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Photo Credit: Sotheby's Geneva

Smart watches may be poised to claim a greater share of wrist, but you wouldn’t know it from the surging demand and prices for vintage watches.

Last year, Christie’s sold 42 watches for more than $1 million, set dozens of new auction records, and sold 91 percent of all lots offered at auction.

Prices for vintage timepieces are shattering records. The Henry Graves Supercomplication pocket watch by Patek Philippe sold for $24.4 million at last year’s Sotheby’s Important Watches sale, setting a new global record.

This year is looking good, too. At a recent Geneva auction, a rare Rolex “Oyster Albino” Cosmograph Daytona that once belonged to Eric Clapton sold for $1.4 million, setting a new high for Rolex watches. 

“Interest in wristwatches is stronger than we’ve ever seen in our nearly 30-year history,” said Greg Simonian, president of Westime, the Southern California fine watch retailer.

Technology Feeding the Boom?

Ironically, the Apple Watch may be feeding some of the renewed interest, Simonian said. “Now people who never considered wearing a watch before are starting to think about purchasing a device for their wrist. So the technology industry is helping bring attention to the wrist and traditional watches.”

More people around the globe are becoming fascinated with haute horology, or the art of fine watchmaking, says Saori Omura, director of Antiquorum New York, an international auctioneer of vintage and modern timepieces. “As emerging markets continue to show growth, there is more demand for high-end timepieces globally.”

Vintage Values

Pre-owned men’s watches account for the bulk of the estimated $40 billion to $50 billion global watch market, which includes about $10 billion in new watch sales, according to Joe Nelson, executive director of the International Watch and Jewelry Guild. 

Watches that are more than 40 years old have proven price stability, said Jon Goldfarb, owner of Second Time Around Watch Co. in Beverly Hills.

“Even when the economy goes bad, vintage watches tend to do OK,” said Goldfarb. He’s seeing demand at the high end soaring ever higher, particularly at the $30,000 to $100,000 price range.

Collectible watches, overwhelmingly men’s, include brands such as Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Rolex, Omega, Blancpain, Breguet, Franck Muller and IWC. Simonian of Westime said several models have become icons in the watch industry, including Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, Breitling’s Navitimer, Hublot’s Big Band and Omega’s Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch. Other experts include the Patek Philippe Calatrava, the Rolex Submariner and the IWC Schaffhausen Portuguese.

“There are certain models that tend to retain their value over others, but for the most part, classic pieces tend to have stable market values,” said Omura. “Any experimental or highly sought-after pieces could be more volatile since the demand and supply tends to shift quickly compared to the classic pieces.”

Though prices for pre-owned and vintage watches have fluctuated, across the industry, the overall trend has been upward, said Nelson. Of course, a fine watch can become priceless -- as a sentimental heirloom passed to future generations.

Doing the Research

Information about fine watches is more accessible than ever. Emerging collectors can learn how to buy and sell watches and scan the latest auction results at Antiquorum.com. At Chrono24.com, buyers, sellers and browsers can compare prices on dozens of brands. 

“As collectors learn and experience various watches and brands, more often than not, they start to gravitate towards collecting pieces that are limited and not readily available,” said Omura. “For this reason, collectors are willing to go above and beyond when something so rare comes up for auction, because if they miss this chance, they might not see one in a long time.”