“And now, the big collectors start to get serious!” Aurel Bacs, the main auctioneer at Phillips Geneva Watch Auction XIII, exclaimed as a certain Cartier timepiece surpassed $300,000. While the remark was in reference to that specific Cartier, it could’ve applied at any point to Phillips’ first flagship watch auction of the year, held this past weekend in Geneva.
Phillips has become the leading auction house for watches, twice-yearly hosting flagship auctions in Geneva, Switzerland, the historical and spiritual home of watchmaking. Before Covid-19, the auctions were a worldwide event, something like Pitti Uomo meets Art Basel, but with the world’s biggest watch collectors showing up to drop millions on some of the rarest and important wristwatches.
While this year’s first watch auction remained mostly virtual, it was no less exciting. Bidders from across the world and in the room raised their paddles over the course of 200-plus lots, dropping sometimes eye-popping sums for the best that horology has to offer. Here are some of the highlights.
Cartier Tank a Guichet
Over the past couple of years, Cartier watches have been on an absolute tear. While it may have started as a fascination with a certain Cartier Crash on the wrist of Kanye West, it’s evolved into a much deeper appreciation for all things shaped and significant from the Maison. While the aforementioned Cartier that passed $300,000 commanded the highest result from the sale, every Cartier lot far surpassed its estimate, illustrating the continued recognition of the house’s timepieces.
While most know the classic, original Cartier Tank, far fewer might recognize this Tank a Guichet, a variant on the rectangular Tank introduced in 1928. Its name comes from the small apertures in its platinum case, which “jump” forward as time advances. It was modern for 1928, and today it gives off a totally retro, Art Deco vibe.
“It’s interesting, because it’s an old take on a modern idea. It was quite modern for its time but now it looks super retro,” Malaika Crawford, our resident watch and jewelry expert says of the Tank a Guichet.
This particular example is a limited edition of 150 from 1997 to celebrate Cartier’s 150th anniversary. It’s cased in platinum, which means it wears rather heavy on the wrist. Altogether, it’s a beautiful illustration of Cartier’s ability to take its classic shapes and mold them to any particular era, while still delivering timeless designs.
Sold Price: $77,000 (approx)
Cartier Tank Asymetrique “Jumbo”
Next up, another twisted take on the Tank. Since Cartier released a new interpretation of the Asymetrique in 2020, vintage editions of the model have seen a renewed appreciation. Among them is this limited edition model from 1996, another piece limited to just 150 examples.
While many have been drawn to the Cartier Crash over the past few years, this Asymetrique is something like a chicer (not to mention cheaper) variation on Cartier’s ability to play with shapes. Listen, the Tank is a total classic — but if you want something a little bit more fun, Cartier has dozens of variations on its classic round and square shapes over the years if you dig just a level deeper. The skewed form of this watch was supposed to make it easier to read while driving; nowadays, it just looks slightly psychedelic.
Sold Price: $42,000 (approx)
Patek Philippe World Timer ref. 2523
Of course, Patek Philippe is still the be-all-end-all of watches, both modern and vintage. From hype pieces to dress watches that look like your grandfather’s and everything in-between, Patek has a little something for everyone and it was all on display at Phillips this weekend.
This Patek World Timer from 1953 is just the third of its kind ever to be found, and it commanded the price and attention worthy of such a rare watch. It ended up selling for $7.8 million, a record for a yellow gold wristwatch sold at auction.
Listen, it might not be your style, but you’ve got to give respect where it’s due. This particular World Timer is one of just three known to feature a beautiful cloisonne enamel dial. Vintage enamel like this is a time-intensive, hands-on process, hence why only a handful are known. Then there’s the movement, a reliable Patek caliber personally modified by the actual inventor of the two-crown world time mechanism. Finally, there’s the case, a large 36mm and still looking as sharp and clean as the day it left the manufacturer.
“This is way more about the technicalities and how rare it is than the aesthetics. I think it’s actually very pretentious looking,” our watch and jewelry expert Crawford says.
The piece represents everything beautiful about vintage timepieces: every element handmade, a celebration of artisanship that’s too often been lost to time. While your eye might be attracted to more hyped watches, it’s worth taking a second to learn about this one and understand why it’s so important.
Sold Price: $7.8 million
Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 5711P
While the World Timer is old-fashioned and vintage in every way, this modern platinum Patek Phillipe Nautilus is the brand at its hottest and most hyped.
Crawford calls this one a “discrete flex,” and that’s exactly why we love it so much. Since Patek discontinued the blue dial Nautilus 5711 earlier this year, it’s become the most hyped watch on the planet. But this example’s not even stainless steel: it’s platinum, one of perhaps 50 ever made by the brand to celebrate the Nautilus' 30th anniversary in 2006. Compared to the steel model, the blue dial here is even more vivid. As with all platinum Patek models, if you zoom in, you’ll see a diamond at 6 o’clock, a subtle wink to how special the watch really is.
