Luxury Watches: One Just Isn’t Enough
Truth to tell, the Top Gun Big Pilot perpetual calendar watch is no thing of great beauty. Produced by the prestigious Swiss manufacturer IWC, it is a formidable hunk of matte-black ceramic casing roughly the diameter of a cocktail coaster.
The true merit of this ominous device is to be found on the inside, where its mechanical marvels reside. As its name may suggest, the Top Gun is a wonder of precision engineering, whose exquisitely calibrated gears and flywheels are capable of dissecting fragments of elapsed time with an elegance that lulls a wearer into forgetting the truth behind every timepiece ever manufactured. That is, with each advance of a sweeping second hand, the thing it is designed to measure is running out.
Two years ago, Adam Craniotes, a former copywriter, was determined to have the watch, even if its $38,600 price urged him toward painful Solomonic sacrifice.
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First to go was his Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Deep Sea Alarm watch. Next he sold his IWC Aqua Timer and, after that, his Glashütte Original Sport Evolution GMT.
At a collectors’ gathering, Adam Craniotes, third from left, whose determination to have a $38,600 watch led to a Solomonic sacrifice. Credit Christian Hansen for The New York Times
When he still came up short, it became clear there was no other option: He would have to put the bite on Mom. Mr. Craniotes’s mother, clearly an obliging and generous parent, agreed to lend him the $10,000 he needed but only if certain conditions were met.
“She said I had to shave off my mohawk,” said Mr. Craniotes, a genial 42-year-old father of two and founder of a weekly cult gathering of watch aficionados called Red Bar, which convened last Thursday at an underground dive in Little Korea. “It was a kind of corporate mohawk, but it drove her nuts.”
That evening, Mr. Craniotes was seated on a banquette in a dimly lighted room packed with many men and a smattering of women, all drawn from a fast-growing network of Red Bar regulars. People from all walks of life, they have for the last several years come together to graze on greasy bar snacks and unfurl for group appreciation the padded leather rolls containing their prized possessions.
They are people like Bill Bartlett, who last Thursday brought six of his 36 watches, most of them made by Rolex; Victor Calanog, a nattily dressed economist who came wearing a vintage rose gold perpetual calendar watch from Patek Philippe whose ticket price is roughly equivalent to that of a Tesla; and Irina, who has been known to bring along a half-million dollars in watches to Red Bar on any given night.
“Five to seven is a good number” of watches, said Faizal (who, like some of his other fellow collectors, would give only his first name), who added that he is downsizing a collection that reached 51 watches at its peak.
But hold on a second. Aren’t wristwatches a certified technological dodo? Doesn’t everyone nowadays gauge Coordinated Universal Time by means of a hand-held device? And wasn’t it recently reported that Jonathan Ive, the visionary Apple design honcho, allegedly pronounced doom — in terms not fit for this publication — not merely on mechanical timepieces but on the whole of Switzerland?
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Isn’t it true, by the way, that unlike so-called smart watches, an old-fashioned mechanical timepiece will never be able to open the garage door, help you book a ride on Uber or check your Twitter feed? And hasn’t the cliché image persisted of a watch collector as a retiree with a snowy thatch pursuing a kooky niche hobby, something between arm-knitting and making duct-tape art?
A display of high-end watches. Credit Christian Hansen for The New York Times
The reality, as it turns out, is that watch collectors are just as likely to be former police officers as sophisticates like Leon Botstein, the polymath conductor and president of Bard College, or the musician John Mayer, who in under a decade has amassed a highly personal collection of vintage watches valued in the millions.
“People spend so much time in a two-dimensional universe now, it gives them pleasure to consult these beautiful three-dimensional objects,” said Edward Faber, director of the Aaron Faber Gallery in Midtown. “It’s a way to distinguish oneself.”
Far from striking fear into the hearts of the makers and collectors of traditional timepieces, Mr. Faber added, the advent of the smart watch did not spur widespread panic in the watch World. The reasons are simple, chief among them the fact that we have been here before.
The last time horology was shaken by an innovation was back in the 1980s, when the “quartz revolution” posed a threat to the mechanical wristwatch by introducing an infallible if somewhat boring means for telling accurate time.
“Our market was actually born in the middle of the 1980s,” Davide Parmigiani, a prominent dealer in vintage watches, said recently by telephone from London. Rather than driving consumers away from mechanical timepieces, he said, the quartz watch underlined the quirky, humanistic qualities of timepieces created by hand.
“When the old century turned into the new one, the market began to grow exponentially,” Mr. Parmigiani said. “A lot of new collectors started coming into the market, and now in the last few years there have been astonishing numbers coming in.”
One reason for this is that a mechanical wristwatch is only partly a timekeeping device, said Michael L. Friedman, official historian for the 140-year-old Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet. It is also a complex and nuanced object.
