Key Takeaways From the Geneva Auction Season

Reflections after being in the room.
Phillips GWA7 Aurel Bacs

While it was the usual quartet, Antiquorum, Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s, that held their watch auctions over three days last week, the spring Geneva auction season was likely the biggest to date.

Phillips alone claimed a tally that would have exceeded the entire market’s sales just a few years ago, selling SFr45m of watches over the weekend, with over SFr22m for Daytona Ultimatum alone.

While the numbers are big and exciting, several observations made during the auctions point to a more nuanced picture with some important takeaways.

It was notable that there seemed to be fewer dealers bidding at all the auctions than in past sales – typically most of the bids in the room at all the auction houses are from dealers – which might indicate two scenarios, which also appear to have been confirmed by anecdotal evidence in conversations with insiders.

One is that prices are high enough that dealers can no longer make a margin, or have no need to support prices to maintain the value of their inventory. The other is that dealers already have substantial inventory on hand, built up in anticipation of higher prices.

The air is thin at the top

For one, there’s often an explanation behind surprise results, something illustrated by the trio of record-setting prices for Omega watches at Phillips. An Omega Speedmaster ref. 2915-1 sold for SFr408,500, while the Alaska III prototype ref. ST 188.0002 went for SFr162,000. And then there was one of the big stars of the sale, with Elvis Presley’s Omega selling for SFr1.8m.

A few factors put those numbers into perspective. Both the Speedmaster and Alaska III were observed to have been won by the same collector bidding in the room. The gentleman is presumably a massive Omega fan.

And the price for the Elvis Omega starts to make sense if thought about another way, and not merely for a bit of public relations value.

Imagine if Omega were to launch a De Ville Master Co-Axial “Elvis Presley”, limited to 200 pieces and priced at SFr28,000. That’s SFr2.8m in revenue, with the bulk of the profit retained by Omega if it were to be sold only at boutiques.

Elvis Presley Omega Tiffany watch 3

De Ville here we come

The ultimatum 

Phillips’ Daytona auction was the best attended of the weekend, with a room packed to capacity, with almost as many people standing as sitting. Despite the huge total, the Daytona sale appears to have disappointed some industry insiders. Rolex expert Philipp Stahl, writing on his blog Rolex Passion Report, predicted a total in excess of SFr30m, compared to the SFr22m achieved.

The reality was, once again, more nuanced. A good number of lots outperformed, especially the contemporary, Zenith El Primero-powered Daytonas. All four of them comfortably crossed the SFr150,000 mark, with three closing in on SFr200,000. This probably means this category of Daytonas will continue its rise.

A handful of vintage Daytonas underperformed relative to estimates, perhaps because they are too exotic. The Daytona with Eastern Arabic hour numerals sold at the low estimate with little bidding action, as did the ref. 6240 “pre-Paul Newman”.

Rolex Daytona 6263 Arabic Indic numerals 3

The sale also illustrated more prosaic factors in determining prices. The importance of the ambience was pronounced during Daytona Ultimatum, which began at 4pm on a sunny day inside a tent set up on the lawn of the La Reserve hotel.

Filled to the brim, the physical temperature of the sale room rose swiftly, while most of the audience were dressed for cooler weather, creating a warm and somewhat somnolent atmosphere. It’s not hard to conceive bidding would have been more vigorous if the mercury had dropped a few degrees, as it did on the second day of the Phillips auction.

It’s all about the show

The Phillips auction is the most talked about, not only because of the watches and results but also because the event is a show, and auctioneer Aurel Bacs is showman. Much of it was extremely good theatre, with dramatic crests and lulls in the room as the action took place.

Just as crucial is the fact that Phillips is all about watches, while Sotheby’s and Christie’s have bigger business to do in other categories. Christie’s jewellery and gemstone auction a few days after its watch auction brought in over SFr81m, which is more than the watch sales of all the auction houses put together, despite it being a relative low total for a jewellery sale.

