You might be wondering why anyone would write an article about watch boxes. After all, they’re typically one of the last things you think about, before adding a piece to your collection. But owning a great box can be an unexpectedly satisfying and rewarding experience. The finest examples can be seen as objects of design and craft, rather than just considered for their functional purpose. Not to mention that in many instances, keeping the original box, along with the papers, helps protect the value of a watch more than other things.
What many may not realise is the surprising amount of thought that can go into a presentation box. From including a watch winder, to incorporating aspects of the watch’s design, some of them have become collector items in their own right, while others are appreciated for their practical, no frills, functionality.
A manual wind Audamrs Piguet from 1977 with its box, both stamped with the Omani Khanjar.
With the few boxes we’ve picked out, we hope to illustrate why some of the things that accompany a watch, have almost become as important to collectors, as the watches themselves. Well, if not as important, then certainly worth an honourable mention. From the thoroughly well-crafted, to the charmingly utilitarian, we aim to cover a whole spectrum of design. Let’s dive straight in.
The Nautilus Cork Box
It’s pretty great that one of the most iconic watches of the 20th century, is accompanied by an equally well thought-out, quite daring, box design. We are of course, referring to the cork box, which accompanied some of the original Nautilus 3700 watches. As Ben Clymer of Hodinkee once said, “everything should come in packaging this good.” We couldn’t agree more.
The idea of selling a Nautilus 3700, an already unconventional piece at the time, in a box made out of cork was a rather gutsy move by Patek Philippe. Delivering the porthole shaped watch in packaging that was completely different from anything else that had been produced in the past, must have caught off guard quite a few collectors. In a way, the spirit of the box, was a natural continuation of the idea behind the design it housed. Both went against the grain.
Possibly one of the most recognisable watch boxes in the industry, made for the Patek Philippe 3700.
Cork, which comes from the bark of a tree known as the cork oak, is a rather remarkable material. It is elastic, strong and relatively impermeable to air, which is why it has been utilised for many different purposes. In the same way that steel was not traditionally associated with luxury watches until the Royal Oak and the Nautilus came along, cork had similar lowly connotations. These boxes changed that. The fact that most yellow gold 3700 watches came with a different oval-shaped leather box, seems to suggest that the combination of utilitarian steel and cork was a conscious choice taken by Patek Philippe.
As a result, in tandem with the rising popularity of the reference, these boxes have become collectors’ items in their own right. Last year, one sold at Christie’s for $16,250. Just the box. John Reardon, the former Head of Watches at Christie’s, world-renowned Patek Philippe expert and founder of Collectability, says that he recently had one for sale and it was snapped up “in a matter of hours.” He goes on to explain that the main driver behind this frenzy is “the psychology of completeness. The compulsion of putting together the complete package is what drives this market.” After all, if you were the owner of a Nautilus 3700, wouldn’t you want to have the legendary cork packaging to accompany it?
A 3700 looking, as it would have done, when it arrived from the factory.
However, the obsession with the cork box extends beyond the idea of assembling a complete set. After all, not all early 3700s came with it, with many having been accompanied by a different oval-shaped leather box, which has not gained the same cult status. Some of the cork boxes will also undoubtedly be tracked down by enthusiasts who don’t own the matching wristwatch. In many ways, the box itself has become acquired something of cult, niche status, beyond the watch it’s associated with.
The legacy of this item is such that for the 40th Anniversary of the Nautilus, Patek Philippe released some limited edition pieces, all housed in cork boxes, to the delight of collectors. John Goldberger, a horological scholar and collector, also decided to have the cover of his referential book, Patek Philippe Steel Watches, made out of cork. Gathering a vast array of steel watches from the manufacture’s history, this choice of material for the cover goes to show just how cemented the cork box has become in the imagination of horological enthusiasts.
The bespoke boxes of Henry Graves Jr.
Patek Philippe rarely ever offers customisation. It’s just not what they do. This privilege is reserved for very few of their most select clients. Henry Graves Jr., one of the most significant watch collectors of the past century, is one such client. Having commissioned many important pieces from the manufacture, he would also request his own hand-crafted, personalised boxes.
