'I was offered £80,000 for a watch I bought in 2015 for £7,000'
John is a criminal barrister in his thirties living in London. Money is tight in a middle-class way – he has a wife, a baby in nursery and an expensive mortgage – but in his spare time he trades watches worth six figures, and what started as a hobby has had a measurable impact on his life and finances.
“Watches fascinate me because they are outliers,” he says. “Until recently, they were objects that everyone needed to have, which means they are time capsules for each period – historical items that can invoke the war or the pop art era. It’s this unique intersection of history, design, art, mechanics and engineering that you don’t find elsewhere.”
One of his timepieces belonged to a Czechoslovakian fighter pilot in the Second World War and the scratches and dents are evocative of its extraordinary past; another Seiko model was owned by a Japanese businessman in the 1960s and around its delicate face is an internal rotating bezel showing the time in all the global capitals.
But alongside these historical gems, John has made serious – some would say easy – money from selling big brand watches on the second-hand market. He was offered £80,000 last year for a Patek Philippe model he bought for £7,000 in 2015, and in 2021 sold an Audemars Piguet for six figures that had originally cost him a fraction of that.
“It’s a bit like climbing the housing ladder,” he says. “I started with nothing in 2010 and made some money on a few small designs, and then suddenly found myself in the pandemic negotiating prices above my annual salary.”
Over the past decade, the watch market has exploded. Ten years ago, you could walk into a Rolex or Patek Philippe store and buy one of their most popular watches off the shelf. Now, thanks to a huge discrepancy between supply and demand, there are waiting lists of over a decade around the world and a feverish second-hand market where designs have been going for double, triple or even quadruple their retail price. A Rolex Daytona in steel, for example, would cost £12,500 at retail but was selling last year for £40,000.
This shift has changed the industry. In the place of passionate collectors is a new group of flippers who buy and sell watches purely for profit. Watch crime has also grown exponentially, as evidenced by an incident in Harrods last Saturday when a 13-year-old girl in the Knightsbridge department store described stepping into a pool of blood after a customer was stabbed in what is thought to have been an attempted watch robbery.
“There’s a frenzy because there aren’t that many items that you can sell for so much more than you paid at retail level,” says Adam Golden, the founder of the Menta Watches dealership in Miami. “Tons of people are enthusiastic about the watches but they’ve been joined by people who are enthusiastic about money.”
Golden talks about the increasingly murky association between money laundering and luxury watches in an industry that remains deeply unregulated. He also cites London, Los Angeles and Paris as the three cities where watch crime is out of control. “Under no circumstances would you want to wear a nice watch on the street in any of these places,” he says.
Even celebrities are becoming wary. In 2021, Tour de France cyclist Mark Cavendish was at home when intruders broke into his house and stole two Richard Mille watches worth a total of £700,000; according to one of his friends, the criminals are believed to have first seen him wearing one in a paparazzi photo. Joe Raby, senior operations manager in Gangs and Violence Reduction Services at charity Catch 22, confirms that watch robberies have soared in the capital in the past year.
Watch dealers also live in fear. Raj Jain owns Watch Centre on New Bond Street and has experienced two major burglaries; one when a moped gang cleaned out his store in one minute and 17 seconds and another more recently when they rammed the storefront but were thwarted by a recently installed double door.
“Thieves have realised that wristwatch prices have risen dramatically and are targeting anyone and everyone day or night,” he says. “Recently there was a gang of women known as the Rolex Rippers who sought men with expensive watches, casually hugging or embracing them and removing their watches without the victim’s knowledge.”
As a result – despite owning many beautiful watches – Jain himself mostly wears a copy of a Longines model that aviator Charles Lindbergh designed in the 1930s. John and various other watch collectors I speak to agree that it is no longer safe to wear the most desirable watch brands in London.
To understand how we got to this point, we need to look at why watch crime has become quite so profitable.
In the years after the financial crash, watch collecting went from being a niche interest for older generations into an obsession for the young. American financial analyst Ben Clymer set up a website, Hodinkee, in 2009 which is widely credited with democratising the industry.
“Ben Clymer was hugely influential,” says John. “Hodinkee became a holy grail as it not only put a lot of information out there, but made it fun and social and interesting and in a different realm to scary auctions and stuffy Mayfair showrooms.”
