As a collector, you buy differently.
Posterity rather than fashion is your guide.
Scarcity comes into the picture.
Resale value matters. And you’re much more likely to buy on secondary markets.
But like any consumer you value brands that have proven their mettle.
What makes a great watch brand?
Roger Federer likes a Rolex.
Quality, quality, quality should be the collector’s watch word.
Great watches work well of course.
The best brands have been innovators, whose movements have made leaps forward in timekeeping.
They will be built to last. By craftspeople.
Of the best materials. This doesn’t always mean the most precious materials – gold models are sometimes less valued by collectors than their steel equivalents.
A Patek Philippe Nautilus in steel is in Sotheby's next "Important Watches" sale.
And they will be somewhat scarce. Hand building takes time and these watch brands are all expensive and exclusive when new. They are hard to come by.
Some mass-produced consumer goods do become collector’s items, but it is very much the exception rather than the rule.
Collector’s watches must be in limited supply to hold their value.
Here are the 5 brands we think are the best choice for collectors right now.
5 – Omega
Omega are the name in this list that is the closest to a mass consumer brand.
That’s very much its present, as part of the Swatch family of companies, with whom they recently started releasing budget versions of their iconic timepieces.
Don’t let that cloud your judgement though. Omega was founded, in Switzerland of course, in 1848, taking on the Omega name in 1903.
They’ve racked up a host of impressive technical achievements: the world’s first minute repeater, the best magnetic resistance to date, the first tourbillon wristwatch.
The company are intimately linked with top-level sport and are the official timekeeper of the Olympic Games.
Their “professional” watches include the Speedmaster, one of only two watches worn on the Moon. Omega also make diving, sailing and racing watches.
Their watches hold their own in aesthetic terms too, boasting sleek, classic lines that are a match for any luxury watch maker.
It was undoubtedly a good marketing move to oust Rolex as the “James Bond watch”. This brings a new collecting market into play, and Omega’s clever marketing has seen their pieces feature in other top media properties.
The record price for an Omega watch is the $1.8 million paid in Geneva on May 12, 2018 for a Ref. H6582/D96043 made in 1960. It’s a fine watch, but its owner – one Elvis Presley – and the buyer (the Omega Museum) must also be factored into the high price.
You can buy a new Omega for under £3,000, and a Speedmaster starts at around £5,000.
As is the case for all these brands, numerous factors – special editions, ownerships, short-lived issues – play into the value of watches as collector’s or investment pieces.
The Omega Speedmaster
One look at the Speedmaster is enough to tell a watch enthusiast that it’s a sport watch. The three dials on the face speak of the accuracy needed to record very-high-speed events to a high degree of accuracy.
The Speedmaster isn’t linked to sports though. This is the astronaut’s watch.
The line was introduced in 1957 and has everything you could wish for in a super-accurate timing device.
Astronaut Wally Schirra donned his Omega for a space mission in 1962. Subsequently, the company was one of several who submitted watches for testing by NASA.
They won, and the Omega Speedmaster became the NASA watch, and the Speedmaster reference 105.012 and 145.012 made it to the Moon.
Speedmasters are now forever “moon watches” and they remain the brand’s flagship model and the favourite of collectors.
4 - Vacheron Constantin
You won’t find a better pedigree than Vacheron Constantin.
The company boasts an uninterrupted history going back to 1755, making them possibly the world’s oldest continuously operating watch makers.
Their foundation links them to key rational philosophers of the Enlightenment. Their obsession with measuring the natural world is the foundation of modern scientific method, and time was a key variable.
Starting life as just Vacheron they made the first horological complication.
Francois Constantin, founding partner.
Constantin joined the operation in 1819 to help deal with burgeoning international demand for what were already recognised as stand-out time pieces.
They’ve kept that record too. 1992’s Calibre 1755 is the world’s thinnest repeater. In 2015, reference 57620 was released as the world’s most complicated pocket watch.
Taste is personal, of course, but for looks it’s hard to imagine anything more elegant than a current Vacheron Constantin Patrimony.
The company’s lines all look superlative.
They’re not cheap.
