Despite the many miles of column inches devoted to Swiss luxury watches these days, it still amazes me how little is known about the basics. Don’t get me wrong – watches, certainly those of the mechanical variety, are complex things, and I’ve got no beef with anyone who fails to grasp the finer points of horology. I have only a loose hold on them myself.
But it does pain me when, even now, someone says to me, ‘a watch is a good investment, right?’, as if imploring me to assuage their conscience, still reeling after sinking the equivalent of a down payment on a flat into a shiny trinket that tells the time. The answer, I’m afraid, is almost always no.
I can’t put a finger on exactly where the misconception came from (those reams of column inches haven’t helped, admittedly), but if I had to lay the blame, I’d say Rolex should cop most of it. Not Rolex the company, but the watches themselves. Rolexes have a habit of holding or accruing value, particularly rarer models, and by extension it’s often wrongly assumed the same applies to every Swiss Made watch.
Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ Daytonas – so named because the actor was said to have worn an ‘exotic dial’ model given to him by his wife Joanne Woodward from 1972 until his death in 2008 – were a commercial flop on launch in the mid-1960s, and so relatively few were made. But in the 1980s, collectors started picking them up, and before long Rolex’s ugly duckling had become one of the hottest properties in the vintage market. In 2013, a model was sold by Christie’s for $1.1m (£673,000 at the time). Originally, it would have retailed for around $210.
But while this story – and there are others, chiefly from the darling of all watch auctioneers, Patek Philippe – illustrates there’s a buck to be made in the right watch, it’s not at all representative of the norm. Sink a few grand into a nice timepiece when that bonus drops, or to mark that big birthday, and you can be all but certain you won’t see a return on your investment. It’s a bit like driving a new car off the forecourt – in doing so, you say goodbye to a third of the moolah you’ve just handed the man with the pointy shoes.
This is all the more likely at the moment, because Switzerland has been producing more watches than it’s selling (exports in April were down 11 per cent year-on-year – ouch), and the glut is being soaked up by the grey market, which undercuts retailers by around 20 per cent, hitting pre-owned values simultaneously. Before you go bypassing the official retailers, by the way, don’t forget that brands may not honour warranties on new watches bought from the digital age equivalent of a man holding open his jacket and murmuring, ‘Wanna buy a watch?’
A Guide To Investing In A Luxury Watch (If You Have To)
Do Your Research
Learn which brands and models hold their value best, check out limited edition runs, develop your instincts, don’t be a mug.
Be prepared to wait for the right watch. Waiting lists for the most desirable pieces will run into the next decade.
Invest In Sensible Things First
Before you buy a watch as an investment, get a pension, top up your ISA, buy some shares, heck, spread the love on Kickstarter…
Sometimes there’s no science to it. Buy something you like, wear it, look after it, and who knows, in 50 years’ time you might be sitting on a gold mine.
There are two things to think about in light of all this. First, if you’re going to buy yourself – or someone else – a watch, do it because you love it and it will bring you years of pleasure wearing it. Don’t invest your hard-earned cash in watches instead of something more secure.
And second, if you really insist on buying a luxury watch as an investment, do one of two things. The simplest, but also the most expensive, is go to an auction held by one of the big five (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, Bonhams or Antiquorum), bid on something like a Patek 2526 and then stick it in a safe for 10 years.
That’ll cost you though, so alternatively, if you fancy a punt, there are still some new models out there that you might one day be able to sell on for quantifiably more than you paid for them – but even then, only after you’ve seen out a decade or two.
Here are four watches that fall into that ‘might’ category. Might, I said. And even at that, don’t say you weren’t warned.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona
Rolexes hold their value well, this much we know. But Daytonas do better than the rest.
For this reason, the battle to get hold of this year’s steel model with a black Cerachrom – ceramic – bezel will be fierce, but almost certainly worth it.
Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref 5711
The current waiting list for Patek’s iconic steel sports watch is said to be 12 years, and now so long the Geneva brand has stopped taking orders on it.
It’s the 40th anniversary of the Nautilus this year, and Patek has yet to play its hand on special editions. Whatever they are, they’re likely to be hotter than a walk on the sun.
Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art Elégance Sartoriale
While Rolex and Patek dominate the auction headlines, interest in pieces made by Vacheron Constantin, one of Switzerland’s oldest and most prestigious watch houses, is on the rise.
The brand’s annual Métiers d’Art collections are a bit hit and miss, but the latest ‘Elégance Sartoriale’ edition, particularly this ‘Herringbone Pattern’ model, is a pearler. Although it’s not limited per se, only 14 are slated for production at this stage. A solid bet for a future classic, if you’ve got the coin.
Tudor Black Bay Black
Last year, Tudor (Rolex’s sister brand) released a black-bezelled version of its already successful Black Bay line. Based on a 1950s diver’s watch, the new piece had an unremarkable third-party mechanical movement in it, but its aesthetic pulled in the punters – a one-off version sold at the Only Watch auction for SFr375,000 (£258,000), 120 times the list price.
Less than a year later, it’s been replaced by an upgraded model with an excellent in-house movement and a number of subtle dial differences. It’s quite possible the original, now a short-run piece, will become very collectible, raising its value.
There are said to be a few left – grab ’em while you can. I should declare an interest, here. I bought one last year, without the first knowledge Tudor had plans to replace it. Lucky? I’ll come back to you in 10 years’ time…