There is a trend in the Geneva salerooms that cannot fail to catch the collector’s eye. The country that gave watchmaking its pedigree, and produced many of the great names in time measurement, also has an impressive and as yet unexplored “back catalogue” of now defunct and certainly less familiar brands. The market for vintage (the trend in question) is a perfect symbol of the post-war years, and catalogues now include page after page of manufacturers who not so very long ago were nowhere to be seen. The majority of these watches feature complications such as a simple or, more rarely, split-seconds chronograph. One example by E. Gubelin – lot 432 at Antiquorum, an auction house that knows how to run the full gamut of Swiss time measurement, – sold for over nine times its estimate at CHF 185,000.
The only way is up
Compared to the summits reached by the likes of Rolex and Patek Philippe, a record such as this, in this category, speaks volumes. Auction results since the early 2000s show how the most expensive wristwatches are increasing in price, and multiplying their original cost by more than ten over a period of 15 years. The latest example to date is the now famous Bao Dai Rolex Ref. 6062. When it first came under Aurel Bacs’ hammer in 2002, it went for CHF 500,000. Fifteen years later, and we can add a zero. This tendency only goes to confirm the good health of vintage at auction.
The market has responded to this price explosion by seeking out new opportunities at the lower end of the scale, often among brands no longer in existence and which are themselves achieving higher and higher prices. There is something for everyone here, and this sheer diversity is also part of the appeal. The record price realised by the E. Gubelin split-seconds chronograph invites a rather bold comparison with a similar watch in terms of construction, but whose price sailed beyond the CHF 2 million mark at Phillips, given its extremely rare Rolex reference 4113. Once again, beyond technical and aesthetic resemblances, the name on the dial acted as a catalyst for bidders with the deepest pockets. In the years to come, these bygone brands will very probably follow the same price trajectory as today’s saleroom stars.
"Make Swiss Made Great Again"
Most of these brands were never inducted into twentieth-century watchmaking’s hall of fame, and yet the sound of their name is music to the vintage watch geek’s ear. Catalogues feature a litany of these forgotten gems that have nothing to envy their more illustrious counterparts, but failed to resist the onslaught of quartz in the 1970s. Of all the lots crossing the block at this latest session, at Antiquorum and at Christie’s mainly, virtually all those by these lesser-known brands sold within their estimate. The first 25 lots in Antiquorum’s selection, signed Gallet, Helvetia, Record, Croton, Reston, Ollech & Wajs, Juvenia, Zodiac and Leonidas, all fetched between CHF 1,000 and CHF 10,000, peaking at CHF 12,500 for lot 24. A foot in the door for budding collectors who will one day graduate to the big-name brands. Christie’s also offered a well-stocked selection at the lower end of the price spectrum. Two noteworthy examples are lot 91, a calendar chronograph by Gallet that fetched CHF 6,250, and lot 92, a Philip Watch (not to be confused with Patek Philippe) that sold for CHF 1,500.
The May session in Geneva was in every way the reflection of a mature and dynamic market whose players are increasingly adept at positioning themselves in niche sectors; the very ones that are bringing a new generation of vintage watch fans into the saleroom. This coterie of brands is also a reminder that Switzerland is a wonderful country that has produced endless talent over the course of five hundred years of tradition and innovation in time measurement. So long live Swiss Made! It’s a sentiment shared by H. Moser & Cie whose incitation to “Make Swiss Made Great Again” is duly inscribed on the company’s baseball caps. And when at Christie’s the hammer came down on its Swiss Alp Watch and Swiss Mad Watch for the record price of CHF 125,000, it was hats off all round!