GaryG’s Year In Review 2020: Trends, Notable Watches, Favorite Photos, Plus Watches He Bought And Watches He’d Like To Buy (And You Might Consider)
Well, that was quite a year! Lives, countries, economies, and political systems turned upside down and inside out – and uncertain prospects for the future as we head into 2021. And, yet, through it all the close bonds among the members of our watch-crazy community and the efforts of the creators of astonishing timepieces have brought comfort and more than a bit of welcome distraction from the cares of the day.
As I tie a bow on my seventh (!) year as a contributor here at Quill & Pad, I’d like to thank my colleagues here – especially Elizabeth and Ian – and give not just a tip of the hat but a deep bow to my fellow contributors for their great writing and fascinating perspectives. We may not be the biggest or the flashiest, but I’m really proud of the skillful and honest work that my friends here generate on a continued basis.
On with the retrospective! Let’s meander through some observations on the state of the industry, 2020 occurrences, and my own year in watches with some of my favorite photos from this year’s shooting interspersed to keep it lively.
The year that was: a completely personal view of industry trends and events
Innovation is alive, well, and expanding in the watch industry and presents both threats and opportunities. New communication methods, sales channels, brands, collaborations, and even economic and financial models are shaking up the traditional, product-centric world we’ve known.
Some of this has been pandemic-driven, but much of it parallels the developments we’ve seen in other businesses. As major brands increasingly focus on direct-to-consumer contact and boutique sales, the number of online publications pivoting into watch retailing and watch clubs commissioning their own watches also seems inexorably on the rise.
And watch resellers, once consigned to the shadowy business of gray marketing excess retailer inventory at deep discounts, have established themselves as kingmakers in the world of small-volume, high-quality brands by taking on extensive inventories of pre-owned pieces, promoting aggressively, and managing the flow of pieces into the market effectively to drive prices up.
At the same time, a new generation of entrepreneurial independent makers is delighting us with both the reinvigoration of traditional watchmaking methods and the creation of exciting, or at minimum successful, design-led brands.
At the high end we see the continued success of Romain Gauthier and Rexhep Rexhepi (Akrivia), among others, as well as the emergence of new faces such as the Peterman Bédat team and Rémy Cools.
In the mid-range, entrants such as Torsti Laine are straddling the divide between fully handmade watches and those assembled from insourced parts; Ming Watches is steadily migrating upmarket with its design-centered approach; and in more affordable pieces Kurono Tokyo is a great example of direct marketing meeting inspired styling within a low-cost delivery model.
And for only a few hundred dollars, you can join a bunch of my friends in buying a vintage-looking quartz watch from Dan Henry – although I won’t be joining you.
Collaborations are also quite the rage these days: I very nearly bought a Louis Erard x Alain Silberstein regulator, admired the MB&F x H. Moser and H. Moser x MB&F watches quite a bit, and Kari Voutilainen and his Comblémine operation seem involved with pretty much everyone else, from dial-making for many other independents to the co-branded “By Voutilainen” watches with Schwarz Etienne to the first (and, sadly, perhaps last) watches from Shane Tulloch, with the further involvement of super-designer Eric Giroud.
You, too, can have a mid-line timepiece brand. Well, you can as long as you have the drive, business savvy, and ability to form the right partnerships! Ming to some extent helped to pave the road, and now brands like Massena Lab have issued multiple references – in Massena’s case, at first in collaboration with established makers like Habring2 and more recently solely under his own label.
It is possible to get it wrong, however; witness Hodinkee’s attempted extension from commissioning and co-branding limited-edition watches with Vacheron Constantin, the Grönefelds, and others into a self-branded timepiece: the much-ridiculed Hodinkee Travel Clock.
Navigating the world of brand relevance from channel to product is not easy: I’d buy a Tiffany-stamped Patek Philippe, but likely not a Tiffany brand watch, for instance. Branding aside, I’ll leave the wisdom of issuing a $6,000 travel clock in the midst of a worldwide pandemic lockdown to your own judgment.
You, too, can be a watch retailer. The blurring of watch media, enthusiast organizations, and watch retailing continues. Groups like Redbar and Collective and private clubs including a WhatsApp group I’m in are commissioning and distributing watches.
And while most watch-related websites have been selling straps, rolls, and other accessories for a while, now sites like Revolution are joining the rush into retail with a variety of limited-edition partnerships with brands including IWC, Bulgari, and Blancpain. Even YouTuber Teddy Baldassarre now represents 26 brands, from Casio to Zenith, as an authorized dealer on his website.
Everything can be virtual, except that it can’t. We’ve all now become accustomed to seeing watch industry figures doing informal online video chats, and major events such as Dubai Watch Week’s Horology Forum have been delivered via virtual formats in 2020 as well.
Phillips conducted its New York auction in December with auctioneer Aurel Bacs shown in front of a video screen in London with cutaway shots to phone banks of specialists who were actually in different locations – and all in all it worked fairly well!
With these experiences and the apparent willingness of many to buy watches they haven’t yet handled, it would be tempting to conclude that the era of in-person dealing is now behind us.
Not so quick, though – I’ll ask you to reflect on whether your watch-related activities in 2020 have had the richness of those in past years. Whether we’re talking about travel to watch shows or ateliers, trying on watches at a store, or just meeting with your watch buddies for lunch, there’s something about this hobby that benefits – a lot – from the physical presence of others and the tactile experience with the timepieces themselves.
