The curious thing about previewing watch auctions is that, outside of a few big-ticket showpiece items, it's pretty difficult to predict which watches are going to catch the expert eye of collectors, and see the price rocket skyward.

That's why we try our best here at Square Mile to avoid getting into a game of chance and instead focus on a little bit of education about the icons of the past and hand-select the models we'd like to own if we won the lottery tomorrow. 

However, that being said, we were quietly confident in our Geneva Watch Auction XIII preview that the incredibly rare Patek Philippe Ref. 5711P was going to have all the collectors clamouring to win this elusive prize. As it turns out, we were half right: it sold in the end for CHF567,000, nearly 50% more than the top end of its estimate. But that figure was blown out of the water by the equally rare Patek Philippe "Calatravone" Ref. 570.

This iconic Patek reference from 1942 featured a highly prized two-tone dial with Breguet numerals and railway track (an execution that has only been seen at auction once before) that had collector's tongues wagging. Its guide price was between CHF200,000 - 400,000… it sold for an astonishing CHF3,297,000. Suffice it to say, we didn't see that one coming – and, judging by the guide price, neither did the auctioneers!

In some ways, this prized Patek Philippe tells the story of the modern-day auction. For the right reference, the right execution, in the right condition, you better be prepared to pay the right price. And, trust us, this is a competitive market. 

Still, the great beauty of Phillips' prestigious auctions is that they offer a shop window of the most unique, iconic, and beautiful watches the world has ever seen. They are your chance to own a small part of horological history. Can you really put a price on that? (That's a rhetorical question.)

Next up, Phillips presents the Hong Kong Watch Auction XII on 5 - 6 June 2021, and once again we're bringing you our favourites. From the singlemost investable watch of all-time to a pink-hued "piece unique", these five watches span the four corners of the watchmaking world.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Grand Complication Ref. 25865BC.OO.1105BC.05

Guide Price: €208,000 - €373,000

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Grand Complication watch

It is an undisputed fact that the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is one of the greatest watch designs of all-time. Penned by the legendary designer Gerald Genta the night before the Basel watch expo of 1971 and first seen in the metal a year later, the octagonal-bezelled nautical-inspired timepiece sparked the dawn of the luxury sports watch – a category that blended the utilitarian aspects of a dive watch with the elegance of a dress watch. More than half a century later, it is still one of the most sought-after designs on the market; the dictionary definition of an icon.

Given its prestige, it’s no surprise that Audemars Piguet has squeezed every last permutation of dial and complication out of the Royal Oak – evolving from its humble time and date beginnings to feature chronographs, perpetual calendars, and minute repeaters. Or all three, as is the case with the absolutely stunning Royal Oak Grand Complication we see here.

Launched in 2000, this model was created to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Audemars Piguet, and as such features every last piece of horological craft it could incorporate into one watch. The movement itself features 648 components, and takes a single master watchmaker a year to assemble the finished watch entirely by hand. Grand Complication indeed.

View the auction listing here.

Breitling Navitimer Ref. 806

Guide Price: €6,400 - €10,700

Breitling Navitimer Ref 806 vintage watch

If the Navitimer Ref. 806 looks eerily familiar, it’s because Breitling released a re-edition of this iconic reference as recently as 2019 – when it picked up heritage watch of the year at the Square Mile Watch Awards.

The original Ref. 806, however, was the very first Navitimer available for the commercial market. The story of the Navitimer begins in 1952 when the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) requested Willy Breitling to create a purpose-built watch for pilots.

What Breitling would hand the AOPA two years later would become the ultimate wrist-worn calculation instrument – a watch so useful in its function that it would inextricably tie the watchmaker to the aviation industry right into the modern day. With its beaded bezel for grip (125 beads, thanks for asking) and ingenious slide rule, the Navitimer enabled pilots to perform intricate in-flight calculations like average speed, flight distance and fuel consumptions with a few twists of the bezel.

Early “Pre-806” models of the Navitimer were made for the sole use of AOPA members, but by 1956 the Ref. 806 was released to the wider public as the first commercial Navitimer – some things are too good to keep to yourself.

The present specimen from 1959, complete with its original presentation box and accessories, bares the ‘AOPA’ signed gilt pair of wings and is stamped on the movement with the import code, ‘WOG’ for the Wakmann Watch Co, the American arm of Breitling.

View the auction listing here. 

Harry Winston Ref. 200 Opus One "Piece Unique"

Guide Price: €85,400 - €171,000

Harry Winston Opus One 'Piece-Unique' watch

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: this is a pink watch. Not an achingly trendy salmon-pink dial you might spot at your next watch expo, but a proper fuschia pink – the kind you might dispense from a lipstick case. It’s big, it’s brash, and it looks utterly brilliant. It’s also the only one of its kind ever to have been made, from a collection of 18 unique pieces that make up a model that is far more significant than the novel shade of its dial might suggest.

