Watch collectors drawn by chance to 'own a little piece of history'


February 20, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

During his first sales trip to America in 1855, Antoine Nobert de Patek wrote his partners in Geneva from Charleston, S.C.:

"The Americans demand above all inexpensive watches," Patek complained, yet they expect cheap timepieces to "determine the speed of their horses to an accuracy of one-fourth of a second."

Patek, a founder of Patek Philippe & Co., one of Switzerland's most illustrious watchmaking firms, found little enthusiasm for his expensive wares on that trip.

Yet a century and a half later Patek Philippe watches are prized in America, as in the rest of the world, for their legendary craftsmanship and superior timekeeping abilities.

"They are probably the most sought-after watches in the world today," says Irv Temes, a Baltimore-based jeweler who is a nationally known dealer in fine watches and clocks.

Temes, who operates Temes & Co. out of a low-key storefront on Charles Street, specializes in finding Patek Philippe, Rolex and other classic watches for discriminating buyers around the world.

He and other local watch dealers say that vintage and new mechanical watches -- watches with movements made up of gears, levers and springs -- are hot.

"People who collect watches are purists," says Temes, who has been in the business since 1983. "They like the thought of the craftsmanship that goes into a fine timepiece. Most of them are also very wealthy and they like the idea that [a fine watch] has a chance to appreciate in value. It's an opportunity for them to own a little piece of history."

Keiffer Mitchell Sr., a Baltimore physician who has been collecting Swiss wrist and pocket watches for more than 30 years, says part of the fascination with vintage timepieces is realizing the intimate relationship their owners had with them.

"Wrist and pocket watches are the life story of the original purchasers, having counted the hours and minutes of their lives," Mitchell says. "For example, I have a pocket watch engraved as a gift from one brother to another [that is inscribed] 'Dec. 25, 1866.' And it has often made me wonder what those brothers' lives encompassed."

Over the last two decades, prices of high-quality mechanical Swiss wristwatches have soared as a result of sweeping technological changes.

The development of quartz watches in the 1970s made quiet, highly accurate timepieces available to almost anyone. Today, a $30 quartz watch keeps time as well as or better than mechanical watches costing hundreds of times more. Eighty-five percent of low- and moderately priced watches today are quartz movements made in Japan.

But though quartz movements are inexpensive and accurate, the watches of the past hold a special place in the hearts of collectors, who prize both vintage and modern timepieces for their moving and jeweled parts -- and are willing to pay top dollar to acquire them.

"It's because it takes so much skill to make them," says Marc Dubin of J. Brown Jewelers in Pikesville. "When you think of it, it takes thousands of hours and hundreds of parts to put some of these watches together. People think of them as miniature works of art."

The Swiss, who dominated the watch industry in the 19th century, have responded to the quartz revolution by focusing on very expensive, exquisitely finished mechanical timepieces that recall their long tradition of hand-crafted watchmaking. In addition to Patek Philippe, Vacheron & Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Breguet, Cartier and Rolex all make top-quality mechanical watches.

"When somebody buys a Patek, Vacheron & Constantin or Breguet watch, they are really buying a 200-year tradition of Swiss craftsmanship," says Paul Winicki of Radcliffe Jewelers in Towson.

"In the Baltimore-Washington area there are easily several hundred very affluent people who would spend $15,000 for a new, used or vintage watch," Winicki says. (Used watches are previously owned models that are still in production. Vintage timepieces are models that are no longer being produced.)

Today the Swiss control about 85 percent of the luxury market in new mechanical watches and count Hollywood celebrities among their clients, along with such traditional customers as bankers, corporate CEOs, European royalty and heads of state.

In the celebrity category, Pateks are worn by Nicolas Cage and Demi Moore. Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman and Harry Connick Jr. wear Rolexes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna sport Cartiers, and Harrison Ford and Linda Evangelista wear Breguets.

On a slightly less exalted level, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger all own Breitlings, as do Spike Lee and Jerry Seinfeld.

While new mechanical watches are very much in vogue, collectors have seen the value of popular older watches skyrocket. In the early 1980s, a Patek perpetual calendar chronograph made between 1941 and 1954 sold for $10,000. The same watch sold for $50,000 in 1987 and $110,000 in 1990.

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