Timeless Treasures

Here’s Why Collectors Are Obsessing Over Vintage Watches Again

Brands hone in on the vintage watch rush, fixated on old-school and vintage watchmaking.

Here’s Why Collectors Are Obsessing Over Vintage Watches Again
The Grönefeld 1941 Principia Automatic

What are watch collectors obsessing over? Retro chic. It’s not news but it’s also not something that will die down anytime soon as collectors rediscover watchmaking gems of the 20th century. Since old is now gold, brands are capitalising on this trend by launching modern remakes of old favourites.

Take Zenith, which recently unveiled the Defy Revival A3642, a revival of the first Defy model from 1969. The design of the watch — faithful to the original in an octagonal case and tetradecagonal bezel — will have its share of supporters and critics. But Zenith is far from the only brand pushing nostalgia in limited edition doses to drive retail and media attention.

  • Zenith Defy Revival A3642, a reinterpretation of the first Defy model from 1969
    Zenith Defy Revival A3642, a reinterpretation of the first Defy model from 1969
  • Zenith's first Defy model from 1969
    Zenith’s first Defy model from 1969

The revival programme started with the 50th anniversary collection of the El Primero back in 2019, as CEO Julian Tornare explains.

“We decided to extend and pursue this revival programme given the interest around [the anniversary pieces]. We have an endless patrimony of 157 years that we want our clients to discover.”

And Zenith isn’t simply recreating past models. “We are taking inspiration whilst ensuring a modern touch to our revivals. They always have some kind of twist compared to the original, in order to keep the original’s value,” he adds.

In 2021, an avalanche of Cartier timepieces with a vintage imprint emerged from the brand, with the remake of the Tank Must drawing the most attention among fans. The massive drop of historically inspired timepieces wasn’t intentional, says Cartier’s image, style and heritage director, Pierre Rainero.

Cartier's Tank Louise Cartier
Cartier’s Tank Louise Cartier

“The way we work with our designers is a continuous flow, which means that some years will see more releases because the designs have come to maturity and are relevant for the moment,” he explains. Nevertheless, it’s a sweet coincidence, as interest in vintage Tank Musts have risen since the new launches.

What defines the vintage look? With the maximalist designs of the noughties giving way to more functional displays, the race to build multi-complication movements has also faded. Simply put: less is now more. Cue sports chic with integrated bracelets, purist military or dive watch revivals and, of course, the gradated dial, which is practically de rigueur these days. And much like the late 1990s, watch brands that have long ceased to exist are resurrecting and releasing “Hall of Fame” pieces.

Alongside such remakes is a growing interest in vintage and discontinued models. Christian Selmoni, style and heritage director at Vacheron Constantin, defines vintage watches from the brand as those that are at least 20 years old. The lack of availability makes them rare and coveted, resulting in a massive spike in prices for vintage models in the past few years. This is especially true for vintage watches that are in good condition, or what’s known in collector circles as New Old Stock (NOS) or mint condition timepieces.

Christian Selmoni, artistic and heritage director at Vacheron Constantin
Christian Selmoni, artistic and heritage director at Vacheron Constantin

However, there’s a fine line between carefully restoring a watch and passing it off as a mint condition, unworn timepiece, cautions Thomas Perazzi, head of watches Asia at Phillips auction house. Some watch owners have turned to special restoration services that use new technology to restore worn timepieces to mint condition and passing them off as NOS.

To market, to market

Perazzi says the current trend in vintage watch collecting began around a decade ago “when the education, culture and knowledge of the industry grew because of social media circles and online platforms”.

He adds: “As a new generation of digitally savvy collectors began to exchange information on their shared interest, they began to appreciate the significance of brand heritage and the exclusivity of collecting timepieces that are no longer produced. The desire for iconic pieces from brands such as Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet also grew.”

Thomas Perazzi, head of  watches at Phillips
Thomas Perazzi, head of watches at Phillips

Perazzi also points out that FOMO (or the fear of missing out) and the “I want what you can’t have” syndrome has also contributed to the rise in demand and, consequently, prices in both auction houses and the grey market. Whether it’s an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak A-Series Ref. 5402 or a vintage Rolex, prices have shot through the roof. WatchBox, an online retailer of pre-owned luxury watches, reported an estimated 40 percent increase in year-on-year revenue growth in 2021. While this surge in demand is partly caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and a global shortage of luxury watches, the desire for inaccessible timepieces (both current and vintage) has certainly contributed to its soaring profits.

