Are Today’s Vintage Watch Buyers Killing Watchmaking?
In 2019, I attended a watch event on the United States West Coast that, among other things, featured a “collectors’ panel” of folks talking about their watch assortments and interests.
The star of the show was a young enthusiast whose name I didn’t know, but who seemed to be very well known and admired by the audience made up largely of younger collectors (of course, at this point, the term “younger” applies to the majority of enthusiasts and collectors wherever I go!).
It was when the conversation turned to the contents of the panelists’ collections that I started to puzzle a bit. The featured collector was wearing a “Paul Newman” Daytona and a “Steve McQueen” Explorer II, both vintage pieces by Rolex.
And as he ticked through the top pieces in his collection, I didn’t hear him mention a single contemporary-production watch. And as the discussion unfolded, my sense was that this was seen by both the panelists and the audience members as somewhere between perfectly normal and highly desirable.
As I reflected on the session, I started thinking about the significant number of watch lovers I’ve met who are just starting out on their journeys and whose tastes center very much on decades-old pieces from brands including Rolex, Heuer, Universal Genève, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Patek Philippe, sometimes to the exclusion of modern timepieces.
To the extent that these new enthusiasts represent the future of the watch market, is it possible that their enthusiasm for the past will prove highly damaging, or even lethal, to the industry’s future?
Looking to the past
Last December I had the opportunity to attend several of the panel discussions at Hodinkee’s tenth-anniversary event, which included sessions on both modern and vintage watches, an example of the latter being and a particularly intriguing session with design chiefs Guido Terreni of Bulgari, Christian Selmoni of Vacheron Constantin, and Christian Knoop of IWC.
During the latter discussion, moderator Stephen Pulvirent asked about the “trend” of re-issuing updated versions of brands’ vintage watches and what it might signify.
Selmoni suggested that he senses a “nostalgia for the analogue world,” which I found reasonable. But I thought that Knoop really hit the nail on the head when he suggested that, “The western world was looking at the future as a better place to be until a certain point in the past century.”
To the extent that the future is seen as the place to be, it makes perfect sense that the center of gravity for the design of everything from cars to furniture to airplanes and locomotives to watches is futuristic. When the present and future are seen as threatening, complex, and perhaps ultimately apocalyptic, I don’t think that it really shouldn’t surprise us that an emerging generation is eager both to idealize the past and seek to acquire objects from earlier times.
Isn’t it good to value past achievements?
We’ve all heard enough times that a well-made watch is created to last for generations. And since generations pass, it is inevitable that watches made years ago do, and should, make their way back into the marketplace and into the collections of enthusiasts.
As regular readers know, I’ve bought for my own collection a few vintage pieces that I feel are particularly notable as well as a “fun” vintage piece or two whose look I enjoy and whose value doesn’t preclude routine daily wear – such as my Vacheron & Constantin Reference 4560 triple calendar.
At the extreme, I can’t begrudge collectors who have deep interest in watches or makers from a particular era and major on them in their buying any more than I would send a nasty letter to a collector of Etruscan vases from the seventh century B.C.E. for overlooking the work of today’s Native American potters.
Where I get off the boat:
- When a herd mentality emerges, in which a small subset of “cool” pieces is designated as must-haves by online sources, auction houses, dealers, or collectors who just happen to own them, and the swarm to buy them begins.
- When we are at risk that a substantial portion of the next generation of those with the interest and the means to support to a healthy, ongoing watch industry will largely or entirely exclude the work of living watchmakers from their collections.
- When the concept of patronage of watchmaking by collectors is replaced by the practice of collector-investors swapping money among themselves for a set of vintage pieces that they treat as an asset class.
I’ll come back to the topic of watches as an investment (or not) in a later article, and part of that will be a discussion of the perceived investment value of not only a select set of vintage watches but also modern pieces such as steel Rolex sport watches. But for now let’s focus on the risk of wounding or killing the watchmaking art by enthusiasts failing to allocate resources to sustaining it.
I’ve long held to my pal Terry’s portfolio view of collecting: that a certain portion of one’s watch spending should go to fun pieces, another to foundational pieces, and the third portion to patronage. And I periodically evaluate my collection to make sure I’m comfortable with the balance across these categories.
Others are under no obligation to act accordingly, but if we get into a situation in which a larger and larger proportion of buyers are focusing solely on what they believe to be “foundational” pieces because popular opinion tells them so, and within that they are devoted to a subset of watches made decades ago, there’s a real risk that the already-tenuous hold that today’s innovative watchmakers have on survival may slip away entirely.
Do I believe that you can be a collector of a living art form without also to some extent being a patron of that art? I do not.
Do today’s makers bear any responsibility?
While we can’t really blame today’s manufacturers for going back into their vaults, pulling out appealing designs from their patrimonies, and re-issuing slightly modernized versions, it is also incumbent on existing brands to paint a vision of the future of watchmaking that is exciting, engaging, and truly new.
As Bulgari’s Terreni said at the Hodinkee session I attended, “A white piece of paper is a beautiful thing to attack!”
Among the many reasons that I am so devoted to independent watchmakers is that they meld the past and the future in an almost magical way.
Legends like Dufour ensure that the handcrafts of traditional watchmaking endure; the Voutilainens and Halters of the watch world do the same while developing fascinating variations on timekeeping themes; creators like Rexhepi, Gauthier, Greubel Forsey, and the Grönefelds mix deep respect for classical methods with innovative forms and techniques.
And at the extreme, Büsser and his Friends and the Urwerk team, among others, attack that figurative piece of white paper with gusto and success.
Along with the finest efforts from major brands who seek to bring the best of the past into the future, it is these independent makers, in my view, who are creating tomorrow’s collectible watches today. And their work fully merits the attention of all generations of watch enthusiasts.
Is the new generation of vintage collectors killing watchmaking?
Having pondered it for a good while, my conclusion is: not yet.
Among other things, I’m heartened that many of my friends who are prominent dealers or auctioneers of vintage timepieces are also avid and publicly visible collectors and promoters of independent watches.
It’s also great to see houses like Phillips devote portions of their auction catalogs to modern independents as well as the emergence of specialized dealers like A Collected Man which are creating active and liquid markets for the best independent pieces.
While I remain concerned about the 20- and 30-somethings I meet who seem to have tunnel vision limited to a select set of vintage brands, I am encouraged that these new members of our community are building a real enthusiasm for timepieces. And I hope that as their tastes evolve their interests will broaden to include an interest in the pieces being made today that will become tomorrow’s landmarks.
When reverence for the accomplishments of the past and a healthy willingness to learn from past failures goes away, we are all poorer.
But when the past becomes more important than the future, both the promise of the path ahead and the living legacy of the past can be lost.
* This article was first published on September 12, 2019 at Are Today’s Vintage Watch Buyers Killing Watchmaking?