Provenance is an important part of collecting vintage watches. Alongside all bumps, scrapes and patina developed along the way, tracing the life of a watch is crucial for many. One feature in particular may be an instant indication of where a watch began its life. A double-signature. The name of a retailer stamped on a dial instantly gives you a starting point to understand a timepiece. Not only that, but the history behind that model instantly doubles with a historic connection between brand and retailer.
Before familiar brands became established, before they had boutiques in every corner of the globe and a significant online presence, they relied heavily on their network of retailers. This allowed them to reach markets that would otherwise have been difficult to penetrate from their manufactures in Switzerland. Beyer and Gübelin played an important role in cementing respect for Patek Philippe and Rolex in the German-speaking world. As for Serpico Y Laino, they allowed both brands to capitalise on the explosion of wealth taking place in Venezuela in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The reputation and respect for Patek Philippe in the United States is partly built on the efforts of Tiffany& Co, over more than a century, to promote the brand as if it were their own. From exotic locations like Caracas, to less sunny Liverpool, retailers positioned all around the world acted as a gateway for watch brands to their local markets.
A Patek Philippe ref. 1463 signed by Serpico Y Laino (left), a Patek Philippe ref. 3700 signed by Beyer (middle) and a Rolex ref. 6264 signed by Tiffany & Co.
As there was no bricks and mortar representation for the likes of Rolex or Patek Philippe in these territories, the retailers amassed real power, controlling what watches were sold in their city or country. With that power came respect and recognition from clients. As people started to trust and recognise the name of their local store over the watches in the window, this started a quiet revolution in branding and marketing that would see titans in the luxury industry share a precious watch dial.
An evolving market
These kinds of partnerships are seldom seen in any other sector of the luxury world. What started as a practical consideration, helping manufacturers extend their global reach, has now developed into a detail highly sought-after by collectors. In fact, a retailer’s name on the dial significantly increases the value of some of the most collectable watches.
Despite the premiums that these items can now demand at auction, it wasn’t too long ago when they were seen in a less favourable light. Virginie Liatard-Roessli from Phillips’ watch department and Head of Sale for their 2019 Double Signed thematic sale, suggests that “only five or six years ago the market for them was decent, but people were not that attracted by double-signed watches.”
However, things have changed, with this trend now spreading to modern pieces. Demand was so high at one point that a 5711/1A, bought from Tiffany in July of 2018 and bearing the Tiffany & Co stamp, was sold at Phillips for five times its original value. Just four months later. With collectors constantly evolving and refining their collecting focus, it appears many have aimed at double-signed dials. The combination of romanticism, intrigue and rarity make for a powerful package.
A Tiffany-stamped Nautilus ref. 5711 dial (credit: Phillips)
Indeed, these elusive signatures offer their own personality: one from Tiffany might evoke images of American tycoons, while a watch sold by Serpico Y Laino might conjure up images of Venezuelan oil barons. Having the second signature helps build a much richer context, even if it is partly fictional or overly romanticised. After all, that forms part of the charm of collecting watches, especially vintage ones. This is a sentiment Eric Wind, a prominent North American vintage watch dealer, can very much sympathise with, “It is natural for that to happen. I guess I feel more romance and allure from retail signatures from more exotic places like Freccero in Uruguay, Serpico y Laino in Venezuela, and Dobbies in Kenya. I have a Patek Philippe in my personal collection with a Brock & Co. signature from Beverly Hills and I feel a special attraction to that store since it sold many watches to Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable.”
This interest is also supported by a growth in reliable information available to collectors about the correctness of double signatures. As Wind puts it, “Gone are the days of sloppily and recently written Tiffany signatures on dials bringing big numbers at auction or from dealers, thankfully”. There is much more awareness surrounding the little nuances of collecting these watches, from Ricciardi-retailed pieces having unusual engraved numbers on the back of lugs, to being able to request Extracts from the Archives of certain retailers such as Gübelin. As Wind himself put it, “this awareness of what is correct for these retailer-signed watches helps to build confidence in this market.”
A crucial aspect of double-signed dials, which has been the cause of much debate in the collector community, is just how and where these retailers’ names were applied. While common sense would dictate that they were stamped during production in the same factory that assembled the watch, this would most likely be wrong in many (if not most) cases.
