Watch collecting has experienced a pretty drastic evolution, over a relatively short period of time. Only decades ago, wristwatches were not seen as collectable items, in stark contrast to art or classic cars. Indeed, until fairly recently, it was only pocket watches that were considered as being of any significance, and even then, it was only amongst small, dedicated groups of enthusiasts.
Then, towards the end of the 20th century, things began to change. Wristwatches gradually began to pick-up momentum, and the market as a whole started to develop. In its infancy, a Rolex Submariner was simply a Rolex Submariner, with no distinction between models. As for the mythical Patek Philippe 1518, the brand’s first perpetual calendar chronograph, there was a time when yellow gold and steel examples changed hands for around the same price.
Vintage chronographs from a Dr. Crott auction catalogue dated 1988, courtesy of Arthur Pfister.
From where we stand today, it seems hard to imagine how different things were just a few decades ago. Since then, a vast number of new collectors have entered the fray, valuable information has been discovered and many different corners of the market have arisen. Considering little is usually shared about this period in time, we thought we’d speak to those who were there in the early days of wristwatch collecting, in the hope of gaining an insight into what it was really like.
A Growing Appreciation
For a long period of time, pocket watches were considered the purest form of horological expression. After all, they had been around for much longer than their wrist-worn peers and housed a range of compelling complications, from tourbillons to retrograde perpetual calendars. They were also often of a higher quality, having been assembled and finished by hand, whereas many wristwatches from the 20th century often relied on a higher degree of mechanisation, or at least that was the perception. As such, even when wristwatches were widely adopted across society, it was only pocket watches which were seen as having any substantial, long term, collectable value.
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, watch auctions primarily focused on pocket and historical watches from the 17th and 18th century. If you were to open a Sotheby’s catalogue for the Watches and Clocks sale from 29th April 1968, you wouldn’t find a single wristwatch. Rather, the pages are filled with pocket watches, carriage clocks, marine chronometers and similar instruments, by watchmakers such as Abraham-Louis Breguet, Thomas Tompion or George Graham. Much of this collecting was focused on precision and complication. The collecting community was also quite small and tightly-knit, with a few familiar faces that we still recognise today. Who, for example, bought the first lot for a hefty £7,000, in a 1968 Sotheby’s sale? George Daniels of course.
A page from an Ineichen auction catalogue from 1984, showing two complicated pocket watches on offer, courtesy of Arthur Pfister.
However, things slowly began to change, with wristwatches gradually gaining prominence. Daryn Schnipper, the Chairman of the International Watch Division at Sotheby’s, argues that the Quartz Crisis played an important role in changing peoples’ perceptions. As the industry began to suffer under a greater existential threat, brands collapsed, manufacturers shut their doors and watchmakers faced unemployment. Against this backdrop, Schnipper argues that “it felt like the end of a chapter, and the beginning of a new one.” She claims this spurred-on a new generation of collectors, who started to look at wristwatches in a different light.
A collection of early auction catalogues from Galerie d’Horlogerie Ancienne, which later became Antiquorum, courtesy of Christie’s.
Naturally, as time passed, the idea of a vintage wristwatch also naturally gained prominence, with all the charisma and enjoyment which it could provide to collectors. Undoubtedly, the wearability of wristwatches also played a significant part in their growing collectability, as they could be actively enjoyed, in a world where carrying a pocket watch was becoming increasingly impractical.
The Evolving Auction Scene
Looking back at the evolution of the auction world provides an insight into the growing appreciation for wristwatches, made all the more enjoyable by going through the pages of dusty, archival catalogues. For quite a while, wristwatches were peppered into sales that mostly included pocket watches, clocks and other assorted objects. Even as late as March 1996, a Sotheby’s catalogue shows clocks, pocket watches, barometers, spectacles, mechanical music players, typewriters, globes and musical instruments – with only a small section dedicated to wristwatches.
Osvaldo Patrizzi on the cover of Swiss Style, celebrating 30 years of his auction house, courtesy of Swiss Style Magazine.