Clymer’s website coincided with the rise of Instagram and the now ubiquitous “wristie” or “watchie”. Celebrities like Brad Pitt, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone and Jennifer Aniston had been accidentally-on-purpose revealing a chunky Rolex or Patek Philippe for a while; now anyone on social media could follow suit.
“Watches have always been partly about status but this rapidly increased in the 2010s,” says Golden. “It tapped into a primordial aspect of human beings about wanting to own the best and wanting other people to see that.”
Conversely, it was in the same time period that – thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones – watches became redundant as timekeeping devices. To save them from going the way of the digital camera – and in retaliation to companies like Apple selling models that track your heart-rate and your sleep cycle – traditional watch brands realised they needed to use emotion to make the case for a mechanical timepiece in a tech era.
They increased the amount of money they were spending on marketing, and partnered with celebrities like George Clooney and Ryan Phillippe and with many of the world’s biggest sports stars. “It is interesting to note which ambassadors brands choose,” says Golden. “Athletes were the first people to do it and since then watch brands have basically gotten every famous person in sport. It creates an association between the act of buying a watch and this peak of male physical prowess.”
The pandemic provided the final shift. As the cryptocurrency market grew and people with jobs accumulated money they couldn’t spend on holidays and restaurants, the sale of luxury goods went into overdrive. The number of collectors proliferated, but brands continued to produce the same amount as they always had, creating a sense of scarcity. Display cabinets sat empty and buying a watch from an actual retailer became an activity reserved for the very rich or those with excellent contacts.
The most obvious question to ask at this point is why brands didn’t just produce more of the products people want to buy. The official answer was a lack of capacity, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Perpetuating the idea that there’s a shortage and that they can’t make enough to satisfy demand works in their favour. They stoked this by advertising more while making it all but impossible to buy anything.
“These brands are worth billions of dollars, if they wanted to build factories to make more watches, they could, but that could also mean killing their golden goose,” says Golden. “I wouldn’t say that they manipulate demand – but do they maintain it.”
As we know, the second hand market turned feverish in response, but over the past six months, the bubble has – if not burst – then gently deflated. The combination of the war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis and the Bitcoin slump has led to an overdue correction of the industry. That same Rolex Daytona that was worth £40,000 last year is selling for about £22,000 in the second-hand market now. Inventories have decreased in value, but interestingly nearly everyone I speak to is relieved to see a return to a more normal state of play.
“I’ve lost money but I still welcome this,” says John, who goes on to tell me about the Tudor Black Bay he bought when his daughter was born, which he inscribed with her name and birthday and which he wears to bathe her and play with her. One day, when he gives it to her, she will know that the marks and scratches on it were made by her.
“An industry should always be driven by people who love it,” he says. “That watch is a good example of something that is worth more to me than any sum of money.”
The investment watches every man wants to own
Buying luxury watches isn’t straightforward and many can’t be purchased by simply walking into a shop. Cultivating relationships with a store, joining a waiting list and asking them to keep you abreast of one you’ve got your eye on will stand you in good stead.
Alternatively, researching second-hand dealers you can trust can also turf up some gems. Go ahead, browse below...
Oyster Perpetual Datejust, £6,950, rolex.com
This watch sprang into being in 1945 and is distinguishable by its bi-metal strap and the signature 18k gold hour markers
Tag Heuer Carrera, £2,400 tagheuer.com
Synonymous with adventure the Carrera’s a solid ‘entry’ watch for those looking to join an exclusive horological club.
Omega Seamaster Diver Chronograph, £5,100, omegawatches.com
Sporting panache is second nature to Omega, who have outfitted astronauts for the moon and boast a stellar line-up of diving watches that were good enough for James Bond…
Cartier Tank Must, £4,250, cartier.com
The 1920s lines evoke a refinement from another era. There are myriad iterations, but this in classic steel is a timeless investment.
Patek Philippe Nautilus, £24,770, pragnell.co.uk
The chunky-yet-sculptural Nautilus, born in 1976, is distinctive for being the rarefied watchmaker's most sporty model.
Navitimer B01 Chronograph, breitling.com
Breitling’s history in the world of pilot watches goes back to 1942 when the founder began creating watches to help navigation in the strange new world of aviation.