Pretty much anything can be, and is, collected. People will accumulate all sorts of objects, for many different reasons.
Some are completely understandable. Sports fans, for instance, often fall into collecting memorabilia of their favorite team or player. Autograph hunters tend to do it for the thrill of the chase or to amass the most comprehensive or obscure book of signatures.
Other types are a little more difficult to get your head around. A librarian from Australia recently sold (yep, sold) a 22.1 gram collection of his own belly button fluff to a local museum for an undisclosed sum. Graham Barker now has his own place in the Guinness Book of World records, narrowly beating another navel lint collector, whose new wife ordered him to knock it off; proving, if nothing else, that there really is someone out there for everyone.
While some people do it purely for the money, seeking out the objects with the best future investment potential, they are in the minority. Most have a real emotional attachment to the various items they amass, and see it as a way to preserve something of the past.
It can even form the basis of a career, as the desire to know more about a certain subject leads to accruing more and more related objects. You won’t find many geologists working today, for example, who didn’t have a rock collection when they were a kid, and undoubtedly still do.
Where watches are concerned, they are one of those items that are so diverse in terms of style, history and value that they attract collectors of every kind.
The vintage market, particularly in recent years, has grown so much that investors have started to pay truly astonishing amounts of money for the rarest pieces, confident of a healthy return in a relatively short space of time.
But watches are also great storytellers, with each one making a positive connection with the person collecting it, and telling us a lot about their individual character.
This sort of financial and emotional overlap is perhaps closest to one other type of collecting. Watches and cars share many of the same traits, as do those who accumulate them.
Both, if chosen carefully, can become extremely profitable assets. Classic cars now rank top in the alternative investment stakes, their value growing by 192% in the last 10 years. Yet even the best performers in the automobile world are still the ones that have the most nostalgic appeal. Buyers are going for the marques and models they remember most fondly from their youth, the ones they had posters of on their bedroom walls. Porsche 911s from the 1980s are in high demand, as are Corvette Stingrays.
With watches, only a few select brands have the potential to go on to make significant amounts of money; the likes of Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and, way out in front, Rolex.
Where the most parallels between the two occur are in their mechanics and their context.
The intricacies in the inner workings of cars and watches will always be inherently fascinating, and both only seem to get more impressive and absorbing as modern electronic technology progresses. We can appreciate the end result of an Apple Watch or a Tesla Model S, but we can’t see it happen. They are remarkable, but uninvolving. Most of all, we don’t associate them with anyone we admire.
With watches and classic cars, there is a past we can look to and often a link with some form of icon. Steve McQueen fans will always treasure the 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback he drove in Bullitt and the Rolex Explorer II named after him. James Bond enthusiasts seek out Aston Martin DB5s and Submariners, or maybe the Omega Seamaster 300 from more recent years.
No matter what the objects in question, whether it’s bottle tops with no intrinsic value, or artwork worth millions of dollars, all collectors have a form of obsession. It can range from a healthy preoccupation all the way through to the sort of hoarding that requires professional intervention.
The act of collecting itself is said to be something hardwired into us, a leftover from the earliest days of the species when we would stockpile food for when the hunting was bad.
Now, with all the tacos we could eat just a phone call away, there’s no longer any need and so we’ve turned to other things.
With watches, although it is easily possible to spend vast amounts on a collection, many of the most interesting are not actually worth a great deal in purely monetary terms. These are the ones made up of pieces with huge sentimental value—heirlooms that have been passed down over the generations that remind their owners of friends or family members. Like our ancestors storing excess food, there’s something comforting about it.
It’s the same story with things like teddy bears or doll houses or a particular item of furniture—it provides a link to an earlier time. The polar opposite of an investment, these are the collections that are not for sale at any price.
Watch collecting is a fairly new phenomenon, but one that is becoming incredibly popular and accessible to an ever growing number of people. Really only starting in the 1980s, it could be said to be still in its infancy, but even so, it has aspects it shares with other far older types of collecting.
As well as the world of classic cars, there are certain similarities with fine wine, in that there are pieces available today that are going to mature with age and become much more valuable.
The more time passes, the more watches will make the crossover from being ‘vintage’ to ‘antique’ and attract a different type of collector—one who admires historic items of any description rather than just watches for their own sake.
What is in no doubt is that it is a very interesting time to be a fan of horology, and a wholesome obsession with these miniature works of art is no bad thing.