At a Christie's watch auction in Geneva recently, writes Claire Adler, a young boy in the back row, aged around 14, raised his paddle. He was accompanied by a woman who appeared to be his mother.
The auctioneer at the sale – Christie's head of watches, Aurel Bacs – could not make out the bidder clearly, but assumed the mother had instructed her son to bid on her behalf. It later turned out that the boy was buying a watch from his own savings.
During his four years in charge of the Christie's watch department and eight years at Sotheby's and Phillips before that, Bacs has witnessed a level of commitment to watches that is nothing short of extraordinary.
"I've sold watches to collectors who are in their 90s," says Bacs, on the phone from Geneva. "On more than one occasion, one of these older collectors has suddenly called, asking me to sell their whole collection. Some weeks ago, one such gentleman called me saying: 'I'm in great shape and I'm well, but I want you to sell my watch collection. I'm very worried that no-one in my family appreciates its value, but I am confident my children will understand the value of money in the bank account. I'd rather live 20 more years without the watches, than risk seeing the collection ending up in the wrong hands'."
Watches certainly compel people from a strikingly diverse range of educational backgrounds, ages and nationalities. Bacs knows "at least three" collectors who each own more than 1000 watches. His regular clients include people who turn up at Christie's "unshaven in a jogging suit" as well as those in dark double breasted suits.
"One of the joys of my job is seeing the CEO of a publicly-listed company, a musician and a football player sitting together talking about the intricacies of a watch dial or the beauty of a watch movement," says Bacs. "It's so informal, it's really fabulous – it's not about how much money you have to spend, but about a real passion for the subject."
How to begin collecting
So with thousands of players and a myriad of watches on offer, how is a newcomer to this horological world to know where to begin?
Ask most people how they started collecting watches and they won't be able to remember. "Most say they liked one watch and then it just happened," says Bacs.
But first and foremost, Bacs advises deciding on what you want from a watch. Is it just aesthetic pleasure, is it the historic value, the prestige of a particular brand, a focus on technical aspects or a short- or long-term investment? Or how about a watch that tells a great story inviting you on a journey that lasts a lifetime?
Take the first watch ever to have reached the moon. When Neil Armstrong made it onto the moon in 1969, he wore an Omega Speedmaster Professional. The distance from Switzerland to the surface of the moon is some 384,000 km. But 51 years after this legendary watch was created, it has been on 118 space missions, two polar expeditions and one miraculous orbital re-entry watched by almost 60 million people. Not bad for a watch designed in 1957, for "research, industry and sport".
Originally called the Navitimer, Breitling's Cosmonaute was worn by Scott Carpenter when he made the second US flight into space to orbit the Earth in 1962. The first watch in space is still debated.
Or how about James Bond's favourite watch? The Rolex Submariner, worn by the original James Bond in Ian Fleming's novels, featured in some of the first Bond films. Nowadays, Omega has acquired the privilege of adorning James Bond's wrist. The Omega Seamaster 300 metre Diver Chronometer is so famous that people now routinely walk into Omega boutiques asking for "the Bond watch".
Tag Heuer's Monaco is a striking watch by all accounts. But it became the ultimate in cool when Steve McQueen wore it in the classic 1970 racing film Le Mans. From the Olympic Games in the 1920s, Tag Heuer is the first watchmaker to master chronographs to within 1/10,000th of a second.
"Today, the Monaco's biggest fans are people who as children regarded McQueen as their hero in his overalls and square-cased Monaco, and who can now afford the real thing," says Jonathan Scatchard, retail manager at Ogden's of Harrogate – one of the UK's most prestigious jewellers, and author of Miller's How To Compare And Value Wristwatches.
Or how about investing in a watch you don't actually own, you merely pass on to the next generation? In 2000, Patek Philippe created a 10-day wristwatch to celebrate the millennium.
Thanks to its unique case and a movement only ever used for this limited series of watches, coupled with the fact that the tools used to craft it were destroyed to ensure they would never be used again, this watch has soared in value since its production. At auction these watches now fetch between double and quadruple their retail value. In total, 1,500 in yellow gold, 750 in pink gold, 450 in white gold, 300 in platinum were created. Original retail prices for the yellow gold and platinum versions were €19,000 and around €25,000 respectively.
Within the last two years, a pink gold version has sold for €38,000 and a platinum version has sold for €101,000. The platinum version is the most rare, so appreciation is steeper.
Design of the times
The watch world's most recent releases include a slew of stylish pendant and pocket watches. Richard Mille's striking pocket watch in the form of a tourbillon watch – a timekeeper designed to counteract the timekeeping inaccuracies caused by gravity – is influenced by Formula One motorcars and Perini Navi yacht racing. It retails from a racy €280,000.
