Watch auctions have long been a man’s world where Patek Philippe reigns supreme and provenance can easily trump intrinsic value – Paul Newman Daytona anyone? Ladies’ pieces at auction have been more scarce, and valued mainly for their gem content or maker names: Cartier, Piaget and Patek Philippe dominate. Over the past decade, however, brands have embraced the importance of the ladies’ segment, producing watches with purpose-made movements, including complications, along with some of the finest examples of watchmaking’s métiers d’art. It was inevitable that those watches would begin to show up at auction – from a variety of new brands – and change the game. Sotheby’s sale of Important Watches on May 24 is evidence of this emerging trend. It included a rare private collection of nine limited-edition ladies’ watches, known as Artistic Timepieces from a California Collection. Comprising five Van Cleef & Arpels watches, three Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso and a Rolex, all made within the last 15 years, it realised a total of $195,000. Rare ladies’ pieces by Patek Philippe, Piaget, Zenith and Chopard were also highlighted in the auction.
A greater diversity of brands
“We don’t frequently have a group this large and impressive, and we quite frankly don’t have a large number of Van Cleef watches in our sales, so this is really special for us,” says Katharine Thomas, head of the Sotheby’s watch department in New York. Most of the pieces were bought by the consignor in 2012. One of them is signed by renowned enamelist Dominique Baron, who customized the piece after it was purchased from Van Cleef – number 8 in a series of 22. She personally inscribed the back of the case ‘With love, Dominique,’ reflecting her friendship with the original buyer. This paillonné enamel dial depicts the Fortuna Faerie in flight, and is set with mandarin garnets, colored sapphires and just under three carats of diamonds in an 18k white gold case. It sold for $50,000, over a low estimate of $40,000. “The collector was a true patron, so there is really a lot of heart and soul behind this collection,” says Thomas. Another Van Cleef piece, from the Jules Verne-inspired Les Voyages Extraordinaires collection, with a mother-of-pearl and diamond pavé dial depicting two whales in a polar landscape, sold for $37,500, over a low estimate of $30,000. It numbered 6 in a series of 22 pieces.
Although most of the pieces in the May 24 sale were decorative – still the mainstay in ladies’ watches at auction – Thomas says she has seen a lot more complicated ladies’ watches come up over the past five years. “There are more of these pieces being made for women, which is really a recognition by the makers that women have as much taste for them as men,” she says. This shift has opened the door to a greater diversity of brands beyond the Patek, Piaget, Cartier and Audemars favorites. The May 24 sale included a Richard Mille, four Chopard, a de Grisogono, a Roger Dubuis and a couple of Zenith. Thomas also mentions a Graff tourbillon set with “mega diamonds” consigned in a recent Geneva sale. “We’re moving away from quartz as a base point for ladies’ watches,” says Thomas, who also points out the importance of men’s vintage pieces for ladies. Because most men’s dress watches made in the 1960s and ’70s are sized in the 32mm-35mm range, they are small for men by today’s standards, but women love them. Thomas recalls steering a man who wanted to see the Daytonas up to a showcase of Paul Newman and other models from the 1960s, only to have him comment, “No, not the ladies’ Daytonas; I want to see the men’s Daytonas.” A Cartier Santos made as a mid-sized men’s watch was also exhibited in the ladies’ section.
Vintage women’s watches represent one of the best value propositions in the watch world today.
“Beyond the traditional jewelry watch”
Ladies’ watches from the same era are also in high demand. “Women’s watches are becoming increasingly popular at auction for two main reasons: value and style,” says John Reardon, international head of watches for Christie’s. “Vintage women’s watches represent one of the best value propositions in the watch world today. In terms of resale, they often represent a better value for purchasing pre-owned relative to men’s watches. You can literally buy a vintage masterpiece from a leading watchmaker at less than 25% of the value of its modern equivalent. In regards to style, nothing beats the retro look of a ladies watch from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Many of these watches couldn’t be remade today with modern production methods at any price.”
Reardon says women are increasingly looking for something “beyond the traditional jewelry watch. Patek Philippe complicated references made especially for women in the past are particularly desirable, including the Ref. 4857G [a Calatrava Moon Phase] and 4936G [the classic ladies’ annual calendar].” Women have also discovered that buying online can be quite successful. Reardon observes that “more women are buying and collecting watches within our online watch sales. Many are repeat buyers and some are buying multiple watches in each online sale. Some of the most important ladies’ watch collections are being assembled right now.”. Stay tuned.