, there was nothing but that. Everybody wanted a Rolex. I lost interest in the game. But in the 1990s, there weren’t many people left who were capable of repairing and restoring them. Even in the 1980s you could still find whatever you liked in the workshops, all the spare parts, wheels, springs and so on. You just had to ask. Brands like Rolex and Omega gave them away for free. I’d buy a Rolex chronometer, say for 800 francs, clean it up, put it back in working order and sell it for 100 francs more. Today, the same chronometer sells for an extortionate amount.”

Sale of Rolex chronographs at 800 francs... just before what Antoine Preziuso describes as the Rolex “craze”: “All of a sudden, there was nothing but that. Everybody wanted a Rolex.”
Sale of Rolex chronographs at 800 francs... just before what Antoine Preziuso describes as the Rolex “craze”: “All of a sudden, there was nothing but that. Everybody wanted a Rolex.”

Ten years late, the brands finally realised what they stood to gain from their own legacy. Viewed from this perspective, the patient, rational work conducted by Philippe Stern with Patek Philippe, of collecting watches, gathering parts, restoring them and then exhibiting them in public is remarkable. Not everyone caught on so quickly. Osvaldo Patrizzi, meanwhile, had seen the lie of the land before anybody else, and had assembled the machinery crucial to the restoration of this disappearing legacy.

The Tourbillon of Tourbillons model made by Antoine Preziuso with his son Florian in 2015
The Tourbillon of Tourbillons model made by Antoine Preziuso with his son Florian in 2015

“We, the young watchmakers with a passion for mechanics, were in our own way a vital cogwheel in the story,” Antoine Preziuso concludes. “And the way all of us learned our trade, whether Kari Voutilainen, Denis Flageollet, Vianney Halter, Michel Parmigiani or others, was through restoration. All of us had gone through that.”

Without those passionate young watchmakers, keenly independent in their resistance to “progress”, the watchmaking landscape would now look very different. And no doubt many a keen collector today would not have developed the same passion.

“The way all of us learned our trade, whether Kari Voutilainen, Denis Flageollet, Vianney Halter, Michel Parmigiani or others, was through restoration. All of us had gone through that.”

The birth of collectors' fever