Time is good to watches and their collectors

Sunday, November 28, 2004

When people stop making something everybody wants it more, and it becomes more valuable.

By Samantha Critchell ~ The Associated Press

NEW YORK -- A watch's primary function might be to keep track of hours, minutes and seconds, but its style, system and statement are hardly secondary factors.

That was a lesson collectors learned with quartz watches.

Advancements in timekeeping techniques -- some of which date back centuries -- barely budged until the 1970s when quartz watches came on the scene, replacing the tension-controlled springs found in mechanical watches with a crystal in an electric field to oscillate at a constant frequency.

Almost immediately, the demand for mechanical watches waned and a slowdown in production of those watches followed.

But what happens when people stop making something?

"Everyone wants one," says Edward Faber, co-owner of New York's Aaron Faber Gallery, which sells vintage, collectible and estate jewelry. "They want one for the nostalgia of a mechanical watch."

That made such watches "collectible," and in a world of expensive toys and eccentric hobbies, collectible often is a code word for valuable.

"Now if you have a Daytona Rolex or Patek Philippe moon-phase [watch] -- if you have the means to acquire these -- when you walk into a board meeting in Los Angeles, London, Paris or Italy, it gives you cache," says Faber, who wrote "American Wristwatches: Five Decades of Style and Design" (Schiffer).

The private market for high-end mechanical watches started to skyrocket, with particular interest from European and Asian collectors, and auction houses recognized the trend. The value continues to increase so dramatically, according to Faber, that watches made in the 1950s and '60s that cost hundreds of dollars then, are now worth thousands. "The Rolex Explorer -- a simple black military watch -- sold for $300 in the '70s. Now you can spend $6-, $7- or $8,000. You could have bought a Patek Philippe moon-phase full-price for $2,000 in the early '80s, now you cannot find them for less than $100,000," says Faber.

A Cartier Tortue Minute Repeater, a rare minute-repeating wristwatch in 18-karat yellow gold from the 1920s, was auctioned earlier this year in New York for $640,500.

A luxury watch is an acceptable -- yet noticeable -- sign of wealth for a man looking for a counterpart to a woman's diamond ring or tennis bracelet. "A big gold bracelet or pinky ring -- a man can't really wear. But it's OK to wear a 1930s Cartier or Vacheron Constantin," observes Faber. He says that Ralph Lauren has worn an exaggerated tank watch (a rectangular shape) as a symbol of style and elegance for years, and once something is spotted on celebrities and fashion insiders, consumers will follow.

However, for watches to keep their value, they also have to be perceived as special and rare.

When the pendulum looked like it was swinging back toward mechanical watches in the late '80s, Swiss watch companies increased production. However, the skilled craftspeople of the previous generation were gone, Faber explains, so the company looked to computers to help.

The result is well-made contemporary watches with a lot of bells and whistles that cost a lot, but they don't command the interest or price of vintage watches, he says. "When you take that soul out of it, you lose it."

It's a perpetual challenge to mix modernity with a brand's heritage and integrity, all equally important elements when you're hoping to design a future collectible, says Stanislas de Quercize, president and CEO of Cartier North America.

For the 100th anniversary of Cartier's first wristwatch, the Santos, the company unveiled an updated version with its classic square face and screws that stand out, representing the rivets on an aircraft that Louis Cartier's friend Alberto Santos-Dumont would have flown. Cartier created the watch so Santos-Dumont would be able to tell time while he was in his plane and unable to reach his pocket watch.

"For the new Santos, the spirit is the same. The square watch is a provocative design because most watches are round, and it has the screws that are a tribute to industrialization but a much larger size and sturdier," de Quercize explains. "We want to keep the myth alive by reinterpreting the classical shape and classical spirit. We still want someone to immediately recognize that you're wearing a Santos."

More people are collecting watches even though the need for them as a timekeeping tool is diminishing since cell phones, TV news crawls and computers display the hour and minute, he notes.

"The people who are collecting watches do it because it's something that recalls our dream of eternity. It's also one way to remind us that time isn't forever. The precious watch on your wrist reminds us that our time is precious and the way we're spending our time is up to us everyday," he says.

Brian Pier probably wasn't that reflective when he bought his first Swatch, certainly a less expensive "collectible" but probably more recognizable.

He was on vacation in the Netherlands in the early 1980s and shelled out about $30 for the quirky watch with a black face, gold hands and a black plastic band that he expected would last two weeks. "I thought it would make a nice souvenir," says the 48-year-old corporate recruiting manager for an information technology company in Springfield, Ill.

That Swatch still runs and Pier has changed the batteries only twice. It sits among his collection of almost 1,000 Swatches -- his favorites are the artist series watches, particularly the Sam Francis splatter-painting Swatch.

"I wear one every day; I think my wrist might reject anything else."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: