Did you know that the three major watch auction houses, Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips, together sold a combined $626 million worth of watches in 2022? At the top of the heap was a Patek Philippe Ref. 2499, a pink- gold version of Patek's famous perpetual calendar chronograph. It fetched a whopping $7,724,346! And it's not even the most expensive watch ever sold. That title belongs to the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime 6300A-010, which sold for $31.19 million at the Only Watch Auction in Geneva in 2019.
To put that into perspective, you can buy five Pagani Huayra Tricolore- the most expensive Italian sports car ever built-with that money!
Let's assume that this is the extreme end of human extravagance. It still does not change the fact that the luxury watch market is booming. And it has been for some time. The market size currently standards at $30.58 billion and is expected to grow to $50 billion. Inflation, recession, economic downturns, stock market crashes, wars... whatever you can think of, it seems that luxury watch sales are immune to it all.
But how did we get here?
In this blog, we will delve into the journey of how a device meant to tell time became one of the most expensive and sought-after luxury items in the world.
The Precursor of the Wristwatch: Ancient Methods of Timekeeping
The devices and methods of measuring time have constantly improved through a long series of new inventions and ideas. Here are the most monumental.
The earliest known timekeeping devices originated in Egypt and Mesopotamia, around 3500 BC.
In its simplest form, a sundial consisted of a gnomon (a thin rod) that cast a shadow on a platform on which various times were etched out. When the sun changed position during the day, the shadow of the gnomon also changed, reflecting the change in time.
At night, they turned to a device called a Merkhet to track the passage of selected stars across the north-south meridian during the night. Although these devices were primitive, the Egyptians were able to measure time with relative accuracy. They could even be called monumental, as they enabled the Egyptians to develop a 365-day solar calendar that we still use today.
Improvements to the sundial
The ancient Greeks took designs from Egypt and Mesopotamia and applied new principles. With their extensive knowledge of geometry and astronomy, they were able to build a universal sundial that could be used anywhere on Earth.
The Romans, for their part, adopted the Greek sundials and even erected a huge sundial, the Solarium Augusti, in 10 BC.
The Arabs continued to improve the sundial, with the greatest contribution coming in 1371. Ibn al-Shatir (the most important Muslim astronomer of the 14th century) proved that the arrangement of the gnomon of a sundial parallel to the Earth's axis produces shadows of equal length every day of the year.
This discovery soon became standard practice in construction and led to the iconic "diagonal" appearance of modern sundials to compensate for the tilt of the Earth.
The first widely documented hourglasses appeared on European ships in the 14th century. They quickly proved popular for several practical purposes:
- They remained dry and stable
- They were unaffected by the rocking of the ship and bad weather.
- They were also cheaper and easier to maintain
There were other inventions like water clocks, but up to this point it was nothing revolutionary. Well, that was until mechanical clocks came along towards the end of the Middle Ages and eventually replaced all the earlier timekeeping devices.
The Mechanical Clock Movements
Scholars consider the invention of the mechanical clock not only one of the most significant turning points in the history of science and technology but also one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind.
This medieval mechanical clock was so much more significant and influential than its predecessors because it had the technological potential to evolve into a variety of timepieces that would increasingly transform science and society in the centuries that followed.
The mechanical clock was weight-driven, meaning that it could function in sub-zero temperatures (unlike the water clock) and at night and on cloudy days (unlike the sundial).
This mechanism for measuring time - the escapement - consisted of a rotating multi-notched wheel, the gears of which were periodically blocked and released by a device that moved rhythmically back and forth, allowing it to track the passage of time.
These medieval mechanical clocks often announced the time by the clanging of bells. The word "clock" was taken from the Latin word clocca, which means bell.
These clocks initially served a religious purpose: they regulated the monks' mass times, prayers, meals, and work. In the late thirteenth century, clocks spread rapidly from monasteries to churches across Europe.
The Salisbury clock located in Salisbury Cathedral in southern England and dates from about 1386 is the oldest of its kind known to still be working
Portable Watches: The Luxury Element Is Introduced
The First Clock Watches
The invention of the first wearable watch was made possible by the invention of the mainspring. This important invention was basically a coiled piece of metal band that served as a power source in mechanical watches. The user only had to wind the watch every so often to maintain the tension on the mainspring.
These revolutionary creations were called clock watches. Surprisingly, for such a historical invention, it is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the portable mechanical watch. However, the invention of the first portable watch is attributed to a locksmith from Nuremberg named Peter Henlein in 1510.
His spring designs were not particularly accurate. They only had the hour hand and could lose several hours during a working day! On top of that they were heavy (around 3 inches) in size and had to be worn as pendants.
But that did not stop the nobility from near and far from contacting him regularly. Many paid a fortune for these first clock watches to use as fashionable ornaments and the ultimate social statement.
The Birth of the Swiss Watch Industry
* Watches have been used as statements of wealth since the 16 century. In 1541, John Calvin banned the wearing of jewelry. Stores in Geneva were no longer allowed to display alluring gold and diamonds, putting jewelers in a bind. But all hope was not lost. Calvin deemed the watch to be a practical instrument and had no objection to its manufacture and sale. Clever jewelers saw their opportunity and shifted their focused to the clock watches, which had been introduced a few decades earlier. This was the beginning of the vaunted Swiss watch tradition we know today. From gem-setting to enameling to engraving, craftsmen used their finest skills to create luxurious and extravagant watches for the nobility and the wealthy. The pocket watch had became a bonafide symbol of wealth and status! These were hung proudly about the neck as a statement of the owner’s wealth and access to technological advancements.
