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Living: Seems Like Old Time

4 minute read
Jay Cocks

“Make, movement, rarity,” says Los Angeles Lawyer Jack Quinn. “That’s what the serious collector looks for.” Muses Hans Rohrer, a computer manager in Munich: “These pieces are reverse time machines. They exude a flavor–even a musty smell–of yesterday, a bit of immortality.” Rohrer keeps all his yesterdays in a drawer at home. Quinn keeps the family immortality collection snug in a bank vault, although his journalist wife Joan has been known to wear several pieces of it, simultaneously, on her wrist.

After years of neglect and ignominy, including having their movements cannibalized for spare parts and their cases melted down, old wristwatches, particularly models made from the early 1920s through the ’40s, have come into their own. Auction houses are getting “record prices” for vintage Rolexes and collectible Cartiers, according to Daryn Schnipper, a watch expert at Sotheby Parke Bernet. Sotheby’s had four major auctions in New York in 1984 that prominently featured wristwatches; another, just last week, established several new highs including a record for a 1935 Cartier Tank ($10,000).

It is eloquent testimony to the persistent high stylishness of premium wristwatches that jewelry shops in Milan and Paris will display a 1920s Patek Philippe, made of platinum and curved to conform to the wrist, right next to a new gold model. Antique stores in London will sell, say, a reversible Jaeger- le Coultre or a vintage Audemars Piguet, with only two small windows at the top of the solid gold case, as objets of decorative jewelry, like a piece of Lalique crystal. On the tony reaches of Madison Avenue, Watch Entrepreneur Stewart Unger last fall opened Time Will Tell, a watch boutique that sells everything from period Cartier (a 1930 Tank at around $2,500) to certified Mickey Mouse watches ($500.) “The demand is just about to bubble over,” predicts Edward Faber, who shows a lavish collection of oldies in his jewelry gallery off Fifth Avenue. “These watches are still significantly underpriced.”

Old wristwatches have been often on view in period movies like Chinatown and Chariots of Fire. They also show up with some regularity in fashion layouts of Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. The oldtimers first started to become salable, however, with the late ’70s interest in retro clothes and in reaction to the flood of maddeningly accurate quartz and digital models available at the local pharmacy. “You can get a wafer-thin watch that keeps perfect time for $20 at a dime store,” scoffs Sig Shonholtz, who runs the Second Time Around Watch Co. in Los Angeles. “So what else is there? The only thing left is backlash. It’s humanizing to have something quirky and mechanical on your wrist.”

The cost of such humanization can be considerable: for example, a very nice but unexceptional Patek from the 1930s may start at $1,700. Fanatics point out that newer models are not only much more costly (the least expensive contemporary gold Patek retails in the neighborhood of $3,950) but, as a rule, are much less interestingly styled. “I respect the old watches for design, form and their personality and character,” says Unger. “They all have individuality, just like the people who choose them.” They can also have repair problems. Unger, like many other dealers, gives a year’s guarantee, but prospective owners may fairly be warned to line up a repair shop that knows how to do more than change a battery or install a new quartz movement. “Sometimes it’s difficult to find the parts for the old watches,” says Tony Di Leonardo of Manhattan’s highly regarded Raymond C. Falt watch company. “But the most trouble I see is from watches that have been handled by non- professionals. Some watchmakers may do more damage than the customer.”

Di Leonardo and other experts can make a new part, or modify an existing one, but that is not always necessary. Patek Philippe keeps an inventory of parts for even its old models and, like Rolls-Royce, stands ready to keep anything of its manufacture in good running order. A whim of fashion may have pushed vintage wristwatches to the forefront, but the grace and craft of some of the loveliest pieces give solid indication that after the whim has faded, these small elegances will indeed be truly timeless.

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