'Honest' Watches Dominate The Auction Scene - But What Are They?
You want your friends to be honest. Your family, too, and also your accountant. One more thing you want to be honest? Your watch. “In [the watch] world, calling a watch honest is probably the best thing you can say about it,” Yoni Ben-Yehuda, the chief marketing officer at New York City watch store Material Good, told me before, Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona broke all kinds of records at auction. That Daytona didn’t look particularly spiffy: it was dinged up, had almost all of its original parts, and didn’t appear to be polished. In fact, the watch showed all the signs of wear and tear it endured over the decades. It sounds strange, but that is exactly what made the watch honest—and, by extension, record-breakingly valuable.
An Omega Speedmaster with a dial that "has aged to a warm tropical hue"
But what does that mean, exactly? When it comes to watches, the word “honest” refers to a piece still in possession of its factory-installed parts, and that’s generally been spared from the polishing file and any heavy-handed servicing. Some collectors argue for a broader definition of the word, one that includes watches with pieces that are “correct”—meaning they fit within the time period the watch was originally made. That’s an important addendum, considering it’s near-impossible to know anyway whether watches have their original parts or a new “correct” part. (Obsessives on Instagram and forums have also grown more obsessed with sussing out a watch’s honesty.)
A Longines with "a layer of caramel-colored patina" on the dial
Now, honest watches are superstars on the auction block. They get described with romantic sentences that make their flaws sound like hard-earned advantages. Take the above Longines watch: it’s from 1929, and has a thick crust of what appears to be an orange-brown rust over the dial. You can see in spots on the upper-right corner that the dial was a pristine white at one point, but has oxidized over the decades. The auction listing talks up the apparent defect, and goes so far as to compare it to candy: “The dial [is] finely oxidized with a layer of caramel-colored patina.”
A Patek Philippe with a "tropical" discolored dial
The Longines isn’t an outlier. Consider the listing for a Patek Philippe with a rainbow streaking across the left side of its case: “The connoisseur will immediately notice the superb condition of the piece, its case covered with a strong layer of oxidation indicating years spent in a safety deposit box.” That watch—“covered” with oxidation!—sold for just above $175,000 during a late May auction. Christie’s describes a Rolex Triple Calendar’s “remarkable array of colors, almost rainbow-like”—and they all developed during the watch’s aging process.
“Honest” watches are all the more valuable because this wasn’t always what was prized in the watch world. 20 years ago, a watch worn regularly would have been regularly serviced, its parts switched out, the case polished to a glimmering shine. That makes pieces in truly honest condition more difficult to find.
A Rolex Triple Calendar that's developed a "remarkable array of colors, almost rainbow-like"
Additionally, collectors have come to appreciate “honest” watches for the stories they tell. A watch like Paul Newman’s Daytona Rolex sells for nearly $20 million because it’s not hard to take the watch in your hands and imagine the life it lived on Newman’s wrist. How it came to earn a certain nick or scratch.
Of course, the folks who extol the spirit of honest watches, like the auctioneer Aurel Bacs, are simultaneously pumping up their value. A new mass-produced watch has a ceiling on its price; honest watches, with their own unique patinas, are treated like one-of-a-kind art pieces on the resale market. After all, honest watches aren’t rusted, they’re “caramel colored;” not discolored, but in possession of a remarkable, almost rainbow-like array of colors. That’s why, in 2019, honest watches rule the world.