One Collector’s Watch-Related Travels Of Late 2019: Where I’ve Been And What I’ve Learned
The last third of 2019 was a busy time for me! In addition to completing various professional activities, keeping up with other pastimes, and traveling with my wife, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a bunch of watch-related events around the globe.
While it’s tempting simply to provide a travelogue – you know the type, “On day three we had a lovely breakfast before blah blah blah . . .” – I’m hoping you’ll find it more interesting if I share some of the lessons I learned at each stop along the way. Let’s get going!
RedBar Global Meetup, New York, September 16-17
My first stop was at the inaugural all-hands meeting of the global phenomenon that is RedBar.
In addition to renewing some established friendships and meeting many watch enthusiasts, I learned a few things:
- The desire for personal – and in-person – affiliation through watches is as strong as ever. While at one time online forums (with occasional “offline” get-togethers) led the way, now RedBar and other watch clubs provide a robust, and I think enduring model for participants in the watch hobby to connect and share.
- While the RedBar model for community building clearly works, it’s not so obvious that it will be easy to convert it to a lasting profit model; not necessarily a bad thing unless that’s one of the organization’s goals.
- The emergence of a new generation of watch lovers is colliding with aspects of the maker movement and the viability of online watch marketing to provide opportunities to a growing set of American watch businesses. It was a treat to listen to Jonathan Ferrer of Brew Watches and eponymous brand founders Joshua Shapiro and Ian Schon swap tales about toolmaking and design as well as about their approaches to the market and to hear them exchange insights with Pennsylvania-based industry veteran Roland Murphy.
Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition, Singapore, October 5-7
I’d been looking forward to the renewal of Patek Philippe’s series of major public exhibitions pretty much since the moment I departed the 2017 edition in New York, and this version did not disappoint. My trip with watch buddies to enjoy both the exhibition and Singapore is chronicled in detail in my recent article, but upon reflection I’ve had some additional thoughts:
- Only Patek is Patek: within the watch world, Rolex perhaps rivals Patek Philippe for visibility but at something on the order of one million units sold each year, I’d say Rolex occupies the mass luxury space, while Patek Philippe stands above. My point’s a bigger one, though: Rolex could have mounted an exhibition, but Patek Philippe actually did, bringing treasures from across the history of timekeeping from its museum, practitioners of the artistic crafts who are at the very top of their pursuits, watchmakers who provided live demonstrations, and more.
- It is possible to have too much of a good thing. One of my pals and I each had the unexpected experience of seeing ostensibly sold-out limited-edition watches we’d been chasing in the windows of Singapore boutiques; in his case an independent piece and in mine a major brand’s anniversary reference. In both instances, the cherry atop the sundae was an offer of a significant price discount. All of this seemed too good to be true until each of us saw other examples of the same references displayed elsewhere in the city at equally large discounts! While it shouldn’t have made any difference, the drop in perceived scarcity was just enough that neither of us ended up pulling the trigger.
- Repeat after me: it’s all about the people! The exhibition was great, but my favorite part of the trip was the time we spent in quiet conversation with old friends from Singapore, catching up on recent happenings, and wearing each other’s watches.
F.P. Journe New York boutique tenth anniversary, October 16-17
Only a couple of weeks later, it was back to New York for the tenth-anniversary celebration of the city’s F.P. Journe boutique.
This two-night affair began with a reception at the boutique where we were treated to the introduction of the limited-edition Centigraphe Souverain Anniversaire New York Boutique Edition (10 examples in titanium with red gold accents, all pre-sold to brand loyalists). Find out more about the “rolling” manner of the anniversary editions in F.P. Journe Centigraphe Souverain Anniversaire: A “Rolling” Anniversary Piece.
On the following evening, we were treated to one of the most lavish watch dinners I’ve ever attended, a dressy soiree at the Metropolitan Club. I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with luminaries of the New York watch scene and, quite frankly, just soak up the atmosphere of the ballroom and its decorations.
