Forget about all those predictions that smartphones would make checking our wrists obsolete. We may not need watches, but apparently we still want watches—very expensive ones. According to the Robb Report, fine watches generated over $600 million in sales last year among top auction houses Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips. The top 20 pieces alone accounted for more than $50 million.
Trade site Time and Tide came up with three takeaways from these top 20 sales. First, despite all the interest in heavy metal watches, people still want their bling to have lots of gold and diamonds. Second, though people talk about their Rolexes, the king of collectible watches is still Patek Philippe. And finally, rarity is still an important factor, as the most expensive watches traded had small production numbers.
The mind-boggling numbers aside, most watch collectors are everyday people with everyday budgets who fall into two categories: those who value a grandfather’s pocket watch or grandmother’s elegant wrist watch (whose precious stones may or may not be real) and those who simply want to own a single statement watch. In most cases, the watches people treasure also have an interesting history.
Jim Graham, The Hunt’s contributing editor, has a pocket watch made in about 1860. One of two passed down to him, it belonged to his second great-grandfather, Herman Frederick Vissman, who was born in Germany and emigrated to Louisville, Kentucky, where he founded several businesses and became involved in horseracing. “For me, it’s kind of nice to think of HF, as he was known, holding the watch I now own,” says Graham, “timing his horse, Leamingtonian, as he ran in the second Kentucky Derby in 1876.”
For the past 22 years, George Morrison has repaired watches and clocks at his studio near Coatesville. Many of his customers have inherited their watches—and often ones that no longer work. “They write them off and set them aside, but they seldom throw them away,” he says. “Then they suddenly get interested and are often surprised that I can fix them. But while women generally bring in watches they’ve inherited, men often like to buy watches at antiques markets.”
Morrison is a living encyclopedia of watch manufacturers—especially American companies that have often been bought and sold, many to Swiss companies. “I see a lot of Hamiltons, partly because they were once made in Lancaster,” he says. “Waltham and Elgin are also popular models. I also see Longines and Bulovas and have a lot of parts for them.”
The Hamilton Watch Company was a fixture in downtown Lancaster from 1892 to 1969, and its production complex on Wheatland Avenue was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Acquired by Swatch, its watches were worn by many explorers and film stars, and its marketing department often used their adventures as a sales tool.
Morrison went to watch school partly because he had a pocket watch and wanted to know how it worked. “I joined the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors and decided to take a class. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do—repair watches,” says Morrison, who left his job as a pipefitter.
Americans once excelled at making watches and clocks because they were inventive—more so than Europeans, who were trained to do everything the way their parents or mentors had done before them. “Before electricity, think of the tolerances they made these watch movements to—and using only hand tools to do so,” Morrison notes.
Though Hamilton has moved on, the Lancaster area still has important trappings of the watch business. Morrison and most of the area’s horologists (as those in the trade are formally known) went to school at the NAWCC School of Horology in nearby Columbia. The NAWCC also operates its own major museum of watches and clocks there. One of the literal crown jewels in its collection is a pocket watch that once belonged to Queen Caroline Bonaparte Murat of France.
The Hamilton Watch Company was a fixture in downtown Lancaster from 1892 to 1969, and its production complex on Wheatland Avenue was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Acquired by Swatch, its watches were worn by many explorers and film stars.