Million Dollar Watches – Why?

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Million dollar watches: Patek Philippe Reference 2523 World Timer straight up

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story Rich Boy begins. “They are different from you and me.” True! Fitzgerald goes on to say that rich people are “soft” and cynical. Also true! But to understand why someone would spend $7,819,051 on a Patek Philippe Ref. 2523 World Timer focus on the fact that the very rich are, by and large, fiercely competitive. Let’s leave million dollar watches for a moment and focus on the Amelia Island Concours D’Elegance vintage car competition . . .

1929 Duesenberg J-218 Town Limousine. 2020 Best in Show, Concours d'Elegance
1929 Duesenberg J-218 Town Limousine. 2020 Best in Show, Concours d’Elegance

For the wealthiest of wealthy car collectors, winning Best in Show at Amelia Island is the thing. It elevates the Champion to the top of their peer group – a small community of millionaires and billionaires who spend multiple millions restoring the most “important” vintage automobiles. They all know each other. They all compete to find suitably rare and exotic “donors” and hire the world’s best restorers to prepare them for competition.

While these owners are extremely educated car collectors with a genuine passion for vintage automobiles, it’s all about the competition.

If their car doesn’t win, the owner tries again with another car. And another. And another. The cars that don’t win are either wharehoused or sold, usually at a significant loss, given the price-no-object restoration work required. The question not-at-all-rich petrolheads always ask patrons of these immaculate automobiles: “do you drive it?” The owners always answer yes, but no, they don’t. Not much. Driving them is not the point.

Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 yellow gold perpetual calendar chronograph
Patek Philippe sold for $2,181,080

It’s the same deal with collectors hunting million dollar watches. It’s not about wearing one of only three Patek Philippe Ref. 2523 World Timers with an Eurasia cloisonné enamel dial, or a Ref. 2499 first series yellow gold perpetual calendar chronograph moonphase Italian calendar (above). It’s about owning it.

Before that, it’s about out-bidding other fabulously rich collectors who also want bragging rights. Doing so live, in real time. Mano a mano. And then letting certain people know you’ve scored the horological Holy Grail.

Million dollar watches - F.P. Journe Centigraphe Anniversaire

Well, a Holy Grail. Because the competition – especially winning – is addictive. And there’s always another rare and desirable watch coming down the proverbial pike. Which is why auction houses aren’t the only field of battle.

Rich collectors jockey for first dibs on watches at the source; doing whatever it takes – short of murder – to acquire limited edition watches from the “best of the best.” You can bet your last billion that Patek Philippe is besieged by buyers before their grandest pieces are even introduced. F.P. Journe – the only three-time winner of the Aiguille d’Or grand prize at the Fondation du Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève – also knows the score.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas - first good watch

I know: this same “gotta have it, next!” virus afflicts collectors at every level. (Don’t ask me how I know.) And bragging rights break out at every Redbar meeting. The real difference is, again, experiential. Most buyers of low, mid and high-end watches wear their watches, usually putting favorite pieces in rotation. Sure, they have watches they save for special events or just ’cause, but safe queens are the exception rather than the rule.

At the tippy top of the watch market, well, if a Brit was beaten to death for his $15k Rolex, imagine the risk of wearing a seven million dollar watch in public. While I would hope that some collectors breathing that rarified air wear their most precious pieces on occasion, I’m sure they have plenty of less expensive (but still hugely pricey) for daily duty. Again, it’s the getting and having in competition with others that drives the market for million dollar watches.

9 COMMENTS

  1. I’m not sure if it’s primarily about the competition. I would say it’s more about I (in the largest of capital letters) has one, whatever that “one” happens to be. If you also have one it’s OK as long as I feel that you and I share the same air and that “our” exclusivity is still meaningful. If I believe no one shares the same air as me, then yes, it’s only about the superiority, narcissism and competition.

    • The best part is that with art at least, they pay people to tell them what to like, so often they aren’t the ones bidding, but someone is on their behalf because that’s the trend. It’s hilarious from the sidelines tbh. But if I had FU money, there’s one or two items I wouldn’t let someone outbid me on for sure, so there is that simple aspect of maybe they just really wanted the item period.

  2. I imagine the type of person routiney bidding on 8-figure Pateks has a full security detail with them at all times and can wear said watches comfortably. They probably only want the bragging rights though.

    • You’d be surprised how many ultra wealthy people do not travel with security. And you’re right: it’s all about bragging. They usually take their guests into a back room to show of the piece.

    • You’d be surprised how “normal” billionaires look. Richest person I used to do business with was put together, but with jeans and just looked like a well dressed person. You wouldn’t know their wealth size at all unless you had insight.

  3. It is said that the billionaire businessmen are ruthless not out of need or greed but because it’s all a game and the money is how they keep score.
    I can’t help but think of the Bogart/Robinson exchange in “Key Largo.”

    Frank McCloud: He knows what he wants. Don’t you, Rocco?
    Johnny Rocco: Sure.
    James Temple: What’s that?
    Frank McCloud: Tell him, Rocco.
    Johnny Rocco: Well, I want uh …
    Frank McCloud: He wants more, don’t you, Rocco?
    Johnny Rocco: Yeah. That’s it. More. That’s right! I want more!
    James Temple: Will you ever get enough?
    Frank McCloud: Will you, Rocco?
    Johnny Rocco: Well, I never have. No, I guess I won’t…

  4. Soooo as someone who’s worked with and sold stuff to these types of people, I can tell you that they do actually wear them. Part of it is the competition, part of it is giving it to children of which they were mostly absentee and lastly it is for personal enjoyment. I’ve seen these people show up with the blue diamond or pink diamond on the finger (think 7mill+) or other expensive jewelry. It is worn, just not worn in public or on a daily basis.

  5. If you have 7 million dollar watches and are wearing them, you’re largely not “out in public”, in the sort of public peasantry that Robert is referring to.

    • Considering I’ve seen women with Blue diamonds on, you’d be very very wrong. The hoi polloi have no idea what $7mill in a wrist watch is.

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