A few reflections:
- Pro tip: when in New York don’t leave your brand-new umbrella in an umbrella stand, check it at the coat room! (I didn’t say that all of these observations were going to be profound, did I?). The soaking rain on the first evening was made just that bit more difficult to navigate without my freshly purchased – and just as rapidly purloined – bumbershoot.
- Watch people are good people: I’m constantly reminded how lucky I am to be a member of our community. I received a few mostly good-natured rebukes about my Quill & Pad article on the Journe Society watch, but it never got awkward. I also had the chance to make some new acquaintances, including a television personality who rather famously owns a Code 11.59 from Audemars Piguet and had read my article on the line’s launch not once, but several times – and who was more than gracious as we exchanged views on the watches and their marketing.
- The cult of Journe is getting wider, deeper, and younger. I’m guessing that Mr. Journe had no idea when he launched the Chronomètre Bleu that over time it would become a must-have for a generation of emerging collectors, and that it in turn would further increase interest in the classic Journe references of the past. My sense is that many Journe watches are moving from being “for those who know” to broadly sought.
Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève 2019 and the autumn auction week, Geneva, November 4-12
I’ve had an opportunity to contribute to our Quill & Pad group discussion of the 2019 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève results, but in the intervening time as I’ve talked with friends and read the reactions of enthusiasts online, I’ve been troubled by the recurring suggestion that some of the results were bought or otherwise influenced in an unsavory way.
Having been in the room, I’d be quite surprised to have these rumors confirmed, but as I’ve pondered what went on that day another thought has struck me.
Picking the best watches of the year and protecting the interests of the watch industry should be one and the same thing, but in some minds perhaps are not. I’m a pretty simple-minded fellow when it comes to rank-ordering the pre-selected watches: it’s about the watch itself within the criteria for its category, regardless of whether the maker is a big company or a small independent; the country of origin Swiss, Dutch, German, Russian, Malaysian, or Japanese; whether the brand in question has won many prizes in the past or few; or whether I’ve bought several of the maker’s watches in the past or none at all.
For some others, I sense that the calculus is a bit more complicated, and while each and every juror strives to do the right thing, the definition of “right thing” varies across the group. Sadly, when some members of the jury do veer away from focusing strictly on the merits of the individual watches in the interests of the broader perceived goal of industry welfare, the effect can be the opposite as observers become critical, or even cynical, about some winners.
The bottom line is that I fully understand that all organizational decisions have rational, emotional, and political dimensions; and I’m proud to have served as a juror and to have made friends with so many of those who were in the theater for the awards ceremony, including watch buddies of mine from England and California who traveled to Geneva just to share the occasion with me.
The GPHG events were exhilarating and exhausting, but the auction weekend followed immediately, beginning with previews at all of the auction houses and including this year’s remarkable Only Watch sale. A few conclusions:
- The flight to quality and absolute rarity continues, with excellent examples of Patek Philippe and Rolex watches continuing to bring big results but less pristine examples (such as a rare Patek Philippe Reference 3974 perpetual calendar minute repeater that failed to sell) suffering by comparison.
- Only Watch (see a thorough synopsis by our Elizabeth Doerr here) is a wonderful celebration of the human spirit, and at least some brands are also seeing it as a promotional opportunity. It takes a certain amount of courage to put your brand’s watch out there with no reserve, fully accepting that (as has happened in a few instances) it may not achieve its suggested retail price in the bidding. Of course, such a widely watched public event is also a great opportunity to showcase your brand – especially if a sympathetic bidder (who just might be you) is willing to bid the price well above the expected level, as I suspect happened in several instances in this sale. Over the years many brands have made a fine art of buying up their own pieces at auction; I’m not necessarily opposed to the practice, especially when the money goes to support a noble cause, but it’s good for the buyer to beware when considering whether a given auction price is indicative of market value.
