The incredible stories behind 5 of the world's most expensive watches
Published 15th December 2020
Credit: Courtesy Patek Philippe
The incredible stories behind 5 of the world's most expensive watches
A little over 30 years ago, Geneva's Antiquorum pioneered the modern watch auction with its "Art of Patek Philippe" sale. Before then, the notion that fine watches were collectable was rather eccentric -- it took the rise of cheap electronic quartz models throughout the 1970s and '80s to distinguish traditionally crafted timepieces as more than just keepers of time.
This landmark auction, held in 1989, also helped cement Patek Philippe's position as haute horlogerie's de facto investment of choice. It's a reputation that persists to this day, thanks to the brand's enduring formula of heritage, innovation and cultish aura. Last November, the Patek Philippe titanium Grandmaster Chime fetched $31 million at Christie's -- smashing every record going.
But Patek Philippe is, by no means, watch collectors' only choice. A number of other brands, from Breguet to Rolex, command feverish bidding wars at auction and long waiting lists for new models. While astronomical price tags often come down to rarity and preciousness, a great story certainly helps. Here are five fascinating examples.
Marie Antoinette's missing watch
Breguet no.160 Marie-Antoinette, 1827 -- valued at $30 million in 2013.
What sort of watch might Parisian horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet make if he were alive today? Truthfully, the "godfather of modern watchmaking" -- who is credited with industrializing fine watchmaking and countless technological innovations -- probably wouldn't be making watches at all. As a master of practical, innovative and beautiful problem-solving, he would more likely be making a killing in Silicon Valley.
In fact, his 160th watch, the fabled Marie-Antoinette is a watershed masterpiece of supercomputing.
The story of this timepiece is a legend of two halves, with a killer origin story, plus a latter-day heist scandal. It all started with a starry-eyed guard at Marie Antoinette's Versailles court who, in 1783, commissioned Breguet to make the most complicated and precious watch for his increasingly unpopular queen.
Breguet duly obliged, kitting the transparent pocket watch with many of his own inventions (including automatic winding) and plenty of others' besides (such as celestial time, state of winding and a perpetual calendar) all in precious metal. There was one problem, however: The watch's 823 components took the best part of 30 years to produce, meaning that it was not completed until long after Marie Antoinette's execution, and four years after Breguet's own passing (it was finished by his workshop, under his son's supervision).
Subsequently acquired by Sir David Salomons. After Salomon's death in 1925, the watch joined the British lawyer's considerable collection of 18th- and 19th-century pocket watches as a core display at the Museum For Islamic Art, in Jerusalem (founded by his daughter in the 1970s). In a shocking twist years later, on April 17, 1983, over 100 of Sir David's rare timepieces, including the Marie-Antoinette, disappeared into thin air overnight.
The presumed theft remained a mystery for 23 years until Israeli police received two tip-offs from people claiming to have been shown items from the collection. As it transpired, Naaman Diller, an Israeli cat burglar who gained notoriety in the 1960s, had single-handedly bypassed the museum's security system before stashing the clocks and watches in safes throughout the United States, Europe and Israel.
Following Diller's death in 2004, his widow attempted to sell the items, though she caught and given five year's probation for receiving stolen goods. Of the 106 timepieces, 39 -- including Marie Antoinette's gift -- were restored and returned to the museum, where they remain on display.
The most intricate watch of its day
Patek Philippe Henry Graves Jr Supercomplication, 1932 -- sold for $24 million at Sotheby's in 2014.
The brand new Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime may have sold for $31 million last year, but the watch whose record it broke is steeped with blue-blooded pedigree.
Made for eminent New York banker Henry Graves Jr, and featuring 24 "complications" (in other words, functions beyond telling the time), the co-called Supercomplication timepiece was considered the most intricate watch ever made until Patek Philippe created the Calibre 89 for its 150th anniversary in 1989.
But the fact remains, it's still the most complicated watch created without computer-assisted technology -- featuring a minute repeater with "Westminster" chimes, a stopwatch "chronograph" that can record two simultaneous events, a perpetual calendar, moon phases, indications for sunrise and sunset, and a celestial chart of New York City's night sky, among much else. And it was all drawn, calculated, manufactured and assembled by hand.
Paul Newman's Rolex
Rolex Cosmograph "Paul Newman" Daytona, 1968 -- sold for $17.8 million at Phillips in 2017.