Two theories emerge. It is assumed by many who have studied these watches that retailers either took a watch apart after receiving it or that it would arrive disassembled, allowing them to add their signature. In the book Le Cadran by Dr Helmut Crott, it states that when double-signed dials began to appear in the 1930s, the additional inscription was often applied using the décalque technique. A form of printing, this technique allows for the transfer of a design engraved on a metal plate (known as a cliché) onto a dial, with the help of a silicone or gelatine stamp. Ink is placed into the recessed areas of the cliché, where the retailers' name would have been engraved, and reproduced with impressive precision onto the dial.
Dial printing by décalque (credit: Patek Philippe)
Historically, the Rolex office in New York was known to have multiple of these clichés, which they used for their different retailers in the country, such as Cartier and Tiffany. Extraordinarily, this practice continues to this day with Patek Philippe watches sold through Tiffany & Co in New York. Within its 5th Avenue flagship location, you can find watchmakers and equipment solely dedicated to stamping the jeweller’s name on dials from the prestigious Swiss manufacturer. A privilege bred over 170 years of partnership, the signature is added on some models as soon as the watches arrive in New York, while on others it can be specially requested by clients after a purchase. This is confirmed by Wind, who states,
“The Tiffany signatures on Patek Philippe watches have been almost always added in the United States, which is very interesting, and few people realise that.”
The segmentation of the dial stamping process has led to all manner of interesting quirks and variations in the past, even in more recent times. As an example, Ben Clymer recently publicly shared his own Patek Philippe 5170P, which had unusually been stamped by Tiffany at 12 o’clock, rather than 6 o’clock. For Clymer, this unique placement, a mistake during the stamping process, formed part of the motivation for buying this piece. These interesting little details, as ever, contribute to the appeal for many vintage and modern collectors.
Up close with a Rolex ref. 1675 signed by Tiffany & Co. (credit: Phillips)
In this article, we hope to cover the story behind our favourite retailers and discover how their names ended-up on some of the most sought-after watches in the world. This is not an exhaustive list, but we do hope to cover some of the historically important retailers, close to the hearts of collectors. Following this, we will briefly pause to consider how this tradition has come to fade and what it’s evolved into today.
Tiffany & Co.
New York, United States
As one of the more storied brands on our list, it only seemed right that we start with Tiffany & Co. Founded in 1838 by Charles Lewis Tiffany with a $1,000 loan from his father, Tiffany and his friend John B. Young opened their store on Broadway. While the first day’s sales amounted to just $4.98, they quickly established themselves as the go-to place for young, fashionable ladies to buy jewellery and timepieces. While in 1886 Tiffany may have introduced the engagement ring as we know it today, here we want to focus on their relationships with none other than Patek Philippe and Rolex.
The interior of Tiffany & Co. when it was located at Fifth Avenue and 37th Street from 1905 to 1940 (credit: Tiffany & Co.)
Back in the early days of Patek Philippe, Antoni Patek, the marketing and business side of the nascent horology brand, would regularly tour the United States to promote his watches. It was in 1847 when Patek, after having completed one of these tours of America, met Tiffany at his final stop in New York. It is said they instantly took a liking to each other. When Patek arrived back in Switzerland, he discovered that Tiffany had already placed an order for 150 watches, a rather significant number at the time. A few years later, in 1876, Tiffany would formalise this arrangement and declare that the jeweller would attend to Patek Philippe’s affairs in America as if they were its own. This relationship, while having evolved over the years, is still as strong as ever today, with Tiffany-stamped Patek Philippe watches available – for those lucky enough to get them – from their famous 5th Avenue boutique.
The combination of these two brands, revered for their longevity, exclusivity and for capturing different yet complementary understandings of luxury in Switzerland and the United States, means the appeal of their double-signed dials are second to none. To this day, the strength of their partnership is exemplified by the fact Tiffany & Co. is the only retailer that can still print its name alongside that of Patek Philippe.
While a hotly discussed market has developed around modern Tiffany-stamped sports models, the classic, vintage timepieces endure the test of time in their appeal to collectors. As @vntgbug, a collector of vintage and modern Tiffany-stamped Patek Philippe pieces – including a 2499 – puts it, “It signals the strong bond between two powerhouses going back over 170 years. That, combined with the rarity and perceived lesser number of pieces on the market, just gets collectors going.”
