It is possibly the most frequently asked question in horology circles – and the reason most collectors wish scientists would stop messing about trying to fix climate change and concentrate on building time machines: How do you spot future collectible watches?
There’s no doubt choosing to buy the right watch at the right time (usually decades ago) would have made us a very large sum of money today. There was a period, for instance, when you could have walked into a Rolex dealer and bought a stainless steel watch right off the shelf (imagine that!) Even more incredibly, that watch could have been a Rolex Daytona. And, if you really wanted to make the dealer a friend for life, you could have opted for one of those weird-looking ‘exotic dial’ models which were never likely to catch on.
Back in the 60s, no one would have believed the prices that vintage Daytonas trade at these days. Come to think of it, it is fairly hard to believe now. But a watch that was more-or-less being given away when it was first released can go for the high five figures and beyond today. The Paul Newmans? Add a zero on the end. It is every serious collector’s dream to find him or herself with a similarly performing model in their portfolio. The question is, how do you spot them early?
Do you know how to spot future collectible watches?
The Beauty of Hindsight
First up, as watch lovers, here at Bob’s we would never advocate you buy any piece just because you have a hunch it might work well as an investment. Luxury timepieces are to be enjoyed for their heritage, their aesthetics, and for their engineering prowess, rather than any sort of financial consideration. Found a watch you love? One that appeals to your unique tastes and falls within your budget? Buy it – and let the cards fall where they may as far as monetary returns.
That being said, it never hurts to know a little about the factors that tend to increase the chance of that particular specimen rising in price over the years. So below, we’ve listed a few things to look out for. However, as far as stone-clad certainties go, this is about as inexact a science as you can get. A watch fulfilling all these criteria might never become highly sought after for one reason or another – it’s what makes the practice so fascinating.
Like the Rolex Milgauss, many of today’s most collectible watches originally experienced poor sales upon their initial release.
It seems only logical that for a watch, or anything else, to become collectible, it must be relatively difficult to get hold of. If you can just wander into a store and buy one brand new, it takes away one of the main things hardcore horology fans crave the most: the thrill of the chase.
The rarer the model, the more challenging it is to find; therefore, as supply and demand dictates, the more valuable. If you are looking to hedge your bets on a future collectible, perhaps the best time to buy a watch is just as it goes out of production. It leaves enough in circulation to keep the buy-in price reasonable, but choose the right one, and there’s a strong chance that (at worst) you won’t lose money on it. At best, you could see its stock rise as supplies on the pre-owned market dwindle over time.
A current example is the Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 116710BLNR, better known as the Batman, which was just recently discontinued by Rolex, and replaced by the ref. 126710BLNR, which swaps the Oyster bracelet for the dressier Jubilee. This one watch meets several of the yardsticks by which we could measure a true blue collectible, but the fact is that it has been recently retired (along with all other stainless steel GMT-Master watches on Oyster bracelets) is near the top.
Not all collectable watches are vintage references. The recently discontinued “Batman” GMT-Master II is highly sought-after by collectors.
This, of course, brings us back to our great example of the Daytona during the 60s and 70s. Arriving at the dawn of the quartz era, its superb but manually-wound mechanical movement condemned it to sit gathering dust in dealers’ showrooms. The lack of demand obviously led to a reduced production, causing an inherent rarity that explains at least some of the fanatical devotion to it today.
There are a number of such examples sprinkled throughout the archives, although the Daytona is about the most extreme. Otherwise great watches that tanked at the box office upon their release – either by being overpriced, not meeting the market’s tastes, or about a dozen other reasons – now find themselves heavily prized and thin on the ground. Of course, some watches didn’t sell because they were just bad watches, so it takes a keen eye and a dose of luck to identify the ones destined for greatness.
When it was first released, the ref. 6541 Milgauss drew criticism for its appearance. Today, it ranks among some of the most sought-after and collectible watches in the world.
Giving a timeless classic a little twist can lead to it going on to become a highly desirable watch. The Rolex Submariner is one of the most immediately identifiable pieces ever made, so when it was fitted with an unorthodox green bezel on its 50th birthday (and lumbered with the nickname the Kermit) it already had one mark in its favor. Being withdrawn just seven years later to make way for the all-green Hulk only added to its collectability. Today, it is one of the most sought out examples of the modern-day Rolex Subs.
Other times, it might be a transitional model – a bridge between two generations of the same piece that introduces new aspects to the range, while still retaining plenty of elements from the previous iteration.
Similarly, the final appearance of a beloved feature often marks out a future winner. The Sea-Dweller ref. 116600, which was only around for three short years, was the last of the series issued without a Cyclops lens over its date window. For many fans, this was one of the main reasons to opt for the Sea-Dweller over the Submariner, and that short-lived reference is now being held in increasing affection, with prices rising to reflect that.
Sometimes the distinguishing feature can be unintentional. A faded bezel, a cracked spider dial, an imperfection in dial text printing – all add to the prestige and give the watch that vital characteristic: exclusivity.
Along with a short period of production, the uncharacteristic green bezel helps set the “Kermit” Submariner apart and increases its overall desirability and collectability.
In many ways, all roads lead to this. Fans quickly tire of wearing the same watch everyone else has, and so finding something that sets them apart becomes the overriding goal.
Everybody wants the unique piece, the one that no one else can get hold of, the model that separates them from the herd. The most collectible watches are the rarest, and they become rare precisely because they fall into one or all of the above categories. They might have been produced more or less as prototypes, in extremely low quantities, as a testbed for a new innovation. They may have been so badly received at their launch that no one bought them and they had to wait for their moment in the spotlight, sometimes decades later.
As it was not a standard configuration available in the regular Rolex catalog, the “Blueberry” GMT-Master is now one of the most desirable and collectible watches out there.
Or it could be a special edition of a well-known name, although it does actually have to be special. Omega is apparently sticking to their ‘one limited edition per week’ policy for the Speedmaster, with “limited” sometimes meaning several thousand units. As such, very few of the more modern ones go on to become collectible. However, there are exceptions.
The 2015 Snoopy Speedy we covered on Bob’s blog recently, the one made to commemorate the success/failure of the Apollo 13 mission and Omega receiving NASA’s most prestigious award, is currently performing extremely well. With 1,970 pieces being made, it does indeed stretch the term ‘limited’ a little, but there’s no arguing with the market. Originally retailing at around $6,000 four years ago, you’ll be lucky to find one for less than $20,000 today. That, of course, falls into our ‘Distinguishing Features’ set as well, not just for the cartoon beagle on the sub counter, but also for the fact it has a white dial, something that Omega pulls out of the hat only rarely.
While not all limited edition Omega Speedmasters end up appreciating, this Snoopy Speedmaster falls into the “collectible watches” camp and now sells for more than its original retail price on the pre-owned market (Image: Omega).
As we said above, spotting future star performers in the horology world is often as much about luck as judgment. If there was a way to do it with absolute certainty, I’d be a very wealthy man now (and I probably wouldn’t tell anyone if I’m being completely honest). But finding a watch from a top brand, one produced in low quantities and preferably not anymore, perhaps debuting new technology or with some other discerning feature, is as good a bet as you can make.
The most important point to remember is to buy watches you love. No piece is going to explode in value overnight, so you are going to have to keep hold of any model you buy for a few years at least. If you have a watch you enjoy, that is going to be a much more pleasurable experience.
Even when you know what you’re looking for, spotting future collectible watches requires a little bit of luck.