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Watches Are the New Bitcoin

By Alex Williams

Details of a 1966 Rolex Submariner, reference 5513, featuring a gilt, meters-first dial; a “long 5” bezel; a so-called Bart Simpson crown logo; and plenty of patina. Listed for sale at $60,000.
 
Greyson Korhonen/Hodinkee
Details of a 1966 Rolex Submariner, reference 5513, featuring a gilt, meters-first dial; a “long 5” bezel; a so-called Bart Simpson crown logo; and plenty of patina. Listed for sale at $60,000.

As tattooed rockers, tech bros and Instagram influencers pile into the tweedy world of watch collecting, prices for sought-after classics from brands like Rolex, Omega and Patek Philippe are shooting up. In some cases, they have doubled in just a couple of years.

These next-generation collectors see old timepieces not just as a subtly stylish way to dress up a T-shirt and jeans, but also as a hot new asset in their investment portfolios. In a market where stocks, bonds and real estate seem at an unsteady peak, do vintage watches present a Bitcoin-in-2017-like growth opportunity? Or are they in a Bitcoin-in-2017-like bubble?

Time — elegantly monitored — will tell.

Even though his investment in watches has doubled in value in just 18 months, Peter Goodwin, a private investor in Charlottesville, Va., who also collects watches, said he is concerned about frothiness in the vintage market.

“It’s much like momentum investing in stocks,” he said. “People see the rise in Facebook shares, they see Mark Zuckerberg, and they want to ride it up. It is the same with the trendy watches we read about in the auctions — the Paul Newman Rolex, the Omega Speedmasters, some Submariners. You see them rising and you want to jump on.”

“The question,” Mr. Goodwin said, “is when does it stop?”

That’s a risk that newcomer watch geeks like Shahien Hendizadeh, a recent business school graduate in Los Angeles, are willing to take.

“Buying a good vintage Rolex is just like purchasing stock in a company like Nestlé or Google,” Mr. Hendizadeh, 25, said. “It is the quintessential blue chip.”

After taking a face-plant on a long-shot $2,000 investment in American Apparel stock, just months before the company declared bankruptcy, he bought a 1982 Rolex Submariner for $13,000. It has appreciated perhaps $10,000 in two years, he said.

And in the event of an economic downturn, fine watches may turn out to represent a safe-haven asset, like metals or gems, for investors looking to diversify their portfolios. Or they may just be another of-the-moment asset that 1 percenters, flush with cash, have inflated to unsustainable proportions.

Watch collectors hide in plain sight. John Mayer’s watch collection is nearly as famous as his guitar work. His bank vault contains a vast array of collectibles, including sapphire-encrusted gold Rolexes and Luftwaffe watches from World War II, that he has said is valued in the “tens of millions.”

John Mayer.
John Mayer.

Silicon Valley heavyweights like Kevin Rose, the Digg founder, and Matt Jacobson, Facebook’s employee No. 8, have museum-worthy Rolexes and Patek Philippes, helping to establish a head-turning timepiece as a tech-world style flourish to rival the hoodie.

Ellen DeGeneres wore a holy-grail Paul Newman-model Rolex Daytona from the 1960s, now worth perhaps $250,000, while bantering with Jerry Seinfeld in an episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” last year. (Adam Levine and Ed Sheeran have been spotted wearing Paul Newmans as well. One also made a cameo on the wrist of Pierre Png’s character in “Crazy Rich Asians.”)

In professional sports, high-end timepieces have long seemed as indispensable as a shoe contract for stars with seven- and eight-figure incomes. Top athletes including Rafael Nadal, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James have served as celebrity ambassadors for brands like Richard Mille, Hublot and Audemars Piguet.

Star players who have been traded have been known to trade a Rolex to a player on their new team to secure their old jersey number. And in recent years, several have morphed into certifiable watch snobs. Howie Kendrick of the Washington Nationals, for example, counts understated heirlooms, like a 1959 LeCoultre Deep Sea Alarm and a 1960s Breitling Superocean, as key elements of his off-field uniform.

If you’re still 1 percent-ish but would prefer to dabble, there’s good news. The Watch Fund, run by Dominic Khoo, a shareholder and watch specialist with the auction company Antiquorum, offers people a chance to invest in rare and limited-edition watches at prices that can be 50 percent or more below retail. Those who have bought in have seen at least double-digit returns since the fund’s inception six years ago, Mr. Khoo said.

