Most would agree that time is a precious asset - of which there is just never enough. Just two centuries ago, our only reference for the passage of time was a lengthening shadow, the chime of a clock or (for a few) a coveted pocket watch. In the 21st Century, however, time is numbered in nanoseconds, reminders are ever-present, and it is even malleable. Participating in a live, online auction? Your clicked bid can competitively compete with bidders sitting in the auction gallery. Need to keep an eye on the clock? Look around - chances are there are several visual indicators of time with just a few feet of where you sit right now. Miss a great play during the big game? Simply rewind. With a culture focused on time (and how to fill every moment), a nod to an accessory that emphasizes time’s importance seems right (ahem) on time.
Wristwatches are both a convenient marker of the precious commodity of time - and a tangible asset in their own right. Given their popularity as a collectible and accessory, the history of wristwatches might surprise. While pocket timepieces were all the rage for men in the 19th Century, fashionable and affluent ladies donned watch bracelets. It was not until requisitioned for military use that wristwatches found favor among men; with early versions created by simply fitting a pocket watch with a leather band. One of the earliest makers of purposefully built wristwatches? The esteemed firm of Patek Philippe, who pioneered the field with a perpetual calendar, split-seconds hand, chronograph and minute repeaters - and whose luxurious timepieces lead the market for collectible watches today.
Watch collecting tends to be a male-dominated hobby. Traditionally, men are more limited in choice of accessories than women, and an interest in watches complements a host of men’s interests. A choice of watch is more than a statement of style. A bold, rugged sports watch conveys an interest and enthusiasm for personal challenge, nature and competition. A sleek modern watch can signal someone who is comfortable with change and innovation; while a hefty gold timepiece encrusted with gems indicates power and affluence. In terms of value, vintage watches have appreciated as steadily as any other asset - with fluctuations from time to time, but solid performance among the blue-chip sector (think Rolex, Patek Philippe and Cartier). Major auction houses now conduct several auctions per year devoted to luxury watches; but, beginners may want to start with an expert, local estate jeweler or trusted luxury auction firm who can advise on authenticity, marketability and maintenance.
Highest prices are paid for unique pieces that were innovative in function, but timeless in design. Understanding the history and evolution of watch features will benefit savvy collectors. Precious metals, of course, command a premium based on the commodities market - so, the buying is good when gold is down. A quality, vintage gold Rolex in good working order may be purchased at auction for as little as $3500. Looking to enter the market at a lower price point? Opt for more obscure brands, pared-down features, or go the historical route. Finding timepieces with an interesting historical connection can offer a bit of conversation starter at a reasonable entry. As a collector’s confidence grows, generally tastes change and an ever-increasing focus on quality and rarity emerges. For seasoned horologists, an investment in their next watch may be in the realm of a new car. Purchased wisely, these acquisitions may grow appreciably in value, offering a most fashionable investment.
Article first appeared in the March-April issue of Sophisticated Living.