They are, he suggested, regarding the timepiece as an article of jewelry (for most men, a watch is the sole piece of jewelry considered socially acceptable to wear) and equally a status symbol; or as an example of fine industrial design and advanced engineering; or as a link to horological traditions centuries in the making; or as a talismanic man-made symbol of the cosmic forces around which human days are ordered.
“A watch is not a functional item anymore,” said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for NPD Group.
“The watch makes the man,” in terms of status, he added, a refrain often echoed among collectors who note that you cannot drive a Porsche into a restaurant.
“The truth is, most of the time I forget what watch I’m wearing,” Mr. Craniotes said offhandedly last week at Red Bar. (It was a Rolex Sea Dweller DeepSea) “Nobody but another watch collector really knows what watch I’m wearing or cares.”
Yet the intensity of those congregated at the Red Bar gathering suggests otherwise. When Mr. Craniotes started his Red Bar get-togethers seven years ago (in the Midtown bar that gave the group its name), only he and a fellow aficionado were there to discuss watches high and low — Patek Philippe to G-Shock — and such arcana as the merits of silicon hair springs. Now Red Bar routinely packs in scores of watch collectors at franchise gatherings held in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Vancouver and Toronto.
Back in those early days, Mr. Craniotes suggested, wristwatch collectors were still reliant for information on niche blogs. Now they can choose from among a robust array of online platforms, ranging from slick magazines like Hodinkee, which boasts 700,000 unique visitors a month, to forums like TimeZone and popular blogs like Wornandwound, TheWatchLounge and Watch Anish.
A 36-millimeter Patek Philippe Grand Complications watch.
The 200,000 unique visitors to the two-year-old Watch Anish blog may stop by to “geek out” on the minutiae of root-beer dials and Pepsi bezels and recitations of obscure reference numbers, said Jeremy Roizin, the site’s chief operating officer. Just as likely they are indulging a compulsion about which Mr. Mayer, the musician, becomes dreamily rhapsodic in a Hodinkee video.
Not surprisingly, the expansion of the vintage-watch-collecting cohort from a narrow elite — Ron Perelman’s collection numbers in the hundreds, as does that of François-Henri Pinault, chief executive of the multinational Kering luxury group — to a broader group is also reflected in a robust expansion of the market for these luxury items. (In the 12 months ending in August, sales of fine jewelry and watches in the United states totaled $30.2 billion, according to NPD Group.)
That and a surge of wealth creation helps account for the staggering record prices vintage watches have begun to fetch at auctions like one held in Switzerland last November, where a Paul Newman Rolex Daytona — a stainless steel sports watch that cost less than $500 when new in 1969 — tripled its high estimate to sell to an anonymous buyer for $1.1 million.
Figures like that help account for the buying sprees recently embarked on by multinationals like Kering, which in July acquired the niche Swiss watchmaker Ulysse Nardin for an undisclosed sum (Citibank analysts estimated it at close to $871 million), making it the company’s third major purchase of a watch or jewelry brand in three years. And they ramp up anticipation of other records being shattered when Swiss auction houses roll out their latest offerings next month — among them the ultra-rare Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication, not seen on the market in 15 years and estimated to fetch as much as $16.5 million by the time the hammer falls.
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“Wristwatch-collecting is only about 20 years old,” said Reginald Brack, senior vice president for watches at Christie’s. “Ten years ago we were doing $8 million a year, and now we’re doing close to $150 million worldwide.”
Mr. Roizin of Watch Anish said, “I do feel this is the strongest generation for watch collecting.”
If not quite in the category of collector “whales,” Hampton Carney, a 43-year-old Red Bar fan, is as good a representative of contemporary collector aficionados as any. Starting with his grandfather’s 1930s Longines watch, a gift from an aunt when he graduated from high school, Mr. Carney, a Manhattan publicist (who has represented watchmakers on occasion) has gone on to amass a collection of nearly three dozen examples from prestige brands.
“You have watches you wear and watches you love but don’t wear,” said Mr. Carney, who stores a collection with a value roughly equal to the price of an average American house in a custom-fitted gun safe in his apartment. “It’s definitely an addiction.”
Yet it’s an agreeable addiction, according to George Jewett, a San Francisco architect whose affection for the watches he owns goes well beyond their utility. “Sure, you can look at the cellphone and get the time,” Mr. Jewett said. But your cellphone is unlikely to stimulate memories of the day you married, Mr. Jewett added, when his wife, Brenda, made him a gift of a Rolex Datejust, or of that moment when his father passed on to him a treasured Patek Philippe.
For that matter, a cellphone won’t carry anything like the freight of emotion summoned up when Mr. Jewett fishes his first watch from its spot in the sock drawer.
“It’s a Mickey Mouse watch,” Mr. Jewett said. “I still have it. And it still keeps time.”