Are Watches Going Away?

The watch has been around for a couple of hundred years.  Early versions weren’t wristwatches, but were pocket watches, attached to your pants by a chain so you could pull it out of your pocket to look at the time.

A fossil watch
A Fossil hybrid smartwatch

The wristwatch became popular after World War I, and for the next seven decades or so, became a fashion staple.  If you needed to know the time, you just looked at your wrist.  Or you could ask whomever was standing by, because for decades, pretty much everyone wore a wristwatch.

That started to change a few years ago when cell phones became popular.  Cell phones displayed the time as a matter of course, and if you were going to carry around a phone that had the time on it, why would you also need to wear a wristwatch?   A lot of people stopped wearing watches, and a lot of younger people simply never got in the habit of wearing one in the first place.

That’s changed a bit in the past three or four years, as the smartwatch has come along.  The smartwatch is worn like a wristwatch, and can offer the time, but it can also act as an interface between you and your smartphone, allowing you to receive notifications and text messages and also allowing you to track your stats during workouts.  Many of them have other features, as well.

A lot of people have started wearing smartwatches, and a few have started wearing one instead of a traditional watch, but watchmakers are a bit mystified at the fact that they’re not becoming a huge hit with the public.  Worse – for some manufacturers, sales of all watches are down.

The Fossil Group, which makes watches under that name but which also owns a number of other companies that make watches of all kinds, recently released a quarterly report that shows that sales were down 13% in the most recent quarter.  Keep in mind that this is a company that does sell smartwatches alongside their regular traditional models, so it’s not as though they’re selling old technology and hoping that people will buy it.

A very expensive Breguet watch
A very expensive Breguet watch

Odd thing, though – people are buying old technology.  Luxury brands of watches, that is, the companies that sell unusually expensive watches, rather than the several hundred dollars apiece models that Fossil offers, are actually doing OK.  Granted, when you’re selling to ultra-wealthy collectors, you don’t have to worry too much about economic instability.  You also know that the people to whom you’re selling aren’t people who are following trends.  If you’re buying a high end Breguet watch, it’s because you want one, and not because you weren’t aware that Fossil could sell you a smartwatch instead for $100,000 less.

Still, most of the market for wristwatches falls in the sub-$1000 range, and for those companies that sell watches exclusively in that market, they have to be worrying a bit.  There was a panic in the 1970s when quartz watches hit the market that they’d put all makers of mechanical watches out of business.  A few did go away, but luxury brands managed to stay afloat.

That was then, however.  There’s no guarantee that people will continue buying watches in the future.  On the other hand, there does still seem to be a market for quality wristwatches, and it’s possible that the Fossil Group is just having a rough year.

Ugly Pocket Watch sells for $85,000

al capone watchSometimes, when something sells for a lot of money at an auction, you look at it and say, “Yeah – I get it.  That’s a lot of money, but the item is pretty cool.”

A good example of that would be the recent sale of Babe Ruth’s 1927 World Series ring, which sold for $2.1 million in a recent auction.  Granted, the 1927 New York Yankees are regarded as one of the greatest and best-known baseball teams of all time and the ring was also being sold by actor Charlie Sheen, who is himself famous.

That’s a lot of provenance, and the ring itself is a nice looking piece of jewelry.  So when someone paid $2.1 million for it, most people probably saw that value in that, even though it was a tremendous amount of money.

On the other hand, the recent sale of a pocket watch that belonged to legendary gangster Al Capone sort of falls into another category.  Sure, Al Capone is one of the most famous criminals of all time, and he’s famous for his years of crime, his incredibly lavish lifestyle, and the fact that he managed to avoid being jailed for his crimes for years before finally being imprisoned for tax evasion.

The watch sold for $84,375 at an auction of crime and police-related memorabilia called the Gangsters, Outlaws and Lawmen, held recently in Massachusetts.

To read the description, the watch certainly sounds impressive.  It has an odd triangular shape and a platinum case, accompanied by a platinum chain.  The watch was made by the Illinois Watch Company, which certainly isn’t a household name, but one which apparently had a solid reputation back in the day (the company’s remains are now owned by the Swatch Group.)

The bezel of the watch was set with 72 cut diamonds and a platinum dial with gold-toned numerals and watch hands.

23 cut diamonds were used on the back to form the initials “AC”, and those were surrounded by an additional 26 diamonds.

So the watch is platinum and gold and it has a lot of diamonds on it, and it was owned by one of the most famous, if not the most famous gangster in the era of well-known gangsters.

It’s still an ugly watch.