Three desirable vintage watches signed by Tiffany: A Patek Philippe ref. 2523/1 (left), a Patek Philippe ref. 1463 (center) and a Rolex ref. 6239 (right)
However, the New York jeweller also played an important role in expanding the reach of other watch brands. Specifically, it also had a strong partnership with Rolex. Starting in the mid-1950s, Tiffany would stamp their name on Rolex dials that were sold from the 5th Avenue branch. Interestingly, they would shift the position of their signature depending on the type of watch, so as not to throw-off the design balance with the added text. Dress watches would have Tiffany stamped below Rolex, but above the hands. As for their sports models, it would be placed below the hands, but just above the other lines of text.
It is believed that this was all done on-site by Tiffany, until Rolex started to instruct their dial makers to stamp all the watches destined for the jeweller before leaving the factory. This may have been to lighten the load on Tiffany, or it could be another example of Rolex wanting to bring all of its processes in-house. After all, the manufacture is known for its tight hold on production. Nonetheless, Tiffany continued to stamp their own Rolex dials after receiving them, which is why there is some differentiation in the stamping of these watches around this time.
Close up of three Tiffany-signed watches: a Patek Philippe ref. 600/2 (top), a Rolex ref. 1680 (middle) and a Patek Philippe ref. 3700/1 (bottom)
The relationship continued to intensify. While this next section should not be taken as gospel, as is ever the case with vintage Rolex, some interesting rumours have arisen. It is known that Rolex withdrew from Tiffany stores during the 1990s. Before they did, it is alleged that Rolex demanded Tiffany cease stamping their dials, which the jeweller did not. The reasons for this are unclear. This led the manufacture to pull out from what can only be assumed was a fairly profitable partnership and there have even been whispers that they would refuse to service Tiffany-stamped Rolex watches still under warranty. While this information is unverified by either of the brands, and therefore should be treated as a rumour, it does remind us that some tensions must have arisen between multiple watch brands and retailers once the exclusive practice of signing dials, gradually came to an end.
Known as the oldest continually operating watch shop in Switzerland — and possibly the world — Beyer are the epitome of old-school watch collecting and dealing. Founded in 1760, passed down from father to son (all of whom have been trained watchmakers), the store now retails 12 watch brands. Aware and proud of their heritage, they have even assembled the impressive Beyer Museum, which is located directly below the shop in Zürich. It holds 300 exhibits of fine horology dating back to 1400 BC, showing the long-standing retailer cares about more than just its contribution to the world of horology.
The Beyer store in 1910 (credit: Beyer)
Unlike Tiffany, many outside the watch industry probably haven’t heard of Beyer. However, for many collectors, that is precisely why double-signed watches from the retailer speak to them. Beyer may not have the exoticism associated with other names, but it represents the permanence of watch collecting in the German-speaking world, which endures to this day.
The retailer invokes quiet respect from those in the know, which extends to the watches which bear their signature. In many ways, it is for those who want to discretely whisper exclusivity, rather than those who might want to signal it more openly.
The Beyer store in 1965, in the same building as where it currently resides (credit: Beyer)
It is clear from the company’s longevity that wide notoriety isn’t key to commercial success. Rather, it lies in the close links they have maintained with manufactures and their customers. As Dörte Herold, an art historian working for Beyer Chronometrie, was able to tell us,
“Beyer started selling Patek Philippe watches around 1842 and Rolex in 1932. The oldest Patek Philippe I found in our watch museum with the ‘fabriqué pour Beyer Zürich’ inscription on the inside is from 1899.”
Three important vintage watches signed by Beyer: a Patek Philippe ref. 2499 (left), a Patek Philippe ref. 1491 (center) and a Rolex ref. 3858 (right)
The proximity with manufacturers is stronger with none other than Patek Philippe. Both the retailer and the watchmaker share a lot in common, being family-owned businesses, passed down over several generations and going along their business discretely and with an eye towards tradition.
As Herold is able to tell us, the relationship was born out of Patek Philippe’s expansionist spirit, “Mr. Patek was not a watchmaker but a businessman and he was very keen on a thriving business. Thus, he not only expanded to London, New York and such but also within Switzerland to have more and more pocket watches sold.”
Up close with a Beyer-signed Rolex Oyster from 1935 (credit: Phillips)
Though the relationship is long-standing, this proximity can be exemplified through the story of one particular reference: the perpetual calendar 3940. Philippe Stern of Patek Philippe introduced the reference in 1985, at a rather turbulent time in the industry that was recovering from the Quartz crisis. He launched the rather audacious 3940, during a period when manufacturers were moving away from tradition rather than embracing it, with the help a close friend of his, Theodore Beyer.
