Will luxury timepieces ever be a viable investment category and why are prices for some models exploding? To answer these questions and discuss investing in watches, we turn to the experts: Eric Ku, veteran watch dealer and the founder of new auction company Loupe This, Austen Chu, founder of pre-owned watch specialist company Wristcheck, Thomas Perazzi, head of watches at Phillips Asia; Sam Hines, worldwide head of Sotheby’s Watches, and Alexandre Bigler, vice president and head of watches at Christie’s Asia.
How do you explain the explosion of prices of watches at auction and on the secondary market?
Eric Ku: Many factors are contributing to the explosion of prices on the secondary market and its rise to prominence. Firstly, many coveted watches simply aren’t available on the primary market – steel sports-model Rolexes have always been hard to get, but now even a gold Day-Date or plain steel Datejusts are hard to find. Rather than waiting for “the call” from a primary dealer, many of people have elected to go to the secondary market and pay a premium price for something and not have to wait. Secondly, with Covid and the associated lockdowns of the past 15 months, people have become a lot more comfortable buying from home, even when it involves something expensive like a watch. While authorised dealers have to deal with a lot of red tape as to how they can sell things, secondary-market dealers have no such problems. Thirdly, with a lot of time on everyone’s hands during the lockdown, many people at home have been surfing the internet looking for things to buy, and what better than a new watch?
Austen Chu: I can probably talk about this for hours on end, but let me try to sum it up in a few sentences. I think the recent explosion in market prices for watches is an amalgamation of many factors, which include the introduction of social media (people tend to forget that social media is only about a decade old), the influence of watches in pop culture (50 years ago, singers weren’t bragging about the watches they were wearing in their songs), and access to information/tools that previously weren’t available to previous generations. None of this existed decades ago, and in my opinion, it’s just the beginning.
Thomas Perazzi: There’s a strong growth in collectors of vintage timepieces, who’ve acquired modern pieces in the past and have decided to experiment with vintage. The way we communicate is very different from 10 to 15 years ago. The main way to follow an auction 20 years ago was to be physically in the saleroom, but now through social media and the internet, vintage timepieces are being represented and talked about on a daily basis, with experts from the industry and collectors passing their passion and knowledge to the next generation. There are many new players joining the watch-collecting market every year and this will continue to grow, especially with the digital transformation.
Alexandre Bigler: I’d say that the exceptional results and prices achieved at our auction reflect supply and demand in the current market. Unique pieces with impeccable provenance (for example, the Patek Philippe Alan Banbery 3448J and FP Journe Chronometre Souverain, made specially for Dr George Daniels) and vintage timepieces, particularly from Patek Philippe and Rolex, attracted deep bidding, as their supply was extremely low. Another reason we witnessed is an influx of new and emerging collectors, who learn fast and are very responsive to market trends. Their growing appetite, in particular for fast-rising brands at auction like Audemars Piauet, Breguet and A Lange & Söhne, also pushed the high prices achieved at our auction this spring.
Has Covid had an impact on the way people are spending and collecting, or do you credit other factors as well?
EK: It absolutely has. I’ve explained some of the ways above. Other factors play a part too, with brands generally becoming more nimble and focusing on what customers want, and focusing on new ways to engage with collectors. With limited opportunities for in-person gatherings, brands had to pivot their outreach strategies to get customers interested in their offerings.
TP: The pandemic has given people more time to ponder and restructure their collections, resulting in the availability of pieces that rarely hit the market. The pandemic has also given watch lovers more time to research and go deep into what they collect and build deeper knowledge in timepieces. The secondary watch market is stronger than ever – our phenomenal results at Phillips since 2020 prove that the pandemic hasn’t cooled consumer demand for mint-condition horological rarities that came to auctions.
Sam Hines: I also think a lot of our clients prefer to have tangible assets instead of money right now, given the economic outlook. At the same time, some people wish to sell their assets in exchange for cash. In general, prices all over are strong but it’s true for watches in particular. I think we reached a lot of new clients with our smaller online sales and made our sales more accessible and, to be honest, bidding in auctions can be addictive.