- With prices for the best vintage Patek Philippe and Rolex examples continuing to climb other darlings are beginning to emerge, one example being a watch I’m keen to own but unwilling to buy at current values, the three-register “big eye” Type XX Breguet.
- Just because a watch is “double signed” with the name of a retailer it’s not necessarily more desirable; the Double Signed auction at Phillips had its notable moments, but for my tastes there were too many pieces that other than their double signatures weren’t that notable, and from the subdued tone in the room I wasn’t alone in my thinking.
- Rexhep Rexhepi’s star continues to rise: his Only Watch contribution sold for CHF 360,000 to a bidder I know personally, and the buzz around the watch was a highlight of the weekend.
- An auctioneer can still make an auction. Rahul Kadakia of Christie’s was brilliant once again at the helm of Only Watch, and Aurel Bacs of Phillips showed his ability to lift the energy in an auction room on several occasions. One example: a lady seated in front of me with her family bid on a lovely ladies’ watch but was outbid at the last by a vociferous fellow who from all indications had warmed up thoroughly for the evening’s proceedings at the hotel bar. Her gracious comment: “Perhaps he bought it for his wife.” Bacs’ comeback: “He’s not married!”
- After a long period of time during which watches at auctions largely followed the model of automobiles (one bought a Rolex or a Ferrari, the work of a collective), a complementary model more akin to the art world emerging (where one buys a Picasso or a Dufour, the work of an individual). Philippe Dufour and George Daniels were early indications of the trend, and now F.P. Journe seems very much in the mix. Phillips’ Alex Ghotbi in particular has been a leader in this area, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.
Dubai Watch Week, November 20-24
Just prior to the beginning of the holiday season in the United States, I had the wonderful opportunity to join Quill & Pad colleagues Ian Skellern and Elizabeth Doerr in Dubai for the 2019 Watch Week and to serve as the moderator of one of the panel discussions in the Horology Forum.
Dubai Watch Week receives well-deserved rave reviews from pretty much everyone I’ve heard from, is a consumer-centered event that seeks to introduce new participants to the world of watches as well as provide in-depth conversations to engage existing devotees.
Here’s what I learned:
- The Seddiqi family, founder and host of Dubai Watch Week, knows what it is doing! Having seen the level of organization and imagination behind Watch Week as well as having experienced the warmth and hospitality of everyone involved with it, I’m not at all surprised that they are immensely successful as retailers and that Watch Week has already taken on legendary status.
- Consumer events and trade shows are two different things, and many existing shows risk being caught in the middle. Dubai Watch Week is unapologetically consumer based but not sales-oriented, which contributes substantially to its charm. At Ian’s panel, Baselworld boss Michel Loris-Melikoff endured a number of suggestions that Baselworld should be just like DWW; in my view, that would be an immense leap for what has long been first and foremost a trade-centered show with a superficial level of public access. The newly renamed Watches & Wonders seems to be attempting a straddle between trade and consumers; its organizers may have no choice, but any of the major events losing track of whom they are serving, with what benefits, and to achieve what outcomes, are going to be in big trouble. DWW works because it has crystal clarity about all of these factors and acts accordingly.
- The Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève announced a relaunch of its model based on an academy of hundreds of participants who will nominate watches for consideration and whose votes will determine the pre-selections for consideration by next year’s jury. I think this model has great promise, especially if it increases the number of participating brands. But if the makeup of the academy is dominated by industry insiders rather than by individuals close to, or participating in, the market there’s a real risk that the “protecting industry interests” problem I described earlier will only become more severe. For now, I’m an enthusiastic supporter.
- Santa Claus is real! My flight home went directly over the North Pole, and I can assure you that the lights at his workshop were clearly visible as we passed by. Honest.
Now that the holidays have passed, and with the traditional Geneva January show having moved to April, I’ll be turning my attention to a couple of Why I Bought It pieces and some other articles. In the meantime, feel free to post some of your favorite learnings from your watch-related travels in the comment section.