What goes up must come down

For all the big ticket lots, there are also segments of the market that seem to be leaking air ever so gently. Prices for vintage Heuer have come off significantly from their peak.

Phillips sold a Heuer Solunagraph ref. 2446SF for SFr21,250 over the weekend, while a year and a half ago the same model in comparable shape went for SFr50,000 at the Heuer thematic sale. The same can be said for vintage Panerai, which has been trending downwards for even longer.

The odd oddity

For every anticipated hit there are usually a handful of watches that sell for high enough prices that leaves everyone scratching their heads. Lot 189 at Phillips is a perfect example.

It’s a Patek Philippe ref. 3585, a “backwinder” with the crown on the case back, and the automatic cal. 350 inside that has an unusual peripheral rotor (that never worked very well).

This example was 18k yellow gold, cushion-shaped, fitted with a textured blue dial, and estimated at SFr4000 to SFr6000. In shape and style it is not considered fashionable.

After rapid and enthusiastic bidding, it sold for SFr37,500 with fees to a phone bidder. It was a result neither god nor Aurel Bacs could fathom.

Not only prices can surprise, but even unexpected bids that can change the tenor of the bidding. During the bidding for the steel Lange 1815 ‘Tribute to Walter Lange’, the frenzied bidding between parties and phones in the room was suddenly throw off course by a single bid of SFr665,000 from an anonymous internet bidding in Thailand. After a brief pause that appeared to provide renewed impetus to the bidders, and the watch hammered for SFr700,000, or SFr852,500 with fees.

Passing the baton

Another notable result was the “tropical” Rolex Daytona ref. 6239 at Sotheby’s, which soared to SFr951,000, fees included. That single watch was almost one-sixth of Sotheby’s entire auction total.

Ordinarily a SFr200,000 watch on a good day, it was helped by its sub-dials that had degraded to a pleasing caramel colour, as well as a strong backstory from the original owner, who consigned the watch to Sotheby’s.

Rolex Daytona 6239 tropical Sothebys

Bidding for the watch eventually boiled down to two anonymous clients on the phone, represented by Daryn Schnipper and Sam Hines respectively.

Based in London and having been at Sotheby’s almost 38 years, Ms Schnipper is now Chairman, International Watch Division, and one of the handful of senior auctioneers in the industry who is a peer of Antiquorum founder Osvaldo Patrizzi.

Against her was Mr Hines, who hails from London but is now based in Hong Kong as Sotheby’s Worldwide Head of Watches. Though he has been in the watch business some 20 years, Mr Hines is still under 40 years old with a strong roster of Asian clients.

Ms Schnipper won the battle for the tropical Daytona, but it would appear that the future lies with young collectors in Asia.


 

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Watch 101: The Beginner’s Guide to Water-Resistance and Wristwatches

From basic principles to the gaskets and tubes.
Tudor Black Bay Steel water testing

Waterproof – the one word in the horological lexicon that can cause more confusion than any others.

When and how a watch should be used in water is a matter of great debate but one inarguable fact remains: some watches are more water-resistant than others (and that’s technically different from “waterproof”; more on that later).

Diver’s watches are capable of withstanding depths of up to 200m and beyond, and  in rare cases (no pun intended) even multiple kilometres below the surface. Whilst such the capabilities of such dive watches are rarely questioned, it’s often that the water-resistance of other watches are.

With so much confusion as to the real-world meaning of the numbers stamped on the dial or case back, where does the truth lie? As Alexander Pope put it, “A little learning is a dangerous thing”; and the answer goes deeper than just depth ratings.

When considering whether or not to take the plunge, the numbers on the dial are actually the least of your concerns. Many other factors, often rarely discussed or understood, determine the water-resistance.

The battle of the labels

The most fundamental issue is what to label the ability to withstand water. Some insist that a watch claiming to be “waterproof” is the only type that can be taken into water, whereas a watch labeled “water-resistant” is merely splashproof.

Strictly speaking there is no watch that is technically “waterproof” today, as government and international regulations only allow watches to be designated “water-resistant”. The rationale behind that is logical, since a watch can never truly claim it is waterproof, as that would imply it is entirely impervious to water..

