The fascination with watches is a passion not all will understand. The advent of the quartz movement in the late 1960s nearly made the mechanical wristwatch obsolete, but the industry has not only survived, it has flourished. People are still buying and collecting watches even though the smartphone in their pocket displays time more accurately than any mechanical watch ever could.
There must be a different reason to own a watch. Perhaps it is because watches are one of the very few acceptable forms of men’s jewelry (an item that can convey character, status, even membership in a kind of club). Watches are an efficient, non-verbal way to communicate wealth and status—effectively a Porsche you can wear on your wrist, with the added bonus that it doesn’t spend most of the day hiding in the garage.
Fine watches are more than simple timekeepers—they are miniature masterpieces of extreme craftsmanship representing tradition, technology, and innovation. So what makes any particular watch collectible?
Ultimately, what makes any particular watch desirable is a personal matter, but to become collectible, a watch must combine rarity; an iconic, timeless design; well-proportioned cases; and high-quality movements that illustrate the brand’s commitment to fine watchmaking. Connections to historical events and persons, even celebrities, often add to a watches status as a collectible.
The following list of five watches is therefore by no means comprehensive (obviously). Our aim here is simply to highlight a few watches from different manufacturers that have become highly collectible over the years.
Cartier Tank Cintrée
Designed by Louis Cartier in 1917, the Tank Cintrée was believed to have been inspired by the British Mark 1, the world’s first armored tank. The first examples of these watches were presented as “victory watches” to United States General John Pershing and his officers, cementing the Tank’s place in history.
The Tank’s lugs (the part of the case that connects to the strap) were the first to be seamlessly integrated into a case—a watch design feature that endures today. The highly curved case hugs the wrist, and the combination of straight lines, curves and angles contribute to the iconic design.
Movements in the early versions of this watch were signed by the European Watch and Clock Company, built exclusively for Cartier by Edmond Jaeger in partnership with the watchmaking firm LeCoultre. Blue steel hands indicate the time, and are matched by a blue cabochon sapphire set in the winding crown.
Apparently, no more than 50 of these watches were made in each decade of the 20th century, though Cartier continues to manufacture versions of this iconic watch today. The Tank Mono Poussoir model was re-released in 2006, in pink or white gold, both limited to 100 pieces.
Vacheron Constantin Minute Repeater
Minute repeaters chime minutes and hours with small hammers striking gongs inside the watch case. Before the widespread availability of electricity, this complication (any watch function beyond hours and minutes is called a complication) was used to allow watch owners to tell time in the dark. While the usefulness of minute repeaters has waned, the appeal of this complication to collectors has remained.
Vacheron Constantin’s Minute Repeater was produced in the 1940s and ‘50s, and by some accounts, only 36 examples were ever made. Their simple dials are housed in yellow gold, white gold, or platinum, and indicate simply hours and minutes. A small lever on the left of the case actuates a sequence of chimes indicating the time.
The tone created by the tiny chimes is a marvel of technology—to achieve such richly complex tones from a tiny wristwatch defies explanation.
Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph
Made from 1951 through 1985, the original Perpetual Calendar Chronograph boasts a complication called a perpetual calendar. Not only does the watch indicate the correct day, date, and month, it automatically compensates for long and short months—no small feat. It also combines the perpetual calendar with a chronograph, or stopwatch.
The attention to detail is evident from the perfectly finished interior components to the champlevé enameled dial surface. It is believed that only 349 of these watches were ever produced, making it a truly rare collectible.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
Introduced in 1972, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak began as a luxury steel watch with and integrated bracelet and daring, revolutionary design. At first, the high-end watch market didn’t quite know what to make of the Royal Oak (with its visible gasket and screws), but it eventually became a huge international success and one of the most iconic watches ever.
Designed by Gerald Genta, the Royal Oak was inspired by a traditional diver’s helmet. It showcased an octagonal shaped bezel that was secured by eight visible hexagonal gold screws, visible water resistance gasket, and a dial adorned with an exclusive blue petit tapisserie motif. The watch was both slim (7 mm) and large, with a case diameter of 39 mm.
Audemars Piguet built a first series of 1000 Royal Oaks, which is known by collectors as the A-series, reference 5402. These are the most sought-after Royal Oaks on the rare watch market. In subsequent years (up to today), Audemars Piguet has introduced many variations of the original Royal Oak, adopting precious metals, leather and rubber straps, as well as new complications.
First manufactured in 1952, the Breitling Navitimer is probably the most legendary timepiece among aviator watches. The “Navitimer” name is a contraction of the words“navigation” and “timer”. This intricately constructed timepiece includes a slide rule bezel that can be used to calculate complicated operations without the need for an electronic calculator. This is why the Navitimer was popularly referred to as a “mini-computer for pilots”.
If you are thinking about purchasing and early Navitimer model, the stainless steel versions are among the easiest to find but also the most sought-after. New Navitimer models continue to be produced. And they remain popular with pilots around the word–including actor and aviation-enthusiast John Travolta, who is an ambassador of the brand.
What list of most collectible watches could be complete without at least one Rolex? Almost synonymous with elite watchmaking, Rolex is a universally recognized brand that embodies quality craftsmanship, precision, and innovation. The Submariner was introduced in 1954, not as a luxury product, but as a professional dive watch, and it started the dive watch craze that dominates a large part of the watch market today.
From its brushed steel case to its rotating bezel, the Submariner exudes utilitarianism, and its message of casual prestige is unequalled. The Rolex Submariner is an easy going everyday watch that looks as good with jeans and a t-shirt as it does with formal wear, and it is sure to remain a coveted collectible for many years.
If you have one of these timepieces and wish to sell it for a fair cash price, please contact Diamond Estate Jewelry Buyers today for a free consultation. We offer complimentary watch appraisals with no obligations to sell your item to us. For more information, please go to: How to Sell a Watch.