a year in watches: 2021
By Tony Traina
It’s almost trite at this point to comment on the tremendous growth that watches have seen over the past few years, with the pandemic seemingly having zero detrimental effects. This growth has led to plenty of exciting developments in the last 12 months.
It’s clear that there are plenty of facets that have evolved recently in this space and so we thought it best to get a cross-section of opinions from around the industry. Asking nine collectors and enthusiasts the same question: “To you, what was the most exciting thing about watches this year?”
As the industry has grown, it has become possible to spot various ripples or themes emerging, from increased interest in new segments or niches of watches such as neo-vintage or independents, to more diverse opinions, perspectives and collectors.
Tying it all together is the dialogue between all these things – old and new, vintage and modern, high and low. This dialogue cuts across borders, generations, and divisions, and truly defines an industry that measures time not in days or years, but in generations and centuries. Horology has always sat at the intersection of art and science, but 2021 might mark the year when it started to become a true crossroads for collectors with all types of interests and backgrounds, from all around the world.
Watch Specialist, Phillips
Isabella Proia, a watch specialist at Phillips, first pointed out this “dialogue” between old and new to us, expressing her excitement about the amount of fresh interest in watches.
“One of the more exciting parts of this year has been the dialogue between some of the new players, people, and voices in watches, and the ‘old guard’, and seeing how generous and gracious this old guard has been to these new players with their knowledge and expertise. There has been so much new interest and so much fresh interest in watches [that] it can feel overwhelming, but it’s been nice to see the interplay between multiple generations coming together to discuss and enjoy watches.
“It used to be that we’d hear a lot of the same people and voices, and see a lot of the same things, but now people are realising that you need to do something new; you need to push boundaries and really understand who is wearing and buying your watches.”
Dealer and Owner of Wind Vintage
Vintage dealer Eric Wind of Wind Vintage also observed the unprecedented amount of new watch collectors, noting how these new collectors aren’t interested just in Rolex and Patek, but in a diverse range of eras and brands.
“The massive growth in interest and the [number] of new people coming into the world of watches this year has been exciting to see. From my perspective, it’s the biggest growth we’ve ever seen in people that are engaged in the watch market.
“2021 was the year of vintage Cartier. There has been incredible growth in interest, knowledge, and passion. While prices have been fairly stable in vintage Rolex and vintage Patek Philippe – outside of dream pieces like the Patek Philippe reference 1518 perpetual calendar chronograph. Outside of vintage, of course, there has been tremendous growth in interest in independent brands and watchmakers. If the 2010s was the decade of vintage Rolex, the 2020s might turn out to be the decade of the independents.”
As Wind alluded to, 2021 saw tremendous growth in interest in independent watchmakers. Collector Gabriel Benador was excited not just about this growth in interest, but by the fact that collectors have keyed in on the important early works of these independents that would chart the course for the current rise of the independents.
“The most interesting trend of 2021 has been the interest in independents, but specifically the interest in early indies – for example, early Urwerk, Vianney Halter, or Harry Winston Opus pieces. These pieces serve as the foundation for the current trend towards independents, but it’s been overlooked because the watches are often smaller in size. But now we’re seeing people agnostic about size, who just want a great, well-crafted watch. To take another example: while A. Lange & Söhne has seen tremendous growth across the board, it’s the Lange 1 references from the brand’s early years that are achieving high-dollar values.
“It’s great to see because this has long been a forgotten era of independents. For a long time, modern independents like De Bethune and MB&F have been going nuts, but for those like me who love the brand, it’s exciting to see early De Bethunes performing well too. For many collectors, you can only look at so much modern Rolex or Patek before you want something with more substance or that feels more special. The value proposition when you compare a nice independent watch to a Nautilus reference 5711 is really a no-brainer. So people start going down that rabbit hole and they start to discover all kinds of exciting watchmakers. Not that long ago, we didn’t even see independent watches at auction, so that they’re consistently being put on display and [have] performed well this year is exciting.”
Co-founder of Shanghai Watch Gang and Co-host of The Waiting List Podcast
Daniel Sum views the rising prices that have resulted from the increased interest and excitement around watches not as an irritation, but an opportunity.
“For those collectors that collect with an investment approach, the rising prices of watches across the board have certainly been exciting and interesting to observe and discuss. As a collector, I have realised that as a knock-on effect of rapidly rising prices, I’ve also found the search [for] previously relatively unknown or special pieces of historical significance from a design aspect to be much more rewarding in the current climate.
“Many people have either been priced out, or are just not able to obtain some of those highly desirable ‘hot’ pieces – and therefore have been forced to look elsewhere in order to continue their hobby. I think the community is recognising – and importantly, validating – a lot more the collector who has something very rare and exceptional.”
Owner, Massena LAB
For William Massena, it’s not just the increased interest in independents that has him excited, but the appreciation for the entire era of neo-vintage watchmaking.
