What should I collect? Frankly, this isn't a question I am able to answer but nevertheless one of broad scholastic and psychological interest. A question we all ruminate over from time to time... Interestingly, it still seems that we tend to agree on certain aspects - that's we call a trend. And watch trends are far from set in stone. Before we dust our magic 8-ball and look what might be ahead of us let's see what people have been collecting, buying and sharing over the last 15 years.
May 03, 2023
Watch Trends Past & Present - Are We in a Non-Trend Era?
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
What should I collect? This is NOT supposed to be an investment guide (ugh!). Being straight with you this isn't even a question I am able to answer but nevertheless one of broad scholastic and even psychological interest. A question we all ruminate over from time to time... Interestingly, it still seems that we tend to agree on certain aspects - that's what we call a trend. And watch trends are far from set in stone. Before we dust our magic 8-ball and look what might be ahead of us let's see what people have been collecting, buying and sharing over the last 15 years.
Trends in watches come and go! So to better understand what makes a trend and how fast moving they are I'll be presenting to you what's been most collectible over the last 15 years based on the auction market*. What brands, genres and vibes have been hot?
So historically speaking: What are our - watch collectors - preferences? How long do we stick to the same schtick and are there trends that are more short-lived than others? It's honestly a tough endeavor so don't bet your money on this. But I still think it is an important leap to also understand the psychology of watch collecting on every (monetary) level.
A pair of F.P. Journe watches - pink gold Tourbillon Souverain (left) & platinum Octa with MOP dial (right) - coming to auction at Christie's Geneva themed sale "The Art of F.P. Journe" in May. It really doesn't take an expert to see that Indie's and particularly F.P. Journe is highly collectible right now... but for how long? Photos Courtesy of Christie's.
My approach this time is based on the auction market, namely Christie's auctions of the last 15 years. Looking into the distribution of brands offered for sale we can - to some extent - infer what's been hot, what' been a symbol of stability, and what's trending upwards right now?
1) The brand that used to be popular - Cartier
When you're reading the title a quite normal reaction would be: "What's that nonsense again"? How can it be that Cartier "used to be" popular when it's clearly at a peak of broad appeal? In the end, Cartier was the second largest brand based on revenue in 2022 only behind Rolex. Well, there's market popularity and there's collectibility...
Figure 1. Proportion of Cartier watches at Christie's auctions from 2007 to today. The values for the three locations - Geneva (blue), Hong Kong (red), New York (green) - are indicated by the colored circles.
Don't misunderstand me... I like a Santos Carree as much as the next guy. And the brand has brought in some tremendous auction results in the last couple of years, particularly with their Crash, Pebble and Baignoire Allongee lineups. But overall it still hasn't reached the broad collectibility status the brand had 15+ years ago.
A stunning and rare Cartier "Large Oval" model from 1971, at its heart beating an Audemars Piguet caliber K2050/B. This execution is even larger than the former London edition (56mm length). A highlight from Christie's 2009 Geneva Spring auction.
15 years ago every 10th watch at auction was a Cartier. Taking into account that back then auction catalogues still featured 300-500 watches that tells you something. With the bank collapse in 2008/2009 the Cartier ratio dropped to ~5%, a stable level since then. The only exception seems to have come during fall 2014 when both Christie's HK and NY offered again around 10% Cartier pieces. So if anything this proves to show how much more potential there is to the creations of La Maison. We might still be far from the peak.
2) Blinks of Popularity - Piaget, Heuer & Universal Geneve
Well, what have these three brands in common? All three have had a strong peak in popularity within the last 15 years but a rather short-lived one...
Figure 2. Proportion of Piaget, Universal Geneva and Heuer watches at Christie's auction, 2007 to 2023.
Let's start off with Piaget, mainly because it appears to be related to another trend we just discussed with Cartier - peak popularity between 2013-15. In late 2014 every 20th watch sold at Christie's that season was a Piaget. A trend strongly driven by the Hong Kong market where we see the jewelry empire peak in 2015 even at over 8% of watches offered.
The trend of 2015 - Haute Joaillerie watches... so jewelry that can tell the time. Well it's a bit of an earlier auction but if they come in the shape and form of such Piaget pieces - iced out, Rubys, Haute Complication, hexagonal case - bring 'em in. Photo Courtesy of Christie's HK Nov. 2012.
And the driving force behind all of this indeed appears to be the "jewelry" aspect of Piaget. Combine the numbers with Cartier's short uptick at the time and we see that Haute Joaillerie and sophisticated, well design-driven, watchmaking has been extremely popular. Very prominently classic women's watches made a big splash at auction during that time - mainly overseas in HK and NY. It's really worth digging into these catalogues, there's so much to uncover.
That's been a design-driven trend but as so often when something becomes popular its antithesis follows put. It's a push and pull between pure design and aesthetics on the one side and utility with tool-watch aspects on the other. This is where Heuer and Universal Geneve come into play.
An early Heuer Carrera ref. 3647ST from 1965, a very sporty specimen sold at Christie's HK in Fall 2017.
Following a period of delicacy we see sturdy vintage chronographs and the respective brands to become not only popular but also collectible. Driven mostly by the New York and Geneva branch Heuer and UG reach peak popularity between late 2016 and 2018. It's a time when the sport and racing chronographs are the hottest s***.
