Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, Andy Warhol, Neil Armstrong… one of these names is bound to strike a chord. So what if some of their magic could rub off on us? Star appeal is something Fine Watchmakers understood a long time ago. For those whose origins go way back, it even goes with the territory: supplying watches to the great and good of this world is how the most storied brands made their name.
In the eighteenth century, Breguet boasted the crowned heads of Europe among his clientele, not forgetting Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Much later, Winston Churchill developed a passion for the brand founded by the inventor of the tourbillon. The British statesman was the subject of a 2017 biopic, Darkest Hour, in which Gary Oldman, who portrays him, carries a replica of the N°765 pocket watch, especially made by Breguet for the film. Just one example among many of the special connection between fine watches and celebrities past and present.
There is a marked tendency among watchmaking’s leading names to play up this relationship by revisiting a collection or celebrating the anniversary of a model with ties to a famous person or a significant event. A watch’s association with a famous figure inevitably heightens its appeal, and can also detract our attention from the fact that we don’t actually need a watch to know the time. Countless devices can do just that – except a mobile phone will never have the same emotional charge as a watch. In this fiftieth anniversary year of the moon landing, Omega came up with an apposite reminder that Neil Armstrong wore a Speedmaster when he made that giant leap for mankind. The Biel-based brand celebrated the event at Cape Canaveral, tied in with the introduction of a Speedmaster Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Limited Edition.
Another icon to have turned fifty this year is the Monaco from TAG Heuer. Coinciding with the launch, this spring, of new editions, the brand hosted a series of events worldwide and also published a book retracing its history. It’s worth noting that, at the time of its introduction, the Monaco wasn’t to everyone’s taste. The square case, metallic blue dial, red and light blue hands, and the crown on the left side jarred with longstanding ideas about watch design. No doubt the Monaco’s association with motor sports, Jack Heuer’s idea, played a decisive role in making it a legend. In 1971 Steve McQueen wore one in Le Mans, a hugely influential film. After leaner years in the 1980s, the revamped Monaco introduced in 1998 was an instant hit. Proof that even the most illustrious models with the finest celebrity credentials sometimes have to wait for their moment in the sun.
In a different vein, Piaget is another brand to have rubbed shoulders with the jet-setting in-crowd, in no small part thanks to Yves Piaget and his tireless efforts to make the brand he headed in the 1960s the international byword for luxury, glamour and style. He was one of the first brand bosses to strike up friendships with the most prominent celebrities and artists of the day. A collaboration with Salvador Dalí, in 1967, gave Piaget the exclusive right to mount the artist’s Dalí d’Or gold coins on watches, jewellery and accessories, each individually numbered. Pop culture icon Andy Warhol himself became a great collector of the brand. He owned seven Piaget watches, including one from 1973 with black dial and leather strap which the brand has reissued as the Piaget Vintage Inspiration.
Piaget in the ’60s was already renowned for its stunning women’s watches; a fact that didn’t escape Jackie Kennedy. She wore a Piaget watch with a jade dial, adorned with 24 diamonds and four tourmalines on the bezel, and a gold “palace” mesh bracelet. Recently revisited, the original appears in Jackie, worn by Natalie Portman in the role of the First Lady. Of course, no list would be complete without diamond diva Elizabeth Taylor, who fell in love with three Piaget watches: one cuff and two jewellery watches. Joining the ladies we have Miles Davies, who sported a yellow gold, diamond-set Piaget Polo with skeleton movement, and Jerry Lewis with his trapezoid-shaped yellow gold watch with lapis-lazuli dial.
Whether they lend their support to artists, athletes or scientists, today’s Manufactures have every reason to bring these historical celebrities back to life. We might even say these figures from the past have a role to play in securing their future!
Strong auction results in recent years show that collectors' watches formerly owned by celebrities continue to be highly sought-after.
The expert's view
In December, Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo will offer Marlon Brando’s personal Rolex GMT-Master, engraved by his hand, which the actor wore in Apocalypse Now. Ahead of what should be a highlight of the winter auction season, Paul Boutros, Head of Americas and International Strategy Advisor at Phillips, discussed the prices these celebrity-owned watches can achieve.
People often feel nostalgic about a particular era. They grew up admiring this or that personality, were marked by a major historical event, maybe listened to songs that have stuck in their mind, and this is one reason why collectors are drawn to vintage watches: because they take them back to that time. Rarity also plays a part. Watches such as the Paul Newman Rolex Daytona or Marlon Brando’s GMT-Master have been seen by billions of movie-goers, which gives them legendary status in their own right. They become the ultimate trophy for a collector.
Elvis Presley’s Omega, which Phillips sold in 2018 for $1.8 million, achieved the highest result ever for an Omega watch. Other important watches belonging to John F. Kennedy, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Eric Clapton, Winston Churchill and Babe Ruth have also gone down in auction history.
Yes. One that springs to mind is the Marie-Antoinette by Breguet. It took 44 years to complete and is considered to be the most complicated watch ever made. After it was stolen from a museum in Jerusalem in 1983, Breguet built an exact replica of it. The original was eventually recovered in 2007. If that watch were ever to come up at auction, it would command an extraordinary price. In a different genre, we could mention the Tank de Cartier having belonged to Jackie Onassis, and the magnificent Patek Philippe bracelet watch owned by Catherine Deneuve.