The vintage watch world is a strange and mysterious place at times. To the uninitiated, you’d be forgiven for thinking a lot of money is exchanged for a second-hand good when a factory-fresh example is available for a similar price. While in a literal sense that is correct, much like the finest classic cars, the ‘true’ value of a vintage watch only develops over time; its historical significance, scarcity, and condition only revealing itself decades into its life.
Every timepiece tells its own story: should it find its way into your possession, you are merely the custodian of its latest chapter. Time is infinite, after all, humans are not.
Those of you who have read our Insider’s Guide to Buying Vintage Watches will know there are typically three types of buyers: museums, dealers, and private collectors, with the latter growing in size and dominance as time goes by. A growing number of individuals have switched on to the vintage watch market and are demanding a slice of the action.
Does that sound like you? If so, you’re going to want to check out the Geneva Watch Auction XIII on 8-9 May 2021. Conducted by Phillips auction house, this is one of the finest curated selection of vintage pieces currently available for auction.
Below we have selected a few of our favourites. Enjoy.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref. 5402ST
CHF40,000 - 60,000
It’s difficult to underplay the significance of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak to the wider watch industry. Not only can we trace the still-relevant trend of steel sports watches back to its creation, but it would be fair to say that it helped reignite a fascination in Swiss watchmaking at a time when the ‘Quartz Crisis’, the burgeoning power of cheaper and more efficient electronic timepieces, threatened the very existence of the industry.
The story of its creation is worthy of its own place in horological lore. In 1971, the evening before the beginning of the Annual Swiss Watch Show (the exhibition that would grow into Baselworld), Georges Golay, then-MD of Audemars Piguet, instructed up-and-coming designer Gerald Genta to create an “unprecedented steel watch” for the Italian watch market. The design would need to be on his desk the next morning – it was already 4pm.
Genta drew inspiration from a classic divers helmet and crafted a design that featured a distinctive octagonal bezel held in place by eight gold screws. True to the brief, he included an intricate tapisserie dial and an elegant integrated bracelet. In keeping with its nautical theme, the model was named after the HMS Royal Oak battleships of the Royal Navy. In all in a day’s work, ma’am.
The rest, as they say, is history: production began on the original reference 5402A with most of the first 2,000 pieces sold by 1975. A further 2,500 of the Ref 5402 B, C and D series would follow in the proceeding years.
The first generation example featured here in the Geneva Watch Auction XIII, however, sits outside of the initial four A, B, C, D series of the Ref. 5402. It sits as part of an elusive batch that has the particularity of not having a letter nor a serial number on the caseback.
As Phillips explains in its catalogue entry: “It is believed that these models, dating circa 1975, are transitional models between the A and B series. According to Audemars Piguet archives, less than 100 of these versions are thought to have been made, with only a handful having appeared on the international auction market.”
Suffice it to say this is an extremely rare watch, before you take into consideration the stunning “tropical” dial – a term used to describe UV-cooked watch faces that have discoloured in a beautiful and desirable way – with its flecks of copper jumping off the dial.
Powered by the extra-slim calibre 2121, the ébauche (the basic movement parts) were developed by Jaeger-LeCoultre and modified for Audemars Piguet. It would later be found in the Patek Philippe Nautilus.
The present watch is offered with an Audemars Piguet Authenticity and Exclusivity Certificate as well as a letter from Audemars Piguet Germany dated May 23, 1979 confirming the watch was made without serial numbers on the caseback.
Whether you believe the Royal Oak is the messiah of the industry, or just a very naughty watch, as we look forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022, there is perhaps no better time to get your hands on this ultra-rare first generation model.
Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5711P
CHF200,000 - 400,000
The Royal Oak may have put Gerald Genta on the map, but the Nautilus consigned the designer to the horological hall of fame. Arguably, Genta perfected his blueprint for the luxury sports watch in the Nautilus. Whether you believe that or not, its continued presence in contemporary culture is undeniable – there are few watches more desirable.
