In an age of mass-produced uniformity, vintage wristwatches are effortlessly eye-catching. Unique, antiquated, rare and possessed of a timeless elegance, they are starkly different to the large, crowingly metallic monstrosities that adorn the wrists of the rich and powerful, lewdly proclaiming their wealth to the world. Understated, demure and classic, they’re a subtle hint of taste in the face of a thousand shameless, identikit declarations of wealth. They also happen to make a delightfully sound investment.
Legend goes that wristwatches first became popular amongst the masses during the First World War. Having to fumble around in pockets for old-fashioned watches in the midst of fighting or flying was inconvenient at best, ultimately fatal at worst. To carry time on one’s arm, and glimpse it with a simple flick of the wrist, was a luxury that soon became heavily sought after. Within a decade, the pocket watch was a mere anachronism, confined to history forevermore.
The concept of collecting vintage wristwatches would not appear until the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it owed much to the introduction of quartz technology, which reawakened an almost dormant interest in mechanical watches. Discerning buyers began to look to the great Swiss watches of old to add a touch of class to their attire, and before long they became fashionable once more.
The roll-call of those who have fallen to the charms of vintage watches is long: it includes guitarist Eric Clapton, actors Michael Douglas and Orlando Bloom, footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But why should you add your name to the list?
Why Choose Vintage?
Tom Bolt is a man that deals in watches, modern and vintage, every day through his work. He feels that the motivation to choose classic pieces is simple: it’s because “they make you feel good about yourself.” In his view, the inner workings and mysteries of the watch remain an enigma to most buyers, “but just like driving a Porsche Turbo, it’s a way to express yourself.”
Tom Bolt is right. Vintage wrist wear says an awful lot about a man: his tastes and his passions, his learning and his leanings. It implies that you’re cultured, that you appreciate history and subtlety, style and simplicity. It is the essence of vintage motors and sharp suits, cigar smoke and caviar, champagne fountains and slicked back hair – but just a hint of it.
And, as Paul Maudsley, director of the watch department at Bonhams, points out, you can take it with you everywhere. “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 It Worth It?
But are vintage watches, with their accompanying price tag, a good investment? Provided you buy at the right time, and choose the right brand, then the answer is ‘yes’. Fifteen years ago, Panerai watches, used by Italian commandos in World War II, were being marketed at £1,500 and not selling. Today, those same watches are retailing at £70,000. The price of Rolexs has reached an all-time high, and watches by Patek Philippe, sold in the collections of the finest jewellers, like George Pragnell watches, have become highly sought after. The latter, in particular, are becoming the brand of choice, thanks to their high quality, relative rarity, and the company’s decisions to frequently buy its own watches at auction and add them to its museum driving prices sky-high.
The financial crash has, of course, had some impact on prices, but those at the top end, as with cars and houses and so many other things, have held up well.
So what should you buy? Rarity and condition should be your prime considerations. However, Aurel Bacs, international co-head of the watches department at Christies in Geneva, had this advice to give: “Ultimately, I think people should buy what they like and what they think they will wear.” After all, style is individual; that’s the precise beauty of vintage wrist wear.