From the very beginning of Patek Philippe in 1839, the people who were fortunate to own or collect Patek timepieces were members of a privileged elite. In fact, Antoine Norbert de Patek started his business by providing timepieces for the people he knew personally: his own circle of friends from the Polish aristocracy. Very quickly, a Patek timepiece was not just purchased by wealthy patrons in Switzerland, but also members of European royal households. By the beginning of the 20th century, America’s own aristocracy, captains of industry such as JP Morgan, James Ward Packard and Henry Graves Jr. were proud and voracious collectors.
Thankfully, you no longer need to be a captain of industry, or to have inherited a family fortune to enjoy collecting Patek Philippe. You don’t even have to start with collecting watches. John Reardon started his passion for Patek by collecting old print advertisements as this was all that he could afford at the time. He now has over 1000 ads and is still collecting them. These ads give a fascinating insight into the history of the company as well as changing social norms.
Watch collecting as we know it is a relatively new area with most of the record-breaking sales happening in the last twenty years. The start of the phenomenon can in part, be traced back to 1989 when Patek Philippe joined with the auction house Habsburg, Feldman to sell 300 vintage Patek timepieces and the first Caliber 89, all to celebrate the company’s 150th anniversary. On April 9, 1989 the sale of the Caliber 89 for $3.2 million brought worldwide media attention and the humble wristwatch was never looked at in the same way again.
Today, although not inexpensive, the vintage Patek Philippe market, especially for pocket watches and certain time-only watches offers an exciting entrée for collectors at all levels and we are seeing a new, younger generation enthusiastically enter the market.
One of our most often-asked questions is, “what defines a Patek Philippe collector?” As with all great questions, there is not one simple answer. However, John Reardon, founder of Collectability has been thinking a lot about this question and defined four distinct categories.
In the inaugural Collectability Podcast, John discussed these categories with host Carlos Torres, and we encourage you to listen here when you have time. In the meantime, here is a summary:
The Treasure Hunter
One of the most fun aspects of watch collecting is the hunt for a specific piece and being rewarded with the treasure of finding and owning it. The Patek Philippe treasure hunter is constantly combing the internet and knows of obscure and even secret sites where information can be obtained. This person has regular, often daily talks with dealers, and is inevitably joining a chat room on Instagram or Clubhouse, anytime of the day or night. They are well-acquainted with small auction houses around the world and review the sales in the hope of finding a gem that has been missed, or not recognized as an important piece that can be purchased at an undervalued price. Soon, they will be able to start revisiting flea markets and sifting through a lot of junk in the hope of finding a buried treasure. Collectors we know who are treasure hunters tend to also be fearless world travelers and will go anywhere at-the-drop-of-a-hat in the hope of finding the treasure they are seeking.
The Patek Philippe speculator is the collector who is looking for an investment. It’s easy to judge people who are buying a Patek purely to make money, especially today when we are seeing people flipping ref. 5711/1A as fast as possible. However, the truth is, a tremendous amount of buying and selling takes place each day by people who see dollar signs and are looking for a quick trade. It is human nature to want to make a smart investment. Even Patek Philippe itself used the word “investment” in its early advertising. Ads such as the now iconic “The $1700 Trust Fund” from the 1960s, helped sell many watches. With the value of certain Patek Philippe watches continuing to sky-rocket, it is not surprising that the speculator is a growing segment of collectors.
The Patek Philippe accumulator is a fascinating individual who literally hoards away watches. There are collectors out there who own dozens, hundreds, or there are even a few with thousands of Patek Philippe watches. These people accumulate, they do not sell. In their obsession to collect verticals or specific movements or designs, they put together some of the most important collections in the world. These are the types of people who say, “I have never sold a watch, and I never will”. Historically, when an accumulator’s collection eventually does come on to the market, usually at auction, they are the most exciting treasure troves, sometimes securing record prices for watches that are fresh to the market, or previously unknown. We have to give credit to accumulators as they are putting together and preserving time capsules for the future.
We all know someone who represents the researcher. These are the people who dig and dig and go down every rabbit hole to find any information available on for example, an escapement, a particular retailer, or a rare segment vertical in the Patek universe. A good example of this type of collector is mstanga, the mysterious Italian who has recently written the definitive book on the original Nautilus ref. 3700/1. His research is relentless and there is literally nothing he does not know about the iconic sports reference. His work is based on passion not money.
Running through all four of the above categories is history and certain timelines that can define how a collector collects. For example, Roni Madhvani who is very popular on Instagram and Clubhouse, is obsessed with Gilbert Albert and is a design driven collector from this era. He also loves retailer-signed watches, particularly automatic movements from the 1940s and 50s. There are some collectors who only collect certain calibers such as the caliber 990 in a Markowski case. Or there are collectors who only collect a certain reference and need to collect examples from all production eras.
At the end of the day, most people who collect Patek Philippe watches have a little bit of each of the above categories: a treasure hunter, a speculator, an accumulator and a researcher. The Collectability collector is certainly a bit of all four: some of us have a little more treasure hunter or speculator; all of us have something of a researcher. Plus, if we are to be honest, we all have a bit of accumulator as it is hard to part with something for the next generation.
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