Genta took to the seas again for his inspiration, this time zeroing in on the porthole of transatlantic ocean liners. The idea struck him while out for dinner in a restaurant. In his own words, he spied several Patek Philippe executives eating in the opposite corner of the dining hall, and asked the head waiter to bring a piece of paper and a pencil. He sketched the design in five minutes.
Genta designed on a solid monobloc case, again featuring an octagonal bezel (this time secured by four lateral screws) and an elegant integrated bracelet. Unlike the Royal Oak, the bezel was subtly curved and much less angular, with two “ears” that are reminiscent of the hinges of a porthole.
The name, of course, comes from Captain Nemo’s vessel in Jules Verne’s famous 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
The original reference 3700-01A Nautilus was first produced in 1976 in a run of approximately 3,500 watches. While owning one of the founding fathers of the Nautilus model is highly desirable, there are more elusive models available.
One such model is featured here. In 2006, Patek Philippe marked the 30th anniversary of the Nautilus by introducing the reference 5711. It pays homage to the Ref. 3700 by retaining the original “jumbo” 42mm case, with the addition of a central seconds hand (absent on the original). It continues to be highly sought after, with the release of the 5711/1A-014 in 2021. However, in 2013 Patek Philippe presented a highly elusive reference 5711 in platinum.
It is believed that only 50 examples were ever made, with boutiques under strict instruction to reserve this watch for a highly select clientele – it was never listed in the brand’s catalogue and never available for viewing. Some may have thought it a myth.
At first glance the platinum 5711 appears to be exactly that – a platinum execution of its stainless steel sibling – but it is the subtlety in its details, not just the precious metal, that have made this watch a cult among eminent collectors. Firstly, the dial of the platinum model is vivid blue that contrasts with the incredible sheen of the platinum. By contrast, the steel models feature a muted blue-grey dial befitting of its metal case.
Squint and you’ll just about make out another minor alteration to the standard steel model. ‘Patek Philippe Geneve’ is printed into a flat recessed area that has been specifically created for the logo print – on the steel version it is directly printed on the fluting of the dial. With all platinum Patek Philippe models a small diamond on the case at 6 o’clock indicated the use of this precious metal. Such details may seem inconsequential, but in the world of vintage watches, “If you know, you know.”
Aside from the aesthetics – and, really, the contrasting vivid blue dial and platinum case should be enough – the kicker of this platinum reference 5711 (preserved here in excellent condition and delivered full set with box and paperwork) is that only about six have ever made it to auction.
Who knows? Maybe this is your one opportunity to own a Nautilus unlike most on the market.
Roger Dubuis Hommage H34 Chronograph
CHF15,000 - 25,000
Roger Dubuis may have grown into a company best known for skeletonised high-complication, but prior to its sale to the Richemont Group (acquiring 60% of the company in 2008, and the remaining 40% in 2016) its small string of timepieces were renowned for their fastidious attention to detail and technical prowess – a hallmark of the brand’s founder and head watchmaker, Mr Dubuis himself.
Having previously been at the centre of Patek Philippe and Longines’ watchmaking divisions, Roger Dubuis teamed up with Carlos Dias to create his own brand in 1995. At a time when now-household names such as F.P. Journe or Roger Smith were experimenting and producing their very first prototypes, Dubuis helped lead the renaissance of independent watchmaking at a time when a huge marketing budget and preexisting iconic designs was the only route to market.
The Hommage H34 may not have the rich history of a Royal Oak or Nautilus (and as such does not command the dizzying heights of their auction prices), but it showcases Roger Dubuis’ purist approach to watchmaking.
Originally made in a series of 28 examples, the H34 is simply one of the most exceptional chronograph assemblies you are likely to encounter.
As the Phillips catalogue explains: “The movement is based upon the Lemania 2310 ébauche, just like the famed Patek Philippe reference 5070. The movement proudly displays the Geneva seal – an exceptional feat for a small, at the time independent watchmaker. On top of that, it was certified by the Besançon Observatory.”
And then there’s the dial. The contrasting chronograph registers and sector dial on the black watch face, and blend of Arabic numerals and indices makes for a sumptuous configuration – a real throwback to cult classics like the Patek Philippe Ref. 130, and of course the Ref. 5070 with which it shares the Lemania 2310 ébauche. In other words, it’s just gorgeous.
