“You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” So the family-owned brand has been reminding us since 1996. The visuals for this legendary ad campaign show a father and his son, or a mother and her daughter, enjoying a special moment together. It remains one of the biggest advertising success stories of recent decades by delivering a powerful and contemporary message: a watch is not simply something that gives the time; it is an heirloom and a bond between generations. This unconventional approach to high-end watchmaking opened up an entire other dimension for Patek Philippe. The brand was already known for its excellence and expertise, and for its meticulous and carefully controlled production. The “Generations” campaign showed its talent for introducing emotional value to its products, which are purchased as unique objects, made to last not just a lifetime but several lifetimes.
Others have followed suit, making family a focal point for watchmakers in recent years. Whereas Patek Philippe concentrates on its watches’ potential as an heirloom for future generations, other brands use theirs to symbolise important moments in family life as it happens – a means of storing memories for years to come. In 2010, for example, Frederique Constant ran a print campaign featuring Alex Schneiter and his son Sebastian, then 14 years old and already an accomplished skipper, sporting a watch a young man might receive for a special occasion. Birthday, bar-mitzvah or first communion, the caseback leaves room to engrave a personal message, a name or a date – a memory forever captured in metal.
A second example, courtesy of Baume & Mercier, resembles more a saga. A pastel-coloured sea, a wood-decked sailing boat, seaside living… Launched in 2016, the “Life Is About Moments” campaign puts the accent on continuity. Baume & Mercier’s watches become landmarks in the tapestry of life, akin to the tastes, sounds and smells that transport us back to childhood. It’s Proust and his madeleine all over again. The Waltons meets the Hamptons. Still, this idealised image, popular at a time when fewer couples were choosing to tie the knot, could be seen as wishful thinking. Sentimental value is one thing, monetary value is another. Or to put it bluntly, memories are great but a big fat inheritance is better.
Sentiment or speculation?
Patek Philippe illustrates the point well. With a few rare exceptions, a new watch loses value the second it leaves the store. For anyone hoping to pass on the horological equivalent of money in the bank, the only chance of seeing a watch gain significantly in value year after year is to invest in a timepiece that is likely to interest collectors. The Patek Philippe Reference 1518 from 1943 is a case in point. It crossed the block in 2013 at Phillips auction house in Geneva where, after thirteen heart-stopping minutes, it tripled its estimate to sell at CHF 11 million (€10.2 million), setting a new world record for a wristwatch at auction. Apart from Rolex, which according to figures published by LuxPrince in 2014 sees the average price of its watches multiply by 2.8 in ten years, very few brands are capable of unleashing such passion. Some attempt to do so by way of limited editions, vintage designs, small series or models no longer in production. Others cash in on their history, preferably in the form of a defining and, ideally, universally significant event. Omega and its Speedmaster Moonwatch take us back to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon; Rolex’s Cosmograph Daytona, the ultimate automotive symbol, appeals to collectors of every stripe.
Collaborations with a bankable artist are another safe investment, even when the canvas is a plastic watch. For more than twenty years, Paul Dunkel, a retired insurance broker from Luxemburg, patiently amassed a collection of more than 5,800 Swatch watches and related materials. These included signed limited editions by artists such as Keith Haring and Kiki Picasso, and a collection released for the fortieth anniversary of James Bond. In 2015 Dunkel sold this “superlot” at auction in Hong Kong for over $6 million – four times the estimate. “This is a true testament to the universal appeal of Swatch,” declared the collector, a father of two and a grandfather whose daughter and grandson joined him in the saleroom. “I’m doing it for the kids,” he added, “so that they can have a good life.”