The watch in question is the Harry Winston Opus One. It was the first in a series of collaborations between then-CEO of Harry Winston Timepieces Maximillian Büsser and some of the brightest emerging independent watchmakers in the industry. In this regard, you might think of this watch as the seed that would grow into one of the most groundbreaking watch brands of the past two decades, MB&F; otherwise known as Maximillian Büsser and Friends.

Released in 2001 in collaboration with revered French watchmaker François-Paul Journe, the Opus One project resulted in a total of 18 unique pieces across three different movements: a time-only with power reserve and large date, a Résonance, and a tourbillon with Remontoire d'Égalité and a power reserve. The present watch is one of only six watches to feature the latter execution.

The Remontoire d'Égalité, or a constant force device, is now considered a signature of Journe but at the time was a rarely seen technical marvel. Without getting too deep in the specifics, the mechanism distributes an equal amount of energy regardless of the winding level of the mainspring leading to greater accuracy and amplitude of the timepiece.

It’s rare to get the opportunity to own a piece of artwork “before they were famous” but this present watch offers exactly that opportunity.

View the auction listing here.

Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 Perpetual Calendar

Guide Price: €1,280,000 - €2,450,000

Patek Philippe Ref.2499 Perpetual Calendar watch

The Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 is art in horological form. It’s one of the finest watches ever made, both technically and aesthetically, manufactured by arguably the greatest maker of the most complicated watches. If you’ve read Phillips’ watch specialist Arthur Touchot’s fantastic article on the Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 you’ll know that, despite being neither the first or most historically significant of its kind, to many serious collectors this perpetual calendar chronograph is The Holy Grail.

What’s its secret? It’s just so damn gorgeous. No, really. It built on the success of its predecessor, the Patek Philippe Ref. 1518, by blending classic and contemporary sensibilities to create a watch whose style and elegance would be everlasting; the walking contradiction of a timeless timepiece.

What’s equally important is its scarcity. The Ref. 2499 was manufactured across a run of four series, with the first series commanding the highest prestige due to its subtle visual links to its predecessor – namely square chronograph buttons and applied Arabic numerals.

The exact production numbers for this series are unknown, but judging by Phillips breathless catalogue entry on this present first series example, you could say they’re a little excited to be auctioning this extremely rare piece: “The appearance of such an example at auction is not calculated by seasons but in years and even decades in this present instance. This is truly a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity for esteemed collectors to acquire one of the greatest timepieces ever produced through the present specimen being brought into the spotlight for the first time.”

Be prepared to write a very big cheque to take this elusive beauty home with you. 

View the auction listing here.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona “Paul Newman” Ref. 6241

Guide Price: €365,000 - €536,000

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona "Paul Newman" Chronograph watch

Last but certainly not least, is possibly the most famous vintage watch ever to grace an auction room: the Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona. Paul Newman's own Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6239 sold for $17.8m at Phillips New York auction house in 2017, and while this model never graced the wrist of the iconic moviestar, it is still one of the rarest references of this highly sought-after model.

Let’s start with a basic question: what differentiates a Paul Newman Daytona from other models? Mechanically, absolutely nothing. It’s the dial and dial alone that demarks this icon from its kind. Typified by an art deco style font for the numerals, hash marks with a small square at the end, and a small step in the dial between the minute track and the centre of the dial, the "Paul Newman" dial made by the Singer manufacture was actually less popular than the more traditional Daytona dials when they were first produced. As a result of poor sales, Rolex simply didn’t make that many of them. That exclusivity is, of course, now essential to their lore.

So how did this poor-selling funky dialled variant end up becoming the collector's watch? You guessed it, Paul Newman himself, but the truth is a little murkier than some would lead you to believe. The story goes that Newman wore his ref. 6239 Daytona on the cover of an Italian magazine, and resulted in a stampede of Italian collectors and dealers clamouring to get their hands on this exotic-dialed Daytona. The trouble is there’s no historical proof this magazine cover existed, the only thing we know for a fact is that at some point the wider public became aware of Paul Newman’s Daytona and sought to copy the iconic moviestar; Newman makes a strong case for being a primitive “influencer”.

First witnessed on the Ref. 6239 Cosmograph Daytona – the first reference to feature the Daytona designation on the dial – and appearing on several references until the last manually-wound Daytona ref. 6265, “Paul Newman'' dials are today the single most collectible model of watch on the planet. The present example Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ref. 6241 champagne “Paul Newman”, dated circa 1969, is one of a very few to feature a champagne dial encased in 14k yellow gold. In fact, it is believed to be one of only 400 examples to have been created in this execution.

A rare reference of one of the most famous collector’s watches? We’re sure Phillips will have a hard time shifting this…

View the auction listing here.