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Michael Larsen
Representative | West Coast

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Published: 29 September 2017

What Makes a Watch Historically Significant?

From sport to dress, haute to casual, a timepiece’s value transcends aesthetic when considering its historical significance. Several factors affect a timepiece’s prestige. While patronage and material come as no surprise, a timepiece can also be considered significant based on function, date of introduction, designer prowess and the staying power of luxury branding.

The Complication
High complication timepieces regularly outperform at auction, but when the watch was produced in relation to when the complication was introduced can also affect performance. Early production models represent rare and desirable commodities to the watch collector, translating into higher prices at auction.

Patek Philippe World Time

When the world time complication was created in the 1930s it made a splash. Suddenly, time abroad and time at home could be viewed on a single dial and Patek Philippe was the first brand to bring it to the wrist. As such, appreciation in Patek Philippe timepieces with world time has continued to rise over the last eight decades. So much so, that some early pieces have achieved well into seven figures at auction.

Resting comfortably within the top tier of the watch industry for over a century, Patek Philippe timepieces have maintained consistent resale values—making their purchase an investment. Considering the maison’s history with world time in particular, even newer models featuring the complication exceed expectations at auction as well.

The Icon
Occasionally, prominent associations contribute to historical significance. This extends beyond who simply owned the watch, but who defined a model for a brand. Perhaps the most notable example of this phenomenon is the Rolex Daytona referred to as the Paul Newman.

Ask any watch collector about their wish list and, most certainly, the Daytona Paul Newman sits near the top. This cult classic took a few years to become iconic after it was introduced in the mid-1960s. Rolex released the model with what they dubbed the Exotic dial; three subdials allowed a high-contrast aesthetic and art deco-inspired indexes set the watch apart from other, more traditional timepieces.

Grail status didn’t set in until the 1980s, when actor Paul Newman dawned the timepiece on the cover of a magazine. Thereafter, instead of referring to this Daytona as the “Exotic” dial, customers would ask after the “Paul Newman” Daytona. The problem: Rolex only manufactured the watch in limited quantities, with production ceasing in the early 1970s.

Freeman’s recently acquired and sold a Rolex Daytona Paul Newman, igniting international excitement. The Ref. 6241 was introduced in 1969 as the second edition in the Exotic dial line and is highly covetable among watch collecting circles due to its acrylic plastic bezel. This particular example was powered by a calibre 722-1 movement housed in a 14 karat gold case. The timepiece was in excellent condition, with intact lume on the indicators and hands. It was finished with a gold Jubilee bracelet with matching foldover clasp. Ultimately, the watch sold for $231,250.

The Design
Function versus aesthetic has been an ongoing argument in the watch industry since the introduction of portable technology. Niche enthusiasts view function and history more impressive, while the broader, luxury aficionado may find a brand more essential to a horological investment. Recognizable design however, falls right in the middle as both functionally important and a defining characteristic of luxury branding.

One of the most legendary watch designers of our time, the late Gérald Genta (1931-2011), is responsible for timepieces one can identify with just a glance. His vision brought to fruition Patek Phillipe’s most successful sport line, the Nautilus, as well as IWC’s Ingenieur and the Bulgari Bulgari among others.

Though most notable perhaps, is Genta’s Royal Oak design for Audemars Piguet; a design that defines one of the most successful watch brands in the world.

The partnership was forged in the 1970s as a response to the “Quartz Crisis”—a battery operated movement that was cheaper to produce and far more accessible to the consumer that turned the Swiss watch industry upside down.

Audemars Piguet recognized a gap in the market for unique sport watches and sought, even then-legendary, Genta to complete their vision. Enter the Royal Oak in 1972. It was the first luxury wristwatch with a sport aesthetic to integrate a steel case. Inspired by old diving helmets, the watch showcased an octagonal bezel with eight oversized screws and an integrated bracelet.

Today the Royal Oak’s has been translated into three separate collections: Royal Oak, Royal Oak Concept and the Royal Oak Offshore that includes a dive watch sub-collection. 45 years after its introduction Freeman’s has continued to see the design excel at auction.

Of course, with an industry as old and honored as watchmaking, there are a great many factors that can influence a timepiece’s historical significance. Freeman’s experts are always on hand to help delineate a watch’s significance and value.

Contact a specialist today for a complimentary valuation. 

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