If there is one hot topic when it comes to watches at the moment it is independent watchmaking. The freedom and artisanal craftsmanship that comes with this genre is truly captivating. It gets the people going! All the more interesting to see that this topic seems to be picked up quite differently in the auction rooms 9500km apart. Looking at the auction results from the Hong Kong versus the Geneva auctions an interesting pattern emerges.
July 19, 2022
Trends in Watches - Asian and European Market for Independent Watchmaking
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
Why bother? The debate about nature versus nurture - or in other words how do your genetics versus your upbringing - influence your behavior has always fascinated me. There probably is no clear genetic predisposition for hunting down triple-calendar watches and the likes yet there definitely must be some influences from our environment, from what we get exposed to during our lives, that shapes our taste. And culture must be one very big of these influences. As it comes the micro-cosmos of watch auctions might give us a small window into these cultural preferences and we can ask the question: What are the different trends from the Hong Kong and Geneva auctions from the 3 major houses?
The spring auction cycle 2022 has been concluded and we can finally ask some big level questions... something like is there maybe something specific about the region of a sale? It would be very interesting to see whether there are different watches that come up for auction between let's say the Hong Kong and the Geneva branches of the auction houses. Or in other words: what might be cultural differences and preferences in watch collecting that we can observe*?
Overall, this Spring auction cycle has been a major success for the auction houses. We're focusing on Christie's, Phillips & Sotheby's here because they all got branches in both Geneva and Hong Kong. The first thing we see is that there have been a lot more lots been offered and sold in Hong Kong, about 31% more pieces to be exact, than in Geneva**.
There will always be cool and unusual designs when it comes to Independent Watchmaking... case and point by this vintage Gerald Genta Retrograde with Mother-of-Pearl sold at Christie's HK lot 2357.
But that's only the top-level, we can dig a lot deeper. Let's not focus on the superficial numbers but have a closer look at the design details. What can dissociate between the Hong Kong and Geneva taste? What are the things that get the collectors going? This list is quite long but I simply wanna give my two cents here on a peculiar finding regarding the Indie market.
So what about Independents?
If there is one big and hot topic when it comes to watch market at the moment it is independent watchmaking. The freedom and artisanal craftsmanship that comes with this genre is truly captivating - the major players being brands and people like F.P. Journe, Lange & Soehne, Richard Mille, De Bethune, Laurent Ferrier & Roger Dubuis (among many many more). It gets the people going! All the more interesting to see that this topic seems to be picked up quite differently in the auction rooms 9500km apart.
Figure 1. Distribution of Independents for the Hong Kong and Geneva auctions - grouped and color coded by auction house.
We can clearly see that a lot more Indies are offered in Hongkong - 23% to mere 12% in Geneva. So does that mean that Indies are a lot more demanded in Hong Kong and Asia? Maybe... but there's another detail that is quite interesting.
Who wouldn't fancy a Lange & Soehne 1815 Tourbillon "Handwerkskunst"? The dial, the case, the craftsmanship (= Handwerkskunst) is hard to match. This piece sold at Phillips HK lot 944.
If we look at the realized prices for these independents we observe that those pieces in Geneva far exceed their lowest estimate. At the same time in Hong Kong Indies do not perform so well.
Figure 2. Distribution of Prices - relative to the low estimate - for Independents, grouped and color coded by auction house. Interestingly, the only auction house were we do not see Geneva performing better than HK (p<0.001) is Sotheby's, as it happens also the first of all these auctions.
This can have two non-exclusive explanations. First, as there are fewer Indie watches in Geneva there might be more head-to-head bidding wars for certain pieces. Second, a higher number of pieces offered in Hong Kong means that collectors might be less interested in the Indie market and thus try to sell the pieces they have. So do Europeans simply love independent watchmaking more right now or are Asian collectors falling out of love with their pieces?
Still you'll see that amazing, important and unusual pieces make far above their respective estimate. The night sky on this De Bethune DB25 "Starry Varius" did indeed draw a lot of attention and sold at Phillips HK lot 829 for over 3x its low estimate.
Does the rise of the Indies have reached its peak? I'd like to point the inclined reader to one particular detail: The only HK branch were we do not see a decrease in Indie performance in respect to the Geneva numbers is Sotheby's. As it happens the HK Sotheby's auction has also been the very first of all the six auctions (late April). The remaining HK auctions happened over a month later and also after all Geneva lots were hammered. So this dip might even be a result of the infamous "price correction" we see happening at the moment***?
It's always the question when and how the market changes. It's very possible that the world of independent watchmaking might see a correction earlier than other horological realms as they simply happen to have less of a history to base predictions on. I'll keep looking into my magic 8-ball but I guess we'd have to wait for the next auction cycle to better understand what's really going on.
* Before I hear you all moaning, yes of course we live in a globalized world and everyone is in principle able to buy anything at any place. Agreed. But for now let's work on the assumption that at least the marketing professionals at the different auction houses are taking the local preferences into account and that the specialists are better connected with collectors from the area.
** We've seen 206, 321 and 228 pieces sold at Christie's, Phillips and Sotheby's Hongkong versus 157, 283 and 134 timepieces in Geneva, respectively.
*** Interestingly, there is no clear indication that prices for indies dropped at the NY auctions. There also has been a mixed picture for the amount of pieces - Christie's showing around the same percentage of pieces for NY and Gen whereas Phillips had an even higher percentage of indies in NY as compared to HK. On top, relative prices in NY were about the same as in Gen at Phillips, but showed the same downward trend at Christie's (NY&HK<Gen).
Here, I summarized the results from: Christie's Geneva (May 9th, 2022) & HK (May 24th, 2022), Phillips Geneva (May 7th & 8th, 2022) & HK (May 26th 27th), & Sotheby's HK (April 26th, 2022) and Geneva (May 10th, 2022).
- And more Auction World content [here]
 Rise of the Indies - F.P. Journe; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches;
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