Watches & Jewellery

Time and time again

Such is the appeal of certain classic timepieces that watchmakers are now offering vintage models alongside reissued designs. Nick Foulkes reports.

November 19 2009
Nick Foulkes

There used to be an advertising campaign for a used-car dealership that had the catchy slogan “Treating used cars like new”. The link between secondhand cars and haute horlogerie might not be immediately apparent, but stay with me.

These days there is scarcely a leading luxury watch company that has not forged some kind of co-branding deal with a high-end car maker, but the snappy slogan sprang to mind as I walked through Royal Arcade, just off London’s Bond Street, and passed Royal Arcade Watches. What used to be an old-fashioned secondhand watch shop, with a sombre interior and a ticking, longcase clock, has been reborn as a modern showroom with blond wood, handsome vitrines and the latest lighting. It even has a new name: Watch Club.

In fact, the only old thing about the shop is the stock: vintage Rolexes and Breitlings, displayed with a Bond Street window dresser’s care. “When I opened the shop 14 years ago we only had one watch in the window,” explains Watch Club’s senior partner Danny Pizzigoni. “That was fine, but I wanted to do it in a slightly more elegant way. We used to sell ‘Paul Newman’ Daytonas [a sought-after style of Rolex chronograph from the late 1960s and early 1970s] for £10,000 – but now that they are selling for £50,000-£60,000, we have to be much more serious.” And the story of Watch Club is a microcosmic example of what has happened to the trade in what used to be secondhand and are now vintage wristwatches.

Nearby in Burlington Arcade is the Vintage Watch Company, which specialises in vintage Rolexes. With around 750 timepieces in stock at any time, the choice is remarkable, offering a serious alternative to buying a new watch: watches are even sold with a two-year international guarantee. Old watches offer a new dimension of enjoyment: for instance, customers can select a watch from their birth year. And so the past is becoming part of the mainstream for watch buyers, with working and wearable vintage pieces sitting alongside new watches in the horological wardrobes of many men.

For the serious horolophile, an interest in the past is axiomatic and this is certainly reflected at Marcus, where some of the most innovative modern watchmaking – for instance, pieces by Urwerk (from £35,000) – is offered alongside a collection of vintage watches. As eponymous proprietor Marcus Margulies puts it with characteristic frankness, “It’s like art – the great [vintage] stuff is worth money, the rest is buttons.”

Indeed, the parallel with contemporary art is a valid one as the boom in postwar branded timepieces is a relatively recent phenomenon, with auction houses doing much to create a market that barely existed 30 years ago. Aurel Bacs, the co-international head of Christie’s watch department in Geneva, creates auction catalogues that glamorise the watches coming up for sale and are in themselves collectable reference works. Moreover, watch companies have realised the power of vintage designs, issuing remakes of much-loved classics from Patek Philippe’s Nautilus (from £13,550) to Girard-Perregaux’s 1945 (from £5,900), Breitling’s Navitimer (from £3,800) and Omega’s Ploprof (short for plongeurs professionels, from £4,600). Most serious brands now have their own museums, with the Patek Philippe museum in Geneva being a collection of international importance.

But from a commercial position, until recently the most a serious watch company would have to do with a vintage piece would be to repair and authenticate it. But now there is a growing acknowledgment among brands that, as well as being a fecund ground for design inspiration and a way of connecting with the – dread term – DNA of the marque, the vintage timepiece market is something in which they should be involved in a more active way.

In this matter, it is interesting to note that a jeweller rather than a watchmaker has led the way. In a handful of Cartier stores around the world, in key cities and resorts such as London, New York, Hong Kong and St Moritz, it is possible to buy vintage Cartier watches from the 1900s to the early 1970s. “It is nothing new for Cartier,” claims Bernard Berger, the man who superintends what Cartier calls its Tradition programme. “Louis Cartier used to buy old watches and clocks back from clients. The only difference today is that we keep pieces for the Cartier Collection.”

However, as Berger admits, the sale of restored vintage pieces came about as the by-product of a heritage drive by the company. “Until 10 or 15 years ago we kept most of our purchases for our own collection.” As well as watches, Berger was buying back jewellery and objets, then using them to mount exhibitions, such as the Cartier 1900-1939 show held in 1997 at the Met in New York and London’s British Museum. “As interest in vintage Cartier grew, we started receiving more requests for vintage pieces. Then we thought, ‘If clients are buying from the auctions and trade, why not buy from us?’ So we built a restoration workshop in Geneva that specialised in vintage pieces,” he says.

