How to Invest in the Skyrocketing Watch Market
Something strange happened way back in spring 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic: Just as life ground to a halt, the vintage-watch market exploded. Soon, sales of new watches were climbing too. Things had been trending in this direction for years. The ongoing relaxation of dress codes meant that steel sports watches had replaced old-school dressy pieces as the objects of white-collar desire, and it began to feel as if auction houses were setting records for sales every week. Seemingly all of a sudden, collecting watches had become a lot more popular—and much, much trickier.
But then something even stranger happened: A whole new way of thinking about collecting sprouted up. One that prizes flexibility and the ability to dip in and out of a notoriously booming market. One that elevates personal preference over consensus opinion. And one that feels much more like an art than a box-checking, check-writing science. What follows are eight new ways to go about building a badass watch collection in 2022.
Collecting Doesn’t Have to Mean Forever
Patek Philippe from Hodinkee Annual Calendar 5205g ($53,925)
Collecting watches used to mean buying for life—and your choices were mostly limited to very new watches or very old ones. But now, what used to be a sketchy gray market for pre-owned watches—that is, lightly worn pieces produced after 1990—has turned into a low-stakes way to build (and rebuild) your collection. Hodinkee, the watch media brand, acquired pre-owned platform Crown & Caliber in 2021. That site, along with peers like WatchBox and Watchfinder & Co., have made it easier than ever to do the hardest thing in watch collecting: painlessly buy something you’re into without fear of getting scammed. Reams of historical pricing data and teams of authenticators, along with return policies you won’t find on the gray market, mean that you can trust in what you’re getting—even if you’re picking up this Patek Philippe. All the better, dipping into this world gives you the freedom to think of your collection a little more…fluidly. “There are watches you’re gonna engrave your name on the back of and never get rid of,” says Russell Kelly, Hodinkee’s chief commercial officer. “And then there are watches that come and go.” The rise of pre-owned means that the latter will find a happy home—by which time you’ll be onto your next watch.
Catch the Unlikely Second Act of a Watch Design GOAT
Gérald Genta Arena Retrograde ($16,400)
Swiss designer Gérald Genta is responsible for birthing some of the most iconic watch models in history, like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus. They are also, frustratingly, among the hardest on earth to actually buy. But what Genta did after designing those watches is just as worthy of collectors’ attention: In the 1980s, he introduced several Mickey Mouse–emblazoned designs under his own brand. These were as whimsical as the novelty watches Disney had long licensed, but fitted with high-precision mechanical movements and gold cases—making them killer collectibles. Now, Bulgari—which bought the Genta brand in 2000—is carrying on the designer’s legacy with a $16,400 Mickey Mouse mechanical watch that lets you own a unique piece of an all-time designer’s work.
Enter the Post-Gender Watch World
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Self-Winding ($48,900)
It might sound obvious to say that, historically, men haven’t collected women’s watches. But with brands pumping out seriously desirable goods meant for slimmer wrists, the only really obvious thing to say is: It’s time to start. The stealthy new 34-mm black ceramic Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, for example, might be the most covetable watch on the market right now, period. Fitted with a proper mechanical movement—most small R.O.s have previously had quartz-fired tickers—and cloaked in a murdered-out ceramic case, the model is one of the most badass Royal Oaks ever. More than a sick new piece, it’s a blueprint for a post-gender watch world, where you can find true wrist heat at any size.
Resist Circular Logic
Cartier Privé Cloche de Cartier Skeleton Watch (price upon request)
Maybe the easiest way to start building a distinctive-looking collection is to…buy distinctive-looking watches. Take your cue here from Tyler, the Creator, who’s been at the vanguard of a new generation of maverick collectors turning away from top-of-the-market sports watches in favor of forward-thinking designs from the likes of old-world jeweler Cartier. Tyler once credited the luxury house’s “spectacular shapes” with getting him into watch collecting in the first place. The Cloche de Cartier, above, might be one of the most spectacular of them all: The case shape looks wildly futuristic, but it was actually conceived in the 1920s. The world of Cartier is full of stuff like this—the brand makes watches that look like trapezoids, tanks, and bathtubs, and one that looks like it was painted by Dalí. Ingenious design isn’t a new thing in the watch world. You’ve just gotta think outside the circle to find it.