To celebrate the 225th anniversary of Chronometrie Beyer, the first 25 models of the reference were numbered, and the dials were stamped with Beyer. The first one was gifted to Beyer himself. The fact that Beyer played an important role in launching this pivotal reference from Patek Philippe, should tell you everything you need to know about the close link between retailer and manufacturer.
The caseback of one of the most important Rolex Day Dates of all time, gifted from Hans Wildorf to Theodore Beyer (credit: Hodinkee)
The influence of the Beyer family on horology during the 20th century cannot be understated. The watch pictured above probably goes some way towards capturing it. It is a Rolex Day-Date gifted by Hans Wildorf, the founder of Rolex, to Theodore Beyer, who’s personal collection constitutes the foundation of the Beyer Museum. Inscribed in German, the caseback of the watch reads, “To my friend Th. Beyer- to remember our most pleasant relationship since 1932 – Hans Wilsdorf.” With regards to brand and retailer relationship, it doesn’t get much closer than that.
From a collector’s standpoint, Beyer offers some additional benefits. The retailer was known to discretely etch their own reference number on the underside of the case of certain watches they sold, from the Nautilus 3700 to the GMT 1675 “Concorde”. This facilitates traceability of watches sold and signed by the retailer.
Interestingly, we have seen a few vintage Beyer-signed pieces resold by Beyer as part of their authorised pre-owned service. Though Beyer does not issue Extracts from the Archives (in the same way Gübelin does), they do compile detailed reports on Beyer-headed paper to accompany some of the vintage watches they sell. We witnessed this with a signed Nautilus 3700 we had the opportunity to handle. The laminated report included pictures of the inside and outside of the watch, as well as a copy of a portion of their 3700 archives detailing the case and movement numbers of watches sold (with the watch in question highlighted).
Close up with three very different Beyer-signed dials: a Patek Philippe ref. 5034 (top), a Patek Philippe ref. 3605 (middle) and a Rolex ref. 3525
The proximity between the retailer and manufacturers continues to this day. As Herold from Beyer is able to share with us, “We have a very exclusive concert together with Patek Philippe every two years, where we both invite clients together. This is not done with very many dealers.” Beyond these close events, Beyer also organises visits of manufacturers for select clients, a practice which is “rather difficult to realise by private people”, according to Herold.
Gondolo & Labouriau
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The importance of this next retailer cannot be understated. Based in Rio de Janerio and founded by two Italian migrants, they began their partnership with Patek Philippe on November 12, 1872 with the order of one silver 12 ligne pocket watch. From here, they would go on to sell more than 12,000 Patek Philippe watches and establish the Swiss watchmaker in the South American markets. As Nick Foulkes put it in his biography of Patek Phillippe “the Brazilian retailer is perhaps second in importance only to that of Tiffany in New York.”
Three Gondolo-signed Patek Philippe wristwatches made during the early 20th century, all of them predating reference numbers
One stroke of brilliance that elevated Gondolo to such levels was that they were able to sell Patek Philippe watches to people outside the aristocracy and royalty, which had been the traditional clientele of the Maison since its founding. One way they managed this was in the forming of the “Plano de Club Patek Philippe System”, which acted as a private members’ club, as well as a work-around for the Brazilian government’s new ban on gambling.
The 180 members of this club were given a number for a raffle that would be drawn every week and they would all pay towards a watch that was worth CHF 790. Every week they would each pay CHF 10 and every week a number would be drawn. Whoever won that week had the rest of their watch paid off and could happily take it home. So, the winner the first week only paid CHF 10, the second winner only paid CHF 20, and so on.
The notorious Gondolo Gang (credit: Patek Philippe)
This opened up these watches to a completely new market, considering CHF 790 was roughly the yearly salary of an average worker in Brazil at the time. This also established a social network, or watch club, of like-minded people who would get together for meet-ups and talk watches. Above you can see a famous photo of one of these meet-ups, where half of the members can be seen wearing straw sombreros with the word “PATEK” written in capitals under the brims. Rather surreal when you look back.
Up close with a "Chronometro Gondolo" signature on a wristwatch from 1912 (credit: Phillips)
This influence that Patek Philippe had on the region through Gondolo was not only evident in the meet-ups and high sales numbers, but also in the local vernacular. The word “Patek” began to replace the word for watch. No matter what brand you were actually buying, you could say you were buying a Patek.
