Et Cetera Watches

How to build a watch collection


Image Credit: Devajit Bora

The first of a two-part series in which watch experts help a novice start a timeless collection. First up is horologist Aurel Bacs, who runs the watch department at the London auction house Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo. He explains why knowledge of history could make all the difference to a watch collection.

If you’re one of those who think that a watch is just used to tell the time when you don’t have your mobile phone handy, stop reading now. This piece is for those serious about time; serious enough to invest lakhs of rupees in building a collection of watches that, well, transcends time. Watch collecting is a romance, says Aurel Bacs, not a one-night stand.

Step one: Don’t spend lavishly to buy the most expensive watches in the market. You’ll end up with an accumulation, not a collection. “A collection should not be defined by price alone,” says Bacs. So, just because that Longines costs more than your luxury car is no reason to buy it—unless it fits into your collection. “A collection,” says Bacs, “should be built by subject category”, and not by expense.

He gives the example of the Dirty Dozen, a set of 12 watches that the British Ministry of Defence had made for soldiers during World War II. These watches were commissioned to 12 manufacturers including Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre, International Watch Co., Lemania, and Longines. Some 144,000 watches (12,000-odd sets of 12 each) were made, and acquiring the full dozen is something of a quest for watch aficionados. In terms of price, they aren’t terribly expensive—between $1,000 (Rs 67,000) and $5,000. To put that in context, a Vacheron Tour de l’Ile can set you back by $1,250,000. At current exchange rates, that’s a tad over Rs 8 crore. It’s a great watch, sure, but does it fit in your collection?

Bacs knows a thing or two about watches. He was the head of the watch department at Christie’s for a decade, and when he moved to auction house Phillips in 2014, it created headlines in the horology world. So when Bacs says that just collecting the most expensive watches is not the way to do it, you take note.

Bacs tells me about collectors in India who have bought over 1,000 contemporary watches in two to three years. “Such people will one day look at their collections and realise they can't grow it anymore. They realise that they have the same watch with 10 different case materials.” If they discover vintage at this point, says Bacs, their collecting starts again. Bacs is a great votary of building collections with history. “It is about how consistent the brand has been, not how great it was in just one decade...The history of the brand projects a legitimate story,” he says.

For watches, the mechanical history of a brand gets the points. Watches with a rich history will have a higher resale value. These can be from manufacturers that are pioneers in making waterproof watches, or the watch that was worn by Neil Armstrong during his first trip to the moon, or the one that Edmund Hillary wore when he summited Mount Everest.

But is it easy for vintage collectors to find, say, a Swiss model in India? Most definitely, says Bacs. India has some horological treasures like British Raj-era watches that are highly embellished and have intricate details. Cartier used to sell its Mystery Clocks in India, and in the 1920s, Rolex used to sell its Bubblebacks and Princes here.

So, is there an approach that Indian watch collectors take that is different from those in other countries? “There is no such thing as a Japanese or an American or an Indian watch collector,” says Bacs. He says he has met Indians who collect only the highest-level Patek Philippes as well as those who own 25 Hublot Big Bangs—the two couldn’t be more different in style and approach. And this is true for collectors across the world—collections and tastes can vary.