As Reardon put it, “he loved to have everything made for him bespoke”, which is why you can find his name and coat of arms on some of his timepieces, as well as on the boxes which accompanied them. According to Reardon, there were a few clients before Graves who got this level of service, and though others have since been allowed some customisation, none of it was of the same “quality and magnitude as for Mr. Graves.” In his eyes, “these are the Mona Lisa(s) of vintage Patek Philippe boxes.” If you’ve been lucky enough to see one, let alone hold one, we think you’d agree.
The most expensive watch ever sold at auction, and the bespoke box it came in.
Subtle and refined, these wooden boxes don’t instantly catch your eye, unless you look a bit closer. A small plaque on the exterior, often made out of gold or even mother of pearl, displays the Graves family crest and motto, Esse Quam Videri, which translates as “To Be Rather Than to Seem”. A similar inscription is also often found on the caseback of many of the collector’s watches.
Obsessed with Patek Philippe, Reardon made it his mission to track down one of these elusive wooden items. When visiting a descendant of Graves, Reardon luckily discovered an empty box, extremely similar in size and design to the one made for the Supercomplication, the most famous piece which Graves had commissioned for him.
The level of service that Grave enjoyed was of the highest standard at the time, courtesy of John Reardon and Sotheby's.
Rather mysteriously, this box held a spare crystal and a set of platinum hands, with movement and case numbers written on their packaging. But no watch. The relative of Graves, who originally owned the box, told Reardon that the matching timepiece was never actually made. Despite there being a spare crystal, hands, a movement and a case number inside a bespoke-made box for it, it seemed no corresponding watch ever left the Patek Philippe manufacture. The relative was adamant on this point. Whether it is actually out there or not, we may never know.
Some of the paperwork that was found with the "Mystery Box".
Considering his prominence as a collector and the fact that Patek Philippe closely guards its secrets, these boxes have also come to be used as useful clues by those seeking to catalogue the Henry Graves Jr. collection. For example, in 2012, one of these boxes came up for sale at Sotheby’s. Described by the auction house as historically important, the box was found with the original Certificate of Origin, concealed behind a silk panel, for watch No. 198025.
Rather incredibly, this box and certificate confirmed the existence of a watch that redefined the scholarship of Graves' collecting in the 1920s, as well as the scope of Patek Philippe's early sky chart production. The original certificate for this watch describes it as a "chronometrically adjusted perpetual calendar, phases of the moon, sunrise, sunset, mean time, true time, winding indicator, and celestial chart". Previous to this box emerging, this open face watch with 24 ligne movement was only known through archive images and had not surfaced for decades.
These boxes have therefore assumed a life of their own, either as useful clues in an attempt to catalogue the pieces from the Graves collection or, rather more simply, as a stunning testament to the relationship between Patek Philippe and one of its most important clients.
Artisans at work
Independent watchmakers value the principles of craft and attention to detail. As such, it should come as no surprise that some of the most noted independents outsource their boxes to local artisans, who can elevate them to objects befitting their hand-crafted timepieces.
We start off with the torch bearer for English watchmaking today, Roger Smith. Meticulously assembling a small handful of pieces a year, from his workshop on the Isle of Man, the choice of box was never going to be an afterthought for the watchmaker. As such, Smith turned to the furniture designer, David Linley, known for creating bespoke items for demanding clientele. Masters in woodwork, their workshop creates a range of items, from entire kitchens to small jewellery boxes. Linley seems to be the perfect fit for Smith’s thoroughly English timepieces.
Some of the handcrafted details of the boxes Linley produced for Roger Smtih.
For those who aren’t familiar with the brand, Linley was founded by David Linley in 1982. Son of Princess Margaret and keen craftsman, he set up shop on Pimlico Road in London, bringing in some of the most talented people in their respective fields to work alongside him. Throughout its history, Linley has made bespoke furniture, upholstery, and interior design products known for their neoclassical appearance and use of inlaid woods. There is no doubt that Linley has been surrounded by refined and elegant objects throughout his life, translating into the items created by his eponymous brand, which counts Sir Elton John and Valentino among its clients.
