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Fall auctions give false impression of healthy Swiss watch industry

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Some conversations stay with you. Outside the La Réserve hotel in Geneva the night before Phillips’ November auction, I bumped into a colleague who knows a thing or two about the auction scene.

In that tent, he said, gesturing to the unremarkable white marquee parked in the hotel grounds where the auction would take place, there are pieces made by living independents that will become the world’s most collectible watches.

Not only that, he added portentously, these watches will define collecting tastes for the next decade.

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A day later, the first part of the prophecy came true. The Geneva Watch Auction: XIV racked up sales of $74.5 million, almost double the previous record total for a watch auction. The top 12 lots all went for more than a million, but the real news was what made the podium.

Philippe Dufour Grande Sonnerie sold for CHF 4,749,000.

Not Patek Philippe – King Patek – but two watches made by Philippe Dufour, and another by F.P. Journe.

Unlike Antoine Patek and Adrien Philippe, Dufour and Journe, authors of the contemporary independent watchmaking scene, are very much still alive.

In the same week and in the same city, Only Watch picked up the narrative. Patek scooped the biggest sum of the night, but with a watch inspired by a dinner party conversation with Francis Ford Coppola, F.P. Journe wasn’t far behind.

F.P.Journe – FFC Blue sold for CHF 4,500,000.

Patek’s boxy desk clock may have hammered for $5 million more, but because we’re counting, that $9.5 million sum was a third of what the record-breaking Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime went for at the 2019 version of the event.

Journe’s tripled what his achieved two years before. You don’t have to stare to see where this might be going.

Which is where?

Part of the story is just as my colleague in the shadows had it. The rise of the independents has been coming, but Phillip’s Geneva auction had the distinct look of a tipping point.

Things will never be the same again.

As with living artists like Koons, Hockney and Beeple, Dufour, Journe et al (Kari Voutilainen’s not far behind, and accelerating fast is Rexhep Rexhepi, whose Chronomètre Contemporain II took $800,000 at Only Watch) have become the darlings of the auction scene.

No one’s suggesting they’re dominating it. Yet.

Look over the Geneva Watch Auction: XIV catalogue, and Patek, Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille still ate up most of the turf. But, and this might be the crunch, there are a lot more of them around.

And then there’s Patek. Safe as houses Patek. It would seem unlikely that Patek’s results this autumn will have the Sterns running to the family vault, silken sacks at the ready, but the castle suddenly doesn’t look so impregnable.

Patek’s current collection – forgetting the Boxing Day sale-style rush for the green-dialled 5711 – seems to hold less sway with the auction houses’ invisible paddle wavers than pieces made by a Dufour or a Journe.

PATEK PHILIPPE Ref. 2499 first series. Estimate CHF 2,000,000 – 4,000,000. Sold for CHF 3,539,000.

Of the four Patek lots that fetched more than $750,000 in that Geneva auction, the most recent was made in 1954.

And at the same figure and up, there were eight watches by Dufour and Journe. Pieces made by living artists.

Why? I’m not sure. A thirst for creative originality? Boredom? Collectors are flighty, capricious creatures – and easily led.

Less illuminating but just as salient is the widely and now long-held view that this autumn’s results have cemented watches’ status as among the most collectible objects in the world, alongside art, cars and jewellery.

The best of the best aren’t quite in the same gallery as the da Vincis and the 250GTOs, but watches, for better or for worse, are now an asset class in their own right.

New pieces emerge, fresh money comes to the table, and records continue to fall. It’s highly unlikely that the Grandmaster Chime will be the most expensive watch in the world forever.

But before we go thinking this is all fair and lovely, and that the picture is rosier than a mid-summer garden party, consider this: it’s not.

Because while these heroic moments foist the industry’s greatest living watchmakers and a narrow portfolio of billion-dollar brands into the spotlight, backstage the clouds are gathering around the Swiss watch industry.

Exports have been plummeting for years, almost certainly never to recover, defying the tub-thumpers of the not-so-distant past who said the watch industry was at barely a fraction of its full potential.

Some insiders say they see exports plunging below 10 million watches a year inside the next five years, the industry battered by smartwatches and cooled by post-pandemic economic winds.

That would amount to two thirds of the 2015 total, almost 20 million units lost in a little over a decade. Gone. Vanished.

The answer to why and where is a difficult one to swallow: the watch industry has an image problem.

Out-of-touch, irrelevant, not cool.

Look at it this way: the industry’s lodestar is an old man with a beard and a pipe, who makes watches for the 0.1 per cent of the 0.1 per cent.

I’m aware of how disrespectful that might sound, and that shouldn’t be read as a slight on Mr Dufour, who is a man of extraordinary talent and influence and rightfully feted. But outside the circus, no one wants to be fire-eater.

A similar thought occurred to me at the GPHG the day before that Phillips auction. In too many categories, the winners declined to represent anything the world beyond the tent would value.

I left the Théâtre du Léman with a greater understanding of why Rolex, which doesn’t enter the awards, has 25 per cent of the market.

It’s all very well fiddling with one-offs and arcane complications, but Geneva just might be burning.

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