I originally wrote this about 9-10 months ago, following a conversation with a friend who runs Unekual. We never got around to using it, so I figured I would update it and share for those who might be starting out with watch collecting now (God forbid!). The purpose of this post is to set out the ‘state of play’ in the world of watches and to provide some food for thought to any budding horologist who might find themselves going down the rabbit hole.
State of play
After some advice from a friend, I will start by clarifying why a “state of play” section is included at all. The analogy I used was related to stock market investing and the economy… you wouldn’t start a post about investing in stocks without some broader context on the economy within which this investment would take place… so that’s what this section is – a very brief run through the last few years, from ‘pre-hype’ to ‘peak-hype’ and finally, today’s more dubious market.
One aspect of the watch market which many collectors may still remember, is how recent levels of hype didn’t really exist a few years ago. I distinctly recall seeing Rolex sports models in shop windows, and the ability to walk in and buy these pieces; sometimes, even at a discount. Today, this sounds like a fantasy world, and the grey market is flooded with these very same watches for multiples of the retail price. What changed? I would argue that social media had a lot to do with it, as these pieces became a ‘symbol’ of sorts. Rightly or wrongly, watches have come to signify success, access, wealth etc … and it is no different with watches, than it has been with other similar luxury goods such as Hermes Birkin bags or Travis Scott Jordans. In particular, watches in steel were the first to take off – clearly, these were more accessibly priced at retail, and this allowed people who wouldn’t ordinarily splurge on the watches to buy them, knowing they were unlikely to lose money. They could ‘flex’ with a luxury watch, and then sell it for a profit. Not rocket science, perhaps.
Once this practice was commonplace, there was a visible frustration in the collector community, as the folks who had been collecting for a longer period of time, begrudged the new lack of access, and in particular, were frustrated by how the entire ‘hype’ model buying experience was centred around making a profit; If you were able to spend more, you could buy more. Gone were the days of being able to buy what you wanted, when you wanted it. The new rules of the game were financially driven – pay to play – since the retailers could attach the most absurd conditions to a watch allocation. Watches of Switzerland in the U.K. even retained Rolex warranty cards to prevent reselling, but this was later reversed reportedly due to pressure from Rolex HQ.
Perhaps more interesting, was what happened with people’s tastes, which now seemed to be formed in the echo-chamber that is social media. Steel sports watches were seemingly the thing which everyone “loved”. Did they really, though? Or were they loving the ability to make 100%+ profit off the bat? Were they loving the praise they received for being able to land a ‘grail’ Patek 3-hander in steel? I have written about this many times, and I maintain that a large proportion of people slowly turned into sheeple – following the herd, and not their own tastes.
Nevertheless, the self-proclaimed ‘astute’ collectors turned towards independent watchmaking, an area where each buck spent is arguably returning far more in the form of craftsmanship (and arguably, relationships too). Independent watchmakers were more accessible, and at the time, willing to customise your watch to your heart’s content – they were not hyped yet, and so they welcomed the attention and the business. There was no profit to be made on the grey market, but people bought these independent brands because they loved the watches. I know of several collectors who own some incredible unique Journe watches, simply because they loved the man’s work, and wanted to own these watches with a touch of their own design – and Journe was happy to oblige, even sometimes flying across to the world to deliver them personally. Of course, those days are long gone – and today, Journe might offer these unique customised pieces to the older collectors, but at most, only one per year – and they probably won’t entertain these requests from new collectors, because they simply don’t have the capacity to meet the demand for normal watches, let alone special orders.
The same is true for the rest of the independent brands – demand has now skyrocketed for all of them, and even the previously lesser-known brands such as Czapek are now getting the recognition of the wider public – and I would say, deservedly so. Others, like Gronefeld have simply closed their order books for the foreseeable future, as they cannot meet demand and want to focus on delivery, as well as R&D. So, the sheeple of old, realised where the smart money went (to independent watchmakers) and they too, followed suit.
