The Swiss watchmaking giants have dominated the industry since 19th century when farmers spent cold snowy winter months assembling mechanical watches. The heavyweights of Haute Horlogerie like Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Cartier, Rolex, IWC and others, whose names became synonymous with luxury and prestige, got used to rely on their reputation and rich heritage, and continued re-releasing their best-selling models, whilst losing their creativity.
They didn’t appear to have seen that coming, but it looks like money is flooding towards a new generation of mechanical watches that are loaded with the kind of creativity, that makes them masterpieces of mechanical art.
Megabrands are Under Threat
The major Geneva watch sales presented by Christie’s and Phillips in November 2021 have clearly shown that the established watch brands we’ve known for decades are now under a serious threat from independents. Whereas in past times we might have expected some Patek Philippe piece to dominate the auction results, this time the highest bids at each auction unexpectedly went to pieces from independents like Philippe Dufour and F.P. Journe.
Back in the day, independents hardly got any attention. With no budget for marketing and having to compete with powerful conglomerates, indies were just a bunch of hard-working and passionate idealists creating their dream, while remaining relatively obscure to collectors. But times are changing, and today we are witnessing that collectors’ market is significantly shifting towards living artisan watchmakers.
This is a trend that can’t be ignored anymore, so you’d better familiarize yourself with a constellation of smaller manufactures such as De Bethune, Kari Voutilainen, Akrivia, Czapek, Christophe Claret, Konstantin Chaykin, Louis Moinet and Andersen Geneve, all offering beautifully executed, rare pieces, cleverly blending outstanding chronometry with a fair amount of individuality.
At Phillips Geneva Watch Auction XIV, the Grande & Petite Sonnerie wristwatch by Philippe Dufour went for CHF 4,749,000 (about 5.2 million USD) – setting a world record for the most expensive independent watch ever sold.
Philippe Dufour is recognized as one of the masters of complicated watches for a reason. Eventually, the set of four Dufour’s highly technical creations totaled CHF 11.5 million at Phillips. In the same vein, a Series 2 watch with engraved dial by Roger Smith sold at CHF 655,200 and an open dial platinum prototype by Kari Voutilainen at CHF 352,800 – far exceeding their retail prices.
On top of that, the F.P. Journe FFC Blue watch made in collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola specially for the Only Watch 2021 charity auction – with the time indicated by hand-shaped automaton – brought 4.5 million Swiss francs against an estimate of a 10th of that. This is also the highest price achieved by an F.P. Journe watch ever.
Besides the one-off piece created for the respectable charitable organization, five “souscription” watches made by F.P.Journe in the late 1990s or early 2000s, were auctioned at Phillips the same weekend.
Buying from an independent watchmaker today is like buying a painting from an artist who is still alive. You can follow their work and interact with them. There is a human touch, which collectors really want[i].
Rémi Guillemin, head of the watch department at Christie’s Geneva
A series of earliest Journe’s timepieces consisted of a Tourbillon Souverain (CHF 3,539,000), a Chronomètre à Resonance (CHF 3,902,000), an Octa Chronograph (CHF 961,700), an Octa Quantième Perpetuel (CHF 937,500) and an Octa Réserve de Marche (CHF 554,000)[ii]. All 5 combined, they came within a whisker of the CHF 10 million mark.
Other impressive results achieved at Only Watch 2021 by independents are: De Bethune (CHF 1,300,000), Akrivia (CHF 800,000), H. Moser & Cie. (CHF 750,000), Konstantin Chaykin (CHF 290,000) and Czapek (CHF 240,000)[iii].
We at Ineichen are proud to make our own contribution, by charting record sales for independent makers. At our recent sale of rare timepieces in November 2021, Ineichen Auctioneers managed to set 5 world records, including 3 for F.P. Journe pieces and 2 for Vianney Halter watches.
Independents are in Demand
What we have seen in 2021 is a continuation of the 2019 and 2020 trend which will probably be with us for many years, where demand for timepieces from artisan watchmakers such as F.P. Journe, Philippe Dufour and Richard Mille is increasing. These manufacturers are desirable because they are free from corporate control over creativity and offer a different perspective by being unique.
Indies work on their creations from start to finish, including the movement, so they craft a very small number of pieces, making between 30 and 600 watches per year. A master watchmaker himself often has his hands in every stage of the creation of the timepiece, so you can expect the quality control to be at its highest.
The independents have demonstrated that with talent, skill and daring, it is possible to outshine many of the established houses and fetch millions at major auctions. Obviously, such a strong and fast-growing interest in independent watchmakers can have a transformative effect on the upper end of the market in the nearest future.
Megabrands may still dominate the market, but it’s often the independent brands that have the biggest ideas.
[i] Roulet C. (2021, November 17). Independents Day. Retrieved from https://www.watchesandculture.org/forum/en/independents-day/
[ii] Goulard B. (2021, November 8). The Crazy Prices Fetched by F.P. Journe this Weekend at Only Watch & Phillips. Retrieved from https://monochrome-watches.com/the-crazy-prices-fetched-by-fp-journe-only-watch-2021-and-phillips-geneva-watch-auction-xiv/
[iii] Only Watch 2021 Achieves $32 Million for charity (2021, November 10). Retrieved from https://professionalwatches.com/only-watch-2021-achieves-32-million-for-charity/