Thursday 8 December 2016 12:14 pm

Gotta catch ‘em all: how extreme collectors hunt down the world's rarest watches

In a thankfully deserted café near the river in Battersea, my acquaintance extracts an unassuming plastic shopping bag from a rucksack.

From inside it, he unfurls 12 wristwatches, laying each one gently on the table; were the sole waitress present paying us any attention, she might think it a rather suspicious scene – even more so bearing in mind that the total value of the watches, all of them made by Patek Philippe, could probably fund her salary for the next 30 years or more.

However, there’s no shady deal going on: I’d asked my acquaintance, a retired industrialist called Simon (not his real name), for a peek at his watch collection and he obliged in a venue that, in a perverse way – and to his amusement, I suspect – complements the relative understatement of the watches themselves.

Each one means something different, because of when it came to me. The collection is a map of my life

There’s a tiny minute repeater, a couple of perpetual calendars, special anniversary pieces reserved for valued Patek collectors; exceptionally rare, exclusive pieces all. But from a few paces they hardly draw attention: aesthetic restraint, exquisitely realised, has long been a Patek calling card.

Nevertheless, this is tip of the iceberg stuff: Simon has been collecting Patek watches – and only Patek – throughout his adult life, buying one each year. “Each one means something different, because of when it came to me,” he says. “I was introduced to the brand as a boy, and I’ve stuck with them. I don’t see it as investment particularly, but it’s certainly my passion. The collection is a map of my life.”

As with any form of collecting, whether it’s antiques, classic cars, stamps or football cards, watch collecting is, at a basic level, an intensely nerdy activity, and one that attracts instinctive completists and detail obsessives.

As such, it comes with its own interest groups, strategic approaches and philosophies, as multifarious and esoteric as the watches themselves – and that especially applies at the top of the collector food chain, where those with the means sink fortunes into feeding their obsession.

“Some collect because their entire motivation is the mechanical development of watchmaking, some because they admire the history, and others because they have a passion for a particular brand or a particular genre of watch or complication,” says Charlie Pragnell, managing director of Stratford-upon-Avon jeweller George Pragnell, one of Britain’s most exclusive dealers in fine watches.

Some groups even have names: collectors of the historic Italian brand Panerai call themselves the ‘Paneristi’; Hublot rather amusingly refers to its own specialist collectors as ‘Hublotista’. “There are a few collectors in the world whose ambition it is to own every kind of watch by a major watch house that’s ever been made,” says Pragnell. “If they haven’t got it, they’ll hunt and hunt until they find it.”

Such extreme collecting had something of an apex moment last month when a Patek Philippe wristwatch, a steel-cased perpetual calendar chronograph made in 1943, hammered for £8.6m at Phillips auctioneers in Geneva, smashing the record for the most expensive wristwatch ever sold at auction.

Collectors show off their goods at Salon QP

Due to their rarity, steel vintage Pateks tend to outsell their precious metal brethren considerably; and this was a steel version of a watch seen as the ne plus ultra of vintage watches, the Reference 1518 – an elegant classic that set the template for subsequent complicated Pateks.

“Only four steel versions were made, and the others are in private collections, so this was the absolute holy grail,” says Paul Maudsley, the Phillips man who took the winning bid. “You could look at the price and think this is people splashing cash around for the sake of it, but it’s the opposite. The buyer feels it’s a privilege to have something that’s a part of history, and he’ll enjoy it in his collection for years to come.”

Of course, in the world of high-end watches, the cash splashers are never far away. Over the past decade, the explosion of wealth in emerging economies, particularly in South East Asia and Russia, transformed the watch market, bringing an avalanche of powerful new buyers to the fore, and the Swiss watch industry adapted swiftly to take advantage. Prices rose steeply, and top-end brands have competed to create watches that were ever more complex, more innovative and more exclusive to service the demand for the extraordinary and unique.

The buyer feels it’s a privilege to have something that’s a part of history, and he’ll enjoy it in his collection for years to come

And London is, right now, the place to pick these up. While the watch industry (and the luxury industry as a whole) has been going through a serious crisis – not least thanks to the fall in demand in those new markets (the profound impact on Swiss balance sheets of China’s crackdown on bribery gives some idea of how expensive watches were being used) – the pound’s post-Brexit devaluation has made London the global capital of watch sales, for now at least.

“We’ve had our best three months since we opened in 2009,” says Dino d’Auria, owner of Frost London, a Bond Street jeweller that specialises in niche watch brands at the highest price points, with a clientele that includes Middle Eastern royalty, oil barons and the family of the Sultan of Brunei. “The retail price here is the lowest comparatively its ever been, and our clients know that, right now, their money is worth 20 per cent more here.”

The digital revolution has wrought another profound change on the way such sales are now being carried out. D’Auria communicates with clients around the world via WhatsApp – “I wouldn’t have a business without it,” he says – meaning the personal service top-end collectors expect is never more than a click away. And that’s a change being felt throughout the collector market.

“Social media is huge among watch collectors, and Instagram is particularly influential – watches just look really good on it,” says Paul Maudsley, who reports that Phillips’ Geneva sale had the auction house’s second highest number of online bidders, behind only a major sale of contemporary art. “It’s making the market much more diverse, with a very young clientele coming on board who are extremely well informed.”

In fact, an entire lifestyle of events and meet-ups, driven by social media, has sprung up around an activity that used to be conducted behind closed doors. The Red Bar Crew, a group of New York watch collectors who were Instagram early-adopters, now has chapters in cities around America and Europe, including London, who gather to talk watches and compare their latest acquisitions.

Hodinkee, the influential American website, last year hosted a gathering of global collectors each paying over $3,000 to attend a weekend of talks and forum discussions in New York; last month, London’s annual fine watch exhibition SalonQP, drew over 6,500 visitors.

Nevertheless, for the most exclusive brands and their retailers, it’s still the long-term connections with collectors like Simon that count, particularly when demand far outstrips supply, as it must to maintain the aura of exclusivity.

The most in-demand watch in the world right now is the new version of Rolex’s steel chronograph, the Cosmograph Daytona – a watch Rolex produces in famously small volumes, and for which waiting lists stretch to over two years.

Patek Philippe’s two new limited edition Nautilus models, marking the 40th anniversary of the brand’s modernist sports-luxe classic, are being produced in runs of only 1,300 watches (a steel chronograph) and 700 (a platinum time-only); but don’t expect to see them sitting in any shop windows.

“When a very hot new watch comes out, we have difficult choices to make, because the allocations are very slim,” says Charlie Pragnell. “The eventual owners tend to be those people who’ve got a history of collecting and a consistent relationship with us.”

For the committed collector, access to such pieces is an indication of just how high up the food chain they sit. Here are four watches for the super-collector…

The modern classic

A Lange & Sohne Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon, £295,000
The German haus’s masterpiece chronograph is made even more exclusive with perpetual calendar and tourbillon grand complications, and a truly sensational movement.

The right to brag

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, £9,100
Waiting lists are reportedly already running to two years or more for the brand new, ceramic bezel version of Rolex’s maddeningly rare steel chronograph. If you’ve got it, wear it with pride.

The niche consideration

Fabergé Visionnaire DTZ, £24,100
The jewellery house employed one of Switzerland’s most celebrated haute horlogerie studios to create this watch, which projects a second time zone through a magnified aperture in the centre of the dial.

The global citizen

Patek Philippe 5230 world timer, £34,570
Attention has all been on ever-collectible Patek’s anniversary Nautilus collection, but it has also taken its famous world timer to new levels of refinement and beauty in its latest version.