You can't argue taste... but interestingly taste is strongly influenced by your cultural upbringing. I wanna make the case that this is also true for case materials. This means that there still can be some regularity, some common patterns of preferences within our own cultural bubble. Taking a closer look at the watches offered at auction in New York, Geneva and Hong Kong we can derive some (high-end) favorites within the auction world and potentially for the watch market as a whole.
March 15, 2023
A Matter of Taste - Popularity of Different Materials
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
The Big Picture Let's learn something from each other! Information needs to be shared and made available to everyone. I'm thus extremely thrilled to say that for the first time a dataset was shared with me in the mutual understanding that knowledge and education needs collaboration. Owen (@_oxwatch) provided me with a large dataset of his and in the spirit of bridging people, views and backgrounds I thought the best would be to look into cultural trends with this one. So let's find out what case materials can tell us about different markets around the world?
What can we learn from case materials? Or rather their popularity? Well, first of all I'd like to make the point that this is indeed a culturally relevant topic. Trends and fashion come and go but they're also depending on the continent, sometimes even the zip code, you're living in. So how can we quantify such cultural preferences?
Here, I teamed up with Owen (@_oxwatch) who provided me with some of the data he scraped over last couple of months. We'll be looking into the watches that came to auction in Geneva, New York and Hong Kong between 2019 and 2022 at Phillips. Interestingly, in terms of popularity a particular feature showed to be a major distinction between the three locations, namely the case material.
A collection of Patek Philippe Calatravas ref. 96 and 570 in steel, white gold, platinum, yellow gold, rose gold & bicolored (from top left to bottom right). Photos Courtesy of Phillips.
1) The materials
So what type of materials are we even speaking about? Generally you can categorize them into precious (all types of gold & platinum) and non-precious metals (steel & titanium). Gold is classically subdivided into different colors: yellow, rose and white gold and the color depends on the different metals used for the alloy. On top you have bicolored watches, which combine precious and non-precious metals in one watch.
Don't be fooled... this is not a yellow golden watch. Due to the effects of aging this stunning rose golden Patek Philippe ref. 530 chronograph developed a yellow hue (patina). Photo Courtesy of Phillips Geneva Nov. 2022.
The first question I want to answer is how common in general these seven materials are in the auction world? We're looking at over 4400 watches auctioned off between 2019 and 2022 at Phillips auction house in all three locations. What are the most and what the least common materials?
Figure 1. Distribution of the seven most common case materials - steel, yellow, white and rose gold, platinum, titanium and bicolored - from watches auctioned off at Phillips between 2019-2022. The distributions are split up between New York (green), Geneva (blue) and Hong Kong (red).
The most popular materials are by far stainless steel (39%) and yellow gold (20%) - probably not to anyones surprise - followed by almost equally popular white (13%) and rose gold (12%) as well as platinum (10%). Titanium (4%) and bicolored watches (3%) are a bit more of an exception.
This distribution seems to generally hold between all three cities but it's actually hard to tell by this visualization so let's have a closer look at what makes each city special.
2) Materials by city
Now we're back to our initial hypothesis: Does the distribution of the materials from auctioned watches differ between New York, Geneva & Hong Kong? To test this I next plotted the data as normalized difference between cities - so given the distribution in the other locations how much above or below expectation is the popularity?
Figure 2. Popularity of different case materials relative to the other two cities. A positive or negative value indicates popularity higher or lower than expected, respectively.
Let's disentangle these results a bit. A positive or negative value indicates that a certain material is more or less common than expected, respectively. For example we observe that steel seems to be generally quite equally distributed between areas. Yellow gold as another example is particularly prominent in Geneva but much less so in New York and Hong Kong. So let's have a closer look at each city.
New York. We see a slight trend for increased popularity of rose gold and platinum in the Big Apple but not too pronounced (around 15% more than expected). However, what seems to be very obvious is the relative lack of yellow gold and bicolored pieces. Particularly the latter I find rather surprising but we'll address some validity concerns in a bit.
A relatively uncommon sight... a yellow golden Rolex Datejust 6605 auctioned off in New York December 2021. Photo Courtesy of Phillips.
