Only Watch solidifies its position in auction calendar
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On learning that his son had been diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, in 2000, Luc Pettavino’s reaction was to see what could be done to find a cure for this rare and fatal childhood disorder — a condition that prevents children, mostly boys, from producing a protein to prevent muscles from wasting away. As organiser of the Monaco Yacht Show, Pettavino approached Blancpain, the timing sponsor, to see if a one-off watch could be produced and sold, where all proceeds would go to research on the disease. Encouraged by the brand’s positive response, he went to other watch firms in 2004 and the idea took hold. The first Only Watch auction was held in 2005 and, since then, the biennial event, now in its tenth edition, has raised more than SFr100mn ($110mn) towards research, with clinical trials already under way for a possible cure.
Perhaps what was not envisaged at the start of Only Watch was how the industry would benefit from these auctions. What started off with contributions from a few brands, with small changes to the design of existing models, has now become a highly rated sale of unique timepieces: one-offs made specifically for the auction by famous names and independent artisan watchmakers. The auction, itself, has grown into a global platform, which has had a ripple effect on the sales and value of participating brands’ other designs.
“Brand offerings have naturally diversified as Only Watch became, step by step, a creative platform and a one-of-a kind rendezvous for the horologist world,” Pettavino says. The auction also presented an opportunity for watchmakers to test concepts that will later appear in their collections. Arguably, the bellwether brand was Patek Philippe, which, by significantly altering some of its grand complication watches over successive auctions, propelled the status of Only Watch as a venue to buy otherwise unobtainable timepieces.
The record for the world’s most expensive watch at auction is still held by the Patek Philippe 6300A, which was sold at Only Watch in 2019 for the stratospheric sum of SFr31mn.
There are two factors in the watch market that have led to the prominence of Only Watch: first, the rise in demand for unique or very rare timepieces; second, collectors requiring assured provenance. Uniqueness in the watch market is something special. For most collectors, having the first or the “only” of something is very important. Often, such a singularity results from historical circumstances, where only one piece survives, or because of important provenance. Examples that have fetched eye-watering prices at auction include the Rolex Bao Dai 6062 triple calendar (SFr5,066,000); Paul Newman’s own Rolex Daytona 6239 with an exotic dial ($17,752,500); the JB Champion Patek Philippe 2458 observatory chronometer (SFr3,779,000), and now, the potential for John Lennon’s long-lost Patek Philippe 2499 coming to market after being the subject of international legal wranglings for the past decade.
Outside the small set of known and well-documented pieces, the vintage market has been rocked by suspicions over whether extremely rare watches found at auction or elsewhere are indeed genuine. Earlier this year, a 1957 Omega Speedmaster bought at auction in 2021 was exposed as a ‘frankenwatch’ — a timepiece that has been built with parts from different models — with both Omega and auctioneers Phillips stating they were “the joint victims of organised criminal activity” in this incident. A police investigation is now under way.
Artisan watches are desired for their intrinsic qualities, but their rising value is in part a reaction to the vagaries in the vintage market, and equally to the demand by collectors for very rare or unique pieces. What was once a sector of the industry held together by a handful of lone watchmakers back in the late 20th century, has now seen remarkable growth in recent years and become a collector’s paradise.
By their very nature, artisan watchmakers produce a limited number of pieces per year. Often, their order books are closed, and the waiting lists make our time on earth seem brief. Because of this, when one of these watches comes up on the secondary market, collectors are prepared to cut the queue and bid up ever escalating prices.
For the craftsmen, participating in Only Watch is not just a way of contributing to the war chest against the Duchenne disease, but also a way of making their name known to the wider watch community.
The rise in the artisan sector has allied with the ethos of Only Watch in the production of purpose-made, unique timepieces that are available now, and the prices have been driven up accordingly.
FP Journe was the first independent to see a watch sell for over SFr1mn at the charity auction. Other watchmakers have since achieved six-figure prices at this auction, which represented several multiples of the estimate.
At the 2017 Only Watch auction, independent watchmakers started to donate original and previously unseen work.
Urwerk combined forces with Laurent Ferrier to produce a unique sculptural piece that housed a satellite display to tell the time.
In subsequent editions, FP Journe has introduced the prototypes for a number of new complicated watches, with unique case and dial combinations.
Independent Russian watchmaker Konstantin Chaykin and Finnish master Kari Voutilainen have both also produced unique examples of their regular timepieces.
And the contributions to Only Watch by small independent artisans have kept growing.
In 2019, Gronefeld, De Bethune with Urwerk, and Rexhep Rexhepi all took part. By 2021, many others had followed suit, such as Andersen Genève, Atelier de Chronometrie Barcelona, Krayon, Romain Gauthier, Trilobe, and Daniel Buren. This year, Theo Auffret and Petermann Bédat, and Frederique Constant and Christiaan van der Klaauw have joined in.
The auctions have also influenced the global watch market, where visionary specialist dealers representing artisan watchmakers — such as Dubai-based Perpétuel, The Hour Glass in Singapore, and The Swiss Gallery London — are leading the way in providing limited or extremely rare watches to collectors across the globe.
Jean Arnault, a known collector, and head of Louis Vuitton’s La Fabrique du Temps, has also instigated the Louis Vuitton Watch Prize for Independent Creatives to showcase the sector.
Looking back over the past 10 editions, Pettavino sums up the influence of the auctions on the artisan watchmakers: “We are really proud to have given a voice to the new generation through collaborations and the reinterpretation of certain complications,” he says. “In my eyes, they are great artists, creative geniuses, and I would like to thank them once again for their remarkable commitment to Only Watch.”
The Only Watch 2023 auction takes place at 2pm on November 5, 2023, in Geneva; onlywatch.com