Linley was able to masterfully turn his heritage into a lifestyle. According to Vanity Fair, David Linley grew up “both royal and bohemian.” Combining his traditional, royal background with the influence of his father’s work as a one of England’s most sought-after photographers in the 1960s and 1970s, Linley developed a unique taste and aesthetic sensibility. This combination of the traditional and the modern, is reflected in the furniture Linley has made since.
The finishing touch is the Linley stamp of approval.
The compartmentalised boxes that he made for Smith were simple, refined and didn’t distract from the watch. Like Smith’s work, they were thoroughly understated and classic. Smith has since moved on from these wooden boxes, with pieces leaving the watchmaker’s workshop now being housed in a red leather watch box of his own design.
For us, the obvious next step from Smith and Linley’s partnership is the collaboration between Kari Voutilainen and a local artisan that works near to his workshop, named Cédric Vichard. Vichard is an expert cabinet maker, based in the same part of Switzerland as Voutilainen, a master at incorporating natural curves into his designs. Again, there is a coherence between the design of the watch and the box meant to house it, which is rather captivating.
The sliding box that accompanies the Kari Voutilainen GMT.
All of the cases made by Vichard are united by the fine craftmanship and high-quality wood he uses. Most of them are long, slender pieces made from vacuum-moulded birch wood veneers. Composed of two halves that slide apart from the middle to reveal the timepiece, this box appears deceptively modest. However, it is made with some of the finest materials, including African ebony and gold-plated brass fittings. To finish it off, ten individually polished layers of lacquer are applied to give it a high shine finish.
Not all of Voutilainen's boxes follow such sleek designs.
You won’t find these boxes accompanying all of Voutilainen’s work, as he likes to ensure that every box matches the watch that lives in it. That is what makes them so intriguing for us. Another noteworthy example is the box made for some of the Observatoire watches, which are rather grander and more intricate. Whilst Kari Voutilainen is perhaps most famously known for the Vingt-8 model, he also made a small number of these Observatoire piece. While they look similar on the outside, the movement distinguishes the models, as they house a very special ébauche in the form of a Peseux 260. As such, they deserve their own, distinct box.
Design incorporated boxes
Next, we want to look at some boxes which are an obvious and natural extension of the items they were meant for – those which incorporate elements of the watch’s design. Be it the octagonal shape of a Royal Oak case, or the unique visual cues associated with Vianney Halter, these boxes are true pieces of design, in that they repurpose and reframe well-defined aesthetic cues found on these timepieces. The final effect comes across as coherent and effortless, though its execution is probably more difficult.
The Vianney Halter Antiqua sat inside its box on full display, courtesy of Gary Gertz.
The first example of this worth mentioning comes from the Parisian-born, independent watchmaker, Vianney Halter, made for his uniquely styled Antiqua models. Halter’s interpretation of the “Futur Anterieur” or “Future Past” concept offers an innovative take on modern watchmaking and certainly has the box to match. Combining steampunk with Jules Verne’s fantastical universe, it’s unlike any other watch and matching box we’ve seen.
With a round display window, which matches the riveted style of the individual dials of the watch, this box was meant to showcase the Antiqua, not just merely protect it. Gary Gertz, an established collector and an owner of the model, loves the small, yet thoughtful, details of the box. As he puts it, “a quick look at the interior both reveals a small wooden drawer with elegantly pinned corner joints and allows you to appreciate the plush leather surroundings and brass fittings that hold your watch.”
The winder and draw of the meticulously designed Antiqua box.
Another element which helps this one stand out is its winder. Whilst boxes from other brands, such as Patek Philippe, are known to come with watch winders, this one is rather different. Indeed, it has been programmed specially, so that the watch will always finish in its upright position once it is wound.
This means that the presentation case, with the watch inside, can be used as a desk clock if desired. These are the little, intricate details which show the care and attention put into making these objects, which elevate them far beyond their more basic function of just storing a watch. Fascinated with design beyond watchmaking, it is believed that Halter makes these boxes himself.
The octagonal boxes that accompany various Royal Oak references have become a favourite among collectors.
Another design worth mentioning is one that integrates one of the most distinctive watch features of the last century. It is, of course, the octagonal bezel of the Royal Oak. Indeed, some of the boxes produced by Audemars Piguet replicate this bezel, down to the shape and position of the screws holding it down. This design was known to be used for green leather boxes, which accompanied a range of models, as well as wooden boxes in which the reference 14802 was delivered. This specific reference was released in 1992, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the reference 5402. 1,000 pieces were produced in total, including the majority in stainless steel, a few in yellow gold examples and only 10 in platinum.