The global body that sets international standards, International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), lays out the criteria for “water-resistant watches” in ISO 22810:2010 (and divers’ watches have a separate standard ISO 6425:1996).

One crucial reason behind the use of “water-resistance” was the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) decision to ban “waterproof”, which was regarded as misleading. That came about in the 1960s, after a series of lawsuits against watch manufacturers, including Federal Trade Commission v. Waltham Watch Company of 1959. As the FTC put it in 1999: “The word ‘’proof’ connotes a measure of absolute protection that unfortunately does not exist with respect to watches, especially over prolonged periods of time.”

Tudor Pelagos water resistance testing

Testing the case seal at Tudor

Factors that keep water out

Three elements determine the water-resistance of a watch, name the construction of the case, the fit of the crystal, and the integrity of the gaskets. All three determine the water-resistance of a watch when it has been put together at the factory – but it’s crucial to remember that can decline over time with wear and tear.

Watches are tested for water-resistance when they are made, and not when they are sold at the store, which can be months or years after they leave the factory. A watch is generally first serviced after five years of ownership, at which point the watch could be several years older.

A watch with a water-resistance rating of 30m or 50m will have less substantial gaskets, a thinner crystal, and slighter case construction than a diver’s watch rated to 200m.

rolex Oyster Datejust case

The Oyster case of a Rolex Datejust

That doesn’t mean a watch rated to 50m is not suitable for swimming. Such a watch should not be taken scuba diving or to extreme depths, but leisure swimming, and even snorkelling, are not detriment to the watch as long as it has been properly maintained.

The stories of hapless individuals washing their hands and flooding their wristwatch can be true, but the reason is not the depth rating itself, but the quality and build of the watch.

Quality and provenance

A watch brand’s standards and history relative to water-resistance technology matters tremendously. Rolex is a case in point, illustrating the fact that not all watches are created equal even when they have the same water-resistance rating.

Rolex Oyster watches, even less sporty models like the Datejust, are rated to at least 100m but actually tested beyond that. The “Oyster” name means a screw-down winding crown known as Twinlock, indicated with two small dots or a dash underneath the Rolex coronet on the crown (Rolex dive watches have a sturdier Triplock crown with three dots).

A Twinlock crown keeps water out via a gasket situated at the end of the inside of the crown, which presses up against the case tube when screwed down. The movement is further protected by a second gasket in the tube itself, which presses against against the winding stem, hence the “Twinlock” name.

Rolex Twinlock crown patent US5383166

United States patent US5383166 for the Rolex crown and tube

Twinlock indicates that Rolex goes over and above to ensure water-resistance over time, for even if one gasket fails, the second comes into play. Often it is watchmakers with an established history in building diver’s watches that excel in water-resistance. Grand Seiko, for instance, uses twin gaskets on the crown tube of the watch case.

Rolex Triplock crown on stem

The Rolex Triplock crown

Most watch brands rely on cases with a single crown gasket, instead of the belt-and-braces approach, which still ensures the same degree of water-resistance, but not the same backup in case of failure.

A notable alternative solution is Panerai’s unique crown locking mechanism that uses a lever to press the crown against the tube. That ensures that the crown stays exactly where it should, sealing the gasket when the watch is submerged. In that way it actually serves the same purpose as a screw-down crown.

It’s a hard life

Beyond the intrinsic qualities of a watch itself, the life it has led also matters. Events like how many times the battery has been changed? Who changed the battery? Perhaps the local shoe repairer wasn’t as qualified as he may have lead you to believe.

Gaskets can be put back incorrectly, or even damaged by the tips of a tweezer during a simple battery change, thus rendering the water-resistance rating useless. Even if the repairer says he tested its water-resistance, he might not be telling the whole truth, depending on how qualified he is, and the equipment he has.

Inept servicing aside, time takes its toll. Over time rubber gaskets that are tubular in profile can flatten, or become brittle and crack. Gaskets are also susceptible to wear from friction, for instance those in a chronograph pusher.

