Watch collecting. A rich man’s game? To an extent, sure. Rich people do collect watches. And with all the noise generated by record-breaking auctions such as Phillip’s Racing Pulse last year, where buyers stumped up $ 27.6 million for 135 lots, you can see where watch collecting gets its silk-stockinged reputation.
But in the same way my kids collect Panini stickers during a World Cup, collecting is a numbers game only in relative terms. I collected Swatch as a teenager. I’ve also met people with their own runways who’ll only buy when the price tag has so many zeroes it seems to be written in binary code. Both of us are, or were, collectors.
It will shatter no illusions to say you can only collect what you can afford, but a little blue-sky thinking never hurt. In the near two decades I’ve been covering this business as writer, editor, and wishful thinker, my aspirations and agency have seldom met. So let’s try and think rationally. There are strategies that make bringing the two together possible.
For example, some collectors would advise focus, whether that’s around watch styles, design periods, brands, or functions you like or that you expect to accrue value. Focus on dive watches, they might say. Or on Pateks. Or on chronographs, particularly those that rhyme with Maytona. All are viable ways to go, and it’s great to have a particular point of view. It’s also perfectly fine to eclectically collect what you like, without making rules for yourself.
But assuming you’re here to join a conversation about getting a collection up and running, it’s helpful to establish some boundaries. And a big one, for almost all of us, is cash – and just how much of it you’ve got to splash.
So below, we’ve set the budget in multiples of 10: Where do you go if you’ve got $ 1,000, $ 10,000, or $ 100,000 (lucky you) to get your watch collecting life off to a column-wheel-regulated start?
First, some assumptions. We’re collecting mechanicals here, not quartz. We’re making no claims to be exhaustive. We’re being thoroughly and unapologetically subjective. And retail prices will (almost) always go up.
The Pot: $ 1,000
No bones, it’s a beginner’s budget. But you can still have some fun.
The truth is, at this level, it’s about your expectations. The big brands don’t feature here. Even TAG Heuer’s quartz-powered F1 is beyond budget now, as are entry-level Longines mechanicals.
I’ve never thought that mattered, though. Because there’s still plenty to entertain in this category, even if you want to go Swiss. If you do, Hamilton, Certina, Mido, and one of Switzerland’s biggest beasts Tissot (estimated by Morgan Stanley to push out more than 2 million watches a year, twice Rolex) will deliver some Swiss Made goodness for reasonable money. Hamilton’s evergreen Khaki Field Mechanical promises evergreen military-watch looks and the ETA-based 80-hour H-50 hand-wound caliber for $ 475. An easy watch to recommend to a novice watch collector.
Split the pot and stretch your collecting legs early.
Prices like that mean you can split the pot and stretch your collecting legs early. Watches powered by Japanese Miyota movements or the (unfairly undervalued) Seagull power units coming out of China often overdeliver given what little they ask of your pocket. French newcomers Baltic use both and will take as little as $ 400 from you.
Or skip across the Channel and try something British. Farer just put out the Field, a Sellita-powered adventure watch for $ 995, and it comes with three strap options. Scotland’s Marloe is worth a look, too.
And, of course, Swatch’s Sistem51 pieces will fill a budget gap with cheerful simplicity.
The Pot: $ 10,000
We’re in heirloom territory now. Use your budget to build a strong platform – and don’t waste it on fads.
The more money you’ve got to spend, the more questions you’ve got to answer. And the big one at this price point is: Should you buy one icon or split the budget?
My personal view is that $ 10,000 is a wonderful budget to start a watch collection with. I’d go as far as to say it’s a responsibility. Spend your 10k wisely and you might even make some money.
One good way to do so is to spend your first chunk on a Rolex. List price on a new Oyster Perpetual 41, launched at the end of last summer, is $ 5,900 – if you can find one, which you probably can’t. At the moment, you’ll need another $ 1,600 minimum to pick one up, pre-owned, via a private seller (*insert shocked emoji faces here*).
Now add to that Rolex a pair of foolproof, mid-range classics. A rounded investment would include something more technical, such as an Oris Aquis Date diver’s watch ($ 2,000), and then something dressier. A Montblanc Heritage Automatic ($ 2,270) with the salmon dial would do it. Bases covered.
Alternatively, you could start thinking about complications, and in particular chronographs. Rolex’s Daytona is out of range at this point, but the Chronograph Holy Trinity’s other members aren’t.