A Patek Philippe patent sold at Christie's in 2014 for CHF 10,000
All of the early pocket watches from Patek Philippe had to meet specific requirements established by Gondolo. These included the “moustache” escapement, S-shaped centre wheel bridge and wheels made from nine-karat yellow gold. Interestingly, we were able to find a Patek Philippe patent (United States Patent No. 20483), dated January 13 1891, for Adrien Philippe's watch bridge design.
This plate design was used in Patek Philippe calibres for several decades, in particular for watches made for Chronometro Gondolo. Not every retailer would have been able to make such demands and receive so much attention during the design process, but such was the high regard that Gondolo was held in by the manufacturer.
The Italians have been tastemakers in nearly every market for centuries. The watch market is no exception. They found an interest in vintage Rolex, the world followed. They started collecting steel chronographs, the course of the wind changed yet again. A Gobbi signed watch taps into this appeal. It automatically confers on the watch an additional allure, born from the perceived refinement and elegance of Italian watch collectors.
It conveys images of a tasteful Milanese man strolling into the boutique a few decades ago and purchasing a watch with not much thought, but rather motivated by an intrinsic sense of taste. As such, it appeals both to Italian collectors themselves, as well as those who wish to capture some of that charm.
Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, captured in 1890 - just 6 years before Giuseppe Gobbi moved the business to this street in Milan (credit: Wikimedia)
The Gobbi store, featuring an advertisement for Universal Genève on the outside (credit: Gobbi)
Founded in 1842 in Modena, Gobbi can proudly state that they have served customers’ families for six generations. The retailer had such early success that, just ten years after launching, the Grand Duke granted them the title of “Clockmaker to the Royal Court”. Then, in 1896, the second generation of the Gobbi family, Giuseppe, moved the business to Milan which has been its home ever since. Their first shop and workshop in the city was bombed and destroyed during the war. With a new one opening on September 4, 1949, and still in operation today.
This family tradition continues to this day. The shop is managed by Luca Pozzolini Gobbi and his daughter Serena. As Serena Pozzolini Gobbi puts it,
"We can proudly claim to be an important point of reference for the Milanese clientele and also for the international one. A small and exclusive lounge where you can choose your object of desire."
A Gobbi-signed Audemars Piguet chronograph from 1939
With many important pieces having been delivered to Italy during the 20th century, it is no coincidence that some bear the Gobbi signature. Take this Audemars Piguet from 1939, which we had the privilege to briefly handle: a pink gold chronograph, with blued hands, matching blue tachymeter scale and an attractive green gold dial.
The handwritten Audemars Piguet archives confirm that the watch was made in this configuration and that it was indeed sold to Gobbi. With early complicated Audemars Piguet watches already being scarce, to find one with a retailer signature makes this one all the unusual. This is a watch described by Ben Clymer as simply “class”.
Four important Patek Philippe watches signed by Gobbi - clockwise: ref. 2523, ref. 2526, ref. 1579 and ref. 2459.
To give you an idea of the calibre of pieces being sold to Italy in the 20th century, you need to look no further than the incredible Patek Philippe ref. 2523 – a double-crown, world-time wristwatch in pink gold with translucent blue enamel dial – that was retailed by Gobbi. This is truly important watchmaking.
After all, it is one of only five dual crowns in pink gold, one of two with a blue enamel disc, and the only with a Gobbi signature. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the watch sold for $8,967,380 when it went under the hammer at Christie’s in Hong Kong in 2019, becoming one of the most expensive watches to ever sell at auction and the most expensive watch to be auctioned in Asia.
Close up with the Gobbi signature on the Patek Philippe ref. 2523, stamped on top the translucent enamel dial thanks to the décalque technique (credit: Christie's)
As you’ve most likely gathered, rarity is a huge part of the appeal of double-signed pieces. They make an already rare watch, ever rarer. This is part of what pushes collectors to consider them. This is confirmed by Gary Getz, an important Californian collector, when describing the rationale behind his purchase of a Gobbi-signed Patek Philippe 2526. According to Christie’s, where the watch was auctioned in November 2017, fewer than 20 examples of Reference 2526 with a black dial have appeared at auction.
Only a few of those are confirmed by the company’s archives as being born with a black dial at the time of manufacture. To add another layer of rarity only two known watches with black dials bear the words “Gobbi Milano” on the dial. As Getz himself puts it in an article describing his impulse to buy the watch, “Does it matter? I realise that I’m at serious risk of sliding into triple-red floating underlined Submariner land here, but at a minimum, I think it’s pretty cool to have a classic Patek Philippe watch that’s possibly unlike all the others.” In a world where a subtle detail can make all the difference, we couldn’t agree more.