Even more serious issues can develop, though they are less common. Crystals can crack in places that cannot be seen, while watch cases can deform from impact, like being dropped, that will allow leaks as the gaskets no longer sit properly.

User error

When watches are used incorrectly, water can make its way into the case. More often than not, the watch will take the blame, instead of the owner.

There are multiple ways that can happen, but the end result will almost always be the same. One of the most common is leaving the crown unscrewed, or pulled out in the winding or setting position, which means the gaskets are not sealed.

Another is missing out on regular servicing. That’s especially true if you swim with your watch. Regular water-resistance testing on a yearly basis, though not necessarily a servicing, can prevent such problems. That’s especially imperative if the watch undergoes a trauma, like being dropped, which means an inspection is recommended before resuming use in water.

Tudor Pelagos helium escape valve

The automatic helium escape valve, a feature on watches suitable for saturation diving, which makes user error impossible

The hot shower myth

That a watch rated to 30m is only fit for the shower is unfounded, as is the idea that movement when in water adds great enough pressure that a watch case can leak – it doesn’t.

At the same time, the myth that a hot shower can damage a watch is also untrue. The average temperature of a shower is 40°C and the rubber gaskets in a watch can  safely handle such temperatures without distorting.

Rubber watch gaskets are generally made from nitrile rubber or silicone, with nitrile rubber remaining stable up to around 100°C and silicone far exceeding that, so there is definitely some leeway even if you like your showers on the warm side.

The same is true of crystal gaskets, which usually made from compounds such as nylon or polytetrafluoroethylene, better known as Teflon. These too have incredibly high tolerances to temperature, with the melting point of nylon being over 200°C and Teflon 300°C.

Soaps and harsh cleaning chemicals can have a detrimental affect on watch gaskets but only in enormous quantities.

Chronographs and water

Most chronographs, like the Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch for instance, are fairly water-resistant, and would have no problem splashing around the shallows or even snorkelling – assuming proper maintenance. The Speedmaster has a screw-down case back, substantial crown gasket, Plexiglass secured by a well-designed tension ring, and two gaskets in each pusher.

The problem arises when operating the chronograph in the water. Chronograph pushers are particularly susceptible to letting water in if operated when immersed. The gaskets that create a seal in the pushers work well when static, but once activated the seal can become compromised and water can enter the case. 

Tudor Black Bay Chrono casing up

Casing the Tudor Black Bay Chrono, which has screw-down pushers.

There are, of course, a handful of companies that use water-resistant pushers. Breitling took an interesting path with the Avenger Sea-Wolf that uses magnetic contacts to operate the chronograph pushers, ensuring the seal is never compromised. But this solution only works for quartz chronographs.

Omega’s Seamaster and a handful of other mechanical chronographs can be operated underwater. Omega uses extra gaskets, tighter tolerances and a slight different pusher assembly from convention to achieve that.

One vital point to remember: chronographs with screw-down pushers, such as the Rolex Daytona, are not intended to be operated underwater. If there is any doubt as to whether a chronograph can be operated underwater, refer to the manufacturer’s instructions. And if that doesn’t clear things up, avoid it all together.

Conclusion

There are two main takeaways when it comes to water-resistance. Maintenance is of utmost importance, but second only to understanding and good habits.

Maintenance means testing a watch for water-resistance on a regular basis, and changing gasket, pushers, crown and tubes when necessary. Equally important is finding a trusted watchmaker who has the right equipment and knows what he’s doing.

At the same time, a depth rating alone doesn’t ensure water-resistance. The rating is only valid if the wearer uses the watch as it should be used.


Ashton Tracy has spent over a decade in the watch industry, primarily as a watchmaker, and more recently a horological writer. He started as an independent repairer, with a focus on restoring vintage watches, while also being the authorised watchmaker for brands like Montblanc and Linde Werdelin. He then spent a spell as a watchmaker at Rolex in Canada.

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