Borrowed time: the ‘courtesy’ watches that rarely get returned
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Ten years ago this month, Hublot launched a watch that was exclusive to its boutiques. The Atelier was not available to buy, but loaned to customers who left their own timepiece in the store for service or repair.
A decade on, this black composite model with quartz movement attracts attention among collectors. “There is an interest in these Atelier watches, as they are not for sale,” says Ricardo Guadalupe, Hublot chief executive. Due to a lack of stock, the watch is now issued only “sporadically in some exceptional cases”.
Over the years, a number of brands have offered this aftersales service, which is comparable to the courtesy vehicle available to car drivers. In some cases, these service watches have inspired commercial designs. In others, their history is shrouded in mystery.
When launching the Atelier, Guadalupe said it would enable a customer to “remain both physically and emotionally connected to Hublot”. A similar sentiment inspired the British brand, Bamford Watch Department, to launch its own quartz service watch, in March 2017: “it kept our name on their wrist”, says founder George Bamford (pictured top).
Despite having “property of Bamford Watch Department” on the dial, none of the 97 service watches that left the company made their way back, bringing the loan scheme to an end. The piece is “in quite a few people’s collections”, says Bamford. “There’s one or two times where I’ve seen people with their briefcase full of different watches and I’ve gone, ‘What the hell is my service watch doing in there?’”
When a client telephoned Bamford asking to buy four, he launched his other business, Bamford London, with an upgraded version of the service watch — the Bamford Mayfair — in November 2017. Bamford recently started collecting service watches and bought a Hublot Atelier on eBay.
Guadalupe says some clients “were so fond of their Atelier watch that [the] decision was exceptionally made to offer it to them”. Hublot — which Guadalupe says first offered a courtesy watch under its founder Carlo Crocco, following the launch of the Swiss brand in 1980 — also reproduced the Atelier to give to guests who travelled to the Fifa World Cup in Brazil, in 2014.
Wempe, which sells its own and other brands’ watches, does not worry about returns: it gifts its quartz service watch to customers. The German retailer issued 3,600 of its free men’s model (with a 40mm dial) and 3,300 of the 35mm women’s version in 2019. It declined to disclose the cost to its business.
Lynn Schroeder, managing director of Wempe UK, says take-up has decreased during the 15-20 years the company has offered the service, which is available in its 32 showrooms worldwide. She says around 20 per cent of customers who leave their timepiece for checks or repair accept the free watch. “Now, with all the smartphone functions and the smartwatches, people [already] have a second watch,” she explains.
Wempe will replace the battery and black leather strap of its service watch on request, but not all were designed to last. In the early 1980s, according to Bulgari’s product creation executive director Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, the Italian house issued customers with a black plastic quartz piece with “service watch” on the dial. The case back could not be opened for repairs.
However, the popular design inspired a model that could be bought (and repaired): the City limited edition, released in 1993. This black plastic mechanical watch had Bulgari-Bulgari on the bezel and gold details such as hands, crown, indexes and screws.
Alexandre Ghotbi, head of watches at Phillips for continental Europe and the Middle East, suggests service watches are largely a “thing of the past”. He says they tend to be “cheaper” plastic quartz pieces that, while “fun”, are not collectible.
One exception is a steel mechanical piece issued by A Lange & Söhne. “They were watches that were never produced but still high-end and a lot of people considered that, actually, the service watch would be worth more than their personal watch and they never brought it back,” says Ghotbi.
Sotheby’s was due to offer a steel 1815 model with “Property of Lange Uhren GmbH” engraved on the case back in November 2019. But it withdrew the watch, which it dated c2002, ahead of the sale with the agreement of the consignor. Sotheby’s and A Lange & Söhne declined to comment.
Service watches rarely appear at auction, though the Parisian auction house Pestel-Debord has, in the past decade, sold a handful made by the French mass-market brand Lip between 1964 and 1966. These pieces, which have an electromechanical movement and a large second hand shaped like a lightning bolt, feature the phrase “Après vente votre horloger vous prête l’heure” (After sale your watchmaker lends you the time) on the dial.
Pierre-Alain Berard, general manager of Lip, who thinks the company started making service watches in the 1950s and stopped in the 1980s, says it began printing on the dial because customers did not return the original loan watches as they were “better looking than the one which was in [for] repair”. It seems to have worked: he says the watches are now collectible due to their rarity as people did not keep them because of the large writing.
The brand has released new watches featuring the same phrase in the Asian market in the past five years. “The Japanese find [it] quite fun and interesting to have this big French writing on the dial,” says Berard.
Last year, Christie’s sold a stainless steel Patek Philippe service watch, dated c1953, for $47,500. The lot essay suggested three other examples had been identified from the market but a Patek Philippe spokesperson says it was “an exceptional case”.
Omega’s Loyalty Watch programme provides “long-established” customers with a Speedmaster, Seamaster Diver 300m or Ladymatic while their own Omega is being serviced through one of 50 boutiques. Omega has not experienced any losses since the scheme’s launch in 2015, nor does it expect to do so. Clients can buy the same model as the borrowed watch.
These days, it is unusual for a company to lend a customer a specially-made service watch. Hublot chief executive Guadalupe says the brand is reviewing whether to reactivate its service globally. “Currently, it is only exceptional because we are checking if we want to produce new Atelier watches to offer to our clients,” he says. If Hublot decides not to restock, the practice of lending a customer a specially made service watch will become even rarer.