Ask arbiter of style Clinton Paul to choose his favorite watch and he’ll be hard pressed to tell you which one is put into service the most. Maybe that’s because he has so many of them.
Elizabeth Taylor may have her diamonds but Paul’s passion is the precision and craftsmanship of beautiful timepieces. Even men who haven’t tasted quite as much of the good life as Paul are quietly hoarding a modest stash of watches.
“In my mind, each watch brings something to the party,” says Paul. “Every watch was bought to fill a perceived niche such as early Rolexes and vintage watches to wear with Ralph Lauren tweeds, or a simple IWC pilot’s watch to wear with tattered oxford button downs and over-sized khaki pants and worn cordovan penny loafers.”
Collecting watches is not unlike collecting luxury cars, and in some cases the prices aren’t much different. Like a handmade automobile, a rare and limited timepiece entails complex design, precious materials, and the kind of expert craftsmanship that is often passed down for generations among watchmakers. To own such a watch gives men the opportunity to speak of who he is and where he’s going.
“Definitely our high end watch client is a business man in the six figure income level with discretionary money to spend,” says Judy White, co-owner of Julianna’s Fine Jewelry in Corte Madera.
Of course we’re not talking about the not-so-humble Cartier Tank Française or that James Bond favorite, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date-Just. Think Vacheron Constantin, Breguet, or Patek Phillippe.
“Most people buying Patek Philippe are looking to buy the history, quality, and exclusivity,” says Diane Adams, a buyer for Shreve and Company. “It’s really about the execution of technology and art. When you think just how small a space it is, it’s pretty amazing.”
Those in the know don’t bother calling it a watch but rather, haut horlogerie, a rarified world of tourbillions and chronographs that sell for not thousands, but hundreds of thousands of dollars. At last January’s Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie — the Geneva watch fair for you plebeians — there was a quiet optimism for the men’s market in particular, which has performed solidly despite the economic downturn.
Alain Huy, brand director for Zenith Watches North America, believes there is still work to be done. “The US market is still a young market and it needs still to be educated and trained. Most of the watch buyers are only familiar with only a few brands like Rolex or TAG Heuer.”
Zenith has produced watch movements since 1865 and claims to be the first to produce a chronograph movement. It takes nine months to produce a Zenith chronograph, and just last fall, Zenith introduced the Christoph Colomb, a limited edition chronograph of twenty-five pieces in rose, white, and yellow gold retailing for $209,000. It sold out immediately.
“For collectors, it’s about the purity of a handmade timepiece that takes incredible skill to construct,” says Adams.
Richemont, the luxury group with the lion’s share of watch brands under its belt, reported a 33 percent increase in sales of luxury timepieces, and at a recent Christie’s auction, a very rare Patek Philippe sold for a record $5.7 Million.
With gold and silver prices on the rebound, an investment in a fine watch makes sense and promises a very stylish return on investment for 2011.
“The man who owns a classic, simple high quality watch in stainless or gold with a tasteful leather, alligator, or stainless band says to me that this is a guy whose values are honest and probably reflect his orientation towards things and materials that work well and that define his life,” says Paul.
That certainly could be said of Jean Yang, a solar energy entrepreneur who previously enjoyed the high life as retail director of Louis Vuitton stores in Korea. He discovered the subtle luxury of a Swiss watch when he was only a teenager.
“My father offered me a very fine Swiss watch when I was in middle school and I found that it was a deeply cool accessory,” says Yang. “I was a bit of a fashion victim then — living in Paris didn’t help. For me, a watch is the only and ultimate jewel for men.”
That first Swiss watch only whetted his appetite for something even more exquisite and rare. “My first pay-check went directly to a real luxury watch — a Breitling Old Navitimer,” says Yang. “It was a chronograph of course. It had a brown cow hide bracelet that I immediately upgraded to an alligator strap to make it even more luxurious and sporty.”
Like collectors of fine wines, watch collectors are generally a discreet bunch. The watch speaks for itself — if you’re able to catch a peek at it from under a man’s shirtsleeve. Like a fine sport scar, devil is in the details and only those who appreciate them can so willingly fork over a small fortune to purchase such a mechanical marvel.
As for Yang, with a modest nine watches in his collection, there is still one he is hoping will one day be his ultimate: “A Breguet, equipped with two tourbillions, one of the finest complication movement in the watch industry. But at $400,000 it is more expensive than a brand new Ferrari or a one-bedroom studio in Manhattan so that one will have to wait a bit before entering my collection!”
For more on this, read “The Triumph of Unnecessary Beauty” in the New York Times. Click Here.