OVER the past year, as many luxury sectors struggled under the weight of the pandemic, a few categories soared in interest and value, prominently including vintage watches. Sotheby's, for example, reported in December 2020 that its global auction sales of timepieces had reached US$97.5 million last year, with more than 140 online sales totalling US$47.4 million - almost eight times the number of sales and five times the value achieved in 2019.
Meanwhile, exports of new Swiss watches declined by 21.8 per cent in value, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, due in part to months-long factory closings.
A recovery for watchmakers appears to be happening, and many showed new wares this month at the Watches and Wonders trade show. But there is no doubt that the vintage market is the strongest it's ever been.
After all, there was a certain appeal to vintage in a particularly trying year. There is nostalgia for a bygone era of design, an interesting backstory or notable provenance to adopt into your life story, the soothing diversion of going down rabbit holes of historical research in spare time, and even a sense of triumph when a coveted piece is found at last - or won after a battle at auction.
As always, there are opportunities to possess, at a relatively affordable price, a watch model or brand that - if sought out new - would be in reach for only the most connected or affluent.
Among timepiece aficionados, who have gotten more serious as the field of watch collecting has become hotter in the past 10 years, there is debate. In buying new, one must often try to get on a waiting list for a trendy debut. Or one can buy an easily secured new timepiece that everyone else will have. Those prospects are weighted against hunting down an historical piece, a process over which one might have a little more control. At the end, one is left with something more unique that has proven to hold its value over time.
This is a fair argument. But this month, as the very best watchmaking companies debut new models, it's worth considering the wonder and glory of a totally fresh timepiece - and the benefits of owning something made with the most modern technology.
Ruediger Albers, president of Wempe USA Inc, sells timepieces made by the likes of Rolex, Patek Phillippe, Tudor, Cartier, and TAG Heuer. Having watched some of the most coveted watches in the world fly from his tables, he cites the peace of mind offered by warranties from manufacturers and others, as well as the greater ease of servicing due to the availability of parts.
"Today, many of the brands we carry have vintage-inspired designs but with the highest level of reliability, often increased power reserve, scratch-resistant materials - all thanks to modern technology," Mr Albers argues. "Often, these watches can be submerged into water without any concern about aged gaskets that could cause a poorly serviced vintage watch to fail. With limited spare parts available, that could mean the end of the watch and thereby, your investment."
Julien Tornare is the chief executive officer of Zenith, which famously mined its mid-20th century archive in recent years to produce vintage-flavoured contemporary pieces. "Owning a vintage watch is like owning a piece of history - not of the brand and the model itself but also of the owners of that specific piece that have come before you," he says. "It also has a distinct personality that comes with time, unique to each specific piece, like patina."
Mr Tornare argues that by buying a vintage-inspired new watch, you get the best of both worlds. "You can own a piece of history while at the same time taking advantage of the latest technological advancements."
There is also the draw of being the first to own a new technology. This month, Frederique Constant released a watch with a new "monolithic" silicon oscillator, which allows it the highest frequency of any mechanical watch on the market. Also this month, Panerai created a dive watch made of 98.6 per cent recycled materials, and Bulgari compressed a perpetual calendar complication into a wafer-thin titanium case less than 6 mm thick in its latest record-setting Octo Finissimo model. Because these things have never been done in watchmaking, buyers will acquire exciting pieces of history.
Indeed, if finding a new watch with long-term value and collectability is of concern to you, there are several places to look. Try a watch with a new innovation from a big, established brand such as those just mentioned. Or consider such independent, boutique watchmakers as MB&F, Laurent Ferrier, and Greubel Forsey, which make limited runs of watches featuring wildly creative approaches to timekeeping, with beautiful machinery showcased on jaw-dropping dials. Whether futuristic or classic in style, many of the finest examples instantly become collectible classics whose interesting looks always start conversations.
Jared Silver, president of California-based watch and jewelry house Stephen Silver, is a champion of such brands. "Our clients value both collectability and financial performance. In selecting our watch partners, we gravitated towards the independent brands because we believe they have the most potential out of all the sectors in the watch industry to fulfil both considerations." He adds: "Vintage pieces are sought after because they were the most creative or cutting-edge pieces of their era. I would urge customers to use the same yardstick when considering new watches." BLOOMBERG