So now we’re talking around the fourth quarter of 2021. Rolex was still catering to the masses and early-entrants to the game, as well as the seasoned buyers who had good relationships with their authorised dealers – and these watches remained an easy decision to buy. Of course, Rolex make good watches, there’s no denying that. The independents were now firmly on the ‘hype-train’, and there were no signs of this slowing down. Players like Watchbox who are, for the most part, responsible for kick-starting the F.P. Journe hype, were now looking for their next candidate and seemed to have found one in De Bethune. Anecdotally, around this time I was offered an option of 6 different pieces from the brand (DB) at ~40% off, and then, suddenly, there were none available … and the ones that were for sale were well above retail! Utter bullsh*t; this was artificial scarcity, and we’d seen it before with Journe. Smaller independents such as Sarpaneva and Laventure were cranking out pieces and production was allocated/pre-sold long before you saw it on social media, and the same was true for almost all others in this league. Even if it wasn’t entirely pre-sold, the production numbers were (and remained) so low, that the watches sold out fairly quickly… and this remains true all the way down to the lower price brackets, as evidenced by Baltic’s recent collaboration with A Collected Man which sold out in a minute or two.
Then came, the circus of 2022… from Russia invading Ukraine, to the U.K proving itself to be a banana republic. There was definitely a shift in the market sentiment around the start of the second quarter, where the seemingly unstoppable rise of watch values came to a grinding halt… A correction event, of sorts. Gone were the days of happy hour valuations across all categories… and since this period, what I believe we see is perhaps best described as more cautious pricing. This Christie’s auction, for example, is still catching up it seems, as their opening bids seemed to be out of touch with reality, and many lots closed unsold, or have not come close to exceeding their expectations.
Of course, many watches still remain prohibitively expensive, but a premium (rightfully) remains when it comes to genuinely scarce watches. We still find ourselves in a precarious situation, with winter looming in the northern hemisphere, energy costs eating away at disposable income, and recession forecasts across the world. What that might mean for luxury watch collectors is of course, an open debate… what I remain certain about is this: there will always be a 1% crowd who want the best watches and have the money to pay for this stuff. This ‘recessionary environment’ will be a buyers’ market for the 1%… and all the folks who bought into the late hype of 2021 with fringe brands cashing in on hype, will get burned – assuming they bought for profit/hype exposure, and not because they loved the watches. I say that because, if you bought it without the intention to sell, then you don’t really care what the value is, or where it is going next.
So how should you start?
Many collectors will be torn between advising you not to enter the fray at all and diving headfirst into the deep end by immersing yourself in research, then trying to get hands-on with as many pieces as you can. Since you’ve made it this far, you’re probably well on your way into the latter camp – so let’s proceed on that basis.
Figure out what you like
In an ideal world, you’d start out in a silo, and hone your own tastes without any external influence. One of the more negative aspects of modern collecting is how quickly individuals devolve into sheeple. A particular watch could be ugly, or otherwise not particularly good value, but if a enough people “big it up”, it suddenly becomes hot property. This is basically how the brand Furlan Marri was born – as I explained here. There’s nothing wrong with their watches, and I have no issue with the brand – in fact I have spoken with one of the founders and he’s a lovely guy. The point I am making is that before you allow yourself to be ‘influenced’ or to take advice from people who you think are ‘experienced collectors’ – try and figure out what you like.
Do you like round cases, or unusual case shapes? Do you enjoy wearing larger watches or smaller ones? Do you prefer bracelets or straps? Rubber or leather? Do you care about dial symmetry or not? What complications do you like? Why? Is a date actually useful/important to you? Do you care about heritage and history in a watch? Do you give a sh*t about a movement being “in-house” or not? Should you care? (PS. most brands twist the truth about their movements being entirely in-house; so, when you hear this, alarm bells should go off!)
Once you figure out what you think you like, remember that there is simply no substitute for trying a watch on your own wrist. Forget what you heard, ignore your friend who convinced you a watch is too big, or too bulky or too small etc… You will never know if a watch is for you with 100% certainty, without trying it on your own wrist. I have a story to reiterate this.