“For me, the most exciting trend has been the rise of neo-vintage. I love that stuff. It’s what I loved when I was getting started in the business when I was 25 years old. There are a lot of very exciting things that happened during that period – Daniel Roth, early F.P. Journe, and so many other independents. A lot of exciting new technology was introduced during this era; brands experimenting with different complications or new materials. I like the fact that these watches are finally getting the recognition they deserve because they were under-priced for many years – everything from neo-vintage IWCs to early Daniel Roth. But these watches are remarkably well made and the market was completely ignoring [them]. That’s not the case anymore.”
For 23-year-old collector Perth Ophaswongse, the most exciting thing about this year has been discovering under-the-radar independent watchmakers, along with the hope that other collectors might catch on soon.
“The thing that surprised me the most this year is how little interest seems to have been paid to lesser-known or up-and-coming independent watchmakers. While some long-standing watchmakers have been vindicated (for example, Christian Klings at Phillips Geneva), it seems to be a rarer phenomenon than I’d expect in the current environment where the ‘big name’ independent brands are only getting bigger. It hints at a disappointing cycle where monetary results (i.e., auction prices) are seen as the main benchmark for success, leading to watchmakers being forced to not only demonstrate their design and engineering skills, but to also prove that their creations can retain monetary value – which is difficult given that most are still working on a commission basis.
“A plethora of names come to mind, from experienced industry figures like Christian Lass, Aaron Becsei, or Andreas Strehler – whose work is only appreciated by a small circle of loyalists – to young watchmakers with lofty ambitions such as James Palmer and Jack Elam. Also worth mentioning are watchmakers around the world who are pioneering the spirit of independent watchmaking in their own countries, like Minhoon Yoo in South Korea and Reima Koivukoski in Finland.
“My hope is that the watch community works to seek out and find these undervalued and underappreciated watchmakers.”
Collector and Owner of Ad Patina
Nick, who sells vintage watch ads through his website, Ad Patina, has been most excited about the growing diversity in the world of watches.
“In the watch community, I see the level of interest in watches, as well as the type of coverage and the people who are covering watches, getting more diverse. On social media and in various publications, the content being produced shows how so many people are trying to appeal to a wider audience. Obviously, this is good for business as it gets new people into buying watches, but it also recognises that watches can and should appeal to more people. Publications are doing a good job making watches more accessible to the masses in an effort to appeal to all people and all types of potential collectors.
“It feels like progress is being made to make the watch community a true community of people – different genders, races, socio-economic status, etc. If we want to have a true community with all sorts of people – because meeting the people and understanding why they like watches is the most interesting part – the watch world needs this dose of reality and featuring ‘normal people’.
“I feel hopeful that, based on the steps we've made this year, the community will continue to grow. Watches have a lot to offer from all types of brands, designs, and price points, so it's nice to see the coverage of watches match this diversity. I hope we continue to move in the direction of having the same awesome variety of people interested in watches as we do in the great variety of watches themselves. We've only turned the dial a little bit, but I'm hopeful there's more to come.”
Collector, Editor at Watchonista
J.J. Owens was also excited about the development of outlets geared towards showcasing a new audience of collectors and enthusiasts, in particular those featuring female perspectives.
“2021 has seen unprecedented success for the watch industry on both the commercial and collecting side. With the pandemic, disposable incomes typically spent on travel went toward watches leading to unexpected prices and numbers for brands. Everyone being at home led to new ways to connect whether that be Clubhouse or collecting groups. I feel closer than ever to those in the community and, with the creation of Dimepiece and Watch Femme, have connected with so many amazing female collectors that I never would have before. I think the pandemic made collectors far more eager to interact and in the end, this has been incredibly beneficial.
“The most exciting thing to happen in watches this past year was the development of groups and sites geared toward showcasing a new audience of collectors and enthusiasts, growing the community, but also connecting those in it.”
Greg Selch is a one-of-a-kind collector. He made an appearance on Hodinkee’s Talking Watches earlier this year, showcasing a pile of vintage watches and a unique perspective on collecting them.
“For me, the most exciting thing has been seeing how people are starting to embrace ‘orphan watches’ – watches that for some reason people have forgotten about or have been lost to time. People are seeing the prices of a few things that always get hype – Speedmasters, Rolex, Patek, the Genta watches – so people are thinking, ‘I’m already out of that game’, and looking around and finding other things to get excited about that they can get in on the ground floor for much less money. They’re realising they can still find a watch that’s truly rare, and only people with real knowledge or scholarship would be able to appreciate, let alone find and acquire. That’s what I think happened this year. It’s about collecting knowledge and about collecting watches.”
Horology is a vast, even overwhelming world, spanning the globe and reaching back centuries. It only makes sense that as more people are exposed to the world of horology, more would find something of interest that keeps them coming back – the history, the watchmaking, fellow collectors. Whatever the case, as watches continue to grow, new areas of watchmaking, old and new, continue to be discovered and appreciated. 2021 saw this discovery and appreciation occur at an unprecedented pace and we are excited for what the next year might bring.
We would like to thank all of those who took part in this article, for sharing their thoughts on a rather noteworthy year in watches.