20/04/2023 General News
Given that we all carry around a hyper-accurate timepiece in our pockets nowadays (our mobile phone), and that increasing numbers of us are strapping multi-function smart watches which can measure our heartbeat, blood pressure and even our blood oxygen levels to our wrists, you could be forgiven for thinking that the wristwatch has had its day, writees Sam Hicks.
It is certainly true that sales of functional, day-to-day watches are declining, but as we rely more and more on modern technology to actually tell us the time, then what we wear on our wrists is increasingly about aesthetics and fashion – and that is why top-end, big-name designer watches are still very popular.
It is not uncommon for people to have a collection of several watches, choosing which one to wear depending on the occasion and their choice of outfit. This is nothing new; wristwatches, which have been around since the 16th century (Elizabeth I is said to have been given one by Robert Dudley) were initially seen more as decorative bracelets, mainly for women.
The emergence of the wristwatch as a functional item really only happened at the turn of the 20th century, when the ability to tell the time accurately became a necessity of modern warfare – it is often conflict which drives new technologies.
In the 1930s, various Swiss marques started to become fashion items. Rolex, a company which had been in existence since 1905, set the tone with its waterproof Oyster watch in 1926, and the introduction of the Prince watch, advertised as being for ‘men of distinction’, in 1928.
The years after the Second World War saw an explosion of designer watches, and it is many of these which are now the most sought-after in the saleroom. If you had bought a Rolex Explorer in the 1950s for around £200 new, you would now own a watch which is worth upwards of £25,000.
It is the big-name brands which continue to command the highest prices at auction: Rolex, IWC, Heuer, Patek Philippe, Cartier, and fetching increasingly high prices, Omega.
Founded in Biel/Bienne in Switzerland in 1848, La Générale Watch Co changed its name to Omega in 1903. It is a brand which has always associated itself with action: The British Flying Corps used Omega watches in 1917 for its combat units, Omega has been the official timekeeper of the Olympic Games since 1932, and famously it was an Omega Speedmaster which was the first watch to be worn on the moon, with Buzz Aldrin sporting one on his right wrist during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 (Neil Armstrong left his in the lunar module as a backup, because the module’s electronic timer had malfunctioned).
The brand has had plenty of celebrity endorsement, too. Both Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig forsook the traditional Rolex and instead donned Omega Seamasters in the James Bond movies from 1995 onwards, and a Tiffany-signed Omega watch owned by Elvis Presley remains the most expensive Omega watch ever to come to auction, selling for $1.8 million in Geneva in 2018.
Patek Philippe and Rolex remain the brands which enjoy the highest demand in the saleroom, but Omega is certainly snapping at their heels, and in investment terms could be a good one to watch.
As with all top-brand watches, to make good money in the saleroom an Omega must be in perfect working order, and accompanied by its box and the original paperwork, such as receipts showing the watch’s serial number. Provenance is crucial here – fakes are very common in this market.
In the end, wristwatches are one of those collectable items which are both attractive to own and which can also be used. They have an aesthetic allure and keep perfect time, too. Perhaps that’s why this is one branch of the antiques market which seems to be timeless.