The Watches To Collect Now, And Why – An Experts’ Round Table
Illustration by Mr David Doran
It’s easy to assume that if you want to understand watch collecting you can just plunge headlong into Instagram or Clubhouse. But the chances are you’ll come out with as many questions as answers. We spoke to three eminent watch collectors and industry experts from around the world to paint a picture of what’s really interesting to those in the know, and get their take on some of the thorniest questions. In Singapore, Mr Wei Koh, founder of The Rake and Revolution magazines; in California, Mr Eric Ku; and in London, Mr Ahmed Rahman. Here’s what they had to say.
You’re on the front line of watch collecting. What’s it like out there?
Mr Ahmed Rahman: I’ve been collecting now for well over 16, 17 years, and today there is more choice than ever. Whether you’re talking about mainstream brands, independent brands, affordable brands, it’s all there. The genuine interest in watches today is phenomenal compared to when I started collecting, and that is thanks to social media.
Mr Eric Ku: A byproduct of working from home for the last year is that, when you’re not working, people are just in front of their computers looking for cool shit to buy, whether that’s watches, clothes or whatever. And as a result of that the dollars and cents of the market are moving faster than they ever have, which also has to do with the economic climate we’re in right now.
Rahman: A lot of my friends would say that today the watch is becoming an asset class, an investment – some brands, at least. For me, it takes the fun out of it a little bit, I much prefer watches to be my hobby. The upside is that something is available at every price point: anyone can buy a really nice watch today, from £200 up to £30,000, which wasn’t the case 10, 15 years ago.
Mr Wei Koh: I think it’s true that everyone’s trying to find good, appreciable assets. Art is hard to get into right now because the really good stuff is staggeringly expensive. And the problem with the car market – which had gone absolutely nuts – is the pandemic. I’m here in Singapore and I have four motorcycles in London, which I haven’t ridden, obviously, for more than a year. They’re lovely to have, but I can’t just jump on a plane with one of my bikes, whereas watches are the most transportable form of material enjoyment.
Also, you now have a whole generation of people that were interested in streetwear now shifting over and becoming quite interested in watches, and I think it’s because streetwear and sneakers are very knowledge-based. The difference between one pair of sneakers and another could be extremely small, but could be huge in terms of price, just like vintage watches.
What are you personally most drawn to at the moment?
Koh: Cartier. We’ve gone through different phases: at one point, it was about technical watchmaking, and then, concurrent with the last financial crisis, there was a big reversion to the blue-chip brands – Patek, Rolex, Audemars Piguet. But now people are starting to wrap their heads around beauty and elegance. And if you look back at the past hundred years in watches, there has never been a more influential brand than Cartier, from a design perspective. From an investment perspective, it is going absolutely berserk: take the 2004 CPCP Tank Cintree, which was released in 50 pieces in platinum and 150 watches in gold. In 2018, a platinum watch sold for $37,000; today, for a gold watch, the asking price is $100,000.
Ku: I’ve been a real Cartier aficionado for several years, so I’m always excited to see what they have coming out. Another one that comes to mind is Omega: the new Seamaster 300 is clearly influenced by historical models, but at the same time, it has all the bells and whistles of the newest technology in the movement. And Vacheron Constantin, I like all of their new releases.
Rahman: The past 12 months has been a great time for me to try brands that I just wouldn’t have looked at before, like Longines, like Omega, like Panerai. I’ve always felt that Longines’ heritage line has always been very well executed. I also got into a couple of independent small brands which have just come on, affordable brands like Baltic Watches. And I got into Panerai: it brought out a couple of very interesting pieces last year; the Submersible in a 42mm case with the green dial was a bit of a game changer for me.
Watch brands remain hugely fond of reviving designs from their past. What’s your take on this?
Koh: If you are trying to intentionally make a watch look really old, and I say this as a person who has created limited editions that have tried to invoke that in the past, that was a trend, but it’s a trend that I feel that we are leaving.
The common element that everyone talks about is “fauxtina”, meaning SuperLuminova that’s been coloured to look like vintage radium or vintage tritium. And like everyone else, I was super enamoured with that. But now when I look at it, I don’t like it. It feels too self-conscious, somehow.
As a watch journalist, it’s something I’ve only started to feel recently, and we tend to feel things a year or two before they hit critical mass. So, there are new watches still doing this that I like – the new TAG Heuer Aquaracer, or the Omega bronze-gold Seamaster – but it is on the way out.
Ku: What stands out for me is Omega, which decided that it was going to revive the Calibre 321 movements, and they’ve literally remanufactured a vintage movement. Breitling and Zenith have made a few very, very faithful recreations – and I saw the IWC ref 3705 on MR PORTER. I like that, but I have an original, so I didn’t rush to purchase the new one. But, nevertheless, there is a philosophical quandary there; if you keep on, at what point are you going to be rereleasing rereleases?
Rahman: There are a few that allow me to enjoy watches that I couldn’t possibly buy because they’re very rare, or they’re very expensive. Like the Omega Speedmaster 321 Ed White remake. If you were to buy a vintage version of this, you’re looking to spend a lot, and I would be cautious about even going around the house.