It’s discrete because, unless you take a second to really look, you wouldn’t even know this is anything other than a steel Nautilus. But looking closer to appreciate these details is what being a watch collector is all about. Even more than that, it’s wearing a watch only for yourself, that no one else might notice as unbearably rare and exceptional.
Sold Price: $630,475 (approx)
Patek Philippe ref. 2526
Sure, steel sports watches like the Nautilus might be all the rage right now, but where Patek really shines is as a maker of fine, precious metal timepieces. That’s exactly what this reference 2526 from 1954 is.
The reference is Patek’s first automatic wristwatch, meaning there’s a rotor inside (a gold one, because of course) to keep the mechanical movement running so it doesn’t have to be manually wound every day.
“This is my favorite watch,” Crawford says. “It’s giving me The Talented Mr. Ripley, summer on the Amalfi Coast vibes.” Basically, Patek (and other brands) couldn’t make automatic movements for two decades because Rolex had a patent on the technology. So Patek sat waiting in the wings, perfecting and re-perfecting what would become the 12-600 AT, its first automatic movement, eventually dropping it in the reference 2526.
This first series example is absolutely pristine, with an enamel dial that looks like it could’ve left the workshop last week. Honestly, the sale price of this beautiful, handmade timepiece (that’s nearly 70 years old) feels like an absolute steal when you consider it’s about half the going price of a modern stainless steel Nautilus.
Sold Price:$70,000 (approx)
The Best of the Rest
Brands like Cartier and Patek might be hot right now, but as appreciation for watches has grown, so has an appreciation for other brands.
Zenith El Primero A386
Speaking of firsts. While the Patek reference 2526 may have been the first automatic watch from that brand, this chronograph’s superlatives are arguably more important. It’s the first automatic chronograph, called the Zenith El Primero, to celebrate the achievement. It was released in 1969, a truly futuristic technical achievement.
As our watch and jewelry expert Crawford points out, the design itself hints at this achievement: “It feels like a real 1970s take on what the 2000s might look like.”
To be sure, Zenith makes modern El Primero watches that draw inspiration from this original A386, but collectors go crazy for this original for a reason. Not only is it hard to find (and even more difficult to find in pristine, original condition, like this example), but the retro design is fashionable in a way that transcends era. We’re also suckers for matching bracelets, and the Zenith mesh bracelet on this particular lot handsomely completes the fashionable retro look.
Sold Price: $30,800 (approx)
Blinged Out Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
This blinged-out Audemars Piguet Royal Oak might look like something you’d find in 47th Street’s Diamond District, but it’s really much more than that.
In the early 1990s, brands like Audemars Piguet started producing seriously emerald-set and gem-set sports watches like this particular Royal Oak, truly embracing mechanical watches for what they were by then: pure luxury. Whereas after-market gems might be thrown on haphazardly, gems and emeralds sourced by the brands themselves are meticulously curated for the particular timepiece.
At the time, designs like this were meant to expand the market for sports watches like the Royal Oak, what had originally been conceived as large, primarily masculine watches. But nowadays, when the boundaries between what a “men’s” or “women’s” watch even are have been thankfully thrown out, it’s the perfect gender-bending timepiece: allegedly masculine in form, but with gems and diamonds associated with traditional femininity. This means any gender can comfortably wear this six-figure timepiece, should they find an event worthy of so many gems.
Sold Price: $119,000 (approx)
Rolex Day-Date ref. 1806 with Unique Bracelet
Honestly, the Patek reference 2526 above is beautiful. But perhaps the most dazzling part of it is the yellow-gold brick bracelet, which drapes perfectly around the wrist, smooth as butter. If you’re into that look but want something a little more playful, then there’s this Rolex Day-Date. The bracelet was made entirely by hand and features a delicate linen-textured “Morellis” finish.
The watch had an estimate of CHF 12-18,000 but ended up selling for more than CHF 55,000, so perhaps others saw the resemblance to that Patek, too. Sure, it’s a lot of money, but it’s in the same ballpark as a modern Day-Date, and those don’t have the same vintage charm or handmade touches that this one does.
“This one is for the jewelry lovers,” Crawford says. Not to mention, 36mm is a perfectly tasteful size, especially when it’s an all-gold Rolex you’re wearing.
Sold Price: $61,000 (approx)
What We Learned
While years ago, watch auctions may have featured primarily vintage pieces that were exciting to a small niche of collectors, that’s not the case anymore. Auctions from the large houses have become events for all collectors to pay attention to, with exciting and rare timepieces from all corners of modern, independent, and vintage collecting. The results can be astonishing ($7 million for a watch?! You might find yourself saying) but are often more indicative of the rarity of the watches on offer than of any irrationality of bidders. The highlights here are just the beginning of what’s to be discovered of the sold lots at Phillips this weekend.
Tony also writes at Rescapement, a weekly newsletter about watches.