Time Is Precious: Vintage Watches Are All The Rage

William Thomas is a house painter in Sacramento, Calif., who everyday wears the apparel of his occupation – white workman’s pants, a white T-shirt, rugged paint-covered workman’s shoes and a white cap. He also wears an inexpensive digital wristwatch so covered with paint the time is barely visible.

Thomas would be foolish to wear anything else. But as the owner of a business called Meticulous Painting, the businessman knows worlds far removed from his daily grind.

For years, the 58-year-old father of two adult daughters has maintained a steady interest in vintage automobiles and other collectibles. He rarely has the occasion to wear business clothes, but he appreciates fine apparel.

And he has been known to study catalogs at length while searching for such items as the proper shoes.

Thomas is the kind of consumer who knows what he likes. And when he finds it, he buys it.

Which is exactly what he did a few years ago.

Thomas spent several years searching for a dress wristwatch. But he was unable to find the brand, model and exact style that fit his wrist. Surprisingly, he found the perfect watch on a lark – a Cartier Buscalate, the elegant tank style timepiece.

While looking for the watch he originally desired, a jeweler showed him the Cartier. Within moments after he put the watch on his wrist, Thomas bought it. It costs $2,500.

“I went to my favorite jewelry store and I was looking for a particular Cartier that I had seen in an advertisement,” Thomas recalls. “Sure enough, the jewelry store did not carry that style. But as I was looking around, the salesman brought out the Buscalate and said, ‘this is one of my favorites.’

“Well, I immediately liked it. It was very unique and extremely handsome, and the size was perfect for me. I have small wrists. The watch is available in three different sizes and I got the middle size. I accept it as a piece of jewelry and it’s one of the nicer things I own.”

While Thomas isn’t prone to impulsive shopping, his wristwatch purchase was a microcosm of an increasing trend.

Although it’s nothing new, in recent years the hobby and business of collecting timepieces has grown nearly exponentially, particularly in the United States.

The reason: During the 1990s the vast expansion of the internet and the popularity increase in television programs like Antique Roadshow made knowledge of watches more readily accessible. Coupled with an economic boon, the U.S. watch market jumped dramatically.

Statistically, it’s Swiss made wristwatches that have propelled the U.S. market.

During the year 2000, the value of Swiss watch exports to the United States jumped 20.7 percent to $1.6 billion, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, the major industry’s major trade association.

In fact, Swiss watch exports to the U.S. have increased for eight straight years, with an average yearly increase of 18 percent in total sales.

The boon in Swiss wristwatches is worldwide, too. Although the U.S. increase boosted the market into the No. 1 position for world exports ahead of Hong Hong for the first time, all of the Switzerland’s top 30 markets had sales increases during 2000.

“I can’t stop looking at the way people dress and what they wear as watches,” says Francois Bennahmias, president of the Swiss manufacturer Audemars Piguet. “I do it 24/7, 365 days a year. But I never judge what they wear because you never know. But when you see a man or a woman and they are dressed perfectly, most of the time they will have the right watch.”

Established in 1881, Audemars Piguet is rare among watch manufacturers – it is still family owned. It’s known in the industry as among the elite top 10 brands of watches that hold their value.

“It’s a great market for everybody, especially for the last three years, and I love competition,” says Bennahmias. “It makes everyone want to have the best watch, whether you’re are the No. 1 or the No. 2 or 3. You want to be the best.”

Although Bennahmias gives credit to those who know how coordinate clothes with watches, there’s not a consensus.

James Aguiar, the fashion designer at Bergdorf Goodman, says: “While there’s a whole new fashion buzz surrounding watches, a man has to know how to wear a wristwatch with clothes. Not everything works. A timepiece can take away from the fabrics and styling of clothes. To avoid that, the watch design should be simple, classical, timeless. The rule of thumb is to wear a watch that’s understated.”

Kal Ruttenstein, the senior vice president for fashion at Blomingdale’s, has a different perspective.

“I wear what I like and so should the stylishly dressed man. There have been numerous times when I’ve worn a sporty watch with a tuxedo, and a dressy Cartier with jeans. Whatever mood I’m in, I put on a suitable watch, whatever strikes my fancy. There are no rules, and if there are, they should be broken. Men should just wear a watch because they like the way it looks.”

Perhaps men’s fashion experts disagree on the “rules,” but there’s no dispute on the rapid appeal increase of watches. In fact, watches have become so popular, several international magazines, some featuring movie stars as their cover subjects, now report on seemingly every move of the industry. Most major watch manufacturers also have elaborate web sites, while internet auction sites like ebay.com and yahoo.com have long lists of watches for sale.

Sports team and corporations offer logo watches and limited editions. Even the artwork of Jerry Garcia, the famed deceased leader of the Grateful Dead, is available on two watches, both available for sale only on the internet.

The web site, known as “Jerry’s Watches” (www.jerryswatches.com.), is owned by Craig Burgess, a specialty jewelry store proprietor and watch collector in Savannah, Georgia.

Burgess, who has been in the customized fine jewelry business for more than 20 years, believes the world of watches has changed.