AB: I think collectors have become comfortable and receptive to buying online, as the pandemic drives almost every brand – including, of course, Christie’s – to expand and enhance digital footprints over the past year, which further helps educate trade and individual clients to buy in retail stores and at auction. The rise and rapid expansion of social media e. has also promoted tech-savvy collectors’ purchases online.
AC: Yes, tremendously. For watch collectors and people with a higher disposable income, this also meant that their expenses fell dramatically (no more family summer holidays etc). This, coupled with endless hours browsing the internet, leads people to spend more on watches that they would’ve in the past and fuelled the frenzy we’re seeing now. Watch collecting is addictive – once you start, it’s quite hard to stop!
Is it a bubble that you expect will burst and will prices readjust themselves in the next few years? Or is what we’re seeing going to be the new standard?
EK: By nature I’m a glass-half-empty guy, and have been waiting for the prices to tumble, but it seems as if I may be wrong on this one. The market itself is getting bigger and bigger, at an almost exponential pace. With so much (new) interest being placed on watches – both new and pre-owned – I don’t see a collapse coming soon. Does that mean that the Nautilus won’t come down in price? No – there are some outrageously frothy segments of the market – but I think the general macro trends are very strong and will continue to be so.
TP: Of course not. I’ve been seeing the growth of interest in watch collecting for more than a decade. There are many new players joining the watch-collecting market every year and I think this will continue to grow – especially with the digital transformation, the watch market has become even larger. For example, our recent Hong Kong Watches sale had a record number of online participants, the highest ever in Phillips Asia’s company history. Phillips Watches also ended its first half of 2021 selling every single watch offered across our sales globally. Watches that aren’t having much commercial success today may be sought-after by collectors in the future. For example, the Patek Philippe Ref 2523, which sold for more than 7 million Swiss francs at our Geneva Watch Auction in May – it would seem that the elaborate and refined aesthetics that make the timepiece so iconic and attractive nowadays, were too ahead of their time at the time of its release. The Ref 2523 wasn’t especially welcomed by Patek Philippe clients and consequently production was very limited. A slightly modified version, the Ref 2523/1, was also launched but with a largely similar response.
SH: Prices should level off and will stop increasing at such rates. The demand easily outweighs the supply, so for now I believe this is the new norm.
AB: First of all, the annual production by legendary brands and even independent watchmakers was always very limited even before the pandemic. The demand for their timepieces will naturally be stable and strong. Secondly, the pandemic might have forced some brands temporarily to shut down their factories, but collectors respond very fast and will shift their focus to vintage designs, before the modern complications come to the market again. The market responds and evolves naturally. Thirdly, watches is a very interesting and unique category – in general, watch collectors invest a lot of of time and effort in researching the market before making a purchase. They seldom buy hot-headed or simply to resell the next day. And lastly, exceptional, rare, unique, limited-edition timepieces always stand the test of time; they’re rarely a fad in the market.
AC: People tend to forget that the watch industry as a whole is so much more than the brands that are in demand – such as AP, Patek, Rolex, RM, FP Journe – when it comes to diversity and product offerings. There are so many fantastic brands out there that give you a ton of value for the money. However, with the current market trends, it seems that these brands will continue to be strong, and that’s simply because of supply and demand. There’s this huge influx of next-gen collectors who can’t get anything at retail. The luxury watch industry was historically meant to be “exclusive”, in the sense that manufactures can’t produce high quantities due to the skilled labour required to make these beautiful watches. The paradigm shift occurred when information stopped becoming exclusive, because of the internet, social media etc, but the watch manufactures themselves still remain exclusive in terms of production. As long as people want to buy luxury watches that are hard to acquire, I believe this trend will continue. However, this also offers many opportunities for other brands, and I believe the next wave will be in other independent brands.