It’s important to distinguish between pre-owned retail — watches bought from established online retailers like WatchBox and Watchfinder — and those purchased from auction houses.

In pre-owned retail, buyers are focused on acquiring popular models that are unavailable on the market, either because they have been discontinued or are out of stock. There’s less emphasis on their historical importance and more on what’s in demand. For example, consider the Patek Philippe Ref. 5711/1A-010 with a blue dial that was discontinued last year. The very next day, prices for the watch on pre-owned platforms spiralled to unparalleled levels.

Patek Philippe Ref. 5961P-001 was sold by Phillips
Patek Philippe Ref. 5961P-001 was sold by Phillips

For most collectors, auction houses remain their primary access to vintage timepieces. Phillips, most notably, has been an important platform for some of the biggest watch auctions in recent years.

“An important point in collecting vintage watches is provenance. That means that we will investigate if the watch is offered by the owner’s family, if it’s been in the collection of an important collector or if it has been previously sold before. We also have a long record of all the watches that have been sold at auction before, so we can also see if a watch has been previously restored and how it’s been preserved,” Perazzi explains.

Cartier Tank Crash offered by Phillips
Cartier Tank Crash offered by Phillips

Buying from a reputable auction house like Phillips also allows one to shop with peace of mind because each watch is thoroughly checked internally and externally. This also means that each watch’s authenticity will be verified with the respective manufacturer. There are numerous ways in which Phillips verifies authenticity: this includes consultations with watch experts, in-depth discussions with brand archivists as well as extensive research. Phillips even offers a five-year guarantee post-sales on authentication.

But where provenance in the past relied on physical certificates, which are difficult to track, Phillips has embraced a newer solution in the form of an internal blockchain that maintains a historical record of watches offered by the company. “With our own blockchain, we now track all timepieces that we consider important that have been or are in the market so we know everything about these watches, from their highest value to past movements in the market.”

Brand loyalty

Participating in an auction requires encyclopedic knowledge on watchmaking before an informed decision can be made, which is why it remains intimidating to many watch collectors. Circumventing this problem are brands who offer their own vintage and pre-owned retail platforms to interested customers who may have a modest understanding of which timepieces they should consider. Vacheron Constantin and Cartier were among the first brands to offer this exclusive service.

Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s image, style and heritage director
Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s image, style and heritage director

“We established the Cartier Tradition department in 1996, which covers watches and jewellery produced before 1975. Then, two or three years ago, we decided to offer watches that are produced after 1975, which we have acquired, restored to pristine condition and offer to our customers in selected markets. This service began in London and is now also available in Singapore and, soon, Paris,” says Rainero. Rare models such as the Crash watch, are often only available through Cartier’s restoration and vintage retail division.

Selmoni shares that Vacheron Constantin first began to offer vintage models in the mid-2000s, before structuring it into the Les Collectionneurs range in 2017. Around 15 to 20 vintage pieces are offered across the world at selected boutiques each year and some of these pieces can be 100 years old.

“Since 2017, we have significantly expanded the number of watches available while maintaining a high degree of exclusivity… A good example would be our chronograph 4178. This model was produced from the 1940s for 30 years, and is highly sought after due to its highly recognisable aesthetics and the exceptional movement,” says Selmoni.

Ref. 7614, part of  Vacheron Constantin’s Les Collectionneurs  collection that was  recently offered at  the brand’s Marina Bay Sands boutique
Ref. 7614, part of Vacheron Constantin’s Les Collectionneurs collection that was recently offered at the brand’s Marina Bay Sands boutique

Zenith also recently introduced a vintage retail service called Zenith Icons, with restored and rare historical models made available to customers upon enquiry. These timepieces are acquired by the brand through trusted partners and dealers who specialise in vintage models. They are then restored by Zenith before being put up for sale.

Tornare explains that the Icons programme emerged from the Revival collection.

“We have been restoring and authenticating vintage Zenith models for a long time. In fact, we are able to restore and verify all our creations that have been made since day one. The Icons programme nourishes our minds and incubates ideas for new Revival watches.”

