In the Watch World, There’s a New Record-Setting Piece Every Week
On May 13th in Geneva, Switzerland, an Omega watch once owned by Elvis Presley went up for auction. And not just any Presley-owned watch: this one, given to the rock-n-roller when he became the first human in history to sell 75 million records, has his name engraved on the back. It was a big deal. “That was the most important Elvis Presley-owned timepiece to ever appear on the market, says Paul Boutros, head of Americas for watches at Phillips auction house, which auctioned off the Presley timepiece. Boutros was on a phone with a client when the bidding started at $0. It stayed that way for only a few seconds. The voice on the other end of the line offered 250,000 Swiss Francs (roughly $251,676). Things escalated from there, and it wasn’t long until Boutros’ buyer won the Omega for 1,812,500 Swiss Francs ($1,824,652), breaking the record for the most expensive Omega ever sold at auction.
That same day, a watch made specifically for this auction by A. Lange & Söhn, a watchmaker that creates complicated pieces in small numbers, would sell for approximately $858,216 – setting the record for the priciest A. Lange watch ever. Just a couple days before that, in Monaco, a TAG Heuer sold for €97,740, or $114,053. You guessed it: another record-breaking sum for that particular brand. And because there are people in the world who have the kind of money most couldn’t even fathom, there are more examples of a watch market bursting at the seams. Early in May, a specific Patek Philippe reference (the number assigned to each model) known as the 2526, a platinum watch with gold hands and a face signed by Tiffany & Co., became the most expensive watch of its particular kind ever sold. Back in Geneva, the most expensive Omega Speedmaster sold for $408,459, and the second-priciest Rolex ever, a white gold wristwatch known as “The Unicorn,” went for $5,940,680. It's obvious the watch market is tearing down records like Usain Bolt. The question is: why now? After speaking with a handful of experts in the field, here are a few of the reasons.
The Paul Newman Effect
In case you haven’t heard, the most expensive wristwatch in the world sold at auction about a half a year ago, in October. The record-setting piece is known in the watch community as a Paul Newman Daytona – affectionately called that because it was the model worn by the late actor and race car driver – and this particular watch was owned by Newman himself. You know: Paul Newman’s Paul Newman. On the night of October 26th, the hammer fell on the final $17.8 million sale. Eight months later, the reverberations are still being felt throughout the watch world.
“When something like the Paul Newman Daytona got so much attention,” says Yoni Ben-Yehuda, the chief marketing officer at New York City watch store Material Good, “it had everyone else looking in their drawers to be like, ‘What do I have here?’” It’s like a supercharged episode of Antiques Roadshow: watch owners catch a headline announcing the sale of an $18 million watch and start digging into their collection to see what they have, because you never know what an heirloom is worth. Or, for collectors who know exactly what they have, the watch market’s newly brolic strength convinces someone to part with an undeniably important piece. In fact, that’s exactly what happened with the Elvis Presley-owned Omega. “The owner of this Omega saw [the Paul Newman] results and said, "You know, it's time to think seriously about auctioning it,” says Boutros.
Watches Are Extremely Online
Sure, anybody can wear a watch. But there’s an incredibly high barrier of entry for watch novices interested in history and provenance – the things that make vintage watches so valuable. Most record-breaking timepieces don’t have catchy nicknames like Paul Newman’s Paul Newman or The Unicorn. Often, they just have ordinary, forgettable, and easily confused names – is it a Submariner or Sea-Dweller? – or, worse, go by numbers that specify a particular reference. And even if you do know that you’re interested in a Rolex Daytona, you’d still need to know not all Daytonas are created equally to get a good deal. (The most coveted are the ones with the “exotic dial” that mirrors the design of a car dashboard.) Then, of course, you have to be sure the watch you’re getting isn’t a fake and has all its original parts. Trying to sort all this out with the internet can be exhausting – this post from watch site Hodinkee breaking down the Paul Newman Daytona is textbook dense. Imagine trying to understand every nuance without the internet in your back pocket.
"The Unicorn" Rolex/Photo by Phillips/Phillips.com
“Prior to the rise of the internet in the 90s, wristwatch collecting was growing, but people kept their information on watches close and they didn't share, because they knew knowledge was power,” says Boutros. “Then [came] a huge inflection point with the rise of social media: Facebook, Instagram, and the blogs. Those three put out much more information and expanded the community hundreds of folds.” Suddenly, anyone interested in watches could find information quickly and easily. Plus, interested buyers could find how much watches sold for in previous auctions to better understand the value of a piece. “The more websites to educate consumers, lovers, and collectors then the more empowered they are,” says Ben-Yehuda. “And the more empowered they are, the more emboldened they are to spend $100,000.”
And the more people willing to drop a hundred stacks means a massively bigger market. “[The watch market has] become much more sophisticated than a normal market would have done very quickly just because [of] the information there,” says Jonathan Darracott, the global head of watches at Bonhams, the auction house responsible for selling the record-setting TAG Heuer. Ben-Yehuda adds, “It's steady growth that is now seeing hockey stick growth.”
Watches Are the Most Fun Way to Flex
With a global economy in better shape than at any point in recent history, particularly for the already filthy rich, those at auction houses feel buyers are more interested in tangible assets like timepieces. “The economy across the world has been relatively healthy and people, when they're comfortable or when they want to have a little bit of fun with more disposable income, they're comfortable buying something that's not a stock,” says Boutros.
That’s especially true of an item like watches, which provides buyers with an opportunity to flex anytime and anywhere. “A great wristwatch, unlike a piece of art, can accompany them indoors and out,” says Boutros. Buying an expensive piece of art would require the collector to invite people over in order to seem impressive. Who needs that? “The car, you have to put it in the garage or park it when you go into the boardroom,” says Boutros. A watch requires only a gesture at the wrist: This old thing? It was Elvis Presley’s.
As I wrapped my conversation with Boutros, he mentioned he was on the way to the airport for Phillips’ Hong Kong watch auction. We hung up and I went to look through the watches that would come under the hammer at the end of the month. I scrolled through stainless steel Rolexes, a pink gold Patek Philippe, and a Greubel Forsey that looks like another watch is trying to grow out of its face. In the watch world, where no record is safe, these were glistening, weird, dazzling, impressive potential record breakers, every one of them.