“The reason we have been successful with some clients is that they have bought something for a low price at an auction but then spent as much again to put it back in good condition. Buying from us, they get a guarantee and an after-sales service; more­over, we can document and date the pieces, which nobody else can do. And it provides an opportunity for us to build up our own expertise in terms of watch-making and restoration.”

However, buying vintage timepieces from Cartier is not cheap. At the top are the fabled art deco “mystery” clocks, which come up rarely and sell for six-figure sums; a vintage Tank wristwatch can be had from £10,000. This service is aimed more at the watch collector, who, like Cartier’s suave UK MD Arnaud Bamberger, likes to own new and vintage models and wants all of them to work. “From time to time I love to wear an old Tank from the 1930s or 1940s,” explains Bamberger. “At Cartier we launch new watches every year but we also have the historical pieces, which are timeless and still the most beautiful things in the world. It is a wonderful service to be able to offer to those clients who appreciate Cartier’s past as well as its present.”

This idea of a client-led service is also at the heart of Vacheron Constantin’s vintage offer from its boutique on the Quai de l’Ile in the historic centre of Geneva and its flagship store in Shanghai, which is located in an art deco villa. “We don’t really address the collector,” admits Dominique Bernaz, director of Maison Vacherin Constantin & Atelier Cabinotiers’ Special Order programme. “We address the individual who wants to own the watch of their father or grandfather. We are not in competition with dealers or auction houses; our prices are higher,” he says candidly. For instance, a minute repeater pocket watch from 1907 would cost SFr42,000, while a classic two-hand wristwatch from the 1950s would cost SFr8,000. “But we do give another service in that the customer can feel comfortable about the watch they are buying,” he adds.

What this means is that the experience of buying a vintage Vacheron, sometimes more than a century old, becomes as close as is possible to buying a new watch. It comes in a box, with a certificate of authenticity and a manufacturer’s guarantee for a year. But although the experience may be just like buying a 21st-century watch, the timepiece itself has the limitations of the era in which it was made. In the modern world we have come to expect our watches to function under all sorts of conditions; we put them on and forget about them, something that you cannot do with a watch made in the middle of the last century. “They may not even be dust-proof, let alone water-resistant,” explains Bernaz. “Very often we receive them for repair and the customer says, ‘I forgot, I went into the shower with my watch on.’”

However, “often” is a relative term; Bernaz explains that Vacheron Constantin can only manage to bring 30 or so vintage pieces to the market in a year without disrupting the production schedule of the manufacture. “For us, it is a lot of work. There is the time it takes to research and find the watches and then there is the work we put into restoring them. It is almost more work than making a new watch.”

These considerations become more acute when a brand is making watches on an industrial scale. Vacheron Constantin makes only a few thousand watches a year; and from 1919, when Cartier’s Tank was introduced, until 1969, only 5,829 were sold. But with a brand such as Omega a production run is counted in the hundreds of thousands, and a different approach is called for.

Omega has proved particularly adept at surfing the trend for vintage sports watches, with its themed auction Omegamania in 2007 generating considerable interest. “I was amazed to see how many collectors there are. We are back on the map in the field of antique watches,” explains president Stephen Urquhart. Indeed, the heritage of the brand has never been more important, especially in this year of the moon landing anniversary, given the Omega Speedmaster’s historic association with astronauts.

Yet for a hugely successful modern watch company, involved in everything from Olympic timing to movie product-placement deals, running a boutique operation specialising in vintage Omega would be tricky. Instead, Omega has entered into a joint venture with London vintage dealer George Somlo in the Burlington Arcade, about one minute’s walk from the Omega flagship on New Bond Street. This makes London the only place in the world where it is possible to compare the models of the past with their 21st-century re-editions. So if, having compared, say, the new and old Ploprof, you prefer the feel of the vintage example, it can be had from around £8,500.

“We feel that we have to be very clear and careful. I don’t want it to look like a commercial venture or marketing initiative,” says Urquhart – although in this he might be disappointed. “We have already had requests to open up something similar in Asia and America.”

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