Interview: Dr Helmut Crott

By A Collected Man

To call Dr Helmut Crott a veteran of the watch world would be an understatement. Active in the field of horology for more than half a century, Crott has played a key role in shaping the market which we’ve come to know today. When he started out, wristwatches were only just beginning to become collectable. To give you a sense of things, there was no distinction between a Patek Philippe ref. 1518 in yellow gold or in steel – though he has owned two of the latter. 

During his time, Crott has been a fervent collector, started an eponymous auction house focused on watches and been the owner of historical watch brand Urban Jürgensen, working alongside the mythical Derek Pratt. As if not sufficiently satisfied, he has also created one of the world’s largest and most detailed Patek Philippe databases, probably second only to the manufacture itself.   

We got to spend a day with Dr Crott in Geneva, passing through several locations important to the history of watchmaking, but also deeply special to him. We first sat down for lunch in a small brasserie in the Old Town, the historical centre of the city.

 

So, tell me, how did this all start for you?

I’m a medical doctor by training. I did my studies in Cologne and during that time, I’d already developed a taste for doing business. My first idea was to build a diamond business. So, as a student, I went to buy diamonds at the Stock Exchange in Amsterdam because they told me, “If you fly to America, you can sell them for double”. Clever boys [Laughs]

 

[Laughs] Did it turn out that way?

Not quite. My mother made me a little nice receptacle where I put the diamonds and I flew to America. I then went to Macy’s, the major shop for diamonds at the time, showed them my diamonds and said, “I want to make a profit”. They looked at the diamonds, said they were good quality but then just sent me on my way home. So, I flew black with the diamonds and didn’t sell them.

 

Oh dear.

But I sold them at the end with no loss, thankfully. I then continued with my medical profession, while at the same time getting involved in all sorts of things. I briefly started a real estate company and even later organised a music festival in my hometown with a group of friends. It must have been in 1971 or so. We hosted 150,000 people over three days, with some of the most important groups from the time: Deep Purple, Mungo Jerry and others. I always tried to do different things. I’m just curious, you know.

 

And how did you eventually move into watches?

In the early ‘70s, the antiques market was hot. It excited me from afar. But if you’re a medical doctor, you’re expected to stay in your path and not follow distractions. So, I ended up working nearly 24 hours a day: during the day I would work in the hospital, then in the evening I would work in the emergency room until two in the morning. During the day at the hospital, we had a gap between 1PM and 4PM, where you’re supposed to rest, but I would take my car and go into the surrounding villages to buy antiques and fill my car with furniture and stupid things [Laughs].

 

Crott sat in a small brasserie in Old Town Geneva

 

[Laughs] A bit of recklessness is always essential.

I then wanted to move into the antiques business full time, but it just seemed like everyone had an antiques store. And I always said, “I want to fly with the eagle, but I don’t want to scratch with the chicken”. Maybe even just with a small eagle. As a result, I thought of setting up an auction house, rather than an antiques store. All of a sudden, we were already exclusive. A hundred antiques stores but no auction house. We started by selling everything but after two years, I was only dealing with the same people from my area. I thought I would never build an international reputation with an auction house for antiques in my hometown. It’s too small, so I asked myself, “what can we do to fly a little bit higher with the eagles?”

 

And so we find our way to watches…

Exactly. I was already interested in watches, but one day I found myself in Edinburgh and saw a very nice pocket watch in a window from a watch dealer. It was a Nicole Nielsen. At the time, I’d just read my first book on Nicole Nielsen, so I thought, “Oh he’s a great watchmaker, it’s a split-second chronograph, this seems like a good idea”. So, I bought this for quite a lot of money at the time and I didn’t sleep for quite some time [Laughs].

 

Oh dear.

In the end, it turned out fine. So, that’s how it started. For the first few years, I bought a few watches here and there and then in 1977, we did our first specialised auction: silver, jewellery and watches. We even started selling wristwatches quite early, when it was still mostly pocket watches. I remember my first wristwatch in the sale of ’79 was a reference 3448, a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar.

 

Not a bad place to start…

It was $3,000 back then.

 

The market for collectable wristwatches was only starting back then, wasn’t it?