A new Vacheron Constantin Patrimony 85 is £30,000.
A bargain, compared to the $5 million (more recently valued at $11 million) charged for the 1979 Vacheron Constantin Kallista. The wristwatch took more than 2 years to put together.
Secondary sales won’t save you much: you should think of the 5-figure bracket as entry level.
The most valuable Vacheron Constantin wristwatch at auction was one of the seven Tour de I'lle watches released for the company’s 250th anniversary. It raised $1.5 million in April 2005 at Antiquorum's sale in Geneva.
A Patrimony. Image by Charles J. Sharp.
It’s relatively new – released in 2004 – and extremely uncomplicated, but the Patrimony must be one of the most elegant wristwatches ever made.
The design is simple, and many of the finest examples of the line won’t even tell you the date. Its thin case and leather strap are key to its appeal.
Naturally, a huge array of special designs is available to tempt new buyers and then to tantalise collectors.
3 - Audemars Piguet
Audemars Piguet are synonymous with just one model: the Royal Oak, a 1972 watch dubbed the first luxury sports watch.
That’s no reflection on the quality of the rest of their production. It’s all worthy to hold its head high in the company it keeps on this list.
But the Royal Oak was something special. The timing of its release, during the so-called Quartz Crisis of the early 1970s when a vibrating crystal threatened the entire mechanical watch industry, added spice to its attraction.
AP, as they call themselves, were founded in 1875 in Le Brassus, Switzerland.
Picturesque Le Brassus, home of AP.
Like every company here they have forged new ground in watch making. Among their achievements are making the minute-repeater movement that Omega used in the first such watch.
But it was the 1972 release of the Royal Oak that took them into the top echelon of luxury watch makers.
The Code 11.59 collection merges round and straight lines. It often features skeletal cases that show off the mechanisms inside.
It’s rare to find a used 11.59 for much under £20,000.
The Offshore is the company’s more robust and sportier take on the Royal Oak. It’s in a similar price bracket in the secondary market.
The Royal Oak
The chief visual features of the Royal Oak hit you very quickly: the mix of hexagonal bezel and circular dial, the exposed screw heads and the integrated metal bracelet can’t be missed.
On its release it was extremely thin for a sports model, with a 7mm-thick case that had hitherto been the stuff of dress watches.
It works as well as any sports model though, with a Caliber 2121 movement that’s extremely accurate and delivers shock resistance so you can throw it around a bit if you like.
To the initial model have been added various complications and a couple of notable new references: the 15400:ST and the 15500:ST.
The Offshore and Concept lines offer new depth to the collection.
Sought-after Royal Oak models can easily make £100,000 on the secondary market. There have been 500 editions since its launch, so there’s plenty of scope to collect just this single watch.
2 – Rolex
Should Rolex ever not be in 1st place?
It hardly matters; the company is to luxury watches what Rolls-Royce is to cars and Marshall is for high-volume guitar noise.
Rolex is undoubtedly the collector’s brand. Its fame – unlike many of the names on this list – goes beyond the watch collector and expert.
Rolex is a name recognised everywhere.
Everyone knows Rolex.
They’re now Swiss based, but were founded in London, quitting the city and their original name (Wilsdorf and Davis) after World War I.
The Oyster case is probably Rolex’s most notable technical innovation, though its claims to uniqueness are contested. It’s the basis for many of the company’s watches and their claims to water resistance to great depths.
There are 3 families – and hundreds of variants - of Rolexes: the Oyster Perpetual (the standard watch), the Professional family (which takes in diving watches, driver’s watches and so on), and dress watches under the Cellini tag.
Collectors love professionals and Oysters.
In fact, collectors love Rolexes full stop. (So, famously do thieves and counterfeiters.)
The company’s catalogue is a non-stop parade of watchmaking classics.
It’s hard to know where to start: the Daytona? The President? The Sea Dweller? The GMT Master?
Prices for new watches start at around £4,000 - £5,000.
The secondary market is a huge, ever-evolving and complex affair, as subject to fluctuations, trends, bubbles and booms as any stock market.
