In Depth

Vintage watches: masterpieces of human genius

Some hugely impressive timepieces are up for auction.

Vacheron Constantin Minute Repeater with Retrograde Calendar
 

“It’s not like a vintage watch is better than a new one,” says Alex Williams in The New York Times. “In fact, it’s worse in almost every way.” The technology has often moved on, and new watches are, naturally, new and shiny. So, why the appeal of vintage watches? Well, they are cool. Those mid-century Rolex Submariners, made famous by Sean Connery’s James Bond, have rocketed in value, notes Williams. “They have patina, provenance, soul. And for a generation of men… who value the analogue-chic of antique mechanical watches… that is key.”

Collectors want watches that are unique, unusual, and with a provenance that is well documented, says Stephen Pulvirent on Hodinkee. Put those qualities all together in a single watch and “it’s a perfect storm”. Just such a watch is heading for auction next week as part of Phillips’ Geneva Watch Auction: Nine on 11 May. It’s the Vacheron Constantin Minute Repeater with Retrograde Calendar – one of the most sought-after watches ever made.

Vacheron Constantin Minute Repeater with Retrograde Calendar

The story of the watch begins in December 1935 when Swiss watchmaker Vacheron Constantin received a commission through Madrid retailer Brooking. It needed to have a gold tonneau case, a crown at 12, a minute repeater with the lowest possible notes, a repeater trigger on the right side of the case, a retrograde date and day indicator, with the buyer’s initials in blue enamel on the caseback. The watch was delivered in January 1940 to Francisco Martinez Llano, a Spanish businessman known as “Don Pancho”.

It “was a technical feat and masterpiece of human genius”, says Phillips. “The combination of a minute repeater and calendar with retrograde date were never seen before in a wristwatch.”

When a black-and- white photograph of the Don Pancho appeared in a 1992 book, L’Univers de Vacheron Constantin Geneve, collectors couldn’t believe it, says Pulvirent. Repeating wrist-watches from that era were rare, but add in all the attributes as stated in the original order, and the Don Pancho was unique. It was their “white whale”.

Vacheron Constantin Minute Repeater with Retrograde Calendar

Many assumed it was lost. And it had been. After the businessman’s death in 1947, the watch had lain in a vault for more than 60 years before being rediscovered by his family. It was sent back to Vacheron Constantin to be restored, using the original components where possible, with instructions not to polish the case. (The polishing of vintage watches is actually considered a bad thing by collectors.) So, die-hard fans have had a good while to wait before they have had a chance to get their hands on it. That wait is now over. The Don Pancho is expected to fetch up to CHF800,000 (£600,000).

Last week, Sotheby’s in London also unveiled the watch collection that will comprise its Masterworks of Time sale from July to November. The collection is expected to sell for up to £20m, with the first part of the sale led by George Daniels’ Space Traveller I.

George Daniels Space Traveller I

Sotheby's Middle Eastern Art Week Preview

2019 Getty Images

Watches for tours to Mars

The timing of the Sotheby’s sale is no accident. This July will mark 50 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing, when astronaut Neil Armstrong hopped across the lunar surface. Inspired by that event, legendary British watchmaker George Daniels created the Space Traveller I (above) in 1982. It was, he said, “the kind of watch you would need on your package tour to Mars”.

Daniels regretted selling the watch to a collector, so he made another – the Space Traveller II. The original has been given an estimate of £700,000-£1m by Omega Speedmaster MoonwatchSotheby’s. But that may well turn out to be conservative, given that the Space Traveller II sold for £3.2m in 2017.

OMEGA_Presskit_Speedmaster_110319_2.indd

Luxury watch brand Omega is also celebrating its golden anniversary with the release in July of 1,014 gold Speedmaster Moonwatches. The 18-carat watches with burgundy bezels have been inspired not by the Omega Speedmaster that Armstrong was wearing that day, but by the Speedmasters given to the astronauts for the completion of their mission, says Carol Besler on Forbes.com.

The originals also featured a burgundy bezel and the caseback was inscribed with the name of the president, Richard Nixon, and the line: “to mark man’s conquest of space with time, through time, on time”. Omega made 1,014 of these, which it gave to astronauts, politicians and members of the public. The watches will cost £25,600. See omegawatches.com

A version of this article was originally published in MoneyWeek

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