Serpico Y Laino
The second retailer from South America on this list, Serpico Y Laino, hails from Venezuela. It may not the first country you think of when it comes to fine watches, however this retailer was founded by two Italian immigrants in the 1920s, in Caracas, initially exclusively focused on jewellery. Shortly thereafter, in the 1930s, they made a decision to expand into watches. We’re very grateful that they did.
The exotic Serpico Y Laino signature, seen here on a Patek Philippe ref. 1463
Sensing an opportunity, after a spontaneous trip to Switzerland, they managed to negotiate a deal to the exclusive distribution rights in Venezuela for Rolex. Not bad for a company still less than two decades old. As business improved, they expanded to other brands as well. Soon, Serpico y Laino would be stamped on a variety of Swiss watches, from Patek Philippe chronographs to Rolex Submariners and GMTs.
The fact that we can feature two such prominent retailers in Latin America shows just how prosperous the area was during this golden age of double-signed dials. For a modern-day comparison, you would have to look at how rapidly the Asian market has expanded over the past two decades.
Four desirable Rolex watches retailed and signed by Serpico Y Laino - clockwise: a ref. 5512, a ref. 6542, a ref. 3458 and a ref. 6034
It may surprise us today that many of these watch brands did not carry much sway in Caracas. It was a nascent market, which wasn’t as familiar with established European luxury brands as countries like Germany or Italy maybe. This is precisely why so many of the watches sold in the country had the retailer stamped on the dial, or an “S&L” hallmark on the caseback.
More widely, engraving or stamping a hallmark on the caseback was a common practice by many retailers, even when they did not sign the dial themselves. These include a possibly unique Paul Newman “John Player Special” with an Hermès stamp and a Royal Oak 5402BC with an engraving from the Parisian Jeweller, Fred.
Trusted far more in the local market than the foreign manufacturers, having such a name on a timepiece was a mark of excellence. It helped reassure clients of the retailer that what they were buying was of the highest quality. It seems a bizarre thought, looking back, that Rolex or Patek Philippe would ever need help in elevating their brand recognition. But such was the world back then. This practice continued until the retailer shut its doors for the final time in 1966.
Serpico Y Laino signature on the caseback of a Patek Philippe ref. 1463 (credit: Phillips)
Part of the charm of Serpico Y Laino watches is that so many of them carry stories that are closely associated with the country’s economic boom in the early 20th century. They convey a sense of excitement and seemingly endless opportunity in a region that was starting to develop and open up to the world.
As a passing example, a rather charming watch that conveys this emotion is a Rolex Bombay which was recently discovered in the Netherlands. Engraved with “1954” and the familiar beer brand “Heineken” on the caseback, the watch was used to mark the successful launch of beer production in Venezuela, where the beer brand had previously only been imported.
The original owner was directly responsible for opening this market, spent a full year establishing production, and the two following years ramping up production and distribution. He would then head back home to the Netherlands, the birthplace of Heineken.
A possibly unique Serpico Y Laino signed Patek Philippe 2499, which sold for just over $3.25 million at Christie's in 2018
Moreover, it is clear just how important this retailer was for watch manufacturers if you look at the rare and complicated watches you find stamped with the Serpico Y Laino signature and hallmark. A 565 in steel? Yes. A Tasti Tondi 1463? That as well. What about the revered 2499? One of those too.
An example that stands out, among many other stellar timepieces, is a first series 2499 from 1952. Originally bought from Serpico y Laino in 1956, the watch was recently auctioned at Christies’. What makes this model so distinctive is not only that it is believed to be the only 2499 stamped with the retailer’s name, but also that it came from the children of the original owner. The original owner, undoubtedly a man of taste and means, first migrated to Venezuela in search of a new life, with this being one of the treasured possessions he was able to buy as the economy boomed in that era.
A timepiece wrapped up in the history of a watch brand, a retailer, a country and a family. What better provenance could you ask for?
London, United Kingdom
Our final stop is in a city dear to us, considering it is the birthplace of A Collected Man. More widely, London has also been special to the world of luxury for the past few centuries. With the likes of Harrods, Selfridges and Liberty all packed into a small handful of postcodes, you can see why. At one point, Asprey would have also been considered among, if not near the top, of this list.
