Some of the world’s most expensive vintage watches are neither studded with diamonds, nor made of gold. That’s something we learn very quickly one morning in Lugano. We’re looking at seven rare watches dating from between the 1920s and 1970s: a mixture of playful enameled dials, housings of pink and yellow gold, simple mechanical movements and complex chronographs, Rolex and Patek Philippe. It’s hard to believe that one of the most valuable of the septet is a simple designed Rolex with black dial and stainless steel housing.
Expert Davide Parmegiani talks us through the watch, known as a 6034 Monoblocco, in detail. “The watch has a very, very rare dial with multiple displays.” He moves it back and forth a little in the light to demonstrate how the special varnish makes the surface shimmer. Its flawless condition and timeless design take the breath away. Watch expert Parmegiani describes the Rolex as one of the rarest and most perfect models made by the manufacturer in the 1950s. Few of them were made in stainless steel, with most featuring housings of pink gold or, even more commonly, yellow gold. It’s plain to see that the market for historic watches plays by its own rules.
As a collector of vintage watches, curator and dealer, Davide Parmegiani knows all about building a collection.
Parmegiani is very familiar with these rules. He’s been interested in watches since he was young. His first collector’s piece was a Rolex GMT Master in stainless steel. He was just 17 and bought the watch for 300 dollars. A little later he saved up his army pay for trips to the USA and London to buy mechanical watches made by the famous manufacturers. Quartz watches were flooding the market at the time, and many thought their mechanical counterparts were obsolete and impractical.
Today Parmegiani believes the internet has dramatically changed the market. If he heard about a particular watch during the 1980s, he would have to rely on photos or, better still, jump on a plane. Today he can get much of the information he needs from the web, though for a sale he still prefers the personal touch. For a few years now he has bucked the virtual trend and produced a printed catalog.
He admits he got the idea from the auction houses, but the watches in his catalog are from his own stock, so are immediately available without the need to bid. The main reason he likes catalogs is simple: “Everything today is so short lived, and a watch disappears from the internet as soon as it’s sold.” A catalog is permanent, by contrast, and collectors can still leaf through and browse months later.
“Our market is a small niche compared to the ones for other collector’s items.” And there’s a limited supply. For Parmegiani, networking with other top watch experts around the world is crucial to finding the best and rarest watches for his customers. He also works with the auction houses – mainly as a buyer these days, because he likes to offer his watches to his customers directly. “I prefer direct contact with the customer.” Parmegiani opened his first shop in Milan at the end of the 1980s, and today his business is based in Lugano. But for his customers he can be anywhere in the world.
The job of a watch expert have changed in recent years. Whereas he used to be just a dealer, Davide Parmegiani now works more closely with collectors as well. In some cases he acts as a curator for their collections. Buying a watch involves a substantial investment, and his customers’ need for good advice has gone up as values have risen. “People buying watches for their children will have certain requirements, whereas those looking for a three or five-year investment would be well advised to look at a different type of watch.” With the value of historic watches rising so fast over the past 15 years, says Parmegiani, the investment aspect has become more important than ever.
People tend to ask about likely returns, but Parmegiani still advises collectors to be guided by their taste before anything else. They should certainly also seek advice from a trusted expert. Only an expert can provide reliable information about the originality of a watch, or the number produced of a particular model – factors which are central to judging any investment in a historic watch.
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