Due to the commemorative function of the ref. 14802, it seems natural that the box for it would extend the spirit of celebration of the Royal Oak, by incorporating its most distinguishing feature. All of the light brown wooden boxes, lined in a soft suede, even had a golden plaque on the inside, with the number of the watch inscribed on it. As with the cork boxes from Patek Philippe discussed earlier, these have evolved as desirable examples of admirable design in their own right.
Double signed boxes
Now, we dive into the niche and nuanced world of retailer-signed boxes. Those of you who read our in-depth look at double-signed watches will know that it is a rather significant process. It involves more than just adding a second name to the dial of a watch, and sometimes a watch box by extension. It represents the close collaboration between a brand and a retailer, with all the history that comes with it. With some rather legendary partnerships to be found in the history of horology, in a way, uncovering one of these boxes can mean owning part of that story.
Wulf Schuetz, a notable collector and founder of vintage watch dealership, Rare & Fine Vintage watches, is also an admirer of these curiosities. They add to the provenance and story of a particular piece. As he puts it, “non-retailer branded boxes are usually easy to find and to swap between watches. Therefore, paying a premium might not be necessary. However, retailer branded boxes like Tiffany, Asprey – especially with Omani Emblems – are almost impossible to find and reflect a significant premium for serious collectors.”
The inside of the lid of the box that housed a Patek Philippe 3700/1 with a Khanjar dial that sold at Phillips in 2016 for CHF 635,000, courtesy of Phillips.
A rather unusual cork box is coming up at auction at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong with the stamp of the historic retailer, Wempe, on the inside. The name of the retailer is placed within the box with the help of an adhesive surface, with the logo and font matching that used by Wempe at the time. This is unusual because, as far as we are aware, there are no Nautilus 3700 watches with a Wempe signature on the dial. As many will be aware, having the name of an important retailer on a watch certainly adds to its rarity, mystique and provenance. The same applies for a double-signed box. Since boxes and papers are so often misplaced, this is particularly challenging to source, according to Schuetz. Unfortunately, we’ve no way of knowing how many of these were discretely stamped with a retailer’s name or how exactly this process was carried out. However, as with many things in the world of watches, the mystery only adds to the allure.
The inside of the Wempe double signed cork box.
There are also a few other examples of double signed boxes which are rather intriguing. One worth mentioning, uncovered by Schuetz himself, is a Rolex Daytona 6263 box, stamped with not only the Omani Khanjar, but also the Asprey signature. For context, during its heyday, Asprey in London 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.
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. One of their 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. A very small number of boxes, mostly from Rolex, have been known to bear this Khanjar on them. However, the name of Asprey itself is seldom appears on these boxes. We’re talking about rarity within the already rare.
A Rolex 6263 with a special Omani dial and Khanjar stamped box, courtesy of Wulf Schuetz.
This example demonstrates the fantastic commitment that both Rolex and Asprey made to their highly important clients. The stamping of the Khanjar and the Sultan’s name, Qaboos bin Said, shows just how important this client was deemed to be by both brands. There’s reason to believe that this level of customisation would have been highly important to the Sultan, who would often give these watches as gifts. Is there a more powerful marker of prestige than having your crest alongside that of Rolex on their recognisable green boxes? We can’t think of a comparable that comes close.
The detail of the Khanjar and Qaboos embossing on the Rolex box.
A less recognised name outside of certain circles, the Uruguay-based jewellers Freccero was one of Patek Philippe’s biggest retailers in South America. It ran for 150 years, before closing its doors for the very last time just last year. Due to this longstanding relationship, they were also able to join the selective list of retailers to stamp their name on Patek Philippe packaging. A Freccero-signed ref. 565 was sold by them in 1945, originally accompanied by a rather charming brown butterfly box, which had Patek Philippe stamped on one side and Freccero on the other.
A Freccero signed Patek Philippe ref. 565 and it's double signed butterfly box.