When tracking the trends for certain pieces, what are you seeing?
SH: The stainless-steel sports watches made by Patek Philippe and Rolex. No one can get them, everyone wants them and multiple models are trading at three, four or even five times the retail prices. A Patek Philippe Ref 1436 was sold at more than HK$5.25 million in our 2020 Hong Kong October sale. Eight years ago, that watch sold for less than half that price. There’s also a huge demand for watches manufactured by independent brands in very limited numbers. Of all brands, the one that’s increased at ground-breaking rates is FP Journe – some models have increased by 400 percent in one year. It’s the most fashionable brand now and market prices typically increase when they’re in vogue and talked about the most. An FP Journe Chronomètre à Résonance, circa 2002 with power-reserve indication and brass movement, realised 239,400 Swiss francs (US$261,386) in Geneva in November, against an estimated US$55,000-$110,000.
TP: I’d say that there’s is a huge growth of interest in independent watchmakers, such as FP Journe, De Bethune, Roger Smith and Philippe Dufour. And the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is also very popular among Asian buyers.
Has the market become more of an investment platform than a passion or hobby?
EK: I tell all my customers that there are plenty of better things to invest your money in, and that watches should primarily be an investment in your passion and pleasure. That being said, it’s difficult to ignore the dollars and cents of it all when prices are so high and some guys are seeing their steel Daytonas, which they bought at retail for US$12,000, go for nearly triple that on the secondary market. What ultimately will be detrimental to the market is when a majority of buyers and collectors are doing so for financial profit and not for pleasure and passion.
SH: As the prices have increased so much in the last few years, for sure collectors look at their purchases as investments too. However, our advice to collectors is always to buy the very best watch they’re genuinely passionate about and that their budget can afford. Buying purely from the investment perspective doesn’t guarantee a good re-sale price.
AB: I’d say it’s a mixture of both, but Christie’s always encourages clients to buy for passion as watches aren’t just assets that hold monetary value, but are also are wearable art that carry craftsmanship, science, humanity and personal stories, which can be passed along the generations.
AC: We’re seeing a mixture of people coming into the watch space, and a lot of young people do view certain luxury watches as an alternative way to store their wealth, so for a certain portion of the new generation it’s become somewhat of an investment, but alongside their hobby of watch collecting. On the other hand, we’re seeing more and more young watch collectors who buy purely for passion and don’t care about the market. I think it’s a fairly large mixture, and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. A lot of young collectors are also getting into the space of watches for social status. Watches have never been this culturally cool or as culturally relevant, ever. There’s nothing wrong with buying a watch you love that also happens to go up in price over time, but you should be passionate first. I don’t think it’s smart for someone to come into the watch space with a purely opportunistic mindset.
Will steel sports watches have this hold on the market forever, or are there other pieces that you yourself, or other clients, are starting to shift their focus to?
EK: As a lover of all watches, I encourage my customers to collect what they like, even if it isn’t steel sports watches. I think when looked at even under a magnifying glass, all segments of the market have increased in value and price over the last several years. I definitely don’t advocate that people go and pay market price for a 5711 Nautilus and then expect to sell it at a profit. They should be buying it at that price because they just can’t live without it.
Do you see any pieces on that are on the rise? Are there specific pieces you’re curating that are in high demand?
AC: Yes, for sure. For Wristcheck, the majority of our clients are young (under 35), and the trends are very predictable. They mainly only want independent brands such as hot APs and hot Pateks – and, surprisingly, smaller independent brands such as Richard Mille, MB&F, H Moser and De Bethune. I find it really interesting that not many of them are asking for brands that we expected, such as Rolex (of course we sell Rolex, but not as many as we anticipated). We tend to curate discontinued models that hold historical significance but tend to be overlooked by the market, though it’s clear which brands are doing well.
(Hero Image: the Patek Philippe Ref. 2523 sold at the Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: Xiii in May for 7 million Swiss Francs)