On May 22, luxury watch aficionados from across the world entered into an epic battle. What was the battle over? To possess a rare Patek Philippe watch.
At the Important Watches auction in Hong Kong, which was dubbed as the Auction of the Decade, Christie’s presented a prototype example of a Patek Philippe ref. 3448J perpetual calendar 18k gold wristwatch that belonged to Alan Banbery, the previous curator of the Patek Philippe Museum and also the author of the Patek Philippe book. The cost of the watch, which comes endowed with immense history (it was gifted by Patek Philippe owners, Henri and Philippe Stern, in 1975 to Banbery) was between a jaw-dropping $3.2 million to $5 million.
Even though 2020 was financially a difficult year for most, the demand for Patek Philippe watches among collectors did not wane.
Last year, eight of the top 10 watches sold by Christie’s, in terms of price, were Patek Philippe, with the highest fetching $1.9 million.
In December 2020, Sotheby’s sold a Patek Philippe Fourth Series Ref. 2499 signed by Tiffany for $818,600 in New York.
Patek Philippe also has the distinction of being the most expensive watch ever sold, not once but twice. In 2014, the Henry Graves Super Complication—considered the Holy Grail of horology—was sold by Sotheby’s for $24 million in Geneva, beating the $11 million world record that the same watch had established in 1999. Completed by Patek Philippe in 1932, The Henry Graves Super Complication is the most complicated watch ever made by human hands—without computer-assisted technology.
So what makes Patek Philippe such a favourite among watch aficionados? “It is a combination of different factors such as the scarcity, design, investment value as well as that ubiquitous Patek Philippe DNA—[its] unique design, artistry, and craftsmanship found balanced perfectly in the brand,” says Alexandre Bigler, VP and Head of Watches, Asia Pacific for Christie’s.
Consider this: Since 1839 less than one million Patek Philippe watches have been made—that’s fewer than what high-end Swiss manufacturers produce in a year. The production is so detailed that it takes close to a year to make its most basic watches, and more than two years to produce some of the more complicated timepieces. “Meanwhile, demand is growing around the world. Some Patek Philippe watches are so sought-after that buyers must submit to an application process to demonstrate that they are sufficiently high-calibre collectors,” says Bigler.
According to Christie’s, every Patek Philippe watch ever made has a searchable ‘extract’ available at the Patek Philippe archive. So you can source the date of production and original date of sale for every Patek Philippe made since 1839.
“When you meet someone who owns a Patek watch, it’s a safe bet that they have done something extraordinary with their life. The extracts, which meticulously detail the history of each watch, evoke moments in individuals’ lives that have been marked by the purchase of a Patek Philippe,” says Bigler.
Patek doesn’t include the names of previous owners on its extracts, but most members of every royal family and countless heads of state and celebrities are in these archives. “It’s wonderful fodder for the imagination. Perhaps the previous owner was celebrating the end of a war with your watch, the beginning of a new life with someone, or the birth of a child. Some of the most beautiful watches we see have never come up for auction before,” says Bigler.
The investment value
Of course, a Patek Philippe watch is a thing of beauty and collectors crave it. But increased prices in the secondary market for some of the models also make it very valuable and a good investment.
Patek Philippe resale value trumps that of all other makers, whether vintage or modern. Watches completed for Patek’s 175th anniversary collection in 2014 are already trading on the secondary market for extraordinary prices. “Pieces such as the 5131 Cloisonne Enamel immediately earned almost double their retail price at auction, straight from retail,” says Bigler.
“The stainless steel Nautilus chronograph ref.5980, was selling on the secondary market for $35,000 four years ago, and today it is not uncommon to see good examples go for close to $100,000,” says Fred Watrelot, Sotheby’s Senior Watch Specialist.
Let’s look at some other examples. You could have bought a Calatrava for $300 in the 1950s; today, they can command more than $20,000. There are perpetual chronographs—namely the 2499/100 fourth series—that cost less than $20,000 in the 1980s but fetch well over $400,000 today. And an original Nautilus from the 1970s, which retailed for less than $3,000, now trades for more than $50,000.
If you are looking to buy a Patek Philippe as an investment, Watrelot recommends the Aquanaut and Nautilus models. “Aquanaut and Nautilus [which are sport watches] are among the models that achieve the best results at auction nowadays. This is due to the fact that it takes years of waiting to be able to get one from an authorised dealer.”
“More generally, I would say that the most sought-after Patek models are the ones associated with rarity and perfect condition. I don’t know any serious Patek collectors who wouldn’t want to acquire one of the 349 pieces of the Perpetual Chronograph ref. 2499 made by the brand between 1949 and 1986,” says Watrelot.
The Patek Philippe DNA
“Patek Philippe is synonymous with the very best in craftsmanship, heritage, and design,” says Watrelot.
Adds Bigler: “Patek’s cases, for example, say it all. Among some other watchmakers, cases are cast and machine-finished, often at an outside shop; at Patek Philippe, cases are mostly made in-house, and often forged from solid pieces of gold or platinum.”
To explain Patek Philippe’s craftsmanship better, Bigler gives the example of a 1953 world-time wristwatch made by Patek Philippe that sold at a Christie’s auction in November 2019, for just short of $9 million. “In horological terms, the 1953 Patek Philippe blue enamel world time watch is legendary, and as close to perfection as one can come,” he exclaims.
Patek Philippe was one of the first companies to put world time -- time in every region of the planet -- into a wristwatch and allow the wearer to know the time in 40 different cities around the world.
“Besides time settings that include such exotic locations as Klondike, Azores, the Marshall Islands, Réunion, Mauritius and Madeira, the watch’s other highly distinctive feature is its dial centre,” says Bigler.
“The watch centre is adorned with maps—there are two known examples with a map of Europe, five with a map of North America, and one with a map of South America.”