Star power and funds like Mr. Khoo’s add credence to the idea that fine watches are a soybean or a copper, another investable commodity. But does that make them a good investment?

W hat even makes a watch valuable? Consider the bezel insert from a 1957 Rolex Submariner. A bezel insert is the featherweight aluminum disk with numbers on it that surrounds the dial of a diver’s watch.

On Submariners made in the third quarter of 1957, the bezel insert was made with an unusual red triangle at 12 o’clock and slightly different typography on the numerals. Because it is rare, that insert is so sought after by collectors that it can fetch more than $30,000 these days, said Eric Wind, a dealer of fine vintage watches in Florida, up from maybe $10,000 just a few years ago.

None of this necessarily makes sense. It’s not like a vintage watch is better than a new one. In fact, it’s worse in almost every way.

CreditGreyson Korhonen/Hodinkee
 

A new Rolex Submariner, for example, is a modern update of a decades-old classic that seems to be every budding watch geek’s first serious timepiece. The new Sub is a marvel of mechanical engineering, with a high-tech ceramic bezel that is virtually guaranteed not to fade, a solid-steel bracelet as rugged as a tank tread, and a crystal made of sapphire that is all but scratch-proof. It’s a watch that feels indestructible enough for a pleasure dive in the Mariana Trench.

No one would ever say that about its predecessor, those midcentury Submariners made famous by Sean Connery’s James Bond, which are shooting up in value despite the fact that they feature an acrylic (that is, plastic) crystal prone to scratches and cracks, a hollow-steel bracelet that eventually might stretch like an accordion, and a painted dial that could fade from the original black to an espresso brown (known to collectors as a “tropical” dial).

Which is, naturally, why old watches are considered cool: They have patina, provenance, soul. And for a generation of men (and yes, vintage watches seem to be an obsession largely for men, with apologies to Ellen) who value the analog-chic of antique mechanical watches, just like vinyl records and selvage jeans, that is key .

“Vintage watches should show off their age,” said Nelson Murray, a 31-year-old photographer and budding collector in San Francisco. Vintage sport watches, like his Rolex GMT-Master, a classic pilot’s watch from 1980, “evoke a sense of adventure and a kind of dare to add more dings and scratches to them as evidence of a life lived.”

Prices for some Rolex GMT-Master models — in the proper condition, with original parts — have spiked to perhaps $16,000, up from $8,000 just two or three years ago, said Paul Altieri of Bob’s Watches, a prominent retailer in Newport Beach, Calif. (It routinely shows off sumptuous wrist shots of old classics for its Instagram followers.)

A few years ago, Matt Hranek, a watch-loving photographer who recently founded a men’s style magazine called Wm Brown, flipped a 1960s Omega Speedmaster (the same model worn by the astronaut Ed White on the first American spacewalk) for five times what he paid for it, he said. That score helped him persuade his wife that a portfolio of vintage watches could serve as an alternate 401(k) for the family.

“I convinced her — I think — that it was much more practical to invest regularly in watches that I know about rather than the stock market that I know absolutely nothing about,” Mr. Hranek, 51 , said.

Benjamin Clymer, the founder of the watch site Hodinkee, which has evolved from a one-man watch blog to a market-moving editorial and e-commerce site selling new and vintage watches, has been practising a form of horological arbitrage with his collection for years.

In 2012, for example, he bought a Patek Philippe Nautilus, a triumph of 1970s mod design that conjures images of Concorde flights and fondue parties, for $18,000. That watch is worth at least $75,000 today, Mr. Clymer, 36, said. That’s not his only home run as a watch investor.

“I have a distinct memory of a friend who is now one of the great vintage dealers in the world calling me crazy for spending $30,000 for an early 1950s Omega Speedmaster,” he said. “The same watch today would be well north of $100,000.”

With wrist shots flourishing on Instagram and watch sites like Hodinkee, Worn & Wound and Monochrome spreading arcane watch knowledge to the masses, collector demand is spreading beyond behemoth brands like Rolex and Omega to lesser-known makers like Universal Genève.

Greyson Korhonen/HodinkeeIt's beaten up, which makes it expensive.
It's beaten up, which makes it expensive.

One particularly coveted version of that venerable Swiss maker’s Compax chronograph famously graced the wrist of Nina Rindt, the fashionable wife of the 1970s Formula One racer Jochen Rindt. It began trading as high as $45,000 recently, up from maybe $2,800 in 2011, although the market has cooled of late, Mr. Wind said; the same model might trade for $20,000 to $30,000, he added.