Yes, there was barely a market at all. The early players, such as myself, just had to figure it out step by step.  A rule of thumb in those days for complicated Patek Philippe wristwatches was to always buy under the price of a new one in the store. You said, “Okay, if I can buy a perpetual calendar for 7,000 and the new one is going for 25,000 or 30,0000, how wrong can I go there?”

 

Seems surprising looking back.

And then you also gradually test the enthusiasm of people. You offer a watch for sale, gauge the interest and then build a sense of what people like. That market was just figuring itself out. Me and two or three other auction houses, such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, jumped on the train very, very fast. In those days, you could go to the trade shows in America and all these Americans would come in with their Rolex watches bought in pawn shops, where they bought these wristwatches for scraps. I used to make a point of having a sale every six weeks with only wristwatches, so I would go to America and boom, boom, boom. They consigned the pieces, or I bought the really special ones and I had 150 watches for a sale: perpetual calendars, Patek Philippe chronographs, Rolex watches.

 

A selection from Dr. Crott's extensive collection of archival documents, which he has assembled over 50 years. Pictured here are some old order books from Stern Frères, the dial maker for Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, among many others

 

Sounds a bit like the Wild West…

You know, I had a Russian girlfriend at the time, and we went together to one of these shows in America. I was having a break over lunch one day and this guy comes in with an interesting selection of stuff. I saw my girlfriend, who was quite a strong lady, just catching this guy from the countryside, grabbing ten watches in her hands and shouting (puts on Russian accent), “All for Helmut, this is for Helmut, we take everything”. [Laughs]

 

[Laughs] In those days, I take it there was a lot less knowledge around and no set rules around what was special and what wasn’t. How did you navigate that in the early days?

I think the eye is important. The eye of the collector. Even with the literature we have today, if you don’t have a certain feeling for the little difference, you might buy average watches. And then beyond that, we just gradually figured it out. For example, someone once offered me a perpetual calendar by Patek Philippe from the 1960s. They were asking for $11,000, instead of $7,000. It was unusual; I’d never seen the configuration before. It seemed original, so I thought maybe I lose some money if I’m wrong, but I’ve uncovered something great if I’m right. When I came back to Geneva, I went to see my friend Roger Dubuis, who worked at Patek Philippe for many years, and showed him the watch. He said, “I remember this watch exactly, we made three of these”. Woah! [Laughs]

 

[Laughs] So you really did just figure it out.

In those days, there was no distinction between pink on pink or a black dial. A steel 1518 and a yellow gold 1518 were more or less the same price. I’ve had the chance to own two of the steel 1518s actually. I started, alongside others like Oswaldo Patrizzi to figure out what was rare. We copied information from each other, gathered documents, spoke to people like Roger Dubuis who worked at the brands and gradually pieced it all together.

 

"And I always said, 'I want to fly with the eagle, but I don’t want to scratch with the chicken'. Maybe even just with a small eagle."

 

So, for example, how would you go about piecing together how many 2499s were made?

Well, some of the figures were already in books, and then I looked at the case numbering and movement numbering of 2499s. I tried to figure out when the first and last ones were produced, using the case and movement numbers to then estimate total production. So if you look at the first 2499 produced, it is naturally preceded by a different reference number. And if you look at the last 2499, it’s followed by another reference. You’ve got your start and your finish. That’s a rough example of how we pieced the information together in the early days.

 

A steel Patek Philippe ref. 1518. One of only four publicly known, with Crott having owned two (this example sold for $11,000,000 at Phillips in 2016 - then the most expensive wristwatch in the world)

 

How do you think collecting is different today?

Today, a collector needs to be chameleon. You can’t afford to put all your eggs on one basket anymore. Ten years ago, if you were collecting and you had enough you buy the watches, I would have told you to keep and enjoy your pieces. Today, I think collectors need to be more pragmatic. When the value of your collection goes with the taste of the market, it’s important to be flexible and know when to enter and exit different things. I don’t like this aspect very much, it feels like the stock market at times, but unfortunately, we are not in the same age where you collect what you like and the value of your collection trickles up in value.

 

Following lunch, Crott takes us to an undisclosed secure location in Geneva. We pass through several security checkpoints, wondering what awaits. We finally end up in a small, unassuming room. Far from any wandering eyes, this is where Crott stores some of the pieces from his collection and which he holds on behalf of clients. Out of a safe, he pulls out a seemingly flimsy cardboard box, filled with small, plastic bags. Under the glare of artificial light, he takes out what can only be described as some of the finest watches from the last few hundred years.