Dubuis’ finest handiwork is revealed through an engraved sapphire caseback – revealing the complexity of the movement (regulated by Dubuis himself) and the sumptuous finishing of a true master of his craft.
Roger Dubuis died in 2017, but his legacy lives on in these increasingly collectible pieces.
Rolex "Barilotto" Ref. 3525 Chronograph
CHF60,000 - 120,000
Rolex may be defined by its 1950s tool watches (Explorer, Submariner, GMT-Master) and, the most collectible watch of all, the Cosmograph Daytona from 1963, but it’s worth remembering the company that Hans Wilsdorf built has a lengthy history outside of the icons of the modern age.
One such example is this utterly charming steel and pink-gold Rolex “Barilotto” Ref. 3525 chronograph that dates back to 1939.
Rolex’s very first chronograph wristwatch to be housed in an Oyster case – the world's first water resistant and dustproof watch case, invented in 1926 – the Ref. 3525 is one of the most elegant chronographs of the era, as well as featuring revolutionary watchmaking of its time.
It was offered in yellow gold, pink gold, stainless steel, and steel and gold like the model on offer in the Geneva Watch Auction XIII.
As Phillips explains, this present example is one of the early Ref. 3525 models, denoted by its 47813 serial number stamped on the case back: “Analysis of publicly known pieces shows that - with the exception of a few outliers - most of the production for the reference is grouped in three "batches", with respectively serial numbers around 40'xxx-50'xxx for the first batch, then in the mid 100'000 for the second, and in the mid-300'000 the last.”
Also worth noting is the presence of the original 'Brevet' Oyster crown. The Brevet is a cross marking on the crown symbolises a patent cross. It’s an unusual fact of Rolex’s history that it was asked to stop using the cross by the Swiss government due to the potential confusion that the government was in some way endorsing Rolex.
More than its apparent rarity, however, this is simply a beautiful example of the Ref. 3525 with its striking pink champagne dial beautifully framed by the pink gold bezel and steel watch case.
Zenith Ref. A386 Chronograph
CHF10,000 - 15,000
The El Primero is a unique instance in watchmaking where the movement is bigger than the watch to which it is installed. Translated as ‘the first’ from Spanish, the name is logically attributed to an important cornerstone in watchmaking history: the debut of the automatic chronograph movement.
Launched in 1969, El Primero is and was a high-frequency (= higher accuracy) integrated chronograph with a horizontal clutch but, more importantly, featured the practicality of self winding. Hand-wound chronographs had existed since the early 20th century but remarkably it took Zenith’s innovation to modernise this popular complication. Its continued ability to stand the test of time proves the success of El Primero’s enduring design.
It could have all been very different were it not for Charles Vermot, a specialist in chronograph watchmaking at Zenith. In the depths of the 1970s Quartz crisis, the brand (at the time owned by an American consortium) made the shock move to stop producing all of its mechanical movements, including the El Primero.
Vermot, who had spent his entire career at the Manufacture, couldn’t stand by without making a stand: in secret, began preserving the essential elements for the production of the El Primero. Every evening he would hide the presses (150 of them), the technical plans, the cams and the cutting tools that future watchmakers would rely on to create the movement. By the 1980s, Vermot’s dedication paid off as the El Primero resumed production and would go on to assume its legendary status when it was installed in Rolex’s first automatic chronograph Daytona. It held its place as the beating heart of the iconic model until as recently as 2000 when it was finally replaced by the Rolex in-house calibre 4130.
Debuted in 1969, the A386 reference housed this new revolutionary calibre. Featuring a streamlined 38mm case, an almost-nonexistent bezel for legibility purposes, and bold multi-coloured chronograph registers in keeping with the aesthetic freedom of the 1960s and 1970s, it is perhaps one of the most distinctive chronograph designs of all time.
This present model, preserved in excellent condition and accompanied by a Zenith mesh bracelet, features perhaps the most distinctive colour arrangement of the A386: the blue, grey and anthracite subdials.