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The most expensive watches - and who buys them

Despite wavering financial markets, finely crafted horology is timeless. And the demand for luxury watches is keeping a steady, upward pace.
    “The trend is positive, not only for us but for other brands,” says Julien Tornare, president of Vacheron Constantin N.A. “People are looking for the more exclusive pieces. At the moment, there is no limit to what they will pay.”
What are they buying? According to the Luxury Institute’s 2007 Luxury Brand Status Index survey of watches, IWC is the preferred timekeeper of high net-worth consumers. Next up are Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe. All three are Swiss companies with centuries of lustrous history and reputations for precision. There’s no high-tech here, no quartz or electronic components. Their pieces are handmade by artisans who use the most minute of tools. Although entry prices are under $10,000, most run higher.
    One Patek aficionado is Derrick Broadway of Razny Jewelers in Highland Park and Addison, who says he likes their classic design on the outside and the attention to detail inside.
    “There aren’t a lot of gadgets and gimmicks,” Broadway says. “This is a watch for the gent who knows who he is and what he has and who wants a piece of history and something that holds its value and, in some cases, appreciates in value.”
    Some buyers collect luxury watches; others buy what they can afford and trade up as circumstances allow, Broadway says.
    Patek’s costliest model is the double-faced Sky Moon Tourbillon. The watch has 12 complications, or functions, including a perpetual calendar, moon phases and sky chart. Price: $1 million.
    That’s not the highest price paid for a Patek. The distinction goes to a 1933 pocket watch commissioned by the late New York financier Henry Graves Jr. It has 24 complications and a chart of the nighttime sky over Graves’ home. It sold at a 1999 Sotheby’s auction for $11 million.
    From a fashion standpoint, the top three watchmakers’ designs lean toward stately rather than showy. Innovations from houses such as Corum and Ebel are the ones that flash with precious stones, geometric shapes and rainbow hues.
    “If you spent $100,000, you don’t want something that is out of fashion in a year,” says Hannes Pantli of IWC, International Watch Co. “You’ll want something that remains in the family or can be sold on the secondhand market.”
    At Lester Lampert on Oak Street, Hublot is unapologetically trendy. Hublot stirred controversy in 1980 with the first gold watch fitted with a rubber strap. Said to wear better than leather, rubber has been adopted by some of the traditionalists. “Hublot” means “porthole” in French, and Hublot designs bear resemblance.
    “It’s a very avant garde watch that has a unique, sporty look,” says David Lampert, wearing an oversized “Big Bang” model.
    Boosting demand and price is the exclusivity factor. Annual production of a luxury watchmaker is a fraction of a mass marketer’s output, and the more complex the watch, the fewer made.
    “When you add functions like perpetual calendars that are programmed for 200 years and it knows if the month has 30 or 31 days and if it is a leap year, and it has moon faces and chronographs and different time zones, you’re limiting yourself because it needs a certain quality watchmaker, and there aren’t that many watchmakers around,” says Pantli.
    Then there are limited editions, small collections that commemorate an event or anniversary. Vacheron is releasing a 100-piece U.S. edition, the first in its Overseas sports line with a leather-and-rubber strap. Price: $18,000.
    The company’s most select edition, eight pieces, was Tour de I’lle, a double-faced 16-complication watch, celebrating Vacheron’s 250th anniversary in 2005. They sold for $1.5 million each.
    “With some limited editions, we try to be a little wider so each retailer can have at least one piece,” says Tornare, who wears an Overseas chronograph. “Sometimes they want 10 or 20 pieces.”
    Timex, too, has joined the luxury market. In honor of Valentino’s 45th career anniversary, Timex created 45 diamond-studded, 18kt white gold watches with alligator strap for $40,000 each. Valentino received the first one.
    And Mercedes-Benz partnered with TAG Heuer with a watch available only to SLR McLaren owners.
    “Some buyers like the idea that only a few people in the world have that watch,” says Lampert.
    Among his offerings is a one-of-a-kind 18k Ebel, emblazoned with Lampert’s logo—a stylized leopard—and strapped with faux fur. Price: $34,000.
    Men are more avid watch collectors than women, who tend to view their watches as jewelry rather than investments, says Lampert. “It’s one of those things that men can collect, like cars. My wife collects purses.”

Published: October 14, 2007
Issue: November 2007