Clearly a product of its time, this leather case, which closes with a popper clasp at the top, gives us an insight into what Patek Philippe thought a box should be like at the time. Practical, not overly extravagant, but incredibly well made. Very much like the watch it housed.
In more recent times, this concept lives on. Patek Philippe watches sold by Tiffany & Co. in New York come with the traditional wooden boxes which accompany most of the manufacture’s models. However, they are also come with a rather distinctive outer box in the iconic Tiffany blue.
A Patek Philippe ref. 1579 that was seld by Freccero along with its double stamped box and original certificate.
As we move into the current day, we see fewer and fewer retailer names appearing on boxes alongside that of the watch brands. The current arrangement between Patek Philippe and Tiffany symbolises both brands working together closely, whilst remaining separate. This has translated into their choice of a separate box and outer-box. Their current packaging could also certainly be the result of convenience, with no need to produce customised boxes. It points to the fact that the practice of double-signed boxes, and customisation more generally, seem relegated to the last century, in such a way that the vintage examples that come up, seem all the more special and unusual.
Finally, we thought it important to touch on the packaging of timepieces issued to military personnel. They are quite the antithesis of the ones we’ve previously covered. They are often not elaborate, customised or hand-crafted. They are built to be functional and that’s it. No bells, nor whistles. From our point of view, that is precisely where their charm lies, very much like the tools they initially housed.
While military issued watches are fairly plentiful in the right corners of the second-hand market, the boxes they came in are harder to find. They were never meant to be kept. In fact, they would often have been discarded or repurposed by those who were issued them, so to find a watch from the military with its original box is a rare occurrence.
A utilitarian box to go with an equally functional watch.
Some time ago, we were lucky enough to handle a Breitling 817 chronograph which was originally issued to the Italian military. The 817 was made in 1975, exclusively for Italian pilots and paratroopers, with an estimated production run of 500. Each piece was designed to meet the Italian Military’s “Cronometro da Polso” or “CP-1” requirements and unlike numerous military examples, were never commercially available to civilians. As such, all of them would have come with a military issued box.
Up until October 2016, it was believed only about 40 of these watches had survived, but then the Italian Ministry of Defense announced it would auction off a batch of 40 in one single lot. This effectively doubled the number of known watches in one fell swoop. Whether all of these came with their original packaging or not, is unknown.
The box in question has “Cronometro da Polso Mod. 1 Unif” written on the front, referring to the CP1 standard set by the Italian military for the timepieces that they equipped their pilots with. This standard meant that this was, is in every way, a military watch; with its deep black dial, lume filled hands and painted numerals.
The box is befitting the watch in its functionality and modesty. It is small and rectangular, with the message mentioned previously stamped at the top, as well as “Breitling 817” at the bottom, in a utilitarian font. Nothing overly elaborate, but this is precisely where its charm comes from. It is reminiscent of the military packaging that would have accompanied food and other supplies. In our contemporary world where functional, minimalist packaging is celebrated – and often falsely created – this box stands out as the real thing.
These boxes would have held 6 IWC W.W.W. watches each.
Another, even rarer, example is the delivery boxes that the IWC W.W.W. watches were originally dispatched in. We first discovered these when we published our article on the Dirty Dozen; the collector that we spoke to at the time, Siewming, had an extensive collection of delivery boxes, that would have held six IWC watches each, all without straps.
The recognisable arrow and “WWW” marking was printed on the lid, alongside other various, entirely functional, markings. The rarity of these flimsy, cardboard boxes is almost unparalleled, as they would have often been discarded after the watches were issued. The boxes we were able to see, are proper time capsules.
Both watch and box showing signs of well-earned patina.
From the elaborate designs made by some of the top furniture makers to modest military enclosures, and everything in between, the humble watch box has come to take many forms over the years. While having the original box and papers is deemed important by collectors, it is often for the sake of completeness, rather than out of appreciation of the boxes themselves. From our point of view, they deserve to be appreciated for their own merits, such as inventive design, remarkable craft or historical significance.
We would like to thank John Reardon, Wulf Schuetz, Gary Gertz, @drjuanola for generously giving up their time to help us inform and illustrate this article. We would also like to thank Philipps and Sotheby’s for providing some additional imagery that helped us show these often overlooked boxes.