Already we’ve seen the cancellation of Watches and Wonders Geneva 2021; I for one am longing for the return of even the most modest of in-person gatherings with friends.
Everything is limited, except it’s not. I’ve written here before about the phenomenon of artificial scarcity, and if anything 2020 saw the deepening of this development as hordes of buyers rushed after the consensus “hot” watches and sellers caught on to the allure of limitation.
For direct sellers, the badge of honor became how few minutes – or seconds – were needed to sell out an allocation of a new piece; at many big brands steel sport watches were impossible to find or carefully channeled to long-time clients or buyers of bundles of pieces.
Of course, there are abundant supplies (subject to pandemic-driven production bottlenecks) of very fine watches out there that aren’t among the few that are breathlessly sought by the hordes.
For example, when circumstances permit I’d encourage you to try on a Parmigiani Tondagraph GT, one of the 2020 Breitling revival pieces, or any of a variety of other watches from smaller brands and independent makers. You may not buy any of them, but at a minimum you will refine your own tastes and just may find your way to future purchases that are not on the beaten path.
The big brands are still out there. Many of the big folks, including Rolex and Patek Philippe, had relatively quiet years for new introductions, although that Patek Philippe Reference 6301P sonnerie was certainly a doozy!
A. Lange & Söhne seems to me to be getting some of its mojo back, in part due to inadvertent (production limited) scarcity of the Odysseus pieces and (planned) scarcity of the super-looking Honeygold 175th Anniversary watches.
Over at Audemars Piguet, some more interesting dial variants for the CODE 11.59 line have perhaps allowed the brand to crawl out of the deepest part of the crater that it dug with its catastrophic initial launch strategy, and the (Re)Master Chronograph gives me hope that it can navigate safely to a post-Royal Oak world.
And as a long-time Overseas wearer I’m pleased to see that this Vacheron Constantin line is finally getting some love from collectors.
Color is the new color. More about this in my own purchases, but blue continues its popularity, green either is or isn’t going to replace it, and multiple brands including Rolex and H. Moser gave us a variety of cheery colored dials with which to comfort ourselves.
The year in auctions, in brief
I will confess that I didn’t quite know what to expect when the auction houses went back into action; while I suspected that there was some pent-up demand, I’m also so dedicated to inspecting auction pieces in person that I wasn’t sure that collectors would jump into the virtual sale world with both feet.
As we saw, I needn’t have been concerned as there were apparently a lot of bored people with money or true believers in the ongoing appreciation of desirable watches out there. Most (and at some auctions, all) pieces sold, and for watches that are in vogue at the moment prices were through the roof.
If you were selling a Philippe Dufour Simplicity or early F.P. Journe brass-movement piece, your timing was outstanding. Have watches, or at least some watches, become a true asset class? I’m not convinced, but clearly there are folks out there who disagree with me.
At the same time, we saw what I can only characterize as a spate of either low-information buying or aggressive aftermarket price support by makers as there were many broadly-available watches that sold for prices well above prevailing market rates.
And in the ebb and flow there remained some pieces whose sale prices seemed below recent results, including a mouth-watering Patek Philippe Reference 2438 at Phillips Hong Kong that, had I found $276,000 in change under my sofa cushions, I certainly would have made a strong run for. Doesn’t hurt to dream!
Watches I’d buy with my money and yours
This part is a bit tough as there weren’t that many newly introduced watches I handled this year, but here goes.
- Watch of the year for me was the Petermann Bédat 1967 Deadbeat Seconds, with its revival of a classic dead-seconds mechanism, beautiful movement, and striking dial-side design.
- Watch I’d buy with your money: I’m tempted to say the Patek Philippe Reference 6301P sonnerie, but it would be a close race with the Greubel Forsey GMT Sport – make mine the all-grey debut version.
- With my own money, it would have to be the 1815 Honeygold Rattrapante from A. Lange & Söhne – with production limited to 100, however, not an easy feat!
What I did buy
If I cheat and include late 2019, watches I’ve added over the past 13 months include:
- A. Lange & Söhne Odysseus in stainless steel with blue dial
- Ming Model 17.06 Monolith
- Kurono Tokyo by Hajime Asaoka Anniversary Mori with green dial
- Mathey-Tissot Type XX vintage “big eye” chronograph
- Rolex Oyster Perpetual 41 turquoise blue dial, delivered just a week ago
Against pal Terry’s portfolio model, there’s decent balance: I’d call the A. Lange & Söhne and Mathey-Tissot foundational pieces, the Ming and Kurono a mix of patronage and fun, and the Rolex (expect a “Why I Bought It” soon) a fun foundational watch.
I’m also very much in “selling to buy” mode these days as I’ve pledged not to dip into my piggy bank any further for watch purchases; at some point I’ll come back to that and give a sense of which beloved pieces moved on to new homes in 2020, both to fund the purchases above and to build up reserves for a couple of significant pieces that I’m hoping to have in hand during the first quarter of 2021.
Please stay tuned for those as well as a bunch of other watch-related reporting and musings as the coming year unfolds. In the meantime, I’ll look forward to reading some of your own reflections on 2020 in the comments section. I wish you a happy and healthy 2021!