But no watch has exploded in value like the Paul Newman Daytona. It is an auto racer’s chronograph that once was considered something of an afterthought in the watch world. Joanne Woodward accidentally made it iconic when she bought one for Mr. Newman, her gear-head husband, in the late 1960s for about $250.

Whether she noticed it or not, the specific model she selected for Mr. Newman, who could often be found circling the track when he was not making movies, was rare, featuring distinctive Art Deco-inflected numerals on its three sub-dials denoting seconds, minutes and hours. This only appeared on perhaps one in 20 Daytonas from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Over the years, Mr. Newman’s stature as a style icon grew, and so did the mythology — and value — of the Rolex he flashed on magazine covers. In a 2014 post, Hodinkee scoured old auction catalogues featuring Paul Newman sales and found estimates as low as $9,257 in 1992, and as low (yes) as $66,000 in 2008.

Those were the days. After Paul Newman’s own Paul Newman attracted worldwide headlines by selling at auction for $17.8 million after a mere 12 minutes of bidding in 2017, every Paul Newman suddenly seems to be trading like a Picasso.

A coveted version known as an Oyster Mk 1 “panda” went for more than $750,000 at a Phillips auction in Geneva this past spring, a figure that shocked Mr. Clymer, who once owned that very watch.

“The Oysters are something really special, and go well beyond ticking the box for a rich guy to prove he’s cool,” Mr. Clymer said. “I bought this watch in the twos, sold it in the threes, and I thought I was the smartest man in the room. How could a steel Daytona break $400,000?”

Not every old watch has value. Anyone who scoops up a cheap boxful of half-working Bulovas from the 1950s at a flea market is likely to end up with a cheap boxful of half-working Bulovas from the 1950s.

Vintage watch collecting can prove a minefield for newbie collectors. Even with blue-chip models, seemingly imperceptible differences can add or detract thousands of dollars in value. A Rolex Submariner from the 1960s with an original bezel insert featuring a so-called long 5 is worth thousands more than one with a replacement insert with a shorter, more contemporary 5.

Buyers need to figure out if a watch has been polished over the years — actually considered a bad thing, since polishing can wear down the crisp edges of its case, Mr. Wind said. And they need to watch out for unscrupulous dealers peddling so-called Frankenwatches, which contain non-original parts that can torpedo the value.

Besides, watch collecting can be similar to art collecting in that dealers tend to reserve the most coveted pieces for insiders and heavyweight collectors, rarely making them available to the general public.

And then there are the fickle market tastes that any sort of collector must try to anticipate. Right now, the arrow is pointing up on best-of-breed sport watches with steel bracelets, like the Nautilus, the Submariner and GMT, the early Speedmasters, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and certain vintage Tudors and Heuers, Mr. Clymer said.

There’s no telling how the demand for five- and six-figure timepieces will hold up should, say, a credit implosion in China, or a splintering of the eurozone, produce a sequel to the 2008 financial crisis, or should Democratic Socialists sweep to power in Washington on promises of a 70 percent tax rate on the target demographic for museum-worthy watches.

Already, some sure things, like certain Daytonas, are looking like slightly less than a sure thing.

“The market for Daytona just got a little silly for awhile,” Mr. Clymer said. “We saw references worth $20,000, $25,000 in 2011 to 2015 all of a sudden worth $50,000, then all of a sudden worth $80,000. And now those same references are worth $65,000. That’s still significantly higher than they were, but they’ve come down from the stratosphere.”

During the bear market of 2008 to 2009, too, prices for some high-flying vintage models, including Paul Newmans, dipped by 30 to 40 percent, said Matthew Bain, a dealer of fine watches in Miami Beach. But, like stocks, they bounced back to new highs.

The rebound may seem intoxicating. But people who think of their watch collection as an alternative to an E-Trade account may be in for a rude surprise when they discover that watches often come with sizable dealer fees, not to mention substantial outlays for insurance, secure storage and other hidden costs, Mr. Khoo said.

“Investors are not collectors, and collectors are not investors,” Mr. Khoo said. His Watch Fund has a database of “more than 9,000 watch collectors worldwide,” he said, and “I have never met someone who bought hundreds of watches that he liked, and sold 100 percent of them for a net absolute gain.”

In other words, newcomers to the watch world may want to heed the warning attached to brokerage advertisements on television: Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Or, they may just want to buy whatever looks cool and leave it at that.