And there are others where they will make a watch with a certain vintage aesthetic, but that watch never existed in the past, like the Jaeger-LeCoultre Deep Sea Chronograph. You had the Deep Sea Alarm and you had the Polaris, but you never really had this. Some houses do it very well and some houses don’t. It’s a balance. I don’t mind the whole fauxtina thing – it’s a very polarising concept in that there are people who are very strongly against it and people that don’t really mind. And I guess I fall into the latter.
How do you feel about limited editions? Are there different attitudes around the world?
Ku: Up until the 1990s, “limited edition” wasn’t really a term in the playbook of watch brands. You know, they just made models over time, and certain watches – like a Paul Newman Daytona – became desirable because they didn’t sell that many.
But now, it’s a very powerful way of selling things. I wonder, when these watches become vintage, how will people view this era? What are values going to be like? It’s interesting – Silicon Valley’s in my backyard, and there are a lot of watch collector groups in my area who sometimes get a manufacturer to produce a limited edition for them. I wonder how they’ll be perceived in time.
Rahman: Whether you’re talking about a collaboration or a pure limited edition, it has to be done right. It’s not just about churning out the same watch with different colour dials – if you’re looking to charge a premium for that product, then you have to find that balance between looks and value. A great collaboration that I bought recently is the Breitling Top Time with the motorcycle customiser Deus Ex Machina. It’s great because it’s got the DNA of a Breitling, but it’s also got the DNA of the other brand. I didn’t know much about Deus Ex Machina, but I loved the watch, and then I said, “You know what? I’m going to see what these guys are all about.” And I’m sure there are people who don’t know Breitling, but know the other party, so it works both ways.
Koh: There are always going to be markets that are a little bit in advance. I do feel Singapore is one of those markets – people are a little bit more daring. This was the first place that I remember anyone wearing Richard Mille in any quantity. But traditionally, Italy was that market: it was the Italians that made the Royal Oak a success; it was in response to the Italians that Breitling was relaunched. And the whole vintage Rolex culture was born in Italy. But I do feel today that, in general, people are consolidating around the same things. One of the reasons why it’s so hard to buy steel sports Rolexes, for example, is because of the global convergence of tastes, helped by social media. Everyone in the world wants the same watch.
Are the 1980s and 1990s coming back? Do we need to update the definition of a vintage watch?
Koh: The definition should absolutely be rolling. I remember I had a 1979 930 Turbo when I first moved to Los Angeles, at a time when no one wanted those cars: they were horrible to drive because they were trying to kill you all the time. And now they’re cult collectables.
There are so many television series that have revived the music from my youth, the way Stranger Things did. We always make fun of the era that’s just passed, and then it becomes cool again, through the prism of nostalgia. Look at all the early Porsche Design watches for example, they're super cool right now.
It was great to see IWC bring back the ref 3705, the first ceramic pilot’s watch, and other watches from the 1980s and 1990s have escalated so quickly, like the first generation Royal Oak offshores. We were talking about Piaget – the original Polos are very interesting to me; the Yves Piaget design. They’re all quartz, but they’re still cool. And don’t forget that Cartier launched CPCP in the 1990s.
Ku: To a degree, the interest in vintage watches is due to the fact that they age. And the materials used in manufacturing these days don’t really age at all. If you put a new ceramic watch in a box, a thousand years later it’s probably going to look exactly the same; 20 years from now, what is a vintage watch? What are we going to look at? It might be that we don’t find that aesthetic appealing anymore, but the thing itself is still the same.
In terms of what’s cool, there’s this idea of the 30-year cycle. You see it in cars: a Mercedes 500E, a Honda NSX, people love that stuff, and the prices have become astronomical right now. And good design is good design, doesn’t matter how recent it is or how old it is.
Collectors always talk about “indie brands”. Why do they hold such appeal?
Wei: There’s an absolutely massive renaissance in interest for independent watchmaking. Perhaps because we were longing for human and personal contact, the idea of a watch that has a really artisanal perspective seems to have recaptured people’s imaginations. The likes of De Bethune, Urwerk, Kari Voutilainen, and also micro-brands like Sartory Billard, Habring², Kudoke and Ateliers de Chronométrie are just smashing it.
Ku: I’ve always liked independent brands. I was one of the first really big supporters of Laurent Ferrier, for example, and I have several. For me, it’s an interpretation of another direction that Patek Philippe could have gone in. It’s the same high-quality manufacturing. They make a really great product, but they need our support because they don’t have deep pockets. Every watch we purchase ensures that they'll be able to make another one.
Rahman: Five or six years ago, people weren’t very clued on about the independent brands. But today, everyone in watches knows who Laurent Ferrier is or who FP Journe is. It’s a very niche concept, but they have garnered so much popularity over the past few years because they offer you something alternative to the mainstream. You see this in cars, clothes, everywhere: people want something personal, whether it’s their backpack or their AirPods or their watch. That’s the key to the popularity of independent brands.