He also admits that one added benefit of the programme is Zenith’s rise in brand equity on the pre-owned market. “Since the introduction of Revival collection and Icons in 2019, we have seen our watch prices rise significantly,” he shares.

Julian Tornare, CEO of Zenith
Julian Tornare, CEO of Zenith

Even within boutique watch brands, pre-owned retail is taking shape and becoming an avenue for past customers to buy new models, while offering their own vintage pieces to other collectors. Several independent brands such as Richard Mille, MB&F and Urwerk have established their own pre-owned retail spaces for collectors who are interested in letting go of their watches.

Richard Mille’s first collection was in 2001, just making the mark as a “vintage” model. Its discontinued references, however, are in high demand among watch collectors. In 2021, the Richard Mille Asia distributorship introduced The Value of Time, a standalone pre-owned retailing outlet at Ngee Ann City that is adjacent to the brand’s service centre. You can consign, buy and sell pre-owned Richard Mille watches there. This is part of the brand’s pre-owned distribution network across the globe, with partners in other markets such as Westime and Ninety in the US and UK respectively.

At The Value of Time, pre-owned Richard Mille timepieces are tested and restored to pristine condition before being offered to customers at a rate that’s agreed upon by the brand, buyer and seller. Pre-owned pieces come with a 24-month warranty guranteeing the condition of the watch. Only a few brands offering pre-owned retail provide a similar standard of guarantee, Vacheron Constantin being one of them. In fact, Vacheron Constantin is also the first brand to utilise blockchain to authenticate its Les Collectionneurs watches.

Ref. 4334, part of Vacheron Constantin’s Les Collectionneurs collection that was recently offered at the brand’s Marina Bay Sands boutique
Ref. 4334, part of Vacheron Constantin’s Les Collectionneurs collection that was recently offered at the brand’s Marina Bay Sands boutique

IWC has taken a different tack when it comes to pre-owned timepieces. Instead of selling refurbished vintage watches, it offers a trade-in service at selected boutiques across the globe, including Hong Kong, New York, Paris and Munich. The watch will be examined on the spot by the brand’s experts and a valuation will be provided that goes towards the value of the new IWC watch you wish to acquire.

Upon agreement of the valuation, the watch will be checked, authenticated and appraised, upon which the final purchase price will be provided. IWC explains that the valuation and authentication process takes up to 48 hours to complete. While they didn’t elaborate, we presume that this process is undertaken in partnership with Watchfinder, the pre-owned online retailer acquired by Richemont Group, which also owns IWC. It is a rather clever and circular system which regenerates the product availability on Watchfinder while at the same time growing IWC’s customer database.

Past, present and future

As Perazzi points out: “New collectors today see buying vintage timepieces not only as collectible rarities, but also a sustainable way of owning luxury. Many of the most coveted vintage timepieces are also designed by people not from the industry, so in a way, it’s almost like owning art or a vintage car. For young collectors who are digital natives, analogue products like vintage watches are desired because they are the last examples of handmade products in our world today.”

The Grönefeld 1941 Principia Automatic has a price tag of £47,500 at Phillips
The Grönefeld 1941 Principia Automatic has a price tag of £47,500 at Phillips

For most collectors, reissues are their first brush with a brand’s archival gems. From there, they are likely to consider established pre-owned retailers in pursuit of popular models that are unavailable in the market. Once they’ve plunged into the sea of pre-owned models, they may dive further into a brand’s history to learn more about other notable models. Although auction houses remain at the pinnacle of vintage watch access — where the pursuit of a rare model can be an adrenaline-inducing experience — budding collectors may benefit more from buying pre-owned watches from a brand.

More importantly, the interest in rare and discontinued timepieces is rising at a time when digital assets are changing the way we perceive ownership. Non-fungible tokens offer an exciting way for artists to connect with collectors directly through intangible products like digital art. As the digital metaverse continues to grow and permeate, even at auction houses, will a new generation of watch collectors still find vintage timepieces as interesting?

Or will the industry evolve to tie their products to the metaverse, so that your digital self will wear the Patek Philippe Ref. 3700/1A just as proudly as your real self?

It’s still too early for an answer to that question. But in a nutshell, vintage is #ded. Long live vintage.

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