The watch has become a quintessential item of style and functionality. A popular article of dress, antique and rare watches have come to be considered as collectible items of jewellery, for their ornamental value rather than just for their time-keeping function.
The apparatus was conceived as early as the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I of England received one of the first examples of the watch in 1571, as a present from Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, the watch had a much closer affiliation with men. These instruments had a great association with war, where they were essential for to the coordination of battle manoeuvres in military campaigns. During the First World War, nearly every enlisted soldier wore a wristwatch, and models with luminous dials and unbreakable glass covers were soon developed, specially designed for the demands of trench warfare. At the conclusion of the conflict, many decommissioned soldiers continued to wear their watches, and they soon became fashion accessories from the post-war era onwards. Indeed, the appeal of the wristwatch endures to the present day.
The watch market has not seriously felt the effects of recent economic crises. Although some art and antiques markets have been struggling, watches have remained relatively strong. Specialist watch auctions are held by the major auction houses, with the most important sales being held in Hong Kong, Geneva and New York, where results have been impressive. Watch collecting is a relatively new phenomenon, with the first specialist watch sale being held relatively recently in 1980. The strength of today's watch market reflects the way we view watches, which is as a luxury or status symbol as opposed to a timekeeping instrument. A fine watch combines craftsmanship, luxury, elegance and technology to create something that is both practical and beautiful.
The watches that sell for the most money at auctions have a number of factors in common. Rarity, maker, complication and material all contribute to the value of a timepiece. There are a handful of watchmakers who have been extremely dominant at recent watch sales, notably Patek Phililppe and Rolex, who among others, continue to realise incredible prices at auction.
The material is important to the strength of the market today because the high prices of bullion are reflected in the prices of the timepieces made from gold and silver. This is, however, not the key factor in determining the value of a watch, as rarity comes first. Some early steel watches can fetch higher prices than gold ones as they were made in fewer examples. For example a 1940s reference 1518 Patek is worth approximately £100,000 at auction, while the same watch in steel (only three pieces made) is worth between £800,000 and £1,200,000
Complications, which are any features of the watch beyond basic timekeeping, are an important factor because they represent the intricacy and craftsmanship of a watch.
A watch that is able to combine all of these factors, will inevitably be extremely coveted and valuable.
The Submariner is one of the most popular Rolex models sold at auctions. We have valued a lot of them through our site, including, most recently, a gold and steel Submariner at £3,000-4,000. Christie's Geneva sold a very rare model in May 2013 for over £300,000. It dated from 1959 and its most noticeable feature was a "4-liner" chronometer dial.
Yesterday evening in Geneva, Sotheby's sold the unique Henry Graves Supercomplication, for a record breaking price of CHF23.2 million (approx. £15 million), making it the most valuable timepiece in auction history. It dates from 1932 and was completed by Patek Philippe. It is the most complicated watch ever made without the assistance of computers.