Today, I can find a very nice used Oyster Perpetual with its original box and papers (key) for just shy of £5,000. Next week, next month, next year… who knows?
These watches are beautiful. They are masterfully built. And they work supremely well. One of the reasons for Rolex’s enduring success is that their specialist watches so often fulfil their specialisms so much better than anyone else’s.
The Rolex Daytona
The Daytona is a race car watch. It’s also a film-star watch, both through its indelible association with Paul Newman, actor and driver, and its status and value.
The Daytona has produced three series, all of them designed to split time into tiny increments for highly accurate timing at high speeds.
All are uniquely serial numbered.
The series became the Daytona in 1962, when Rolex was made official timekeeper at the US raceway of that name.
From the off, they were produced in small numbers, and an array of variants.
The first true Daytonas are reference 6263.
The second series was introduced in 1988 as reference 16520.
A third series, reference 116520, was introduced in 2000.
All are collectible.
The most collectible are probably Paul Newman Daytonas, which have very slightly different dials on the watch face.
The most valuable Daytona is Paul Newman's own Cosmograph Daytona, which realised $17.8 million at auction in 2017. Newman, whose reputation for niceness is up there with his renown as an actor, apparently handed the watch to his daughter’s boyfriend when he saw the young man lacked a time piece of his own.
You don’t need $17 million to own a Daytona, but you are entering a competitive and rarefied collecting world if you decide to track them down. A 2014 model with papers but no box can be found today for just short of £15,000.
1 – Patek Philippe
The top 2 makers in this list could easily be switched. (In fact, all of the makers here are worthy of top spot in some way).
If the name at number 2 is the one that the man in the street will reel out as the best of the best, Patek Philippe is probably the one most aficionados will turn to first.
Patek Philippe are legendary.
The company was founded in 1839 by Antoni Patek and Adrien Philippe.
The company remains independent. But it’s a big concern, with a 400-store retail empire and a huge presence in the luxury world.
Patek Philippe stores are as luxurious as you'd expect.
It’s the records that stand out the most though.
The top 10 of the most valuable watches sold at auction to July 2023 featured nine Patek Philippes. Queen Victoria was an early customer.
Among their countless innovations are the first Swiss wristwatch and over 100 patented discoveries.
The company currently produces eight ranges of wristwatch. In 2018 they were reportedly producing a total of just 62,000 pieces a year. Demand far outstrips that supply.
The Grand Complications range is a showcase of the company’s hymned expertise in mastering complications. The self-winding Nautilus sports watches are hugely appealing.
“You never actually own a Patek Philippe” the company boasts in its advertising.
And it’s true that these watches are built to last and thrive on the secondary market like no other.
New watches, if you can find them, start at around £20,000.
Pre-owned is several different kettles of fish that range up to the millions, and will almost certainly start above that £20,000 entry level.
The Key Watch:
Although the Complications and Grand Complications are wonderful lines, the Nautilus is a current favourite with collectors.
It was launched in 1976 and is seen as a vindication of AP’s Royal Oak – a usable, sports/professional watch that could command a luxury price and be worn anywhere.
Patek Philippe’s early ads boasted that they made the timepiece not out of precious metal but of steel.
Gérald Genta designed both the Royal Oak and the first Nautilus, now nicknamed the Jumbo, for reasons that are apparent when you first encounter one.
The range has grown and grown since 1976, and branched off to the Aquanaut line too.
The Nautilus 5711/1A is a standout of modern times, but you’ll find acres of coverage dedicated to picking out favourites.
A Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5711/1A-018 sold for $6.5 million dollars in 2021. Less stellar prices can be found, but you should think about paying 10s of thousands on the secondary market.
A fascinating pursuit. Maybe a profitable one.
The luxury watch market is one of the most exciting areas of the current collectibles scene.
It's attracting younger buyers. And there seems no end to its growth.
Paul Fraser Collectibles can help you start your collection. Or perhaps help you realise the best price for a watch you've owned for years. We use our decades of expertise in collectibles and our unbeatable connections to find what you need.
Contact us now on firstname.lastname@example.org or call +44 (0)1534 639 998 and let's talk.