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Time on Your Hands

Each year, Skinner offers sales dedicated to clocks, watches, and scientific instruments. These auctions feature horological treasures from historic sundials and hourglasses to clocks of every description; from stately Victorian pocket watches to the most modern millisecond chronographs.

The liveliest, most popular category of timekeepers? Men’s fine vintage wristwatches. Collectors in this field, as in every aspect of collecting, have varying perspectives. Some want a specific make and model for personal reasons. Perhaps an under-appreciated but rare Favre-Leuba “Bivouac” Reference 53213 with wonderful provenance.

Favre-Leuba "Bivouac" watch Reference 53213
Favre-Leuba “Bivouac”
Reference 53213,
sold for $3,321

Another bidder, also a fan of tool watches, is trying to decide which sibling in the Hans Wilsdorf family (the gentleman behind the illustrious Rolex and Tudor family) is the ultimate tool watch. Is it the Rolex Glossy Black Dial “Explorer” Reference 1016 from the early 1960s?

Rolex Glossy Black Dial "Explorer" Reference 1016
Rolex Glossy Black Dial
“Explorer” Reference 1016, sold for $31,980

Or is it the Rolex “Red” Submariner Reference 1680 from the mid 1970s?

Rolex "Red" Submariner Reference 1680
Rolex “Red” Submariner
Reference 1680,
sold for $28,290

And a third potential purchaser is a watch repair specialist, one of a vanishing breed. He’s looking for replacement parts to restore a good customer’s favorite 1960s Breitling chronograph to like-new condition.

Breitling Stainless Steel Chronograph
Breitling Stainless Steel Chronograph,
sold for $1,185

Every buyer has different needs, wants, and tastes, as well as different budgets. When it comes to collecting, and especially collecting wristwatches, we speak of condition, provenance, and rarity. Which one is most important to you?

Does condition drive your decision—Does it need to be new or you won’t make the purchase?

Does “single owner” provenance, or prior ownership by a famous individual, help you decide to bid? 

Are you drawn to a make or model that’s not easily found, regardless of condition? 

Such questions loom large in the very active market for tool watches. These multi-function timepieces weren’t designed to be fashion statements or eye candy, although in fact they are often both, but as the wearable high-tech of their day.

From their beginnings in the late 1920s, tool watches were produced, manufactured, and tested to accomplish certain tasks with unparalleled accuracy and reliability. In addition to telling hours, minutes, and seconds, tool watches offered other specific functions. How fast were you on the racetrack? To what depth had you descended in the ocean? What is the exact time in this very, very dark cave?

As a collector, do you choose to acquire pieces with evidence of wear and the passage of time, what’s often called “patina”? Or would you rather have a NOS (new old stock) example, possibly even with its original box and papers, with no traces of having passed through the adventures for which it was originally designed? 

Both collecting approaches are valid, of course. But there’s much to be said, and thought about, when it comes the question of condition. 

While not advocating purchasing watches that were abused or neglected, sometimes the salvageable parts can be of use to you. But there is unique value and interest in tool watches that wandered the world, dove to the depth of the seas or climbed high mountains, and continued to keep time, letting the wearer know, for example, how to time a dive to avoid decompression sickness—the dreaded bends.

Wear hints at the watch’s own unique story—a nick out of the Bakelite or aluminum bezel insert, or perhaps wear or rubbing to the minute markers or even a chip on the coin-edge unidirectional or bidirectional bezel, maybe some blow-out or loss to the lume on the hands or hour and minute markers—all signs of an adventuresome past.

There’s value in this evidence of time past. It demonstrates that the engineering, manufacture, and layout of these pieces enabled them to be successfully used for the purposes for which they were designed.

We are surely seeing a more refined taste from collectors when it comes to certain watches. The Tornek Rayville TR-900 (Blancpain Fifty Fathoms) is a great example. The first one offered back in 2012 had excellent provenance, coupled with rarity and the condition expected for a service watch.

Tornek Rayville TR-900
Tornek Rayville TR-900,
sold for $36,735

These watches are known by a select few—sought after and purchased whenever they became available. Condition was not a major concern because the timepiece is so rare. This example was worn and used as intended, in the field (or really, sea), and was consigned by the man to whom it had been issued. At that time rarity trumped any other considerations.

Tornek Rayville TR-900
Tornek Rayville TR-900,
sold for $100,000

Five years later, the fifth Tornek Rayville offered hammered down at $100,000. It had no clear provenance, but nonetheless achieved close to a world record price at the time.

Tornek Rayville TR-900,
Tornek Rayville TR-900,
sold for $70,000

Two years later another such watch that also did not come directly from the issued officer and had some condition issues hammered down at $70,000.

Whatever your collecting criteria, Skinner regularly offers a wide range of carefully vetted timepieces. From a single-owner Rolex Daytona—  

Rolex Daytona Cosmograph
Rolex Daytona Cosmograph, sold for $200,000

to a commemorative Swatch—  

Swatch 25th Anniversary “This is my world” Model, sold for $62

Watch enthusiasts can find the objects of their desire, and sellers can find a marketplace with a rich history of record prices for timepieces of distinction. Contact department director Jonathan Dowling at www.skinnerinc.com.

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