“No longer do most people feel it is impractical to own more than one wristwatch,” explains Burgess, who owns a Cartier Pasha and Tank watches, a stainless oyster Bracelet Rolex as well as a Garcia watch. “I think the unique features and craftsmanship of watches are the driving forces.”

Like vintage automobiles, several businesses offer both “new and pre-owned elegant timepieces.” Toys From The Attic in White Plains, N.Y., advertises its wares in trade and commercial publications as well as on its web site (www.tfta.com.). In one display advertisement for “pre-owned” watches, the company’s listings ranged in price from $695 (LeCoultre, 1962) to $214,995 (Girard-Perregaux, undated, platinum, minute repeater).

For many watch collectors (more than 95 percent are men) the fascination with timepieces is often connected to two distinct areas – inheritance and mechanical movement.

“Although the average woman owns more watches (and shoes and belts and scarves) than the average man, most serious collectors are male,” says Matthew Morse, editor of WatchTime, the international bimonthly publication subtitled “The Magazine of Fine Watches.”

“The love of fine timepieces involves, almost by definition, a fascination for mechanical objects. And for some reason, I don’t know why, men are usually more in love with technology than women.

“For men, there’s an immense sentimental value in a watch. A guy can inherit a watch when he’s in college and it can mean a lot to him. A lot of collectors start their collectors after they’ve be given or inherited a watch from their father or grandfather.”

That’s exactly how it happened for house painter Thomas.

Although the wristwatch he inherited from his grandfather wasn’t expensive, its sentimental value prompted a further interest, particularly when the watch was stolen.

“I can’t recall that I was real conscious of a high-interest in watches,” Thomas remembers. “But they sparked my interest to some extent, probably like knives do for a young boy or something. But I’ve always had some interest. I can remember my grandfather’s watch, which I inherited many years later. It wasn’t anything really special, but it was his watch, and I thought it was very special.”

Morse, who became the editor of WatchTime after stints at three other national magazines, owns an estimated 15 watches of wide-ranging value. But his passion is more about talking to people who thrive on watches rather than the products he writes about.

While WatchTime and its competitors like InSync take their watch reviews, brand comparisons, manufacturer interviews, collector profiles and fashion experts seriously, Morse laughs as he mentions one of his magazine staff’s favorite anecdotes.

“We joke at the magazine of there someday being watch bars, the way there were cigar and wine bars,” Morse chuckles. “The snobbery of watches can kind of kill the fun and make it less interesting. With wine, it’s ultimately about pleasure and there are different wines for different occasions. It’s the same with watches.

In recent issues, WatchTime has focused a good share of attention to the watches of movie stars, political figures and famous athletes. From golfers Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to political figures Ralph Nader and G. Gordon Liddy, wear their favorite watches means a lot than just having something on their wrists. Nicklaus and Palmer are both partial to Rolex, the details of which WatchTime elaborates on in a piece entitled “Public Figures.”

Perhaps the most passionate celebrity watch collector is actor/director Peter Fonda, a magazine cover subject of WatchTime.

Fonda fashions a Rolex GMT, a watch he wore during many his sea voyages during the 1970s and 1980s. Said Fonda: “It was my first great watch. A lot of people said, ‘that’s a lot of gold there,’ But I knew in the early days that if all fell to shit, the Rolex would get me an my family across any border.”

Fonda’s passion for watches, however, extends to self-admitted obsession. He’s been known to wear three watches simultaneously, and among other manufacturers’ offerings, he owns Patek Philippe, Omega, Ulysse Nardin and Chronoswiss watches. But the actor whose career has spanned more than 30 years is not a watch brand snob. He also owns more than 200 Swatch and Casio models, inexpensive watches by anyone’s standards.

Fond of celestial navigation, Fonda praises one of his favorite watches, a Casio. “It’s so damn accurate,” he says. “A Casio is a marine chronometer on your wrist, and it’s less than $40. A watch to me is more than a beautiful adornment. It brings me closer to the solar system, gives me a means of understanding my place in the universe.”

Although Fonda’s budget for wristwatches extends many collectors’ purchasing powers, the principle for buying impulsively is often the same – whether a collector is considering a $250 watch, a $2,500 timepiece or a $250,000 rarity.

“I was pretty impulsive when I purchased my Cartier,” recalls Thomas. “I really didn’t think about it too much. I pretty much instantly decided I liked the watch and why not? Why not just have something as nice as that in your possession? If you like it, the money didn’t seem that important to me, although if the watch would have cost $4,000, I would have thought about it more, not that $2,500 is nothing that I don’t fret about when I have to work for it.”

Thomas sentiments, while honest, likely reflect the watch collecting community at-large. When someone finds a timepiece they like, they usually find a way to purchase it.

With rare exception, watch collectors buy wristwatches they like, rather than as short-term investments. Classic, well-known manufacturers’ styles hold their value but will eventually increase in value depending on the age-old axiom – supply and demand.

According watch industry experts, the top-10 watch manufacturers in term of “holding value” are:

1. Patek Philippe
2. Rolex
3. Vacheron Constantin
4. Audemars Piguet
5. Cartier
6. Breguet
7. Franck Mueller
8. LeCoultre
9. Omega
10. Breitling

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