Well, the attentive reader will realize that something else happened in the auction world during that span. An earthquake in the form of one man's racing chronograph: Paul Newman's Rolex Daytona 6239 "Paul Newman" came to auction at Phillips NY in 2017 and sold for over $17Mio. Euphoria swept over the auction floors. In an instant Daytonas and similar chronographs became the new hype watches.
An uber-rare Heuer 2446M Autavia "Big-Sub" 1st execution chronograph from Phillips themed auction on chronographs of the Jack Heuer era... an event often referred to as the "Heuer Parade". Photo Courtesy of Phillips Geneva Nov. 2017.
Yet, just one month later - November 2017 also at Phillips - the "Crosthwaite & Gavin Collection" was auctioned. A resounding name for what some people refer to as the "Heuer Parade". It's been a sale of 42 stunning Jack Heuer era chronographs from the brand... But basically this event flooded and potentially saturated the market for vintage (Heuer) chronographs and the hype was over... Of course not for Rolex but we'll come to that now.
3) What's Trending? - Rolex, Patek, AP & Indies
Finally, we can take a closer look at the brands and trends of today. What is collectible in 2023? Well, the interesting-not-so-interesting result seems to be that right now people are collecting pretty much from two distinct branches. First, the established brands - in like as established as it gets - and second, independent watchmaking.
Figure 3. Relative Proportion of Audemars Piguet (green), Patek Philippe purple), Rolex (red), and the major Independents (orange; F.P.Journe, A.Lange & Soehne, DeBethune, MB&F) at Christie's auction from 2007 to 2023.
We've all seen how fragile the world order can be... so it seems natural to go for the "safe bet". But right now it has become a bit extreme: Since it's most recent low in Fall 2008 (in sum 30.5% of watches) the proportion of Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Rolex watches at auction kept steadily increasing to a global maximum of a summed 77% during the Spring 2022 auction season.
A pair of rare stone-dial Rolex Datejusts - a 1978 1601 with Lapis Lazuli (left) & a 1972 1601 with Red Jasper (right) - coming to sale at the upcoming Christie's Geneva auction in May. That's a trend I can get behind! Photos Courtesy of Christie's.
Over 3 out of 4 watches offered at Christie's last year came from one of the three major players. This includes over the last years ~10% from AP, 40-50% from Patek Philippe and another 20-25% from Rolex. That's not exactly a versatile or accurate cross section of the horological world... The market rules itself but please let's add some curation for the sake of variation.
Figure 4. Summed Proportion of Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet at Christie's from 2007 to today.
There's a lot of variation within the long history of these brands, yes. And we can see shifts of interest to distinct periods in watchmaking and genres even within these brands, double yes. However, in terms of collectibility there's arguably a lot more out there - and I'm not speaking about those mere 23%.
But we may have hit a ceiling. As of very recently the curve appears to bend downward again, even if only very slightly (for example summed 68.5% at the upcoming Geneva auction). And this is where potentially the Independents come into the picture. A growing market with increasing appeal as the pieces started to sell over retail within the last couple of years.
4) Ending the Non-Trend - Conclusion
Overall, we seem to be in a phase of increasing uncertainty were modern classics appear to be the "only" option to collect. It's pretty hard to say where this is originating from. Is it a new generation of collectors that swept in especially during the pandemic...? The "Collector of Instagramability" to coin an unword.
The "new" trend seems to stem from Independent watchmaking. To those following the horological landscape a bit more closely that doesn't come as a surprise but it's still interesting to see in the numbers: Over 10% of watches presented at auction last season came from major Independent watchmakers like the Saxonian A.Lange & Soehne. Photo (Courtesy of Christie's) Lange 1 Tourbillon from the upcoming Christie's Geneva May 2023 auction.
It is a phenomenon that has been discussed a lot over the last couple of years. We - as humans - tend to like what we see and experience often. It's an established psychological finding that didn't only come into existence with social media. Yet these interactive (deep-neural) networks swamp our own experience with so-called hype pieces and it's hard to escape.
It is a self-sustaining loop. The more popular certain watches become, the more we see them in our feeds and wanna get them. The pieces get pushed by the algorithms and we wanna get them even more. Auction houses and watch dealers only cater to the preferences and where demand, profit and marketability lies.
When was the last time you saw a vintage Omega time-only watch as a highlight at one of the major auction houses? Must have been a while. Photo Courtesy of Monaco Legend Group auction April 2023.
Hence, if we want a broad range of offered timepieces this can only exist outside of social media bubbles. But it is so effortful to actually search on your own... cause algorithms do make your life easier, too.
I'd argue it'll be specialized market places and information channels that will open our minds to the wonders that still exist out there. Just to name a few but the catalogues at Monaco Legend Group are refreshingly diverse. So are the pieces coming up at LoupeThis by Eric Ku and Justin Gruenberg. Erik Gustafson and his team over @HairspringWatches are doing an exceptional job highlighting rare and extraordinary watches for sale, and combine it with a ton of background information. And ultimately that's what we aim to achieve here at Goldammer as well.
Optimistically, this is what the tomorrow will bring. The services outside the mainstream horological coverage that create input and serve timepieces to more special tastes. The longer people get interested in watches the more likely they will see that there's more to the hobby than steel sports watches... At least that's my hope for the future!
* Before you say something, yes that's a quite specific place within the horological world. But I still believe that these pieces offered at auction are getting there based on a certain demand of what sells good and what doesn't. And it's also the easiest way to get some historical insights. Just keep that caveat in mind.
 State of the Industry - Swiss Watchmaking in 2023; SJX Watches;
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