Though Sotheby’s and Christie’s were the dominant auction houses at the time, a few other players began to emerge, which helped drive the growing appreciation for wristwatches. For example, in 1974, the Galerie d'Horlogerie Ancienne was established in Geneva by Osvaldo Patrizzi. This tall, Milanese man was amongst the first to include wristwatches in auction catalogues, as early as 1980. He also helped expand their appeal into new markets, by arranging sales in remote locations such as Hong Kong. At the same time, Patrizzi arguably invented the idea of the thematic watch auction, when he organised the Art of Patek Philippe sale in 1989, which helped cement the collectable status of Patek Philippe wristwatches, alongside the manufacture’s pocket watches.
In the heart of Germany, a certain Dr. Helmut Crott founded an eponymous auction house dedicated to watches, with the German doctor becoming one of the early figures in the collectable wristwatch market. Speaking to Crott himself, we gathered an impression of what things must have been like back then. “We always wanted to have a great looking catalogue, however when we first started, we only used black and white photography. This was dictated by cost originally. Then, Patrizzi started using colour at the Galerie, and we followed suit for the next auction.” This was of growing importance back then, as a single image of a watch was often the only information available to potential bidders who were unable to attend the preview.
An Antiquorum catalogue under construction, courtesy of Patrick Prendergast for Swiss Style Magazine.
Besides often only including a single image, catalogue descriptions from the period were also much less informative than they are today. “We used to just put the brand name, the basic description of the complication and the approximate year of fabrication,” Crott explains. “There was no call for including reference, case or movement numbers back then, let alone detailing whether box and papers were included. In fact, when sourcing a watch, I would just have been happy to get the piece itself. Having the original box and papers wouldn’t have been such a big deal, as it only added a small amount onto the value.”
This approach speaks to how much this market has evolved over time. In the beginning, there wasn’t much information available to collectors and enthusiasts, such that the subtleties that exist today, simply weren’t appreciated at the time. As Schnipper shared with us, “we didn’t even do reference numbers back then. A Submariner was a Submariner. All the nuances of Rolex and Patek Philippe certainly didn’t exist thirty years ago.”
A page from an Antiquorum catalogue from 1987, showing four yellow gold Rolex Daytonas and the estimated prices they could achieve, courtesy of Arthur Pfister.
Philipp Stahl, the founder of Rolex Passion Report and an expert on vintage and collectable Rolex, noted that these big names weren’t paying much attention to The Crown and its small details. “It took a long time for people to start to realise the minor iterations of Rolex, even the auction houses took a long time to catch-up to what the real collectors knew.” During this time the brands gave out very little, to no information and so all the knowledge had to be gained by handling pieces. Something that the brands would do at the time however, according to Stahl, was replace or refinish a dial per clients’ requests. This was a common occurrence at this time, as many people preferred the clarity of a non-original dial. Stahl tells us that it was, again, the Italians that bucked this trend, “they would say you have to look at it like stamps, when it is untouched it is far more beautiful.” It would take some time for the market to catch-on and collectors to stop unknowingly devaluing their watches with the addition of unoriginal lume, for example.
This is echoed by Davide Parmegiani, a notable Italian dealer and collector, who noted in an interview with HODINKEE that during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, “there was no difference between a Small Crown or a Big Crown. There was no Mark 1, Mark 2 or Mark 3.” As a result of this general lack of awareness, values were attributed to broad categories of pieces, without much differentiation. For example, there was time when a Patek Philippe 1518 in yellow gold or steel, were approximately the same price, despite the much greater rarity of the latter. As the difference has become apparent over time, a steel example is now several times more expensive.
However, as you might expect, knowledge gradually began to grow, when enthusiasts were able to discover more about the history of various wristwatches. This information was pieced together over time by collectors, auction house experts and dealers, through repeatedly handling wristwatches, researching brand archives and sometimes even speaking to some of the individuals who had worked at the manufactures.
“We used to just put the brand name, the basic description of the complication and the approximate year of fabrication...”
