For most people one watch is enough. Then there are those who are fanatical about time. This group of buyers – most of whom are men – scour the world to track down obscure, exclusive models that set their watch collection apart. Their passion and tastes are now shaping the design and marketing of new timepieces.
Wristwatches became popular in the 19th century, when they were mostly worn by women: bracelets with utility. For European men, the sturdy, staid pocketwatch was seen as the mark of a gentleman. War changed that: in the late 19th-century soldiers on the battlefields needed to be able to tell the time quickly, without distraction from the task at hand. In the first world war “trench watches”, made by firms such as Omega and Longines, were lauded for their practicality. Long after the guns fell silent the wristwatch endured. By the 1930s their production had eclipsed that of pocket watches.
Today’s luxury watches have moved far from those combative roots. But mechanical embellishments are popular with collectors, even when they are of little use – timepieces with power reserves, for example, that indicate how long a watch can run for, or ones that mark the phases of the Moon. These “tool watches” were originally designed for specialists – divers, pilots and explorers – but they now embody the sense of adventure that many watch firms try to convey. Few people will ever submerge a Tag Heuer Aquaracer to the depth of 300 metres, but wearing it evokes a spirit of endeavour, even when you are sitting behind your desk.
Many watch-buyers start by acquiring pieces such as sport watches from well-known brands. But collectors often come to crave exclusivity. One option is to buy watches made by independent craftsfolk, a hobby that takes not just money, but time, knowledge and often a personal relationship with the maker. Artisans create something that “you know was either made for you, or in a tiny number, by a man who lives on an island in the Irish Sea”, says Silas Walton, head of A Collected Man, a watch-broker. This Tolkeinesque image is no exaggeration; a watch created by George Daniels, who toiled in a small workshop on the Isle of Man until his death in 2011, sold in July 2019 for more than $4m – the most expensive timepiece from such a small atelier ever sold at auction.
Peter Chong is one such collector. Already fascinated by handmade mechanical objects, he began collecting watches more than 25 years ago. He has become an expert on independent watch-makers such as A. Lange & Söhne, a German firm. When a watch is handmade, he says, “you can still feel a bit of that watchmaker living within the soul”. Among his most treasured pieces is a watch by Philippe Dufour, known in the industry as “the god of watches” for his perfectionism and exquisite craftsmanship, who has a waiting list of hundreds for his valuable watches.
For many collectors, the pursuit of watches is redolent of earlier childhood obsessions (though with rather more pocket money). One collector recalls poring over baseball cards and Star Wars action figures as a child; decades on, he says he experiences the same thrill when buying a new watch. With this infatuation often comes a hunger to learn and share a watch’s history.
Jeff Stein, an American collector with hundreds of vintage watches, grew up in the 1960s dreaming of space. Today he counts a bespoke LeCoultre that belonged to John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, as one of his most cherished possessions. When he was trying to track down the watch, Stein unearthed other LeCoultre watches worn by NASA’s early astronauts, helping to shine a light on a forgotten part of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s history.
At times these super-fans are even able to share their expertise with manufacturers. Fred Mandelbaum, a prolific collector of Breitling watches, advised the Swiss firm on design and accuracy when it recently reissued the Navitimer 806, a piece that it had originally produced in 1959.
Collecting has changed the design of new watches and the way that watch companies engage with their customers. Collectors covet more than just vintage watches. Demand for new watches has driven an arms race in intricacy and technology, as well as increasingly outlandish designs. HYT, a small Swiss watchmaker, uses what the company refers to as a “fluidic module” to display the passage of time: coloured liquid circumnavigates the dial through a capillary, fed by a pair of minuscule mechanical bellows. According to François Nunez, HYT’s creative director, the watches appeal to collectors “because we managed to bring a new way to express time”, which is what this group wants .
Novel materials fascinate too. Hublot is one of the few luxury watchmakers to use sapphire both to cover its watch dials, and for the case. Sapphire is expensive, almost as hard as diamond, and challenging to craft. But this merely adds to the allure for some buyers. This year Hublot has launched a trio of watches with Ferrari, including one made of sapphire that costs $69,000. In addition to 90 of each watch, Hublot is producing ten sets all three models that are clearly aimed at collectors.
Each super-fan has different preferences. Some look for historically significant timepieces, others fawn over the latest technology and design. What unites them is a deep appreciation for the craft of horology, and their willingness to expend money and effort. They are always hungry for more time.•