n a previous age, when watches used to be for life, the objective was to persuade the greatest possible number of people to wear at least one watch. Today, things have radically changed. When watches lost their monopoly as tellers of time, they also lost some of their social function, their status as a marker of identity. But although they have changed status and become purely objects of pleasure for which there is no real practical necessity, they continue to attract a wide audience of aficionados who love to wear them, talk about them and show them off. They continue to fascinate, in their own way. And to increase in value.
A new strategy has emerged: the aim is no longer to conquer the greatest possible number of wrists, but to multiply the number of watches for each wrist. Watch collectors, or serial addicts, are now the number one target. Anyone not already a collector will be turned into one. Existing collectors will be groomed and courted. The strategies for achieving this are numerous: stealth, serious conversation, total bluster, or cleverly devised lightning campaigns that can capture an entire herd at one fell swoop.
Every brand has their favourite collector. Name any type of watch and you’ll find a collector for it, from the top to the bottom of the scale.
A collection of tribes
But Collectors form a vast population made up categories, preferences, passions and miscellaneous interests. At the summit, the world’s greatest collectors, either experts themselves or advised by experts, can be counted on the fingers of one hand – or two, counting generously. They are extremely wealthy, passionate, obsessive, and they collect only the crème de la crème. They know one another, although they probably don’t mix socially, only occasionally coming face to face over this timepiece or that. Whether they attend auctions in person, or retain their anonymity at the end of a phone line, it is they who set prices and shape the market.
With the semi-miraculous renaissance of mechanical watchmaking – believed dead and on the point of being buried by quartz – interest in watchmaking, its pre-quartz history (whether ancient or more recent) and the glorious era of the instrument watch skyrocketed. New collectors were minted, with highly diverse areas of interest: diving watches, chronographs, odd designs, a huge vogue for Swatch with its hordes of Italian neo-collectors... the list goes on.
Tribes formed and forums developed in a community whose reach expanded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings, thanks to the proliferation of social media and online sales platforms. Today, name any type of watch and you’ll find a collector for it, from the top to the bottom of the scale: from the wealthy worshipper of tourbillons to the quirky millennial who collects watches depicting Chairman Mao and who, unlike the former, is interested not in the rarest items but in those produced in the largest quantity. Everyone has their favourite collectible.
We should also not forget another major phenomenon: at the same time, certain watches have become akin to commodities, to be traded for profit. Here we have yet another category of collector, spurred on by the increasingly mouth-watering results of auction sales – even though these are focused on a limited number of what have, in watch terms, become blue-chip stocks. We’re collectors, okay. But spare us the romance. A collection is all the more worthwhile if it steadily gains in value. It’s a good investment.
We’re collectors, okay. But spare us the romance. A collection is all the more worthwhile if it steadily gains in value. It’s a good investment.
Europa Star set out in search of these various tribes of collector, exploring which watches might be of interest to this or that category. Will millionaire fanciers of ultra-complicated watches be won over by this unapologetically expensive item stuffed with patents and extremely limited in number? Will this revival of a legendary model put the noses of vintage freaks out of joint? Sacrilege or progress? Controversy is inevitable. Will watch nerds, F1 fans and classic car enthusiasts continue to take the bait of these ever-forming and reforming partnerships? Will all these watch aficionados tear each other to pieces?
We could give no end of examples of the hazards involved in hunting collectors – of whatever breed they might be. Because, fundamentally, they are all alike. Whether amassing watches or hoarding sardine tins, collectors have always been ambiguous creatures. Whether driven by passion, pride, their very soul itself or their wallet, they are all searching for something that they themselves would be unable to define. Their quest thrives on a very personal, highly intimate substrate, which collectors often conceal from the outside world, and even from themselves. As much as they love having the opportunity to talk about the treasures they own, they often take refuge in protective anonymity.
Fundamentally, they are all alike. Whether amassing watches or hoarding sardine tins, collectors have always been ambiguous creatures.
“I collect the deaths of others”
In 1997, we interviewed one of the rare female watch collectors; collecting in general, and watch collecting in particular, is largely a male phenomenon. She insisted on remaining anonymous, but made a singular confession to us while explaining that each morning she rewound by hand all her watches, which included numerous pocket watches: “It is the agony of time that I collect. The many sounds of my collection form a veritable orchestra of soft tick-tocks which fill the air around me... Each watch is a heart which beats beyond the notion of time, beyond the notion of death. One could say that through time, we collect death. In fact, we collect the deaths of others... My collection began with pain. All my watches continue to whisper the souls of the departed.”
She also declared that she always bought new watches for her own use, because “never could I wear a watch next to my skin that someone else has already worn. It would burn me.” Collectors are often sensitive souls.
“My collection began with pain. All my watches continue to whisper the souls of the departed.”
The importance of auctions
That lady collector was, incidentally, a very serious collector, as she was personally advised by the much-missed historian Jean-Claude Sabrier. She was recommended to us by Osvaldo Patrizzi, founder of Antiquorum in 1974 and in many respects a pioneer, with his auction house devoted exclusively to the art of watchmaking.
Aided and abetted by an impressive line-up that included Gabriel Tortella, founder of the Tribune des Arts and the GPHG, and the top names among the independent watchmakers then emerging – François-Paul Journe, Franck Muller and Antoine Preziuso, among others, all employed by Patrizzi and Tortella to restore antique timepieces (for more on this, read our interview with Antoine Preziuso) – Osvaldo Patrizzi was the first to realise that watch collecting could interest a far broader public than the limited number of often elderly collectors of the period, who saw themselves largely as curators of museum pieces. It was he who, before anyone else, launched auctions devoted exclusively to watches, which had previously been sold at general auctions alongside jewellery, paintings and carpets.
All the other major auction houses soon followed suit with auctions devoted specifically to watches, and the themed sales that rapidly followed played a crucial role in the emergence of new generations of collectors. Watches that had lain forgotten in drawers and chests came forth en masse. Supply, now abundant and diverse, stimulated demand. The return to favour of mechanical watches had the further consequence of bringing back into people’s good graces models considered outdated and passé.
New, record prices – often bordering on the outrageous – regularly set and frequently shattered, attracted increasingly large numbers of punters – sorry, “collectors”. A collateral effect has been that blue-chip brands – Rolex, Patek Philippe, Omega and a handful of others – have attracted the full focus of attention, further reinforcing their historical dominance.
Watches had previously been sold at general auctions alongside jewellery, paintings and carpets.
The vintage vogue
The huge vogue for vintage watches then further shook up and diversified the collector profile. For millennials, daddy’s watch, chronographs and other timepieces, which had fallen into oblivion alongside other old memories, took on new colour. All, or nearly all, had a personal story to tell. Financially, the exponential success of the star items at auction sales put them beyond the reach of a whole young and enthusiastic generation of watch lovers.
Designed by the same generation as the customers they are targeting, each of these emerging brands knows perfectly well which precise niche market it is addressing
Collections, sub-collections and sub-sub-collections were born. Factions fragmented. Numerous watch lovers and neo-collectors began creating their own brands, via Kickstarter. Designed by the same generation as the customers they are targeting, each of these emerging brands knows perfectly well which precise niche market it is addressing – all budding “collectors”. Although the phenomenon appears to be decelerating sharply (in 2017, these neo-brands were supported by 128,000 backers on Kickstarter, compared to just 30,000 in 2020, according to The Mercury Project), it is easy to imagine that the seeds of many collections have been widely sown.
Will the harvest live up to expectations? Will we see the emergence of a new, lasting generation of collectors? The question is not without consequence for the future of watchmaking.