For example, Crott sometimes relied on Roger Dubuis, who’d been a watchmaker at Patek Philippe for over two decades, to gather information on particularly interesting pieces. Other insights were simply the result of patient research and record-keeping, such as trying to find the lowest and highest serial numbers for the reference 2499, in order to estimate the total production. As the community of wristwatch enthusiasts continued to expand, this information was often shared amongst different people, ultimately helping the market evolve.
The Early Stars
In the early days of collectable wristwatches, the desirable models were somewhat different to what they are today. Initially, the scope of collecting was relatively narrow. Parmegiani shared in an interview with HODINKEE that, “when I started, the collectable watchmakers were Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Rolex and Patek Philippe. These were the watches that most collectors were buying and putting aside.”
Though these were certainly amongst the first brands to capture the attention of collectors, the desirable pieces also weren’t what they are today. For example, the Bubbleback was one of the first Rolex models to gain momentum. Manufactured between roughly the 1930s and the 1950s, these were some of the earliest self-winding watches produced by Rolex, with their nickname derived from their extremely rounded, protruding casebacks.
A copy of the Japanese magazine Rolex Fan, from 1996, which detailed research on the Bubbleback, courtesy of World Photo Press.
For those who weren’t around back then, the Bubbleback as Stahl puts it “became the first hype”. While many label it as the first collectable Rolex on the market, Stahl points out that this was mainly a trend driven by the Japanese collectors and in Europe something a little more complex was happening under the surface. Mainly in Italy and Switzerland, there was already a growing appreciation for Rolex in the mid-80s and this was, according to Stahl, principally focused around the iconic models, as well as the complex references. Stahl told us that in the Swiss mountains, amongst those who had worked in the industry, there was a fascination for the tough timepieces that Rolex were able to make, while in the Italian market, many collectors were coveting complicated watches, “the best thing you could have was a Rolex with a moon-phase, at that time.” The rise in Bubblebacks came at a similar time and turned into a trend akin to ones we’ve witnessed happen many times in the market since.
Jason Singer, a North American collector who began his wristwatch collecting journey in 1982, shared in an interview with HODINKEE that, “in the 1980s, the Bubbleback watch was kind of like the twenty-dollar gold piece for coin collectors. Everybody knew what they were. At the time, everybody wanted one. They were quite valuable, relatively speaking, and they were quite large, relatively speaking.” With an important variety of reference numbers and dial configurations, collectors started to gradually follow the Japanese collectors’ way of thinking. Sometimes, certain models were even nicknamed by the Japanese, such as the “Tokyo-To” Bubbleback, which means Tokyo city in their language.
A line up of Bubblebacks from a Crott Auctioneers catalogue from 1988, courtesy of Arthur Pfister.
Looking at auction catalogues from the end of the 20th century, you can see estimates for Bubblebacks being several multiples higher than those of a Daytona or a Submariner, which had not yet developed the global following that they enjoy today. Proving a point that Stahl made, that the auction houses were still behind some of the more developed collectors at the time, as found in Italy.
Enthusiasm also began to build around the watches from Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, according to Crott. Some collectors chose to focus on Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe models with unusual case designs, such as those designed by Gilbert Albert, whilst the complicated models from the brand also gradually gained prominence. If we look at the top of the pile, the first Patek Philippe pieces to truly break the million-dollar ceiling were the World Times, with the movement designed by Louis Cottier, notably the reference 1415 and 2523, with cloissoné enamel dials. Gradually, as the late ‘90s came around, these were amongst the first wristwatches to consistently achieve seven figure results at auction. One of the hight points from the period came in April 2002, when a 1415 HU in platinum sold for CHF 6,603,500 at Antiquorum, formerly known as the Galerie d'Horlogerie Ancienne. At the time, this was the most expensive wristwatch in the world.
The first ever thematic sale for watches, organised by Patrizzi and Antiquorum, The Art of Patek Philippe in 1989, courtesy of Habsburg Feldman.
This meteoric rise of Patek Philippe still puzzled some such as Stahl. For him and many of the Italian collectors that he dealt with early in his career, the iconic nature of Rolex designs proved more attractive than the intricacy of a cloissoné enamel dial. “I always tell people” Stahl explains, “if you have the choice of two watches, go for the one on the poster in people’s bedrooms.” This meant the Big Crown on Bond’s wrist or a Daytona on the wrist of Paul Newman. “If you just look at the guys who were wearing Rolex, they didn’t pay Paul Newman to wear a Daytona, that made it cool. These guys were the real first trendsetters.” But the prices on the auction market for these sportier models were yet to catch up.