Now perhaps the watch hasn’t been cleaned up and was being sold “as is.”  It’s possible that it might, as they say, “clean up nicely” and make an attractive presentation piece if given some TLC by a reputable jeweler.

It’s also possible that Al Capone had lousy taste and just asked the Illinois Watch Company to build a tacky-looking watch for him.  It’s really hard to say.

It doesn’t really matter, anyway.  The watch was undoubtedly purchased by someone who was interested in the item as an example of something owned by a major crime figure.  It almost certainly was not purchased by someone who is a collector of watches.

The watch was offered for sale by a grandson of Capone, and accompanied by a letter of provenance, which said:

“Shortly after the passing of Albert Francis ‘Sonny’ Capone, his daughter, Barbara Prince, nee Capone, a resident of California, delivered the watch described below to me, along with other personal property that at one time was the personal property of my great grandfather, Alphonse G. Capone.”

An interesting piece, to be sure, but not necessarily one that will appeal to everyone’s taste.

 

 

What Kind of Watches Interest You?

pocket watch
A pocket watch

The average consumer likely regards a watch as something that tells the time and little else.  At their most basic, a wristwatch is exactly that, and nothing more.  It’s a portable clock, and over the past 100 years, most people have worn one at one time or another but likely haven’t given them a lot of thought.

Horologists, or watch/clock aficionados, feel differently, of course.  These are people who are fascinated with devices that tell time and they often have collections of them.  You might find collectors who own dozens, or even hundreds of wristwatches, and each of them has a story to tell.

Each individual collector, however, has their own interests and motivations and if you’re new to the hobby, you might not even understand what sorts of watches that people collect, or why they collect them.

There are a wide variety of watches out there and hundreds or even thousands of companies have made them over the years.  It’s true that many makers simply manufacture timekeeping devices, usually made with inexpensive Chinese parts, and those are made to tell the time and do nothing else.  These watches can often be purchased for less than $10 and are of little, if any, interest to collectors.

Other types of watches do interest them, however, and here are just a few of the different sorts of watches that people might collect:

  • Pocket watches –  While largely out of favor with the public now, the earliest watches were those designed to be carried in the pocket.  Many of these were quite intricate and featured cases made from precious metals, along with sometimes unusual mechanical complications.
  • Mechanical wristwatches – Originally, the only wristwatches were the mechanical variety.  These had to be manually would every day and if not would regularly, they would stop.  Mechanical watches are still made today, and high end models are surprisingly reliable in their ability to keep accurate time.  Many high end mechanical watches also feature additional complications, such as the date, the day of the week, the phases of the moon, and more.  One elaborate complication is a tourbillon, a device intended to help keep accurate time while offsetting the effects of gravity on the watch.
  • Automatic wristwatches – Automatic wristwatches are an extension of mechanical ones.  A moving weight within the case winds the watch as it is being worn, making manual winding (which can still be done, if needed) largely unnecessary.  Many automatic watches also include elaborate complications.
  • Quartz watches – While most watches sold today have quartz electronic movements, the first such watches are now nearly 50 years old and are themselves rather rare today.  They were also quite expensive when new, which means that they sold in fairly small numbers back when they were first introduced.  While people who collect vintage quartz watches are a small subset of watch collectors, some of these early models can sell for quite a lot of money when they turn up for sale.
  • Famous brands – Many brands of watches are long-established and are famous in their own right.  Collectors often become attached to specific makes of watches, such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, Bvlgari, Chopard, and Audemars Piguet, to name just a few.  Each of these makers has made hundreds of different models over the years and some are relatively common and others are quite rare.
  • Ultra-limited edition models – Many watches are made in limited editions, but some are produced in quantities of well under 100.  When produced by famous makers, these watches always attract attention from collectors and often make tremendous investment items.
  • Precious metals – Some high end watches feature cases made from precious metals and may include jewels, such as diamonds.  A few newer models may have their cases milled from sapphire.  All of these models were expensive when new, but can sometimes be a good value when acquired used.
tourbillon watch
A watch with a tourbillon

These are just a few of the different types of watches that interest collectors.  Obviously, each collector has their own interests and motivations and you will likely never find any two watch collections that even remotely resemble one another.  Collectors do like to share their stories and interests, however, and even collectors of mechanical watches might find a collection of early quartz models to be interesting, even if they have no interest in collecting such items themselves.

That’s the beauty of collecting anything.  The collector gets to decide what they’re going to collect, the extent of their collection and why they’d like to collect.  Regardless of the reasons, it’s all interesting and fun.