In an era of ubiquitous smartphones and wrists accessorized by strap-on gadgets, an ever-growing number of men are investing in an item that might seem surprising: a traditional watch, often crafted by iconic brands like Rolex and purchased at auction or from a specialist dealer.
“It’s not the tool that it once was, but it’s a symbol,” says John Reardon, who oversees watch auctions and sales at Christie’s. A classic timepiece “says so much about an individual’s appreciation of quality, history, heritage and workmanship. That’s what makes collecting watches such a beautiful and almost poetic thing.”
Nonetheless, technology does play in a role in watch collecting these days: it has made purchasing easier and more globally focused, with auction houses and dealers selling fervently online. Christie’s, for example, has built into its auction schedule online-only watch sales that launch about once a month, including one that went up today 10 a.m. ET.
And the selection of watches is broader in price and styles than one might imagine. “What’s been so exciting with our online sales, is that we’re learning, we’re playing, we’re trying different things online,” Reardon says. “The rule that we thought, 12 months ago, [to include just] really entry-level watches—maybe $10,000 and below—we’ve quickly abandoned. We’re finding that people are bidding online at all price points, from all around the world, just like they are in a regular sale. The beauty of these sales online is that, yes, you can buy things for $1,000, sometimes even a little less, but there are also pieces estimated above $100,000. There’s the whole spectrum.”
Online sales have been a key focus for the house for the last couple years: Christie’s is about to relaunch what it calls what its Watch Shop: an area to immediately buy timepieces at a set price, typically more than $100,000.
While some buyers look for rare watches that were made in the last few decades, Reardon has recently noticed a sharp rise in the appeal of timepieces from another era. “Vintage is very hot right now,” he explains. “I hear day in and day out, ‘I used to collect modern watch x y z—the newest and latest thing that I bought on Fifth Avenue,’ but now they’re realizing that one of the most truly limited editions in the world is a piece that’s unique. People want to have something that everybody else doesn’t have, and that’s the beauty of collecting vintage timepieces. “
Reardon adds that understated watches—quiet pieces that are the opposite of an oversized, flashy watch, with an elegant focus on craftsmanship instead of bling—are particularly growing in appeal. The trend is exemplified by pieces like a Patek Philippe chronograph in the new Christie’s sale that looks, at first glance, like a simple black wristwatch, but is actually a highly collectible timepiece with a movement that was discontinued the year after the watch was issued. It is being sold with an estimate value of $140,000-$200,000.
Another key trend, which certainly harks back to another era: pocket watches. Reardon says he’s seeing an increasing number of men wearing these timepieces in their suits’ watch pockets. Pocket watches are also, incidentally, a comparative bargain, since pieces by top-tier brands typically cost a fraction of what their wristwatches would.
To find the pieces to sell, Reardon and his staff travel extensively, frequently setting up back-to-back appraisal appointments on the road that resemble an episode of Antiques Roadshow. “I describe my job as a treasure hunter,” he says. “Our international team of specialists are literally scouring the globe working on our collections.” Curating the watches to include in each auction also often takes into account a thematic flow, revolving around factors like brands, dial types, or metal colors.
For decades, watches have been a passion for Reardon, 41, who, perhaps not coincidentally, grew up next door to the American Clock & Watch Museum in Bristol, Connecticut. “As a child we used to make fun of the people that would go to the museum,” he laughs. “Only nerds would go there!” But once he was dragged in around age 14, he was hooked. Within a few years, he was running his own high school clock repair business and had started collecting watches. He has spent his professional life focused on his obsession, working at Sotheby’s and Patek Philippe before joining Christie’s three years ago.
Ironically, dealers like Christie’s are noticing that classic men’s timepieces are also appealing to women. “We’re putting more and more men’s vintage pieces online and we’re finding that women are buying them,” Reardon says. “They put an amazing strap on them and have a great look at a really attractive price point.”