 

What do we have here?

A lot of the watches I buy for my clients, I’m very conscious about provenance. I have watches from the King of Denmark, the King of Spain and others. This watch used to belong to the King of the Maharaja. It combines a retrograde perpetual calendar, split seconds chronograph and minute repeater in a unique configuration. This combination of complications and the craft, for a watch made in 1880, is rather impressive.

 

Where to next?

We move on to 1920 next. This is a two-tone Patek Philippe, with the same dial layout used in the modern pilot collection. I’ve had this in the collection for probably 25 years.

 

"I think the eye is important. The eye of the collector. Even with the literature we have today, if you don’t have a certain feeling for the little difference, you might buy average watches."

 

And what’s this?

Ah well, now we move on to my career of watchmaking. And I do mean watchmaking. These are all Basel Fair prototypes from Urban Jürgensen from 2010 to 2014. You have this an Urban Jürgensen with an El Primero movement, but where we included a gold rotor.

 

A pocket watch from 1880 belonging to the King of the Maharaja.

 The pocket watch integrates a retrograde perpetual calendar, split seconds chronograph and minute repeater.

 

This is an unusual Laurent Ferrier…

Ah yes, this was made by Laurent Ferrier in a few pieces for the Advisory Board of Phillips Watches. The dial is a reinterpretation of a ‘30s design from the dial maker Stern Frères’ archives. I have access to the design because I own some of their old order books, with designs they made or proposed to an important number of manufacturers, including Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin and many others. Funnily enough, Auro (otherwise known as John Goldberger), wears his Laurent Ferrier on a vintage Gay Frères beads of rice bracelet, which I think is a nice touch.

 

And I wouldn’t have expected to see a Daytona.

Yes, this is a lovely 6265. You know, when we buy them, we really like to find them in good condition and complete. Otherwise, for the same money, I would much rather buy a grand complication pocket watch [Laughs].

 

[Laughs] I can share the sentiment.

More and more people are considering them. But you know, I was speaking to Francois-Paul Journe the day before yesterday and we were saying, the problem with these rare pocket watches is that you buy them and then they’re gone. It’s difficult to create a market in those circumstances because you don’t have a second one a year later. The momentum doesn’t build up.

 

A custom Laurent Ferrier, with the dial being a reinterpretation of a ‘30s design from the dial maker Stern Frères’ archives.

 The same Laurent Ferrier made for the Advisory Board of Phillips Watches - on the wrist of Auro Montanari, otherwise known as John Goldberger (spotted by Hodinkee).

 

Having a breadth of different watches seems quite important to you.

It all stems from a passion for horology. In a pocket watch, you can show a lot more horology than in a wristwatch. In a pocket watch, the quality of craftsmanship and finishing is much higher. Today it’s not done to this standard anymore, because it is either too expensive or machines do it in such a way that it looks nice, if only at first glance.

 

But if you look closer...

But you and I, we see the difference when the anglage is made by hand or by machine. Or if we see a nice Côte de Genève, where the light spreads nicely throughout, it’s just not the same. When you look at say a tourbillon pocket watch from 1910 or 1920, the cage is so finely done and flatly polished. Nobody does this today. That’s why I would always like to have some pocket watches in my collection or for my customers. I buy this because I like the quality of the work.

 

A Patek Philippe 1518 in yellow gold in Crott's hand.

Close-up shots of a first series 2499 from Crott's research.

 

Was that lost quality in watches today part of what pushed you towards resuscitating Urban Jürgensen?

It’s certainly part of what excited me about the project. When I first started in watches, there were a few brands that excited collectors. There was Breguet, Patek Philippe, Urban Jurgensen and those from Glashütte in general, be it Lange and Söhne or others. So there was the passion already. And then my friend, Peter Baumberger bought Urban Jürgensen in 1979. I followed closely the evolution of the company and often met with Derek Pratt, the master watchmaker from Urban Jürgensen. Derek was truly one of the greats and to how he worked, his process, his machines, it was incredible. I felt like a pupil wanting to learn.

 

And when did you decide to get involved?