For many collectors of Patek Philippe pieces, comparison to the retail prices at the time was also a useful guide, especially at the very beginning. Crott shared with us that during the ‘80s, “a rule of thumb in those days was to always buy under the price of a new one in the store. You said, okay, if I can buy a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar for €7,000 and the new one is going for €25,000 or €30,000, how wrong can I go there?”
The record breaking Patek Philippe 1415 HU World Time, courtesy of Antiquorum.
Looking at auction catalogues from the ‘80s onwards, it also appears that Cartier pieces enjoyed a fair bit of attention in these early days. In November 1996, Antiquorum held a thematic sale, entitled “The Magical Art of Cartier”, which included some of the French jeweller’s most iconic timepieces from the 20th century, including Cintrées, Baignoires, Asymetriques, and many more.
The Early Collectors
Back then, collectors were mainly focused in Europe, North America and Japan. Since then, the awareness and interest in wristwatches has expanded further afield, though it initially emerged in those three markets. The trope that the Italians were amongst the first tastemakers gets overplayed at times, but it is certainly true. They were amongst the first to begin collecting vintage wristwatches, across a number of brands and categories.
Based on accounts from those who were around at the time, this was driven by the aesthetic taste of the Italians, who also took the time to expand their culture in areas like these. Parmegiani shared in an interview with HODINKEE that, “there were a lot of entrepreneurs in Italy, such as Sandro Fratini or John Goldberger, just to name a few. I had the luck to take care of ten to fifteen collections, which were built at the beginning of the ‘90s.” As he explains it, “they were putting on the side a lot of very important, very rare watches, because they had the time to dedicate themselves to understanding what was rare, worth buying and interesting to collect.”
The renowned Italian collector, Auro Montanari, otherwise known as John Goldberger.
One such example is one of Parmegiani’s most dedicated collectors, a Milanese woman, who at one point inherited a large sum of money from her family. Between 1982 and 2001, she concentrated her efforts on putting aside some of the rarest wristwatches made during the 20th century, from the late ‘20s to the late ‘70s. At one point, Parmegiani estimates that she had four to five hundred pieces in her collection. At the turn of the century, many of these were sold at auction, including the platinum World Time mentioned above, which became the most expensive wristwatch in the world when it went for CHF 6,603,500 in April 2002.
Rather surprisingly, currency fluctuation also played an important role in cementing many of the important collections of vintage pieces in Italy. According to Crott, the proverbial good taste of the Italians certainly played a role, but so did the fact that watches were stable and easily manageable assets compared to the notoriously fickle and unstable Italian currency of the time, the Lira. There was a period when the dollar was extremely weak against the Italian Lira. Due to the historic wealth of the United States, many notable pieces by Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin and others had initially been sold there. The combination of a favourable currency and rich array of pieces created “a very big opportunity,” according to Parmegiani. Of course, within Europe, other countries such as Germany or France also gradually began to build a dedicated base of collectors.
“They were putting on the side a lot of very important, very rare watches, because they had the time to dedicate themselves to understanding what was rare, worth buying and interesting to collect...”
Further afield, the Japanese were also early adopters. As mentioned above, they helped create one of the first trends in vintage wristwatches, namely the popularity of the Rolex Bubbleback. According to Masahiro Endo, a Japanese vintage watch dealer who has been active since the ‘80s, “a lot of Japanese collectors have a strong spirit of research.” This has contributed to their appreciation of certain vintage pieces, before others took note. Beginning in the late ‘80s, Endo would travel to the United States, Italy and elsewhere looking for watches from Patek Philippe, Longines, Rolex and Jaeger-LeCoultre, amongst others.