A seemingly unique Patek Philippe ref. 565 in stainless steel, with applied Breguet numerals and Asprey signature, sold at Phillips for CHF 300,000 in 2019
Close up of the Asprey signature on the same watch (credit: Phillips)
Founded in 1781 in Surrey by William Asprey, it was his son and grandson, both called Charles, who would eventually move the company to London in 1847 and open a store at 167 Bond Street. They would later buy out the Alfred Club, at 22 Albemarle Street, that directly backed onto the original shop. Combining the properties, they had a dual entrance on two of the most desirable streets in Mayfair.
For many years, Asprey was the ultimate gift shop, where one could buy all sorts of intriguing, exquisite goods from books, cigar cases, watches and even keys with an integrated miniature clock. A testament to their success, their customers included several generations of the British royal family, Indian Maharajahs, and even musical royalty with one of the Beatles.
A double-signed LeCoultre Asprey key, which was advertised as: "Key Watch, can be cut to fit any lock"
However, it was in the 1970s when Asprey of London really hit its heyday. With John R. Asprey at the helm, the retailer managed to attract a large number of Middle Eastern clientele who were starting to come to London to spend their newly acquired wealth, mostly generated from oil and associated industries. For this new clientele, the store continued to be the go-to destination to buy gifts to send back home.
Stocking some of the most impressive watch manufacturers, Asprey was able to put the very finest watches in front of the newly rich of the world. With this new wealth, came new ideas and one of his very best clients was the Sultan of Oman, who not only collected watches himself but also liked to present watches as gifts to foreign dignitaries, friends, employees and many others. These watches – from Patek Philippe, Rolex and IWC among others – are distinctive for bearing the Khanjar, a traditional dagger originating from Oman, on the dial.
Three white metal sports watches bearing the Omani crest: a Patek Philippe ref. 3700 (left), an Audemars Piguet ref. 6009 (center) and a Rolex ref. 6263 (right)
Thanks to the relationship that Asprey had managed to cultivate with Rolex, he was able to meet all of the Sultan’s needs when it came to the brand. Marked with the Omani national emblem of a dagger with a hooked blade over two crossed swords, these are some of the more recognisable dial modifications you’ll find. The fact that Rolex allowed, and even encouraged this, seems impossible today.
For understandable reasons, these watches have since gained cult status. Their rarity, mixed with the exoticism of Middle Eastern royalty, has made the Khanjar dial one of the most sought-after variations, especially in the Rolex world. A prime example is this the “Red Sultan” Rolex 6263 Daytona that sold at Phillips at the Daytona Ultimatum auction in 2018 for just over CHF 1.2m.
What is interesting to note about this watch is that Rolex moved the “Rolex Oyster” text slightly further up the dial, towards to coronet, to make space for the khanjar. A sign that Rolex can be accommodating, when they want to be.
Close up with the “Red Sultan” Rolex 6263 Daytona (credit: Phillips)
Yet Asprey wasn’t just concerned with the large brands. He was a very early adopter of many independents, many of which we now think of as the very pinnacle in this space. For example, it only took Francois-Paul Journe two years of running his own workshop, for Asprey to commission him to build the first of three Sympathique clocks. The clocks, panelled in semiprecious stones and set with diamonds, ended up in the collection of the Sultan again.
This partnership between Journe and Asprey extended into the 21st century with the creation of three special Octa Calendriers to celebrate the tenth anniversary of William & Son. One had the movement engraved with William Asprey (John’s son), one had John R. Asprey on the movement and the other had nothing. The one with John’s name on the movement sold at Phillips last November for CHF 125,000.
John R. Asprey signature on a movement from F.P. Journe (credit: Phillips)
While we are far from having covered every double signature of importance, we hope that the ones we’ve explored above cover a sufficiently wide variety to be of interest. However, we didn’t want to leave it there without mentioning a few that still deserve our attention and are more than worthy of writing about.
Patek Philippe "Boeing" ref. 130 - signed by Cartier
Sold at Christie's for CHF 485,000
One noteworthy example of double-signing that cannot go unmentioned is that of the Cartier-signed Patek Philippe ref. 130 "Boeing". This single button, split second chronograph was produced by Patek Philippe in 1930 and was later bought by Mr William E. Boeing in 1939.
A clear-cut case of modification after production by the retailer, this watch not only sports the signature of Cartier at the bottom of the dial but has also been further personalised with the addition of three red stripes to the minute hand. Experts are split on what these three red stripes symbolise, with multiple theories floating around.