Geneva. Quite contrary to New York, the Genevan market seems to show a strong prevalence for everything yellow gold - including bicolored watches. Both materials are over 20% more common than in the other two cities combined. Yellow gold shows old-world glory so it might be fitting that more modern materials like titanium are comparatively hard to find - 40% below expected.
Hong Kong. Last but not least we got the far east metropole region of Hong Kong. As we've shown in other analyses in the past the Asian market appears to be particularly fond of Independent watchmaking. It thus seems understandable that modern materials like titanium strive in this environment (24% over expected). But we see a similar yet weaker prevalence for white golden pieces (16% over expected).
Side view of De Bethune's spaceship ref. DB25 "Starry Varius". A contemporary dream in grade-5 titanium and fittingly auctioned off in Hong Kong November 2022. Photo Courtesy of Phillips.
3) External validation
These are remarkable trends that show an interesting distinction between regions of the auction market. However, let's try to find out how specific these trends are to Phillips and whether it may be a result of limited sample size. Particularly for New York we got a lot less watches to count in as only as of very recently Phillips introduced a Spring NY auction into its cycle.
I can shed some light on these factors via some of my own database. I got the results from all 3 cities from Christie's in 2022. So let's have a look if we can confirm the trends established above?
Figure 3. Popularity of different case materials relative to the other two cities - data from Christie's 2022 auctions. A positive or negative value indicates popularity higher or lower than expected, respectively.
We can clearly see that the Genevan market seems to be the most established out of the three. All the tendencies we observed for Phillips qualitatively hold for Christie's 2022 auctions as well: Yellow gold (28%) and bicolor (40% over expected) strongly enhanced and less prevalent modern materials (47% below expected)*.
For the New York the picture is largely overlapping between the two auction houses as well. We can't underline the weaker positive trends from Phillips (rose gold and platinum) but see again the strong antithesis of popularity for old-world gold (yellow gold and bicolor) between New York and Geneva. Yellow gold and bicolored watches are 27% and 21% less prevalent than expected, respectively.
A stunning 1940s rose golden and steel chronograph ref. 1533 from Audemars Piguet - and you guessed it - not auctioned in New York but Geneva in November 2018. Photo Courtesy of Phillips.
For Hong Kong we potentially see the strongest deviations between Phillips and Christie's. But a very interesting pattern emerges here... At Christie's classic materials (steel & yellow gold) are a lot less common (27% and 30% below expected) than in the other two cities. Yet the "special" materials - white and rose gold, platinum and others - are more popular than expected.
So putting all of these results together I can say that a few trends of the last couple of years are apparent. First, the Genevan (European) market seems to be the most established between houses, collectors, and consigners. Second, what has been established over the last couple of years is the lust for yellow golden and bicolored pieces.
With the right configuration yellow gold can look just sooo good and timeless. Case and point by this magnificent Rolex 6305 Datejust from 1954 with black lacquer dial, alpha hands and dagger hour markers. Photo Courtesy of Phillips Geneva November 2020.
Third, New York (the North American market) appears to be slightly anti-cyclic to Geneva. This seems particularly obvious in their stance towards - or rather against - yellow gold and bicolored timepieces. Fourth, Hong Kong (the East Asian market) seems to be truly a center of wonder and novelty, honoring modern approaches to watchmaking and being slightly anti-establishment for classic Swiss (European) trends and materials. But let's not forget this is the auction world and probably can't be one-to-one be extrapolated to broader market.
All in all, I think this makes the point that small details matter and can enlighten us about trends outside our own bubble. Sure, the methods to drive this home are a bit crude so far but we're still at the beginning of democratizing large datasets in the watch world. Thus, I'm particularly happy to being able to this time have partnered with another data nerd like Owen (@_oxwatch). I believe the horological world needs more such collaborative effort instead of making information only exclusive to some individuals. I firmly trust that the more information becomes available the more this will benefit everyone, from the seller, over the auction houses to the collectors and every single watch enthusiast out there!
* In my own dataset I didn't explicitly scrape for titanium, thus it is subsumed under "others".
 Data extracted from Phillips auctions (Spring 2019 to Spring 2022) and made available by Owen Lawton;
 Trends in Watches - Asian and European Market for Independent Watchmaking; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches;
All Rights on the text and graphics reserved to the Author.