In 1601, these craftsmen founded the Watchmakers Guild of Geneva to ensure that the quality of watches made by its members was maintained at the highest levels.
Mass production was banned, the number of apprentices kept artificially low, and entry to the guild (and thus permission to make watches) strictly controlled. As a result of this, the reputation of Geneva watches for quality was kept high, as were the prices.
King Charles II introduced the "vest" (waistcoat) in 1666 as part of the modern three-piece ensemble. He did this to boost the English wool trade and force the nobility to turn away from French fashions. It worked, as the vest soon became a popular part of English men's fashion.
Soon there was a demand for slimmer watches that could fit in waistcoat pockets. These became known as pocket watches. Later, in the 1800s, Prince Albert developed a new watch accessory, the Albert chain. This allowed men to attach their watches to the pockets on the front of their coats. By this time, the features had become more sophisticated and the design more intricate.
The economic success brought by the Industrial Revolution, with its trains and factories, only fueled the demand for these luxury timepieces. Not to mention the social impact. Anyone who wore a pocket watch commanded respect and was perceived as a cultured and distinguished member of society who appreciated the value of time.
Still the domain of the wealthy, pocket watches did not become accessible to the working class until the end of the 19th century with the advent of mass production.
Quick Case Studies of 2 of the Top Luxury Watch Brands
In 1905, German-born Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis founded the watch company "Wilsdorf and Davis" in London. Initially, they limited themselves to the production of pocket watches, because wristwatches were frowned upon at the time and were not considered masculine enough.
However, this changed during World War 1, when soldiers discovered wristwatches allowed them to time the start of their maneuvers to a specific time.
In 1908, Wilsdorf registered "Rolex" as a trademark. Demand for Rolex watches grew rapidly, and British taxes on the Swiss movements Rolex used prompted Wilsdorf to move the business to Geneva in 1919.
His commitment to excellence earned Rolex watches several triumphs over the next few decades. In 1910, Rolex was the first wristwatch to carry the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision.
In 1914, the Kew Observatory awarded Rolex wristwatch the "A" class precision certificate, a distinction that until that time had been reserved exclusively for marine chronometers.
After the death of his wife, Wilsdorf established the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation as a private trust in 1944. After his death in 1960, all his Rolex shares were transferred to the Foundation.
In Wilsdorf's day, Rolex was a watch for roughnecks. It was intended as a watch that could weather all harsh elements and was vry popular among swimmers, submariners and explorers. But his successor Andr. Heiniger had other plans. He was determined to make Rolex synonymous with luxury.
That meant making the brand famous by featuring it in Hollywood movies and sponsoring sporting tournaments such as tennis and golf. It also meant creating the allure of scarcity by controlling supply more tightly.
By the 1980s, Rolex was not only known for its reliability and stability, but was now also considered a safe investment in uncertain economic times.
And the market for vintage Rolex watches was in full swing. The team at Rolex has largely stuck to the founder's as well as his successors vision.
Unlike Rolex, Patek Philippe was fully focused on the luxury market from the beginning.
In 1839, two budding entrepreneurs joined forces to create a new watch company called Patek, Czapek & Co. Both were former soldiers and used the skills they had learned after fleeing the war front to make timepieces. Patek used the sales tactics he had learned in his time as a wine merchant to buy mechanisms and cases from various sources, while Czapek used his expertise to build, finish and test the 200 or so watches the company produced annually.
This partnership lasted only 6 years before Czapek left it to form his own company, Czapek & Co. which operated until 1869.
Around the same time, Patek met a rising star in the French horological community, Adrien Philippe. Philippe had invented the first pendant crown winding mechanism in 1942, which eliminated the need to wind and set a watch with a key.
This innovation was awarded a gold medal at the World's Fair and patented the following year. On January 1, 1851, the two officially formed their own company as a partnership: Patek Philippe & Co was born.
Combining the artisanal, luxurious craftsmanship Patek had learned in his earlier partnership and Philippe's keyless winding and setting system, their company became an instant success.
They even received an official recommendation from the English royal court. This led to orders for Patek Philippe from nobility and aristocrats across Europe, including the kings of Italy and Denmark.
In 1854, Tiffany & Co in New York became an official customer. To this day, they only work with a select group of retailers. In the 20th century, Patek Philippe drove the innovation of timepieces with more than 30 complications.
in 1932, Patek Philippe was purchased by Charles and Jean Stern, two brothers who ran a fine dial company in Geneva. Since then, the company has been owned by the Stern family, who have ensured the luxury watch maker maintains the highest standards.
Today: The Era of Multimillion Dollar Auctions
Every year the top auction houses sell multiple watches from brands like Patek Philippe for millions of dollars each. When you take into account that watches, have been viewed as a luxury items since the very first clock watch was invented this isn't surprising.
Generally, the most expensive watches, tend to fall into one of two camps. You've got shoes that earn their six-figure price tag by squeezing incomprehensibly complicated engineering into minuscule cases. This is where you'll find the flagship watches by the classic Swiss makers.
On the other side, you've got watches that are expensive because of the layers of precious metals, hand-cut diamonds, and bits of meteorites.
And then, a notch above both, those that command million-dollar price tags, you've got your one-offs – watches owned by famous people or long-dead people like the Rolex Emperor Bao Dai, which was owned by the last emperor of Vietnam.