From the Italian and Japanese examples above, it is obvious that the United States offered a rich array of vintage wristwatches. The National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, or NAWCC, helped uncover some of these. They would hold fairs across the country, where dealers would bring their watches, and display them all in one place. Crott revealed that it was through these fairs that he would end-up sourcing a great number of pieces , which would then fill the pages of his auction house’s catalogues.
Dr. Crott showing us a yellow gold 1518 and browsing the collection at the Patek Philippe Museum.
In Europe, fairs began to appear from the mid-’80s onwards, but interestingly, collectors would also congregate outside of auctions and trade pieces privately amongst themselves, creating a whole added dimension to the sales. This was only possible due to the fact that they were all gathered together in one room, and this additional activity is something which endures to this day. The lobby at Antiquorum was particularly notorious for having a number of dealers meeting up prior to a sale, displaying their pieces to each other, sharing information and building a sense of community. Crott recalls that for one of his auctions at the Frankfurter Hof in 1991, the hotel management felt compelled to clear the aisles of dealers, so that the auction customers could gain access to the auction at all.
Whilst we touched on the United States being an established market for sourcing pieces, it also most certainly had its own community of local collectors, which grew over time. Matthew Bain, an established vintage watch dealer in the United States, once shared in an interview with HODINKEE that his father “was one of the first American serious wristwatch collectors. He started collecting about 1975, 1976.” As with Europe and Japan, the collecting community in the country started to build gradually over the next two to three decades, as information and interest became more widely shared.
The majority of the era we’ve been discussing so far, from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, predates the Internet. With the appearance of the world wide web, new opportunities arose for sharing information, connecting with other collectors and discovering new watches. Forums in particular began to play a crucial role in the dissemination of information. For the first time, enthusiasts from across the world could discuss topics which interested them. Crott points out that many of the forums mainly concerned themselves with more modern timepieces.
The very first space dedicated to discussion about watches that could be called a forum was Watchnet.com. A website that is still live, although easily dated from its design and layout, it was revolutionary in how it approached building a collecting community. Providing a place for enthusiasts to not only discuss watches, but also allowing them to openly trade at the same time. In these early days, of the mid-90s, there were still relatively few people logging into the forum every day. One of them, who grew to become a big influence in this space, was William Massena. While he was on Watchnet at the beginning, he quickly migrated to the forum that he would later become the Managing Director of, TimeZone.
A man who would become a key figure in the early days of watch forums, William Massena.
The history of TimeZone is interesting, as it began its life as the page of a Singaporean dealer’s website. Massena tells us that whoever created the website for this dealer, made a page for clients to ask questions but it was structured in the format of a forum and called TimeZone. An important reason why TimeZone managed to catch-on, could have purely been linked to its location, at the time the collecting community in Singapore was fairly sophisticated. Not only were they buying incredibly well, a lot of Franck Muller according to Massena, but they were also very well read on horology.
On his first venture into TimeZone, Massena told us “I just searched for Rolex Submariner and one of the first pages that came up was the TimeZone forum. So, I went on, asked a question and ended up waiting a week until I got a response from James Dowling” otherwise known by his Instagram account @misterrolex. Such was the speed of things back then, with dial up modems and such low visitor numbers, a back-and-forth could take a significant amount of time.
Of course, it didn’t stay this way for long. One big advantage of TimeZone, and the forums in general, was the opportunity to take advantag of global price discrepancies.. At this time, watches were sold for different prices in different countries. Meaning that it was possible to buy a watch in a cheaper part of the world and then offer it for sale in a more expensive part, undercutting the local retailers, all the while making a profit.
As the forums grew, there would be areas for all niches of the watch industry, from Cartier watches to tips on watch repair, courtesy of Arthur Pfister.
