Photo: James Bassil
Amid gloomy talk of a possible triple-dip recession in Britain and the march of austerity across Europe, some people somewhere are spending an absolute fortune on showpiece watches.Luxury watch sales have hit record levels. Last week 16 of the world’s top brands were in Geneva to showcase their latest micro-technologies and elegant craftsmanship. And all indicators suggest that, despite myriad alternative means of telling the time, the next 12 months will be even more profitable for them.
The 23rd annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) trade fair ended on Friday, celebrating a 10% rise in year-on-year visitor numbers. In April there is the Baselworld trade fair, which will be the most ambitious ever.
Buoyed by good pre-Christmas sales, watchmakers have never been more bullish. Even before the year-end figures for Swiss watch exports are finalised before their expected release next week, Jean-Daniel Pasche, president of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, said: “We can already say that 2012 will be a record year. We are going to outrun the amount of 20 billion Swiss francs [£13.6bn].”
According to Bill Prince, deputy editor of GQ: “It’s not about ostentatious wealth. Although it remains of course the most portable show of wealth, a badge of success, ready reckoner of a person’s status. But it’s also a very guy thing, it’s a 300-year-old technology that has continued to develop into an intricate and fascinating piece of mechanism, a great thing of beauty that is produced with the best micro-engineering has to offer. It’s built to be manhandled.”
Prince points to the entry into the market of designers such as Chanel, Dior and Hermès. “They bring in a big marketing spend, targeting men who perhaps wouldn’t have looked at high-end watches before, but now are interested in what they are wearing, in grooming products. So a beautiful watch is traditionally the one bit of jewellery a man, a conservative man, can wear.”
A watch also holds its value if the owner should fall on tough times. RAF officers wore Rolex watches during the second world war to bribe their way out of trouble, and a luxury watch holds its resale value far better than a sports car.
Eric Clapton sold his 1987 Patek Philippe for £2.3m in November last year. It had a perpetual calendar with moon phases and according to Aurel Bacs, international head of Christie’s watch department, who conducted the sale, stood out for “rarity and superior provenance”.
An Omega owned by Elvis Presley – another watch collector — was auctioned last year for $52,000, while there are several US websites dedicated to identifying the wristwatches in paparazzi snaps of celebrities or movies.
While the last major recession, in the 1970s and early 1980s, was disastrous for top-end watch makers, coinciding as it did with the appearance of quartz technology, this time around a global downturn has done wonders for the industry.
Since 2007 the numbers of people employed in the industry has been slowly rising, as new markets in China, India, Brazil and Mexico have emerged. However, the Chinese market is currently having a wobble, thanks to new anti-corruption legislation aimed at restricting the numbers of watches government officials are allowed to accept as gifts.
There are no such worries in the US, where high-end timepieces are hugely popular with celebrities and musicians. Music mogul and watch collector Jay-Z was reportedly given a Hublot with more than 1,000 diamonds on his 43rd birthday in December by wife Beyoncé, at an estimated cost of $4.3m.
But according to one of London’s big pre-owned watch dealers, most first-time buyers are not looking for bling. “They are looking for something timeless and classic. If you are going to spend five, fifteen or five hundred thousand on a watch you want something special to you,” said David Hagan, of the David Duggan watch store in Mayfair. “The nice thing about some of these watches is that they are subtle and quiet. Now there is a real collector’s market they hold their value and are easily turnable back into cash.” The London shop has moved into bigger premises to cope with demand and specialise in Patek Philipe and Rolex.
Ironically it was the 16th-century religious reformist Jean Calvin whose ban on jewellery created the Swiss watchmaking industry, forcing the goldsmiths and enamellers of Geneva to find a new outlet for their skills. At SIHH in Geneva, Calvinists would have blanched at Cartier’s limited edition panther head watch in sapphire and gold, worth a mere £46,000.
Women’s watches are the next big thing for the industry. “They used to believe women wanted quartz working even in a high-end watch,” said Prince. “But now they are beginning to put the same kind of intricate craftsmanship into the mechanisms and that’s the real shift.”
Sotheby’s held its first dedicated sale of wristwatches in 1980 and the recent surge in interest now sees the auction house hold two a year in London, New York, Geneva and Hong Kong. “The category has become one of the most vital and vibrant on the world auction stage,” says the firm, which holds the record for the most expensive watch ever sold at auction – a Patek Philippe The Henry Graves Supercomplication, which went for more than $11.5m. As the watch industry celebrates an annus mirabilis, that record might not last much longer.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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