Find Big Value in Small Packages
IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 ($6,500)
Grand Seiko Quartz SBGX347 ($3,300)
Zenith Chronomaster Revival el Primero a385 ($7,900)
If you do a quick scan of the wrists in a hotel lobby in New York, L.A., or London, you’re likely to see a whole lot of mass clanking around. The most popular watches on the planet are also, thanks to their roots in aviation and mountaineering and racing, some of the biggest. But when even a watchmaker like IWC decides to release a scaled-down version of its iconic 46.2-mm Big Pilot’s Watch (left), you can be sure that the tide is turning. These days, if you want your timepiece to fly under the radar (or fit under your shirt sleeve), you no longer have to wear a dainty dress watch. Zenith’s iconic sporty chronograph (right) now comes in a relatively svelte 37-mm case. And if you do need a subtle dress watch, Grand Seiko’s SBGX347 (center) clocks in at 34 mm.
Ride the Gold Boom
Omega Constellation ($23,800)
Rolex Submariner Date ($37,950)
It has long been the case that collectors have lusted after the stainless steel versions of high-end sports watches like the Rolex Submariner and the Omega Seamaster, while remaining considerably cooler on their golden brethren. But now, says Wind Vintage dealer Eric Wind, that’s changing. Those less-loved gold watches are “spiking relative to their steel counterparts.” You can chalk that up partly, Wind says, to gold’s inherent value, along with the recent swings of the financial markets. “As markets get more volatile, gold is a hedge,” he says. And in a world newly enraptured by assets we can’t touch or own, there are few objects less fungible than a gold watch, or one that gives off such a pleasant eff-you vibe.
Goliath’s Great. But Wait Until You Meet David
Autodromo from Hodinkee Intereuropa Copperstate 1000 edition ($1,500)
Building a watch collection used to mean tracking down big game—legendary pieces produced by luxury Swiss houses. Now, though, plenty of other watch designers are making the case that their models are essential parts of a serious collection. At the top end of the price range, wizard of watchmaking Philippe Dufour produces a handful of time-only dress watches per year, which have prompted fans to make pilgrimages to his workshop in a Swiss village. Closer to entry-level is Autodromo, a motoring-inspired line founded in NYC in 2011. Their Intereuropa Copperstate 1000, inspired by the iconic Southwest vintage-car rally, has plenty of grail qualities: It’s beautiful, channels a rich design history, and there are only 95 of them. Oh, and it’s just $1,500.
Having Your Own Taste Is Cool Now
Omega Ploprof 1200m ($13,800)
Richard Mille RM 35-03 Automatic ($222,000)
The Omega Ploprof (top) is not exactly collector bait. It’s built to remain functional thousands of feet beneath the sea. “It was always kind of undervalued, compared to vintage Seamaster 300s or Submariners,” Eric Wind says. And yet it’s become something of a grail for fans of unorthodox design. In fact, some of the most outrageous watches on the market are also the most coveted: Richard Mille has become one of the hottest names in watchmaking for ultra-expensive timepieces that blur the line between novelty and craft. Both Ploprofs and Milles have spiked in value in recent years. But there’s a better lesson here: Cultivate your own taste. Dive deep on a watch built for ultra-deep dives, or start lusting after the RM mega-pieces that look like wrist Transformers. Sure, it might be a good investment—but there’s nothing more fun than developing your own unique taste, and committing to it all the way.
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue with the title “The New Art of Watch Collecting.”
Photographs by Bobby Doherty
Set Design by Andrea Stanley at Exposure NY