The fascination revolving around the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication wasn’t just because of its record-breaking price or its calibre – the most complicated mechanical movement ever created – but also because of the provenance, legendary stories and a whiff of mystery. Fetching US$24 million at Sotheby’s Geneva sale in November last year, it holds the record for the world’s most expensive timepiece.
“It was such a significant and rare piece that got everybody talking,” says Sharon Chan, Sotheby’s head of watches for Asia. “[The sale] helped the pocket watch market too. We have more clients approaching us with beautiful pieces to sell, and we have noticed growing interest among collectors.”
The past year has seen the “Henry Graves effect” boost auctions and the retail market. Luxury watchmakers such as Vacheron Constantin, Officine Panerai, Roger Dubuis and Hermès have launched modern interpretations of pocket watches, catering to the surge in demand.
Vacheron Constantin launched its Reference 57260 pocket watch at Watches&Wonders in October in Hong Kong. The piece, not unlike the impressive Henry Graves Supercomplication, features 57 complications in celebration of Vacheron Constantin’s 260th anniversary. It took three master watchmakers eight years to create and is estimated to have a retail price of US$8 million.
Designs come in various materials, styles and forms. While the Reference 57260 adopts classic and traditional aesthetics, Roger Dubuis’ new Excalibur Spider Pocket Time Instrument falls on the futuristic end of the spectrum. The piece adapted the RD101 movement featuring four separate balance wheels first applied in the Quatuor wristwatch in 2013.
Vacheron Constantin artistic director Christian Selmoni reckons pocket watches are no less prominent than wristwatches. “There has been a lot of interest in the last 20 years concerning wristwatches, especially when it comes to complicated designs,” he says. “Vintage and classic pocket watches have driven less interest, but they represent a fascinating area in the world of watchmaking – beautiful designs, magnificent dials and some of the most complex mechanisms.”
Vintage and contemporary pocket watches are now becoming sought-after collectables as connoisseurs and collectors grow more knowledgeable about the history of horlogerie.
“Collectors are awakening to the close ties between pocket watch movements and contemporary wrist mechanisms,” Chan says. “Many collectors started with wristwatches as they were easier to understand and more relevant to their lifestyle, but as they know more about timepieces and look back at the history of horlogerie, they discover the charm of pocket watches. The interest has been there even before the Henry Graves sale.”
Collectors are intrigued by the correlation between archival and contemporary models.
The launch of new models often fuels interest in vintage counterparts.
A. Lange & Söhne’s Grand Complication debut in 2013 – the most complicated wristwatch crafted by the maison – was inspired by a Lange pocket watch from 1902. It was through the restoration of the prominent pocket watch that Lange developed the know-how for its contemporary wristwatch.
Examples of how pocket watch movements inspired the designs of wristwatches basically chronicle the evolution of horlogerie.
Philippe Delhotal, artistic director of La Montre Hermès, which developed the In the Pocket watch for this year’s Only Watch auction, agrees. “As long as creativity and innovation are present, these kinds of pieces in limited editions will continue resonating with collectors who wish to express something.”
The origin of In the Pocket was inspired by the “porte-oignon” given to Jacqueline Hermès by her father in 1912 that allowed the avid horsewoman to fasten her pocket watch to her wrist. Sophisticated and savvy collectors have whipped up their appetite for retro and classic time instruments such as pocket watches and table clocks. “Those pieces have a truly intrinsic value that is highly appreciated when economic times are more challenging,” Delhotal says.
“Watches that show more distinctively stated luxury are becoming less interesting for customers. For collectors, it is also a more exclusive timepiece than a wristwatch.”
Looking beyond mere nostalgia, pocket watches also provide an alternate platform for high-end watchmakers to demonstrate their craftsmanship and innovation.
Selmoni says Vacheron Constantin’s Reference 57620 is particularly interesting as it offers the maison the possibility to demonstrate its technical know-how on a much larger scale.
“A pocket watch has more space for more complications,” Selmoni says. “We have incorporated more than 2,800 components in its movement, which is an incredible number of tiny pieces. We have had 260 years of non-stop operation. That’s why our made-to-order pocket watches perfectly embody our values in watchmaking – balanced design, mastered technique and ultimate craftsmanship.” Delhotal agrees. “Pocket watches offer a bigger surface of expression to showcase special craftsmanship and complications.”
While the platform might be centuries old, designers believe innovation sets modern pocket watches apart from their vintage counterparts.
“Pocket watches are a real form of art,” says Grégory Bruttin, movement director of Roger Dubuis. “Our Excalibur pocket time instrument strikes a balance between aesthetics and art. We also rendered the piece in its most modern form with titanium and the Quatuor movement.”
Often delivered in ultralimited editions, pocket watches are becoming coveted collectables.
“There has always been interest and there will still be room for [the development of] pocket watches,” Selmoni says. “They offer an alternative to wristwatches aesthetically and also from the watchmaking point of view.”
The latest developments in contemporary pocket watches are fuelling interest in vintage pocket watches at auctions.
Sotheby’s London auction on December 15 will feature an important private collection of English pocket watches. Titled “The Celebration of the English Watch”, the collection includes museum-quality timepieces such as the David Ramsay royal oval astronomical watch, which features an engraved portrait of King James I.
Chan says collectors should always consult experts and work with a budget before heading to auctions.
“Brands are important, but Patek Philippe isn’t the only go-to brand for pocket watches,” she says. “You can also look at Audemars Piguet and Bovet Fleurier. Be extra careful with white enamelling dials as they are often very delicate and fragile.”