Why watches are a timely investment 100 years after First World War
A vintage wristwatch can be a timely investment – and this year is an important anniversary for timepiece investors.
The mechanical watch was traditionally attached to a chain fob, but in the First World War it began to be worn on the wrist as a practical necessity by soldiers fighting in the trenches.
Paul Maudsley, director of the watch department of auction house Bonhams, believes that this year’s First World War anniversary may herald renewed interest in some of the finest old watches.
He says: ‘Wristwatches were seen as effeminate until the First World War. They had previously mostly been worn by women on bracelets. But soldiers found them more practical than the fob watch in armed combat.’
Maudsley points out that few military watches of the era had a maker’s name on them, but unmarked examples made by Rolex can fetch £2,000. Others in top condition can sell for more than £700. Many were encased with grills to keep them from being damaged in trench bombardments and attacks.
He adds: ‘The classic era for collectable watches with investment appeal began in the 1950s.
‘Elegant rare examples with beautiful calendar and moon faces by Vacheron Constantin from this era can cost £10,000. It sounds a lot of money, but a comparable watch by top maker Patek Philippe might fetch £150,000, so values could rise.’
Mechanical watches are driven by internal movements rather than crystals, with mainspring, gears, levers, jewel-lined bearings and wheels working to keep time ticking. They may also include so-called ‘complications’ – showing days, dates and lunar calendar phases.
The introduction of quartz technology in the Seventies – with electronic pulses regulated by crystals – enabled more affordable and accurate timepieces to be made. This also marked the start of an investment market for the traditional watch.
Ian Anderson, 66, the flute playing frontman of Jethro Tull, has a collection of watches he started by accident in the 1970s.
Ian, who is enjoying something of a renaissance with his biggest UK hit for more than 40 years, the album Homo Erraticus, says: ‘I am not a magpie and don’t buy the big bling watches that scream out how hideously expensive they are – it is the understated and beautifully crafted pieces I like.’
The rock star bought a Rolex Cosmograph in 1975 for about £500 in the Swiss town of Montreux that is now worth up to £20,000.
A year later he bought a black-faced model of the same watch – a close cousin of the Rolex Daytona worn by actor Paul Newman – for a similar price in New York that has also soared in value thanks to its classical beauty.
Ian, who lives in Wiltshire, adds: ‘These watches are not to be confused with the modern-day chunky beasts. Craftsmanship has not improved and modern mechanical watches can lose a few seconds a day.
‘My watches must be regularly serviced – at least once every five years – which may cost £300.’
Though big names such as Rolex have given owners huge returns over the years, Ian says his favourite watches are made by JS Watch Company in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik.
He recently received as a gift one with a 25-jewel internal Swiss mechanism worth more than £2,000. He says: ‘This watchmaker is an artist of exceptional talent and engineering skill. The watch is priceless.’
Maudsley says: ‘Although Rolex is the most collected brand there are also lots of other iconic watches. These include Jaeger-LeCoultre and its Reverso model.
Other collectable watchmakers include Breguet, Audemars Piguet, Cartier, Tissot, Breitling, TAG Heuer, Omega and Longines.’
He warns against buying online as the market is awash with fakes – many hard to spot as a true vintage watch has to have original and authentic interior as well as exterior parts. He urges buyers to use a reputable dealer or auction house.
Bonhams, Watches and Wristwatches auction, May 20 at 9am, with viewings today and tomorrow in Knightsbridge, London.