Vintage watches can be a timely investment
Legend has it that the wristwatch first became popular in World War I. Soldiers and aviators found having to fumble around in a pocket to find their watch while engaging with the enemy troublesome. It was far more convenient to carry the time on your arm.
Until then, wristwatches had been mainly worn by women, but the trend was rapidly adopted by the population at large. Within a decade, the pocket watch was looking like an anachronism.
Cartier was the first of the Swiss watchmakers to produce a wristwatch, the Santos, which appeared in 1911, but soon the others followed suit.
Today the early Swiss wristwatches are regarded as vintage pieces and are highly collectable. The best fetch 10s – or even hundreds – of thousands of pounds at auction.
The collecting of vintage wristwatches only began in the 1970s and 1980s. The introduction of quartz technology may have led to this revival of interest in mechanical watches.
Discerning buyers started to look at the great Swiss watches of the past, and before long they became fashionable. A vintage wristwatch became the essential accessory for any well-dressed man about town (collecting watches is largely a male pursuit).
The roll-call of those who have caught the bug at some point is extensive and wide-ranging: guitarist Eric Clapton, actors Michael Douglas and Orlando Bloom, footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and Russian president Vladmir Putin, to name just a few.
According to Tom Bolt, who deals in vintage and modern watches through his company, The Watch Guru, the appeal, in most cases, is that "they make you feel good about yourself'.
The vast majority of collectors don't understand how the watch works, he says, "but just like driving a Porsche Turbo, it's a way to express yourself".
Paul Maudsley, director of the watch department at Bonham's auction house, adds: "The appeal varies from collector to collector, but the underlying theme is that you can wear watches so you constantly take enjoyment from them."
Is this all just a polite way of saying that a watch is a status symbol?
James Bond probably has a certain amount to answer for. In the Bond books, Ian Fleming gave Bond a Rolex watch, and the brand has been associated with him ever since, with 007 sporting a Rolex Submariner in many of the movies. Maudsley says: "Rolex is the world's most collected watch brand."
Rolex is certainly the first name that would come to many people's lips when talking about vintage watches.
The company was actually founded in London in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis to import watches from Switzerland, but it soon turned to watchmaking and moved to Switzerland.
Rolex's fame springs largely from its reputation for innovation – it produced the first watches with automatically changing day and date indictors, and it was a pioneer in developing waterproof timepieces, first the Oyster and then the Submariner.
The undisputed aristocrat among Swiss watchmakers is Patek Philippe. The company started making pocket watches in 1839 and has been responsible for some key innovations in the industry, such as the perpetual calendar, split-seconds hand, chronograph and minute repeater.
The Patek Philippe Nautilus is among the all-time classics. First introduced in 1976, its design was inspired by the shape of a porthole.
The company is responsible for some of the most expensive watches ever sold. An ultra-complicated Patek Philippe watch originally made in 1933 as a complete one-off sold 66 years later for $11 million (£7.3 million) – a world record at the time.
There are many collectable brands of watch. Among the best-known are Omega, Vacheron & Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Longines, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Cartier, Tissot, Breitling and TAG Heuer.
Maudsley says: "Most of the major brands have iconic watches in their portfolios: Rolex the Submariner, Jaeger-LeCoultre the Reverso and Omega the Speedmaster.' The distinctive oblong Cartier Tank watch could be added to that list.
Brands rise and fall in popularity. Omega, best known as a mass market manufacturer of modern watches, is becoming more collectable, while Longines and Audemars Piguet are becoming less so.
Bolt singles out the watches of two contemporary watchmakers, Richard Mille and Greubel Forcey, as having the potential to become classics of the future. It's time to put them on your watch list.
Guide to buying
When you start buying watches for the first time, the jargon can be rather perplexing. Watches are generally divided into 'sport' and 'dress', but there is a whole mechanics and functionality lexicon to get to grips with.
Watch aficionados call any additional horological functions a 'complication'. Typical examples are small windows displaying the day of the week, date or other time zones.
Then there are different generic types of watch. A chronometer is a precision watch that usually comes with a certificate testifying to its accuracy. A chronograph has stopwatch functions.
Watches for specific professional use, such as a diver's or aviator's watch, have cachet with enthusiasts.
Gold watches are not necessarily worth more than their stainless steel equivalents. White gold, platinum and rose gold are as popular as yellow gold, which is seen by some as a shade vulgar.
Fakes are a real hazard for the watch collector. Watchmakers in India and China have produced pieces that are almost impossible to distinguish from the real thing. And that's why you will almost certainly need the services of a reputable dealer to begin with.
Hallmarks are no guarantee of authenticity as they can be easily faked. More to the point, a vintage watch only has real value if every single part of it is original and individual components have not been replaced.
You can buy vintage watches for a few thousand pounds. At a recent Christie's sale in New York, $2,750 would have bought you a 1972 Omega stainless steel Flightmaster aviator's chronograph.
For $4,375, you could have purchased a 1968 18-carat gold Patek Philippe wristwatch. Rare watches are likely to set you back six figures.
Is it worth it?
But are vintage watches a good investment? Maybe. But only if you buy at the right time.
Tom Bolt says: "Fifteen years ago I was offering people Panerai watches – as used by Italian commandos in World War II – for £1,500, and people didn't want them. Nowadays, the same watches are selling for up to £70,000.
"Rolex prices may have peaked for now, whereas Patek Philippe are considered a good investment by virtue of their high quality, relatively small output and the fact that the company frequently buys its own watches at auction for its museum.
The financial downturn has had some impact on prices, according to auctioneers, but prices at the top end have held up well.
"Aurel Bacs, international co-head of the watches department at Christie's in Geneva, offers this advice: "Ultimately, I think people should buy what they like and what they think they will wear.
Beyond that, I would encourage buyers to look for the best-quality watch in their price range.First-time buyers should educate themselves on the condition of a watch before buying." If you are buying as an investment, rarity and condition should be your top priority.
This article was originally published in Money Observer - Moneywise's sister publication - in April 2010
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