Why Wristwatches Are Fighting Off the Allure of The Smartwatch

10/01/2022     General News

Nigel Ducker of Keys Auctioneers & Valuers explains the growing appeal of top-end wristwatches in the saleroom.

Given the march of technology, you might think that the wristwatch has had its day.  We all carry around a hyper-accurate timepiece in our pockets these days (our mobile phone), and increasing numbers of us are also strapping smartwatches to our wrists which measure our heartbeat, blood pressure and a myriad of other vital statistics.

It is true that sales of functional, day-to-day watches are declining, but that is certainly not the case when it comes to top-end, big-name wristwatches.  As we rely more and more on modern technology to tell us the time accurately, what we wear on our wrists is increasingly about aesthetics and fashion.

It is not uncommon for people to have a collection of several watches, that they wear on special occasions rather than everyday, perhaps matching their choice of timepiece with their outfits.  Certainly the demand for leading brand watches such as Rolex outstrips supply, with waiting lists for new models (this situation is exacerbated by limited production numbers, ensuring that the market doesn’t become over-supplied).

No auction house can offer investment advice, but many people believe that buying a top-name, rare watch will be a good investment.  The prices being achieved in the saleroom for such items suggests they may be right.  Certainly buyers seem willing to pay big money for an item which is unlikely to depreciate, and which they can enjoy while they own it.

Believe it or not, the history of the wristwatch goes right back to the 16th century; Elizabeth I is said to have been given one by Robert Dudley in 1571.  However, they were seen more as decorative bracelets (mainly for women) right up until the turn of the 20th century, when the ability to tell the time accurately became a necessity or modern warfare (it is conflict which so often drives new technologies), and the modern wristwatch was born.

It is the big name brands which command the highest prices at auction: Rolex, IWC, Heuer, Omega, Patek Philippe, Cartier and, increasingly, Longines.  This is a market where brand is vital, both for the quality of the watches themselves, but even more so for the cachet and the scarcity they offer.  And it’s often the simpler, non-jewelled examples which are most in demand.

Rarity is everything, which is why early examples from the 1920s and 1930s command top prices, along with watches from the ‘Dirty Dozen’, watches commissioned by the British Ministry of Supply from 12 manufacturers during World War Two for the military.

To make top money, a watch must be in perfect working order, and accompanied by its box and the original paperwork (e.g. receipts showing the watch’s serial number) to prove its provenance – fakes are very common in this market.

Some how you can’t see today’s smartwatches having the same allure in the saleroom in times to come.  They are almost entirely functional, and very soon obsolete – unlike these classic well-made, beautiful timepieces which maintain an aesthetic allure and keep perfect time, too.

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