This 1960s chronograph stopwatch isn't made from precious metal, just plain old steel. Nor does it house any masterful complications -- its stopwatch function is based on the same mechanics found in tens of thousands of watches from the period -- and its caseback is crudely, ungrammatically engraved: "Drive Carefully Me."
But this is no ordinary watch. It was Paul Newman's very own Cosmograph Daytona. The ultimate example of the most collectable Rolex, it was gifted to the Hollywood star by his wife Joanne Woodward in 1968, when his passion for motorsport really kicked in (hence the engraving).
The blue-eyed star was regularly photographed wearing the watch, which is distinguished by its "exotic" dial coloration and "mushroom" push buttons -- an unpopular version of the Daytona during the 1960s and '70s, meaning that examples are rare, and good-condition ones with box and papers are even rarer.
Despite its relative simplicity, the watch was the highlight of an already high-profile sale in New York back in 2017, out-performing countless works of haute horlogerie from the world's greatest manufacturers, and effortlessly smashing the world record previously held by a $11.1 million Patek Philippe that had sold in the same room the year before.
This particular example was likely to fetch millions, thanks to its eponymous provenance, but its fantastic condition guaranteed it. It was consigned by James Cox, who, while dating Newman's daughter Nell, was gifted the watch by the star.
"Apparently Pop forgot to wind his wristwatch that morning," Nell Newman recounted in a signed letter accompanying Cox's consignment. "James responded that he didn't know the time and didn't own a watch. Pop handed James his Rolex and said, 'If you can remember to wind this each day, it tells pretty good time.'"
If only he knew what a gift it would turn out to be.
A timepiece to take into space
George Daniels Space Traveller I, 1982 -- sold for $4.6 million at Sotheby's in 2019.
It might only occupy 16th place in the list of most expensive watches ever sold at auction, but this classically turned beauty is still revered for the virtuoso solo watchmaking that went into it.
In terms of watchmaker George Daniels' legacy, it's the coaxial regulating mechanism inside every mechanical Omega that lives on. But his bloody-minded "Daniels Method," which saw him hand-crafting every single component from raw metal without any automation -- let alone additional staff at his remote workshop on the Isle of Man -- was arguably his most impressive feat.
Requiring mastery of over 30 crafts, honed by Daniels through years of restoring antique Breguets, the method limited his career output to just 35 watches, which he made for a handful of wealthy patrons. Yet those 35 watches have led many horologists to regard him as the world's greatest living watchmaker. His most famous creation, the Space Traveller pocket watch, was named in honor of NASA's Apollo program and was "the kind of watch you would need on your package tour to Mars," as Daniels famously said, on account of its celestial time indications.
After seeing Daniels speak at the Manchester School of Horology in the 1990s, teenager Roger Smith picked up a second-hand lathe and a copy of Daniels' book, "Watchmaking," before becoming the legendary watchmaker's one-time apprentice. Now, a Roger W. Smith wristwatch -- also crafted on the Isle of Man, using his late teacher's bequeathed antique tools -- is the closest you'll get to a new George Daniels, and for considerably less (from around $125,000 upwards, if you can get on the waiting list).
A private jet-ready wristwatch
Richard Mille RM 62-01 Airbus Corporate Jets -- valued at $1.3m in 2019.
Aside from the spectacular Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon, valued at $1.75 million, this is the priciest watch you can buy brand-new and off-the-shelf right now.
But this is top-flight, modern horology at its most uncompromising. Renowned for stripped-back, F1-style aesthetics, performance in extreme conditions and cutting-edge materials, Richard Mille has shaken up the dainty, slightly dusty world of traditional Swiss watchmaking.
The branding of his latest creation is aligned with Airbus Corporate Jets, hence the porthole-shaped carbon-titanium composite case. But the innovation doesn't stop there. It boasts a "vibrate" setting (a feature that will be familiar to fans of early-2000s cellphones and pagers) thanks to a tiny off-kilter weight in solid gold that spins at the alarm's allotted time at a blurry 5,400 revs per minute,
alerting your wrist of the set time discreetly.
It also has a whirring "tourbillon" cage that defies gravity's effect on the delicate balance spring. It's made of super-light, super-tough carbon and titanium -- and, for when your personal Airbus touches down, a second time zone feature keeps track of the time back home.
If boardroom bragging rights can also be considered a feature, then count that in, too.