Omega’s updated Speedmaster, complete with a bullet-proof Master Chronometer caliber, is $ 6,300. Don’t hang around if you’re offered one of those by your local AD. And TAG Heuer’s Carrera Chronograph, which for many consumers will now have too many iterations to keep track of, can serve up pretty little things such as the Carrera 160 Years Montreal Limited Edition ($ 6,750) and still leave change for a top-notch beater (Tudor’s hardier Black Bay, around $ 3,500, would do it).
Or let’s say you want to spend the whole sum on one watch. Heirloom contenders include Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Ultra Thin Moon in steel, which is just inside budget, as is Panerai’s Luminor Power Reserve. Interested parties will note Zenith’s opinion-splitting Chronomaster Sport, fresh out of the blocks, comes in right on budget at $ 10,000.
The Pot: $ 100,000
Hey, big spender – the watch world is (just about) your oyster.
Here we move from nice little heirlooms to the realm of full-on grails. With this kind of purchasing power – alien to my profession – under your hood, there’s not much from the Swiss mainstream you can’t buy, save the grandest of grandes complications (sorry about that).
Clearly Patek Philippe comes into the equation here, although as has now been widely reported, pre-owned values on the recently discontinued Ref. 5711 steel Nautilus have put this budget into the shade. That’s an embarrassment, frankly, not least as you can pick up the white gold Ref. 5172G hand-wound chronograph for a click over $ 73,000.
But we’re already daydreaming. At this level, you’ve got to focus. Otherwise, you’ll be overwhelmed by the options. In short: You can go with a well-rounded collection of stone-cold baller watches. Or pick up a low-volume slice of horological history.
At this level, you’ve got to focus. Otherwise, you’ll be overwhelmed by the options.
Strategy No. 1 would be to buy by category. You could, for example, zero in on calendar watches, or, barring issues surrounding the aforementioned Nautilus, on 1970s steel sports watches. As simple functionally as it would be, a collection built around a Ref. 5711, a Royal Oak ‘Jumbo’ Extra-Thin, and vintage IWC Ingenieur SL and Vacheron Constantin 222 models would have a completeness to it. You’ll likely bust the budget early doors, but there are SLs to be had for four figures. Although, given the supply issues emanating from Plan-les-Ouates, you’d be more swiftly satisfied by turning to Girard-Perregaux’s sleeper Laureato, and trawling pre-owned sites for a good example Omega Seamaster 200 SHOM, a 1970s piece overdue a rebirth.
Strategy No. 2 would be to focus on independent brands, where the finer points of fine watchmaking’s story are currently being written. Just don’t get ahead of yourself. Once you start scoping makers whose production runs never touch four figures, De Bethune, Urwerk, and the latest horological wunderkind Rexep Rexhepi among them, you’re already starting to run out of budget. After all, we’re in a rarified zone where MB&F’s platinum LM101 at $ 75,000 looks like good value. And forget about getting into Greubel Forsey. The buy-in’s more than a few degrees north of here.
Strategy No. 3 would be to focus on elite brands. You could build a little collection of recent and vintage Patek (a pre-owned complicated Nautilus, like the annual calendar Ref. 5726, comes in way under Ref. 5711 prices), or do the same with Vacheron or F.P. Journe. Pre-owned Journes don’t grow on trees, but something like a Classique Octa Auto Lune should come in at around $ 50,000.
And then there’s Strategy No. 4, which, allowed a moment of pure subjectivity, would be mine. I’d slice the pie. Every time. At least 10 ways. Looking up, I’d gladly own any watch I’ve listed in this piece. And for $ 100K, I could have a bunch of them. I’d add in something from Breitling – the Top Time Limited Edition at $ 4,990 had me at hello – and an IWC Portugieser Chronograph, and I’d go hunting for some of the 1970s vintage classics no one’s really talking about at the moment. The SHOM would be one of them, and I’ve developed a deep fondness for the second generation Heuer Carrera. Examples are available for a few thousand bucks.
And along the way, I’m pretty sure I’d find some spare change for a box of Montecristos so I could sit and enjoy my collection for a while, too. I feel like I’ve earned it.
Robin Swithinbank is an independent journalist, writer, and regular contributor to New York Times International, Financial Times, GQ, and Robb Report. He is also Harrods’ Contributing Watch Editor.
Illustrations by Rami Niemi