In the ‘90s, Peter was looking for investment to create some new tourbillon watches alongside Derek. As a collector, I got excited about the idea of having a wristwatch with a détente escapement in it, like old marine chronometers. As a friend, I also wanted to support Peter, so I financed the project. However, Peter then died all of a sudden. From one day to the next, there was nobody. So the day after he died, I got on a plane, went into the workshop and started from there, not knowing anything.

 

"Today, a collector needs to be chameleon. You can’t afford to put all your eggs on one basket anymore."

 

Once again, you had to learn on the job.

If I wanted to get my money back, I had to be active. So, I was active. I also didn’t want the name of Jürgensen, who was such an important watchmaker next to Breguet, to go to waste. So I saved the company, alongside its 240 years of history, and also managed to save my money in the process.  In the end, I sold the company to people who have much more funds than I, because I realised what you need to run a watch brand on a high level. Frankly, financially and knowledge-wise, I was at my limits.

 

On the table, a unique Urban Jürgensen wristwatch (1985), customised by Dr George Daniels with a slim version of his co-axial escapement.

 

 The Urban Jürgensen wristwatch customised by Dr George Daniels, now belonging to Dr Crott. Sold as part of the George Daniels Horological Collection sale at Sotheby's in 2012.

 

At this stage, we travel to our final destination: the Patek Philippe Museum on Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers. Throughout the day, Crott has referenced how important this place is to him. Many of the most important pieces he has handled during his career have found their way here. In a way, he feels like it’s not only Patek Philippe’s history which sits within these walls. We are welcomed by an enthusiastic representative from the Museum, who is at pains to emphasise to Crott that he is “always welcome here”.

 

Do you think it’s important to have places like this?

Twenty years ago, I was here when they first opened the museum at an evening event. At that moment, you had the sense that it would give another generation the enthusiasm to collect. Obviously, a museum is one thing and collecting is another. But this helps.

 

Is this a special place for you?

Over my career, I’ve been able to contribute a few pieces to the Patek Philippe Museum. It also feels like a museum of my life, in a very small way. I’ve been fortunate enough to uncover some truly special Patek Philippe watches during my time, so it’s special for me to be able to come here and see watches which have been real highlights of my career. I haven’t been here in a while actually.

 

Inside the Patek Philippe Museum.

 

Where did they come from?

The watches? Oh, all over.

 

If I remember correctly, quite a few came from a private collection you helped assemble, is that correct?

There were a few private collections I helped assemble which have in some way found themselves in the Museum. It is nice when someone trusts you, accepts that you have the knowledge and therefore helps you guide them a little bit, but also has the culture and taste to understand and appreciate quality. More specifically, there was one person that I knew from my auction business, whose collection I helped build.

 

"Over my career, I’ve been able to contribute a few pieces to the Patek Philippe Museum. It also feels like a museum of my life, in a very small way."

 

Okay...

Before we started working together closely, I realised that he had bought a watch publicly at a famous auction house, for quite a lot of money, where the dial was wrong. I tried to tell one of his friends discretely, as I couldn’t go to him directly and say, “hey, you bought a watch with the wrong dial”. So, I let the mutual friend know, who in turn told this collector that he needed someone loyal by his side. To my surprise, the collector just called me and said, “Would you please consult me about this because I like watches very much, but I don’t understand anything” [Laughs].

 

[Laughs] And it went from there?

Yes, after that we would go through auction catalogues together and make a selection of important pieces and I would also look further afar to find him some interesting watches. We had a lot of good opportunities.

 

Crott admiring some treasures from the collection.

 

Certainly sounds like it…

It was a successful endeavour. And it happened at the right moment too. The timing was important also.

 

What year did it start?

1992.

 

How long did it last?

Around ten years.

 

And most of those pieces now sit here?

Yes, exactly.

 

How did they find their way here?

Some were sold privately, directly to the museum, but most of them were sold through auction. The latter wasn’t always the favourite for the Museum, because they often had to fight collectors for them, which often proved rather expensive [Laughs].

 

Upon exiting the Patek Philippe Museum, when asked, "What watch are you wearing?", Crott pulled his phone out and laughed.

 

Thank you to Dr Helmut Crott for generously sharing his time and knowledge. Find out more about his horological consultation services here or discover his book on the wristwatch dial in the 20th century here.


Older Post Newer Post