Watch collecting in modern times: Investment or hobby?

We investigate why investing in timepieces can offer more than just financial gains

Hassan Akhras, founder of Arab Watch Guide, shows a Cartier watch from his collection. Photo: Arab Watch Guide
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Luxury watches have long been highly coveted items, with enthusiasts and experts around the world desperate to get their hands on rare and exceptional timepieces. Thanks to their complicated design, which can only be assembled by the most skilled artisans, and their rarity and ability to last for generations, watches are among the most rewarding and investment-worthy collectables today.

The appetite for second-hand heritage watches has grown immensely, particularly after the pandemic when demand for new pieces became greater than the availability, with many brands struggling to fulfil the needs of their clientele due to a lack of materials and factory shutdowns.

As the industry continues to recover from the global crisis, the bounceback seems to have been even better than anticipated. Many leading brands are still asking clients to sign up to extensive waiting lists, with customers often waiting months, even years. In many cases, they are unable to get their hands on limited timepieces.

The industry is still facing a shortage of new watches as brands catch up with the backlog from Covid-19, leaving those who still want to invest in special watches at a loss. The appetite for luxury pieces is greater than ever and customers looking for transparency, craftsmanship and authenticity from their purchases are turning to heritage or vintage watches, expanding their portfolios with rare and older designs.

Every single year, we see new individuals starting to collect at a young age
Remi Guillemin, head of watches, Christie’s Europe

We have seen an increase in preloved watch retailers such as Watchbox and The Luxury Closet, boosting their reach in the region, while auction houses such as Christie’s have seen prices of certain watches skyrocketing at their auctions globally.

“Today, the resale market of watches is strong, with many transactions occurring at healthy prices, especially for high-quality vintage timepieces,” Remi Guillemin, Christie’s head of watches, Europe tells Luxury. “The pandemic has definitely had an impact on the watch industry and, therefore the resale industry. During that time, we have seen an increased interest from individuals in watchmaking at a time where watchmakers faced backlogs in supply. This led to the rapid increase in pricing of specific watches in the resale market and motivated many newcomers to enter the market or ask retailers for specific pieces.”

At British auction house Christie’s, watches have become one of the main pillars of their sales categories, with online and in-person auctions of timepieces held globally throughout the year. Brands such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille are particularly popular among clients, explains Guillemin. Last year, a pre-owned 1969 Rolex Paul Newman Lemon Daytona sold at Christie’s auction for $3.8 million, while an extremely rare Richard Mille RM56-01 Tourbillon Sapphire limited-edition wristwatch, originally manufactured in 2013, scooped an impressive $4 million in the same year.

These astronomical prices prove that the preloved watch market is thriving, with collectors hungrier than ever to get their hands on the rarest creations. “Collectors today are extremely passionate and connected to the watch community,” highlights Guillemin. “Every single year, we see new individuals starting to collect at a young age. The combination of historical collectors and new young entrants makes our industry very exciting and promotes diversity in the pieces that are offered.”

I purchase pieces that I admire and want to wear and enjoy on my wrist
Hassan Akhras, founder, Arab Watch Guide

In the UAE, watch collectors have become quite the community, as like-minded enthusiasts come together to transfer knowledge and share insights of coveted brands and timepieces. But what are the die-hard collectors looking for from their watches today? And what sets the connoisseurs apart from those who see it as more of a hobby? Hassan Akhras, founder of Arab Watch Guide, an online community created in 2014 to bring together passionate watch collectors in the region, thinks there is more to collecting watches than simply an investment.

What he values most is the emotional connection to the timepieces or the brands. “As a collector, I don’t see watches as investment assets – I purchase pieces that I admire and want to wear and enjoy on my wrist,” Akhras tells Luxury. “It is very important to appreciate the brand history and heritage that usually commands the aesthetics and movement development of the watch.”

Akhras, whose watch collection includes Cartier’s Prive pieces, rare timepieces from Mont Blanc and specially commissioned items, believes there is more to collecting than simply chasing the latest on-trend model. “I don’t look at watches as investment pieces; if that was the case, I would be bound to buy the same Patek Phillipe, Audemars Piguet and Rolex watches that every single person who understands, or doesn’t understand, watches is trying to be on the list to buy,” he says.

Instead, he plays the long game, looking for timepieces that he has an emotional connection to, rather than simply a monetary gain. “It’s pure passion – I enjoy every watch I have, and each one of them has a story – a very important element that says a lot about the person’s character.”

Watchmakers are cashing in on the newfound passion among collectors for heritage pieces, with many of the top Swiss manufacturers employing teams to delve into the history of the brand’s timepieces and in many cases, track down rare watches from their owners or current keepers. Many of these are sold at auction to collectors, and others are kept within the clutches of the watchmakers and often used as inspiration or muses for modern designs.

We study our past to prepare for the future
Sebastian Vivas, museum and heritage director, Audemars Piguet

Zenith Watches, for example, recently introduced the Zenith Icons Collection – a curation of rare vintage pieces that have been sourced, restored and certified by the manufacturer. The one-of-a-kind watches have been categorised according to their heritage theme and are available to buy from the brand’s Manufacture boutique in Switzerland. Current watches on offer include a 1969 El Primero chronograph in 18K gold, as well as a 1969 signature Chronomaster. All of these watches were rare when first introduced, but their age and condition, as well as the guarantee of the brand’s warranty, make these exclusive pieces even more appealing to collectors.

At Audemars Piguet today, the watchmaker’s focus is not only on making watches; the brand itself has become a collector of some of its key historical pieces, dating back 150 years. “We have an extensive collection covering not only our own history, but also that of watchmaking. We study our past to prepare for the future,” explains Sebastian Vivas, museum and heritage director.

Adjacent to the brand’s manufacture, the Musee Atelier houses this extensive collection, as well as being a place to communicate the history of the brand through exhibitions, conferences and presentations.“ More specifically, for the collectors, our responsibility is to maintain the archives that authenticate the brand’s creations from its origins, as well as to perpetuate the know-how that enables our watches to be repaired or restored.”

Today, Audemars Piguet has become one of the most desired luxury watch brands in the world, regularly listed as part of the “grand trilogy” of watch brands alongside Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin.

With 150 years of watchmaking history, the Swiss brand has taken a lot of time to get it right. Vivas highlights the growing impact of the brand on collectors. “In the past 20 years, Audemars Piguet has grown quickly, gaining in visibility and notoriety, notably thanks to the new means of communication.

Therefore, by a natural, [or mechanical effect], the number of collectors has increased. As the historical pieces are by nature very rare, the prices have risen. The evolution expresses a form of recognition for the entire history of the manufacture, its expertise and its talents since it was founded in 1875.”

So, what is the most desired watch by collectors today? According to Vivas, it’s quite simple: “For a collector, the most desirable watches often have to be rare, historically significant, in perfect condition, well documented, beautiful and signed by a respected maker.” But the reality is something much more subjective. If the most expensive translates to you to be the most coveted, then a $4 million dollar Richard Mille may be your answer, but if you like to play the long game, source understated pieces that will stand the test of time and look out for the timeless variations that will keep ticking for centuries.

Updated: October 12, 2023, 10:01 AM