Obviously, TimeZone, which was quickly becoming the major watch forum on the internet, didn’t stay as a page of this Singaporean dealer for long. A way to tell if someone is a true old hand on the forums is if they say they were there “before the bombing of TimeZone”. This happened in late 1995 when a disgruntled individual managed to take the forum down by spamming the site until it was overloaded and crashed. This turned-out to be the final straw for the original owners and they sold it to Richard Paige, a San Francsico-based retailer. Something that Paige did which was revolutionary, according to Massena, was to get some of his more knowledgeable and trusted clients to write in-depth reviews and articles on the forum. This not only launched discussion but it also helped to raise the credibility of the site, as visitors were now getting value that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
This rise to prominence was only helped by the fact that many of the big brands didn’t have websites until the turn of the Millenium. For watch enthusiasts who didn’t have ready-access to a boutique or trusted dealer, these forum posts became the first port-of-call to find out about a model they were interested in. This sentiment was echoed by Stahl who was a major player on the Vintage Rolex Forum and through his work and investigations there, uncovered a lot of the details that today make Rolex so collectable. “We were finally able to ask what was with the exclamation mark, or the underline and what made them special.” As we said before, the brands didn’t give much away whenever they were approached for information. However, their staunch control of the narrative was starting to slip. The watches were being reviewed by people who had bought them and had no allegiance or affiliation to the brand.
The sharing of wrist shots also began, before Instagram popularised the trend. Two great examples, courtesy of John Goldberger.
This came to ahead when noted contributor to TimeZone, Walt Odets, published an incredibly in-depth review of a Rolex Explorer ref. 14270 in 1998. Massena, who was well-entrenched in the forum by this point, tells us that the moment this was published, the whole of Geneva knew about it. With the ability to take a movement apart, and spot flaws, Odets’ article doesn’t miss a thing. Pointing to poor movement architecture that could lead to issues down the road, as well as examples where Rolex’s production process meant the finishing was less than what would be expected of a watch of such a price.
The article which shook Geneva when published- it is still live, on TimeZone.
The brands didn’t take this level of autonomy and scrutiny very well, as Massena told us, those who wrote for the forums got an icy reception at any industry event. “We would go to Basel and wouldn’t be allowed into any of the booths. All the Swiss thought the internet was just pornography at this time, and that’s what they associated us with.” Luckily, not everyone saw them like this. There were two particularly forward-thinking executives who were ready to embrace the forums far before anyone else.
It will probably come as no surprise to many that those two executives were Günter Blümlein and Jean-Claude Biver. It was Biver that first approached TimeZone and offered to sponsor them, recognising that it was better to have this community on his, and Blancpain’s side. This was important, as it finally gave this collection of enthusiasts a degree of recognition from the wider industry, a tacit endorsement that they were building something constructive and worthwhile.
Blümlein was the first executive that realised the value in allowing these incredibly well-informed collectors contact with new models in their best condition, when being shown for the first time. He did this while still working for VDO who owned IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre and when these were eventually sold to the Richemont group, their entire stable of brands were suddenly open to these forum posters. This was a level of acceptance that many, including Massena thought they would never receive. Not only were they allowed inside the booths at the big shows, but they were invited on manufacture tours. The brands were ready to throw open their doors to them.
Not only were those involved in the forums able to see watches physically at fairs, but they also started to gather in real life in what would become known as a Get Together or GTG. TimeZone has laid claim to inventing the GTG, where in its heyday, there would be at least one GTG in a different state in America every week. Proving that, not only were these forums a great place for in-depth articles, but they were forming real communities around watches.
However, one thing that can almost be guaranteed when big enough groups of watch collectors are assembled, is that faction-lines will be drawn. In this case they formed around the three different forum sites that had emerged from the late ‘90s. TimeZone, Watchnet and PuristPro, founded in 2001.
As Massena put it, “there was a strong clan mentality” that developed around each of the forums. In fact, Purist was formed by a group that broke-off from TimeZone, as they felt like the right balance wasn’t being struck. These cliques became more entrenched as time went on and there were ‘TimeZone guys’ and ‘Purist guys’. Although it could be argued that forums have been eclipsed by the simultaneous rise of social media and mainstream media platforms, the original communities still play an important role in welcoming and educating collectors of all ages and experience. After all, who better to ask a question about a new watch, than someone who actually owns it? We say, long live Walt Odets.
Our thanks to Dr. Helmut Crott, Philipp Stahl, William Massena, Daryn Schnipper and Arthur Pfister for supplying valuable information and images to help us take a look at the earliest days of watch collecting.