The most convincing one is that they represent Boeing’s first-ever factory, the famous Red Barn, that prominently featured three red parallel stripes. This watch is also enhanced in its desirability by the rarity of the model. A split second, single pusher chronograph made by Patek Philippe at this time was a very rare thing. In fact, only about 10 are known to exist.
Universal Gèneve Compax - signed by Hermès
Sold at Christie's for CHF 45,000
Like Cartier, another retailer who has stood the test of time is Hermès. From the 1930s to sometime in the 1950s, Hermès acted as the exclusive distributor and retailer of Universal Genève in France.
This stunning three-register chronograph from Universal was manufactured in 1941 and carries the Hermès signature above the 12-hour register at six o’clock. Linking this timepiece to Paris at this point in history is rather significant, considering the country was in the midst of the Second World War. It can only be imagined what the owner of this timepiece went through in the years after buying their new watch.
Rolex Air King - signed by Domino's Pizza
Sold by Antiquorum for USD 3,750
A final honourable mention should go to that of the Domino’s signed Rolex, according to Liatard-Roessli. It was not infrequent that major American corporations gifted Rolexes to their employees to mark certain achievements or milestones, inscribing their branding on the dial in the process. Examples are also known to bear the Coca Cola cursive writing and supermarket chain Winn Dixie’s logo.
The pizza-branded timepieces go to illustrate an important aspect of what drives value for double-signed watches in the second-hand market. While some may point to their rarity, the perceived value of the brand added to the watch is hugely important. It could be argued that there are fewer Domino’s Rolex’s in this world than Tiffany-signed ones. Yet if one of each came up for auction, we’re certain you can all tell which would get the higher estimate and the lengthier lot essay. That perceived value and brand image makes a significant difference in the emotional pastime that is watch collecting.
As we mentioned above the only contemporary timepieces you see co-signed today are Tiffany Patek Philippe’s. That doesn’t mean that retailers and watch brands have completely fallen out. While the relationship overall may not be as significant as it has been in the past, they still infrequently symbolise their relationship through special timepieces. However, the consolidation of watch manufacturers and their growing brand recognition has dictated that two entities sharing a watch dial is near impossible today. That being said, if you ask Liatard-Roessli, she would say the Hublot Ferrari collection is an example of modern-day double signature.
We also see collaborations in the form of unique colour schemes associated with certain retailers. This ranges from the Harrod’s Tudor Black Bay with its distinctive green, to the whole line of Bucherer Blue editions from brands such as Blancpain to Vacheron Constantin. These collaborations allow a retailer to leave their mark on a watch, by influencing the design but without altering it in a much more obvious way. This is an important distinction from the double-signed watches of times past, as the original design and layout of these watches were often kept untouched. Different objectives bread different results.
A Nautilus ref. 3700, signed by Beyer
You also still get limited editions from manufacturers helping retailers celebrate occasions and anniversaries, as Patek Philippe did for Wempe. Watch brands also still join forces with military units, as Breitling and Bremont do, to add a military insignia to a dial and offer it exclusively to members of that unit or squadron. As collectors seek exclusivity and distinctiveness, it seems unlikely that these sorts of practices will disappear. As Wind puts it, “it would not surprise me to see the return of more double-signed new watches, given that modern watch buyers increasingly want something special and unlike what everyone else has. Customisation is the future.”
Whether that may happen or not, it is easy to see why we still hold these double-signed watches in such high regard. They seem to meet all the criteria that collectors are looking for. The collector and owner of a Tiffany-stamped 2499 @vntgbug may have put it best when he said, “I believe in watch collecting there are always three factors to consider; condition, rarity and desirability. The 2499 Tiffany & Co ticks all of those boxes for me.” What is certain is that no matter which signature most captures your imagination, double-signed watches will inevitably continue to have an important place in the heart of collectors. After all, it’s twice as much fun.
We would like to thank all of those who helped us put this article together, in particular Eric Wind, Virginie Liatard-Roessli from Phillips, watch collector @vntgbug, Dörte Herold from Beyer Chronometrie and Filipe Casiraghi from Gobbi.
We would also like to especially thank and credit Phillips and Christie’s for the high-quality imagery made available thanks to their cataloguing efforts. For further reading, we would also recommend "Le Cadran" by Dr Helmut Crott and "Patek Philippe: the authorized biography" by Nick Foulkes, both of which proved useful during the research for this article.
If you have any information that would allow us to reinforce this guide, please get in touch either through social media or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.