February 12 2011
You collect watches and you get the ‘right’ watch; that is one thing. But to collect watches and to get the ‘right’ watch but with just one detail different from everyone else’s… that is something else. That is what collecting is all about.” There is a Messianic glint in the eye of Jean-Frédéric Dufour, the dynamic young boss of Zenith, as he explains the appeal of decal watches, which, as well as the brand name and logo of the maker, carry an additional name or insignia marking an affiliation with another organisation or event.
This year Dufour will be launching his first set of Zenith decal watches bearing the logo of the European Space Agency on the dial to commemorate the brand’s appearance in space. When Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli arrived on the International Space Station on December 17 2010, he brought a Zenith chronograph with him. Dufour envisages a series of no more than 250 watches (pictured overleaf, from £7,400). And when the watch is unveiled at this year’s Basel watch fair in March, the European Space Agency will join a list of illustrious organisations to have lent their names, crests or insignia to the dials of watches: Nasa, various armed forces, several nation states (especially the kind run as a family business) – and Domino’s Pizza.
Yes, that is right… among the more exotic watches
to come up at auction are Rolex Air King watches decorated with the logo of the famous high-street pizza chain (a good one will fetch £5,000-£6,000). But before you sneer, it was another commercial enterprise that really kick-started the whole decal dial thing.
Watches with dials signed by famous jewellers have long been collectable: the most famous are Tiffany-signed Patek Philippes (one pictured overleaf, £216,000), which celebrate a relationship that goes back to the 19th century: Tiffany, Young & Ellis, as it was then, was selling Pateks in 1851. And it is to this sort of bond that collectors owe such treasures as watch dials co-signed by Serpico y Laino (dubbed by some as the Tiffany of Venezuela) and, a personal favourite of mine, Rolexes signed by Cartier of New York. Even today, vestiges of these ancient time-honoured relationships can be found, and the Tiffany-Patek love affair is still going.
By contrast, Comex, a French deep-sea engineering firm founded 50 years ago, does not have the same pedigree – underwater welding is hardly the stuff
of Bond Street and Fifth Avenue – and yet Rolex Submariner watches bearing the Comex logo are among the most sought-after vintage Rolex sports watches
on the market. Today you can expect to pay up to £60,000 for a perfect, rare example of a Comex from the 1970s, about 10 times the cost of a Rolex Submariner from the same period without the extra branding. And yet, vintage dealer Danny Pizzigoni, a senior partner in London’s Watch Club, says, “I can remember when people didn’t like having the Comex logo on the dial
and they would go and have the dial changed.” He adds that, whereas he used to have to explain the significance of a logo dial, and not just Comex, to his clients, they now come in asking for them.
What changed was the depth of Rolex scholarship. Upon closer examination of Rolex history, the Comex models are important because they represent early development of the deep-diving models, which later became the celebrated Sea-Dweller equipped with a valve in the side of the case that acted to relieve the build-up of pressure at depth. This knowledge made the Comex a cool watch to wear; and over time the price gap between that and a Rolex identical except for the Comex logo has widened to a gulf.
All manner of esoteric timepieces have followed. Some of the hotter decal-dialled Rolexes include the Submariner Panama, celebrating the transfer of the Panama Canal from the US to Panama (75 pieces made in 1999; about £75,000); and the Polipetto, a Sea-Dweller Ref 16600 with an octopus on the dial – 78 pieces were made in 2008 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Scuba Diving Unit of the Italian State Police. “As soon as there is an official limitation,” says Aurel Bacs, head of Christie’s watch department, “they start going for very strong money. Last May we had one that made Sfr62,500 [£42,000; pictured near left], while a blank 16600 is worth £3,000-£4,000.”
At this sort of level the difference is emotional rather than physical: the value of being a part of the history of a brand, especially an important brand, is unquantifiable. What the Comex example shows is that authenticity is important; and this is true of many of the more successful and long-standing on-dial collaborations.
One of the most popular of Omega’s celebrated Speedmasters carries an image of the Peanuts cartoon character Snoopy. For reasons best known to Nasa, the silver Snoopy is an award given to individuals or corporations making an outstanding contribution to manned space explorations. An Omega Speedmaster was the only functioning timing device on board the stricken Apollo 13 and in 2003 the brand released a watch with the Snoopy dial in a limited run of 5,441 pieces; to reflect the 142 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds of the ill-fated mission (pictured top right, £1,630 when released).
