WHEN renowned Italian watch collector John Goldberger opened up the back-case of one of his beloved watches with a cheese knife during a 2013 Hodinkee interview at a cafe in Geneva, he opened a super rare watch.
But the vintage chronograph he pried open could have turned out to be a can of worms if he had been only a novice just starting out to collect such classic speed recording devices.
Connoisseurs of mechanical timepieces are often intrigued by watches with complications - and chronographs are one of them. The world "chronograph" comes from a combination of the Greek words "chronos" (time) and "graph" (writing) and literally means "time writer", as ancient chronographs measured elapsed intervals by depositing a drop of ink on a paper dial or strip.
In 1844, Adolphe Nicole invented a small heart-shaped switching mechanism which allows the immediate return of a chronograph hand to its zero position, similar to a car's clutch, which temporarily connects and disconnects the stopwatch function with the watch's basic movement. This updated version of the chronograph became the base module for most ordinary chronographs.
Although ordinary chronographs can stop infinitely many intervals of time, they can only stop those intervals sequentially rather than simultaneously. To rectify this shortcoming, 19th century watchmakers devised a two-handed chronograph, known commonly as split seconds chronograph or rattrapante.
But chronographs have long since ceased making marks on paper and, of late, have instead been making waves and setting records at major auctions. And whatever is true of ordinary chronographs is even truer for rattrapante models.
Incidentally, the watch Mr Goldberger shared in the interview was a 1940s Rolex rattrapante Ref 4113. It's the largest wristwatch Rolex ever made, boasting a 44mm case. Twelve pieces of the watch were made for the Italian army, and only eight are known to exist in the world today.
Prior to Mr Goldberger's interview in November 2013, Christie's in May that year sold a similar reference of the Rolex rattrapante for 1.107 million Swiss Francs (CHF) (S$1.55 million). After the interview in June 2016, Phillips auctioned off another piece at more than CHF2.4 million by Phillips.
The vintage watch market has been growing at an exponential rate in the past 10 years and now, more than ever, collectors are willing to pay hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars for a rare vintage watch.
Auctioneers have been accused of hyping up rare timepieces at major auctions, but buyers of these record-breaking watches are wealthy and intelligent individuals who are very good at managing their money.
They are great in making shrewd decisions and extremely sensitive and responsive to rarity and beauty. Those hands raised at major auctions were calculated actions and by no means impulsive. Many have come to realise that quality vintage pieces will retain or even gain value over time.
Collectors desire exclusivity and vintage watches provide that uniqueness through their rarity, good old days' craftsmanship, distinctiveness and history.
When Jean-Claude Biver, director of timepieces at LVMH group and a passionate vintage Patek Philippe collector, was asked about his take on the rise of the prices and values of vintage watches, he quipped with a laughter and I quote: "People want to buy something they cannot buy . . . but if you have money and you buy a watch that other people can buy also, how are you different? You are just another guy who bought another one million dollar watch. But if it is a classic watch . . . you buy exclusivity, you buy individuality, you have something that people don't have."
Aurel Bacs, the auctioneer extraordinaire of Phillips Watches, once said: "I have always admired the way things age. It's like wine, nature and time create amazing changes that man can never replicate with his meddling . . . but age has to occur naturally, and when it does, it makes those watches absolutely unique."
These statements pretty much sum up the desirability of vintage watches and explain why major auction houses have been raking up millions with their hammers and, as of May 2016, Phillips Watches' Spring 2016 auction singularly registered nearly US$53 million.
Collectors' taste have clearly changed over the last decade and more are learning about vintage, loving the natural imperfections and embracing timepieces which are perennially more endearing than the newer astronomically priced pieces designed with computer programmes and effortlessly churned out through the conveying belts.
While vintage Patek Philippe and Rolex chronographs continue to lead the pack of record-breaking auction results, these stellar transactions have practically outpriced most collectors, and as they start to look for greener pastures, the lush landscape is no longer privileged to just these few big brands.
On Dec 15, 2015, Christie's auctioned off a 1958 Cal.321 Omega Speedmaster Ref 2915-2 for a whopping US$118,750. In May 2016, four Heuer chronographs went under the hammer for a combined US$461,333 at Sotheby's and Phillips' auctions. More recently on July 2, 2016, a 1960s First Generation Heuer Autavia, Ref 2446 was sold for over US$57,000, but the result still somehow disappointed onlookers as many expected it to be hammered for over US$100.000.
Phillips' START-STOP-RESET auction in May 2016 also saw some lesser known chronographs being sold for prices beyond the expectations and belief of most collectors.
Among the 88 pieces auctioned, a 1940s Cyma anti-magnetic chronograph was sold for CHF15,000, a 1940s Eterna chronograph for CHF17,500, a 1960s Mathey Tissot Type XX for CHF32,500, one Eberhard & Co Valjoux 86 Split Seconds for CHF45,000 as well as an oversized Longines Cal.12.68 Single-Button Flyback aviator's chronograph for CHF45,000, and the list goes on.
These results awed most collectors and rippled the watch markets as many collectors and dealers alike started to cast their net wider across auctions and social media (such as watch forums, Facebook and Instagram) in the hope of scoring some special pieces before prices escalated beyond reach. Consequently, a 1960s Cal.321 Omega Speedmaster Ref 2998-2 with a tropical brown dial and lollipop hand was sold for US$52,100 on Ebay in June 2016.
Hodinkee curated and sold a 1960s Enicar Aqua Graph Reference 072-02-02 for US$6,500. Closer at home in Singapore, one Universal Geneve Tricompax with exotic dial was sold for over US$30,000. For reference purposes, a good condition Longines Cal.30CH Ref 6474 would bring in about US$10,000 while a Longines 13ZN-12 ref 23086 in steel would probably cost at least US$50,000 to US$60,000, making it one of the most expensive Longines watches other than the Siderograph.
START, STOP AND RESET
While the accuracy of a watch's oscillation rate increases in direct proportion to the precision of the balance's isochronism, the value of a vintage chronograph is however influenced by many factors other than its condition, branding, movement calibre, aesthetics and market sentiments. So, while recent auction results seem to show an upward trend in the value appreciation of rare vintage chronographs, one must recognise that the frenzy for vintage watches tends to be cyclical and, from a watch-collecting perspective, placing too much emphasis on financial gains often erodes the joy of collecting.
But you would be forgiven if you are jumping for joy with your prodigious collection of notable chronographs purchased years ago. And for those of us who do not own a stable of these revered chronographs, we should probably start looking at vintage chronographs more seriously but don't stop at just the big brands, it is about time we reset our perceptions on the lesser known chronographs.
As the desirability of vintage chronographs increases, and the numbers become more finite, their prices and values will naturally rise and exemplary vintage pieces will continue to stand firm against fleeting trends. Quite simply,classics live longer. This has always been so and will remain so in the future.
- The writer, a vintage watch enthusiast, is the owner and curator of a vintage watch gallery in Singapore.