For a lover of watches a trip to London is not complete without walking around Old Bond Street. That mile long walk will make you feel as if the city of London is the capital of old antique and vintage watches. On this particular trip, like during every other, my first destination was the Bond Street Arcade. The unimpressive façade of the building is almost uninviting. But the panorama starts only when you step inside. There are some 50 dealers of pre-owned watches spread over two floors. A particular watch caught my fancy inside the glass counter of one of the dealers. I asked the dealer if it was a Platinum Swatch.
He was taken by surprise and told me in an unusual thick-accented English that I was the first customer in so many years to have recognised the watch. He added that most customers believed a Platinum Swatch is a bit of a oxymoron (everyone knows that Swatch is positioned as an inexpensive watch; how then can you have a Swatch in a platinum case?) I took great pleasure in telling him that when the Platinum Swatch was launched in Boston in 1993, I had stood in queue the whole night in front of the largest Swatch showroom in the world to be able to pick up one of the 1299 limited pieces from the hands of Swatch Group Founder, Nicolas Hayek.
With this little story a bond was beginning to get established between the seller and the buyer. It was then the dealer’s turn to tell me his story. He is from Kurdistan, had fled the persecution of Saddam Hussein and now had made London his home. I must confess that Nasir is the only Kurd that I had met in my life before I struck a long and trust-based relationship which has now lasted many years.
This is a good starting point. A collector must have a trusting relationship with a pre-owned watch dealer. So the rule is if you can’t trust the dealer to be able to return back the watch to him, don’t buy one for a start. Good collectors of pre-owned watches build relationship of trust with pre-owned watch dealers in Mumbai, Dubai, Tel-Aviv, London or New York.
Why a pre-owned watch, you might ask. After all there is no dearth of new watch stores who can give you a watch with full guarantee. A watch is very much like a motor car; it has many past lives and many owners. There are three kinds of buyers of pre-owned watches. The first category collects a pre-owned watch which may be a couple of years old, looks as good as new and probably is priced less than half of the new watch. A large number of pre-owned watch buyers fall in this category. They are looking for a deal and usually end up buying watches in a few hundred dollars each. Rarely ever do they collect expensive pre-owned watches.
The second category of collectors are those who genuinely love a good watch or like the vintage feel to it and find that a new watch does not come up to his or her expectations. Many fall into this category. They generally buy relatively more expensive watches but their collections are usually restricted to a few timepieces.
Then there is the third and most important category. This group of people usually collects watches as an investment. They have a deeper knowledge about the watches, keep track of the trends, educate themselves regularly and usually collect several dozens, if not several hundreds, of watches. The most important people who form the $10 billion dollar worldwide pre-owned watch industry fall in to this category. Here is an interesting fact. Most people start with category one but some out of them build up enough passion to become a real collector over 20-30 years.
The question to ask is: are watches a good investment? Is there evidence that watches increase in value with time? What price can a used top-end watch really get in an auction? Just to put figures into perspective, the most expensive pre-owned watch till date is a Patek Phillipe Super complication sold at the auction house Sotheby’s in December 1999 for a whopping $11 million. Most serious collectors know that amongst other things, brand of the watch is a critical consideration for value. If one looks at investing in watches then Patek Phillipe occupies the most unique position. Of the top 24 most expensive pre-owned watches auctioned in the world till date, 19 are Patek Phillipe.
The 24th most expensive watch – sold in November 2009 – for $2.096 million was a pocket watch manufactured by Zenith. The auction price may not have reflected the value of the brand but surely reflected its original owner, namely Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Watches owned by celebrities is another strong motivation for collectors to queue up. If we browse through the list of celebrity pre-owned watches auctioned during the last few years, it includes Einstein’s Longines, Pandit Nehru’s Rolex, King Fouad’s Vacheron Constantin and Eric Clapton’s Patek Phillipe. So history of ownership is a big draw.
Shrewd collectors often look for five C’s that form the golden principles of pre-owned watch collection.
Condition: This C is the single most important consideration. A watch preserved as good as new fetches the top price. The thumb rule is that watches whose conditions are B+ or below are not worth collecting.
Certification: A pre-owned watch that comes with original packaging box and original papers and guarantees fetches top price. In some ways this is a good surrogate to the genuineness of the watch. Having said so one must add that a vast majority of pre-owned watches come to the dealer or auction houses without box or papers.
Complication: This is the life blood for serious collectors. Moon phase, Repeater, Perpetual calendar, etc… more the complication, higher the value. Remember that the most expensive Patek Phillipe ever to be sold was also the most complicated watch to have ever been made.
Celebrity: Who the first owner was has great charm and value to the collector – as was in the case of Gandhi’s watch described earlier.
Circa: This refers to the year of manufacture. Usually the older the better. After all the history of the wrist watch industry barely dates back to last 100 years. Having said so, there are some critical turning points from the history of watch makers. These fetch exceptional price. Say, for example, the first series of Rolex waterproof watches, later branded as Oyster; Girard-Perregaux watches made for World War I Austrian Generals; or the Russian watch made for the first generation of astronauts; and not to forget, Seiko Astron, which, in 1969, became the first-ever quartz watch manufactured. The list is long but all serious collectors know these inflection points.
A word or two about brands. Serious collectors are usually very focused. They seem to specialise on a set of brands and almost become fanatical about that. PatekPhillipe and Rolex are the two most sought after brands. Then there is Bregeut, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Audemars Piguet, IWC and Zenith. There is no limit. I know people who have the world’s largest collection of Elgin, the American watch brand that closed after the Second World War, and the entire liquidated factory was bought over by Stalin to create the base of a Russian watch industry. Some prefer only German watches such as A. Lange & Söhne.
Now comes the most important question: where do you buy pre-owned watches? Auction house Antiquorum founded in 1970s has emerged as the largest specialised watch auction house in the world. Typically they hold some 10 auctions in a year in various parts of the world. One of the major benefits of buying from an auction house is that the watches are usually authenticated by their panel of experts. Sometimes one can even end up getting a very good price. The world’s two largest auctioneers Sotheby’s and Christie’s also hold regular watch auctions in four or five different destinations. An Indian auction house Saffron Art while new to pre-owned watches is beginning to put up interesting range of watches. The prices from Saffron Art are often quite lucrative.
During the last decade there have been lots of online sellers of pre-owned watches. Site Chrono 24 is probably the largest online seller going by the range. Bob’s Watches, Crown and Caliber and Analog Shift are other popular online sites. In recent years, I have found lot of trade in pre-owned watches taking place on eBay. I know that eBay India encourages buyers and sellers to communicate with each other and probably meet in person and check the merchandise before finalising the deal.
And finally I find cluster of pre-owned watch dealers are emerging in various Indian cities. There are a few of them in the old Oberoi shopping Arcade in Mumbai. There are a few in Spencer Plaza, Chennai and of course there is V Gulab, an old watch dealer and trophy maker in New market, Kolkata.
I started the article writing about trust and I end by saying that if you must buy from a dealer it is important that you know him and that you have faith that he will take back the merchandise in case you don’t like it or you find a defect. There is however one sure way to ensure that you are buying a genuine pre-owned watch. That is the collector’s deep personal skill and knowledge about a watch. Buy a sub-hundred dollar pre-owned watch if you really fancy it. However, if you need to be a serious collector there is no substitute for enormous knowledge and expertise.