Each year Omega brings out a limited edition of the Speedmaster Moonwatch to honour some aspect of space exploration, and typically these have a special
dial. (The latest features the 1975 Apollo Soyuz with
a meteorite dial, £5,120.) “In general, the people who buy these watches are slightly different: they will have more than one,” explains Omega CEO Steven Urquhart. “They will have looked for this watch specially and
they are sensitive to the story behind it.”
Breitling, too, has been in space: one was taken on a space walk in the early 1960s by US astronaut Scott Carpenter, and this was doubtless in part due to the brand’s rock-solid aviation heritage. Among its most collectable vintage models are 1950s Navitimers bearing the winged logo of the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) – these cost from £7,500 to £10,000 from a specialist dealer. Likewise, some of the fastest-selling modern Breitlings are limited runs of watches carrying the logos of various air force aerobatics teams. This tradition began in 1984 with a special Chronomat model for the Italian Frecce Tricolori team (£6,360). “They are always strictly limited editions,” explains Breitling’s vice-president, Jean Paul Girardin. “The most recent one was for Blue Impulse, the Japanese aerobatic team, last year [about £4,950] and it is always in combination with some kind of charity donation.”
By contrast, Tag Heuer is inextricably earthbound, having a unique motorsport heritage. “As regards the association with logos, Heuer as a brand has done more than anyone with the motorsports link,” explains Paul Maudsley, international director of Bonhams’ watch department. “I have a collector who collects any watch to do with motorsport. He has 125 watches, most of them with the branding of a motorsport event or sponsor.” Many such watches were sold by Maudsley in last December’s dispersal of the Haslinger collection of motorsport-related Heuers. Once again the link could not be more authentic, as it was Jack Heuer who got the brand involved in motorsport in the first place; and it is a link that the brand continues today. “The recent Abu Dhabi Carrera Calibre S (pictured top right, Sfr 2,750 each; about £1,800) has been an amazing success, with 170 of the 200 pieces sold locally by the end of the F1 GP weekend in 2010,” says CEO Jean Christophe Babin.
But when it comes to a track record (excuse the
pun) at a motorsport event, it is hard to beat the connection between Chopard and the Mille Miglia,
the classic car event that traces the route of the famously demanding and dangerous Italian road race. Over the past 20 years, the Mille Miglia chronograph has emerged as almost a watch brand on its own (2010 version pictured on opening page, £5,630). “It took
15 years to become an icon in our collection,” says Karl Friedrich Scheufele, co-owner and co-president of Chopard, who recalls that in the early days customers asked if they could have the watch without the red arrow logo on the dial. Today, he carefully rations the appearance of the decal dial to limited-edition pieces: “The rest of the time it is written in letters and numbers. The Mille Miglia watches evoke a certain lifestyle, a certain aura, a certain feeling for people who are sensitive to the world of cars, mechanics, mechanical engineering and so on,” states Scheufele.
The decal watch as lifestyle choice has also become the speciality of Hublot. It is the policy of CEO and chairman Jean Claude Biver, the human dynamo behind the spectacular resurgence of the luxury rubber-strapped watch, that everywhere his customers go they will find a Hublot. So far this has meant decal dial watches with, among others, Monaco Yacht Club (250 pieces; Sfr16,900, about £11,300) and Manchester United (500 pieces; about £11,300). The most successful decal dial watch that Hublot has done to date was with none other than Diego “Hand of God” Maradona, who wears a brace of Hublots at all times. “The biggest demand we ever had was the Maradona watch in 2010 [pictured on previous page],” says Biver. “We made 250 pieces at Sfr16,900 and got more than 2,700 orders, so we had to disappoint almost 2,500 people.”
And just as Domino’s Pizza made a Rolex, so Biver has teamed up Hublot with another food and beverage operation, albeit one in line with the Hublot demographic. The result is very probably the ritziest of decal dials so far:
a limited run of 40 watches to mark the 40th anniversary of the GreenGo, the historic Gstaad nightclub that has been a jet-set favourite since it opened. While no pizza is served here, there is something called Toast Italien – but there all similarities with Domino’s end. The GreenGo is the kind of place that has a Salmanazar of champagne for Sfr38,500 (about £25,750) which makes the Hublot-GreenGo decal dial watch at Sfr16,900 (about £11,300; only available at the Gstaad Palace hotel) seem almost a give-away: when was the last time you bought a watch for less than half the price of a bottle of champagne?