Chronopassion Vintage watches and unique pieces
Visionary retailer Laurent Picciotto admits to feeling somewhat bemused by the vintage vogue and the attendant saleroom frenzy, and looks back on the golden age of haute horlogerie.
If there’s one retailer who cannot be accused of being tight-lipped, it’s the founder of the Parisian watch mecca, Chronopassion. Laurent Picciotto was also invited to be master of ceremonies at the 2009 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. Comfortably ensconced in a club armchair, in his Ali Baba’s cave of an office on the lower floor of his store, surrounded by guitars and model motorbikes, he muses on the wisdom of vintage watch collectors. It’s his belief that, a few decades hence, we will look back on the 2000s as haute horlogerie’s most fertile years.
Laurent Picciotto in his office © WorldTempus/Brice Lechevalier
Why buy a watch for 5 million when it cost $300?
“The stories we’re hearing from the sale rooms these days are quite disturbing,” declares the man who entrusted a good portion of his personal collection to Aurel Bacs (Phillips, Bacs & Russo), to auction off in Hong Kong last spring. “At the sale, I met many collectors and clients who had switched over to vintage. I told them I was puzzled: you say you’re not interested in contemporary haute horlogerie, but you know very well that every object, no matter what it is, will be vintage one day! And beginning in the year 2000, we saw the biggest surge in haute horlogerie creation in the entire history of the wristwatch.” A number of factors came into play: “A resurgence of complications, growing confidence among independents, the emergence of vigorous new niche brands, which were enthusiastically adopted by the market, with relatively buoyant prices, a reaction from the big institutional brands, who rose to the challenge of contemporary haute horlogerie, confirming that they too could outdo themselves...” Laurent Picciotto believes that some creations were more contemporary art than watchmaking. “There was genius in the air! I think the first decade of the 21st century will be recognised as a milestone, and in due course enthusiasts will look back with nostalgia on a decade when we had such a concentration of talent.”
Gibson Les Paul electric guitar
As a musician himself, he compares the 2000s in watchmaking to the 1970s in rock, which witnessed the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. He expands his argument: “You meet clients who have turned their backs on contemporary watches, and now look at pieces in terms of their rarity value alone, regardless of their intrinsic worth. Watches that were mass-produced back then in huge quantities, that cost a few hundred dollars, some people are now prepared to spend 5 million on them.” For this enlightened French retailer, these vintage watches often have no technical interest, unlike contemporary haute horlogerie watches. “I am extremely familiar with this kind of approach, and you either go for it or you don’t. But a watch isn’t going to magically transform into an haute horlogerie creation because someone’s paid 5 million for it at auction.” Making a further comparison with the music world, he takes the example of a 1959 Gibson Les Paul, considered the Holy Grail of electric guitars: “Not many were made, they were hand-crafted, not mass-produced, and they cost $265. Today they can go for $200,000, up to a million; even more if they were owned by a star. But the big difference is that, when I play this guitar, I know that there hasn’t really been anything better, either before or since. However, when it comes to the standardised movements in vintage watches, these days the industry is producing movements that are far higher quality, and more original.” The retailer concludes (as we would expect, given his business interests): “The vintage thing is quite disconcerting. Sometimes, it feels like a mug’s game.”
The Only Watch phenomenon
In case you missed it, the biennial Only Watch sale saw 50 unique pieces sold for a total of over ten million francs. That’s very good news for myopathy research, which took all the proceeds, and for the watch industry, which can take it as a solid mark of confidence. The results varied significantly depending on the brand; seven watches went for CHF 100,000 or more. Is it an indicator of future brand value? According to Laurent Picciotto, “The role of dealers in the vintage market should not be underestimated; values have been fabricated by the markets for years, in our industry as in others. When you look at Only Watch, all the elements come together: not only the intrinsic strength of the brand, but also the various interests of certain buyers, who might prefer to buy an extremely expensive unique piece to preserve the value of their collection.”
Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar, unique piece created for Only Watch © Audemars Piguet
The unique piece by Audemars Piguet was one of the standout results, with the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar selling for 800,000 francs. “We’re starting to see Royal Oaks from 1972 being sold for around 100,000 euros, which makes Audemars Piguet a brand whose prices make it attractive for both old and new watches. But it has to be sustained.” While on the theme of the Only Watch ‘100,000 Club’, Laurent Picciotto shares his thoughts on the use of the term ‘unique piece’: “A truly unique piece implies the creation of something more consequential than just a dial. Look at the approach of Urwerk and Laurent Ferrier, for example; there’s a truly emotional dimension, and that has far more meaning to me. They have executed a stylistic exercise that pushes the boundaries. But this is Urwerk, not Audemars Piguet, so the bidding stopped at 100,000. Which, in fact, is pretty cheap for a piece that genuinely conveys the emotion of its two creators!” Noting that some companies make an effort, while others make a mockery of the concept, the champion of independent watchmakers recalls the Only Watch timepieces created in 2005 and 2007 by Richard Mille and Philippe Starck: “Their association was exemplary, and their creative process was authentic, and that’s part of what gives watch brands an attractive history.”
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