Collector watches: A tale of two timepieces

When Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona wristwatch sold for $17.8 million in 2017, it became the most expensive watch ever sold at auction.1 A month later, a one-of-a-kind Patek Philippe wristwatch sold for €6.2 million at a charity watch auction in Monaco.2 These watches tell a story: two iconic brands, two record prices and more than two different reasons for their price and appeal. And both watches tell the time perfectly.

What was it about these two timepieces that led them to fetch record prices?

Both the Rolex Daytona and the unique Patek Phillipe reflect the values of many watch enthusiasts: mechanical innovation, exquisite craftsmanship, and the opportunity to own a piece of history.


Right on time


Let’s rewind the clock.

The wristwatch as we know it was created in 15th century Europe. The original spring-driven timepieces became more sophisticated and accurate over the centuries as technology evolved. Look inside a traditional wristwatch, and you’ll see that it’s powered by a winding mainspring which turns the gears, then moves the hands and keeps time with a rotating balance wheel.

Complication is a key term in watch design. It refers to any function beyond the primary one of displaying the time and date. Two popular complications are:

  • the chronograph—the ability of the watch movement to function as a stopwatch, and
  • the moonphase—which displays the lunar phase

Many of the first watch “brands” were established in the 19th century, and many brands have a hallmark complication they invented. Patek Philippe, of Patek Philippe & Co., originated the perpetual calendar, split-seconds hand and minute repeater in watches. They made their first wristwatch in 1868.3 Rolex, founded in 1905, originated the first waterproof wristwatch as well as the perpetual rotor self-winding mechanism. 5

Today, while high-tech smartwatches such as the AppleWatch are popular with tech-savvy buyers, traditional watch collectors are most attracted to craftsmanship and brand history.

The high price of a collectible watch is usually based on the number of human hours it takes to finish the timepiece. This measure is directly correlated to the complexity of the complications and manufacturing details.


Rolex: By popular demand


Rolex is the brand of popular appeal, is best-known for producing watches specifically for divers (water-resistant), sportspeople (hi-impact resistant) and auto-racers on and off-screen, like Paul Newman. The beloved American actor would likely have used the chronograph (stopwatch) ability on his Daytona Rolex to clock his times around the track.

Newman’s watch has a story. It was given to him by his wife, Joanne Woodward, while they were filming the race-car drama “Winning” in 1969. Newman wore the wristwatch consistently until the 1980s.

What was special about Newman’s Daytona is its “unusual exotic dial, influenced by whimsical art deco style,” according to Paul Boutros, Phillips Head of Watches for the Americas. “There are about 2,000 to 3,000 of this type of dial in the world.” The style was dubbed “the Paul Newman” in the 1980s, since the actor was frequently seen wearing his iconic timepiece.1

Newman became an inadvertent brand ambassador before this concept was created. Although vintage Rolex Daytonas do achieve solid prices at auction, the record price of Newton’s Daytona was a result of the watch’s story and provenance, rather than its material and complications.

According to timepiece website Chrono24, Rolex is their most researched brand in the Americas, Europe and Asia.6 (Check out their great infographic on their most searched brands if you’re interested in more information!)

Rolex’s range of prices, from $10,000 to beyond $100,000, make the brand both aspirational and accessible. In fact, the brand has reached such popularity that that a collector must exercise extreme due diligence to be sure they are acquiring an authentic Rolex. Always buy from a licensed dealer or Rolex representative, or from auction houses or dealers who can prove authenticity and provenance when purchasing a vintage timepiece.


Patek Phillipe: Connoisseurship of complications


If Rolex’s brand is ubiquitous and iconic, Patek Philippe, by contrast, is known for intellectual dress watches whose price reflexes the dexterity and complexity of the watchmakers’ skill.

Complications and craftsmanship are the key drivers of value for this boutique producer. Each individual part is hand-finished, from the mechanisms inside the watch to the faceted batons and embellishments on the exterior.

The € 6.2 million watch that was custom-created for the Only Watch auction in Monaco exemplifies this superior technical skill. Watch number 5208T was produced in titanium, a metal rarely used by this luxury heritage brand. This unique watch with its deep blue dial featured a few complications: a minute repeater, a monopusher chronograph and an instantaneous perpetual calendar.2

Such attention to technical detail requires time and skill to create—at least nine months for basic models, and more than two years to produce some of the more complicated timepieces.7 In fact, it’s said that Patek Philippe has made fewer than 1 million watches since the company was founded almost 180 years ago. For reference, Christie’s auction house explains, there are some high-end Swiss manufacturers that produce more than this number in a single year.7

Patek watches do very well at auction, frequently selling for over one million dollars, and often taking the highest bids at the annual edition of Only Watch, as well as the watch sales at the major auction houses. Ultimately, Patek Philipe watches are prized for their rarity, technical skill and investment potential.


Value and protect your time 


Whether your wristwatch is valued at $20,000, $200,000 or $2 million, it is worthwhile to guard its value. Like other valuable objects of personal adornment, thieves often target watch collectors because of the demand for rare or iconic wristwatches. Once stolen, the watches are often sold through a vast underground network of fencing hubs around the globe.

There are several things you can do to help protect your valuable timepieces:

  • Always use a hotel safe to store expensive watches when traveling and when the watch is not being worn.
  • Consider having a safe embedded into the walls of your home to store watches and jewelry.
  • If you display your watches, make certain the display case has a lock. Ideally, it should be connected to your burglar alarm as well.
  • Schedule your watch with its serial number and as much identification as possible on your fine arts and collectibles insurance policy.

If your watch is stolen, it’s best to report it to the police promptly, and get a copy of the complaint. This also allows police to find an owner when they retrieve stolen watches. In the event of a loss, the more information that is on your insurance policy, the quicker the claims adjuster can notify appropriate registries. Services like the Watch Register and Mystolenwatch compile lists of stolen watches that buyers, auction houses and other professionals consult.8

Taking these preventative steps can help ensure that your timepiece stays securely in your care for a long time to come, whether you use it to track laps on a racetrack, or simply make sure you are not late for your next meeting in style.

Katja Zigerlig is Vice President, Art, Wine + Collectibles Advisory at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).