Meanwhile, Breguet has reinvented the legendary pocket watch it originally made for Marie-Antoinette and Piaget's ultra thin Altiplano tourbillon pocket watch is a delight for sore eyes. All of which goes to prove you don't have to be a Victorian gent to reach into your pocket to tell the time.
Meanwhile, a watch from lesser-known family-owned Swiss watch brand Maurice Lacroix demanded the watch world's attention at the BaselWorld watch fair this spring. The Memoire 1, priced at €170,000, is the first ever chronograph with memory. Chronographs are typically used for timing races and this beauty allows you to switch between chronograph and regular time mode at the touch of a button, remembering the times in each mode while you flip between them.
Elsewhere, intelligent design at Parisian jewellers and watchmakers Van Cleef & Arpels has resulted in a watch with a diamond studded fairy who raises her hand to denote hours and her wing to indicate seconds, while at Girard Perregaux, a new kind of World Time watch indicates the time in 24 shopping capitals of the world.
Watches as investment
When it comes to buying watches for investment, Marcus Margulies, owner of Bond Street luxury watch emporium Marcus, advocates buying watches for love as opposed to short-term investment.
"Buying watches is like buying art," he says. "Don't do it for an investment and don't be sucked in by the latest fad. It's better to buy less and buy quality. Simon Sainsbury recently sold his art collection after 20 years. One of the pictures fetched half the price he paid for it. There are no guarantees."
But Bacs of Christie's acknowledges the watch market has seen a boom in recent years. According to figures from Hiscox, Europe's leading insurers of high value homes and art, watches have soared 66% in value in the last decade.
"I do not manage watch collections as bankers manage portfolios, but it is amazing to see how many of the comments I've made over the last 10 years have resulted in people making millions from watches. Even despite the credit crunch, we saw record-breaking results at our sale this spring," says Bacs.
Building a collection
Many collectors nail down one particular area. One watch collector owns only watches with enamel dials, which were made during World War Two. He is fascinated by the notion that at a time when the world was in utter turmoil and half of Europe was occupied, people continued to produce and buy high-end luxury items.
Another collector buys only pocket watches with royal provenance dating up until the 17th century. Every timepiece he owns has served the needs of a king, an emperor or a head of state. One woman is the proud owner of 100 Vacheron Constantin men's watches.
"Most watch collectors are amassers of status symbols," says Margulies. "The great collectors buy rare watches that are in perfect condition. You can tell you're in the company of a true collector because they touch a watch and hold it in their hands."
"If you have £20million of income a year, there are only so many cufflinks you can buy," he continues. "With watches on the other hand, you can have a huge amount of fun."
Collectors of iconic brands sometimes form their own mini-communities. Online, this is happening on the official Jaeger le Coultre website and at Paneristi.com, a website set up by and for enthusiasts of Panerai, the watch brand famous for supplying the Italian Navy. The influence of these collectors is such that Panerai themselves now organise social events for "paneristi" round the globe.
In fact this concept of community is nothing new. Patek Philippe, the family-owned company, founded in Geneva in 1839, had a dedicated following of loyal fans who socialised with each other long before the advent of the internet. A black and white photo at the Patek Philippe museum in Geneva, shows members of the Gondolo Club in the early 20th century hiking together in Brazil.
Since the price of the Chronometro Gondolo wristwatch was roughly equivalent to the annual salary of a qualified Brazilian, Patek Philippe introduced a weekly payment scheme to an exclusive 180-member club, in the form of a lottery whereby the watch was the prize in each of 79 consecutive weekly draws.
Still, the vast majority of collectors do not limit themselves to one brand or category. Most people buy watches that reflect their character or interests. For example, the Vintage Watch Company on London's Burlington Arcade regularly source watches to coincide with customers' birth years.
Valuing and comparing
When deciding on a budget or whether to buy a particular second hand watch, auction house catalogues, though not intended as learning material, are a great resource for educating yourself about the values of different watches in the market. Similarly, auction sale previews offer public access to experts who are used to answering questions from beginner collectors.
Today, there are almost as many watch magazines as there are car magazines, while online watch blogs and forums from watchprosite.com to timezone.com, are useful for connecting with connoisseurs and collectors.
"Don't overstretch yourself when it comes to budget or you could end up resenting a particular watch," advises watch lover and seventh-generation luxury retailer William Asprey, the owner of luxury emporium William & Son – the only UK stockist for five of the most exclusive brands including F P Journe, who crafts only 150 watches a year and De Bethune who makes only 200 a year.
"You're in a good shape to start a collection if you are able to determine the quality of a watch. Questions to consider are who made it, the quality of the craftsmanship and its provenance – what's happened to the watch during its life on the market. It may be a fine watch, but if it has been worn by Godzilla and a butcher and been handled by watchmakers unqualified to repair it, then it is not great quality. Quality never came cheap," advises Bacs.