The story is about my Omega Speedmaster “Tintin”. As I love the colour red, this watch was inherently appealing to me; Coupled with the fact that I watched the cartoon and read the books as a kid, I already had a soft spot for the watch. I couldn’t try the watch at the time, but I went to a boutique and tried on the regular moonwatch which was identical in size – and it wore too big on my wrist. I must remind you, I really wanted to like it, and I was trying to convince myself it was ok for me, but it just didn’t feel right. So, I scrapped the idea of a Speedmaster from my list of options and moved on. Several months later, a friend of mine was selling his Tintin, and posted it in a WhatsApp group of watch collectors. I replied saying how I really liked the idea of owning a Tintin, but having tried it, it didn’t fit me perfectly. He asked, “did you try it on the bracelet, or a strap?” I said I had tried it on the bracelet, as that’s all they had in store. His response was: “if you like the watch, I can assure you that the bracelet is your problem… I will bet you any amount of money if you try it on a strap, you won’t take it off… I know this because my bracelet is still unworn… it is so fu*king sh*t!” I then agreed to meet him with the intention of buying it but was planning to try it first – the moment I had it on my wrist, I paid for it and the rest is history. To this day, my Tintin’s bracelet remains in storage… in the box, still stickered and unworn… and the lugs have a handful of scratch marks at the back due to all the strap changes!
I must add, I have indeed purchased watches without seeing or trying them in person, but these were calculated risks, which I only took after I had owned several watches and was able to better gauge (for myself) the risk of not liking a watch. There are always going to be more watches available than the average person can typically afford… so when you find yourself being pushed into a quick decision, remember to refer to your own version of the watch collector’s matrix. That’s an older post of mine, explaining how you can evaluate all your purchase decisions. Every watch you buy, will be using up your (typically finite!) resources, and any purchase will therefore cause you to be unable to buy something else. Choose wisely – I won’t go into stating the obvious, that you ought to do a lot of research – that is covered in the collector’s matrix article linked above.
Instagram and social media
Although I bashed social media earlier, it certainly has its place. Instagram is a worthwhile place to seek out like-minded collectors, but as mentioned before, it is also a dangerous place which can put undue influence on you if you aren’t careful with how you use it. Through Instagram, I have made some really good friends all over the world, many of whom I have yet to meet in person – and others who I speak to almost daily! This speaks to the level of trust and friendship you might be able to build over time, borne out of a shared love for the hobby. The way I would suggest you use Instagram, is to be very selective and intentional about who you follow, and curate what you see daily by avoiding hype-hungry accounts. You will easily find these accounts, who post the most hyped watches every single day – they often hold several hyped watches in their hands and post really poor photos – since hyped watches always get better reach on Instagram, they don’t really deviate from this ‘formula’.
Also remember, that people on Instagram can have ‘an angle’. Perhaps they are there to sell something, or to promote their businesses, or get commercial sponsorship gigs. None of this is nefarious, but it does mean that you should be vigilant about how you weigh opinions you see on Instagram. Everyone will have their own biases, this is okay – the point I am making is that you should factor these biases into your decisions and how you weigh opinions you hear.
This topic reminds me about a particular brand called Unimatic. I love the brand so much; I wrote a whole post about it here. I have never been paid by them or asked to promote their products – I paid the retail price for all the Unimatic watches I own. Yet, if you see my profile or read my post about them, this is something that you might wonder! Contrast this with @jumpingjalapeno on Instagram – he hates the brand (you can ask him why, bring popcorn if you do lol!). Anyway, the point is: if you asked either of us for an opinion about Unimatic watches, you would get two very opposing views!
It is of course possible that an account can be a genuine, serious, non-hype account but who happens to own several hype watches – but you won’t really decipher this without speaking to them directly – so definitely reach out to people, ask them questions about their watches, discuss their approach to collecting and so on. Bear in mind, just like you will find in your daily life, people talk a lot of nonsense. There are people who I met a few years ago who were new to Instagram, and shared stories with me about their collections and intentions to make money… yet, today, they masquerade as ‘serious collectors’ now that they have a huge following and have gained the ‘respect’ of the online community. That is not to say there is anything wrong with this practice – just that you should be wary about who you trust, and the authenticity of their advice and opinions.
In the same way that you might be selective with your use of Instagram – be selective about how quickly you get ‘wowed’ or tempted by expensive watches or hyped watches. As another friend reminded me, “most people start with a Seiko, Tag, Hamilton etc.” – and this is helpful to better hone your tastes and preferences relatively cheaply, before spending larger sums of money. It is definitely worth avoiding the pressure to spend a lot, too soon – that said, you will know when you truly love a watch – mark my words!
Other random stuff and concluding remarks
Online research is always helpful, and there is indeed plenty of information out there – however, some information resides exclusively in the heads of experienced collectors. Many publications today have utilised these collectors as the key resource to informing their articles. Several collector friends have shared stories about how they came to learn certain things via DMs with other prominent collectors. The lesson here is simple: some collectors have decades of experience which they are more than happy to share – all you have to do, is ask!
Next, a reminder about personal security… Don’t post photos with geotags, or with recognisable landmarks which can help criminals determine your whereabouts – especially if this is close to your safety deposit location or your home – these are two places where you are likely to take several pictures. If you are out, don’t tag a location in a story unless you’re about to leave – or take a video, and post it later.
A surprising number of people underestimate the cost of ownership when it comes to high end timepieces, and this is worth getting a detailed understanding of. A mechanical watch will require services, and insurance too. Insurers might require the installation of a safe at your home, this safe will not be inexpensive and you might not even have the space for one. This lack of space might require you to store some watches in a safety deposit box, which means you can’t simply pick your favourite watch every morning, because most pieces will be stored in a bank! What does all this cost? Definitely worth considering how you will approach this, and whether the expenses (and extra hassle) are worth it to you.
Now, after you have gone out to try watches in boutiques or from grey dealers, and you have started finding your people on Instagram, the next logical step is to meet people in person. Again, be mindful of your security – don’t meet people who are entirely random, or who you have no mutual connections to – trust but verify. Before meeting anyone, ask around, see who might know them, and then confirm they’re not completely random. The watch collecting community is pretty small in the grand scheme of things, and you’re unlikely to find one person who is entirely unknown. If this happens to be the case for you, start out by joining a collectors’ group such as Redbar in London or Le Paris Watch Club, in Paris… there are many others around the world, look them up via Instagram and after you attend your first event, the rest will become easier, I assure you!
Finally, build relationships. Today, I have managed to own several watches simply due to the kindness of other collector friends – and I have returned the favour where possible, to other collector friends. The idea of ‘paying it forward’ definitely resonates as a watch collector because most people don’t have unlimited funds, and we can’t possibly buy everything we have available to us – often, this is a good time to check yourself, and when appropriate, let someone else who wants it even more, have it! You will also find that this relationship-side of collecting will become ever more enjoyable, likely surpassing your love for the watches themselves. There are very few things which are as satisfying as going to a watch collectors’ gathering – someone once described it as “going to a party, where you know you’ll get along with more than 80% of the attendees, before you even arrive“.
That’s obvious, since you know you have something in common with everyone there, but inevitably, you will always have a small group of a**holes no matter where you go!
If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong, or just haven’t found your people… yet! 🙂
In conclusion… I recognise the sections in this post might seem a little bit erratic, and perhaps overflow into one another… that’s because I added to the post after initially writing it, and some of the feedback I received didn’t really ‘fit’ into any particular section. I also recognise the state of play section may have some inconsistencies with regards to tense – using had vs have etc – this is poor form, and I tried my best to rectify this having originally written it a while ago. Mea culpa! Finally, I have probably also managed to forget something important for a new collector to bear in mind – so please add your comments and advice as a comment below. Perhaps if there is enough new information, I will write an updated ‘how to start’ in 2023 🙂