Geoffroy Ader, the department head of Geneva Watches at Sotheby's, discusses the growing strength of the haute horlogerie market.
You've got your Ferrari, yacht and designer wardrobe. What more do you need? A gorgeous watch. Due to the heightened interest in watches, the haute horlogerie market is raking in annual auction sales of over $200 million. Then add on the phenomenal retail sales.
Paradoxically, as the need for a watch has virtually vanished, the desire for a rare, stylish wristwatch is greater than ever. Increasing numbers of people are splashing out on expensive watches, whether they're vintage classics or new, highly mechanical designs.
This April's editions of Basel World, the world watch and jewelry trade show, and the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, the Geneva watchmaking fair, reported record turnouts. Following these two events, Sotheby's and Christie's are holding auctions of important watches in Geneva on May 11, 2008, and May 12, 2008, respectively. These two sales will be observed closely, given how the auction market for watches has grown from around $30 million in 1997 to $200 million last year.
We caught up with Geoffroy Ader, the 36-year-old department head of Geneva Watches, to discuss the market's development.
How did you become involved in this business?
Since the age of 12, I've always liked watches. I come from a family of auctioneers, and in 1995 when I started working with my father at Drouot [the French auction venue], I decided to specialize in watches because it was the thing I liked. At the time, it was a very small market, and everybody said, "How will you ever make a living?" Now, as the watch market has become more popular, some of them wish they had gone into watches and not furniture!
My first sale was at Drouot on December 2, 1995; it was a very small sale with a turnover of $80,000. I started by selling Swatch watches, and have now done almost 100 sales in Paris, Monaco, New York, Hong Kong and London.
What is your analysis of the watch market?
My analysis is that the market is very strong. People are thinking that the more complicated the watch – in terms of chronographs, tourbillions and other devices – the better it is.
What trends did you observe at Geneva's watch fair, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH)?
I noticed a revival trend, such as Rolex relaunching its Milgauss model from the 1970s. The other trend is that people, including women, want to buy big watches. Whereas your grandmother and mother may wear a small watch, you might wear a man's sized watch. Watches are much bigger today. The other trend is rarity, in terms of the brand, model and type of metal used. Everything that is white is very popular, such as white gold, platinum and steel.
Did you notice more decorative designs?
The trend of diamonds on watches is not new. I don't see many of my clients wearing a watch because it has diamonds on it, but male consumers in the Middle East and Asia like diamond and ruby settings more than we do. But the real essence of horlogerie is in the mechanics. A watch is also a sign of distinctiveness. When a woman looks at a man, she notices what kind of shoes and watch he is wearing!
According to the SIHH, Asia has become the priority market. What are the specific demands of these consumers?
I think that they see the watch as a pet. You find joy in a watch because it is a living object and you can fiddle around with it. What Asian consumers like is not the fact that a watch tells the time, but that it is a mechanical, technical wonder. Every time a new, high-quality model comes out, they rush to the store to buy it. Sometimes they don't wear it but just keep it in a drawer. Chinese people love mechanics and are really into strong mechanical watches and the savoir-faire of Swiss watchmaking.
Which brands stand out for you?
Patek Philippe is like the Picasso of watches, and Rolex is like the Francis Bacon of watches. It's trendier but can be more or less as expensive. In our watches sale in New York on April 24, 2008, a Rolex fetched $505,000 [following an estimate of $100,000-$150,000], which set a new world record for a Rolex sports watch. There are three other popular brands: Audemars Piguet, Breguet and Omega.
How much is the market worth today?
The market value for 2007 at auction was $200 million, up from $180 million in 2006 and up from around $30 million in 1997. It has increased by 10-20 percent every year. The watch sales appeared 20 years ago and in the last two decades it has become a young, stable, adult market for connoisseurs. With time, we'll have fewer vintage watches in good condition, which means the prices will go up according to a watch's condition and its provenance. The market is supported by the industry that keeps bringing out new models.
Would you describe it as a male market?
Yes, it's like cars. The salesrooms are at least 95 percent, if not 100 percent, full of men. This is regrettable, and I'd like to see more women in the salesroom. But we're starting to see some crossover between the jewelry and the watch department, and could see women entering the market in this way.
What are the differences between men's and women's approach to watches?
Men look for the mechanics; women look for the design. A woman's vintage watch is bought for its decorative aspects and settings, such as diamonds and onyx, which was a popular design in the 1930s. The brand that is really in advance with women's watches is de Grisogono, which is putting black diamonds on them.
How do you expect consumer behavior to develop?
The market for me is perfect as it is today but it would be great if more people became interested in it. If Asian people went towards vintage watches, rather than just new models, this would be a good thing that would lead to even more competition.
What is the most impressive watch that you have discovered in your career?
The "Trossi Leggenda", which is the biggest chronograph ever produced by Patek Philippe and it was owned by Count Carlo Felice Trossi, who was the first Ferrari manager. It will be sold in our sale on Sunday and is estimated at CHF 2 million or $1.9 million.
Which watch do you most like wearing on your wrist?
The one that all my friends gave me for my 30th birthday, which is a Rolex GMT-Master, and the other is a Patek Philippe that my wife gave me when we got married. I have about four or five watches, and I also like to help make collections for other people.
Which model would you favor for a woman's wrist?
The most elegant wristwatches are by Cartier. Cartier's "Tank" is classical.
What is your definition of luxury?
It has to be pleasant and useful, this is why it's the perfect definition of wristwatches.
As an expert, luxury is to be free from any pressure. You always give advice to a collector as if you were making the decision yourself, and you have to put yourself in the client's mind. But they make up their minds themselves.
If luxury were:
A watch with a high provenance because then it's unique of its kind.
A moment spent with my wife and my children; this is a real luxury.
The Queen of England because she represents the essence of the country. Then there's the castle and the parades, and all of that is luxury. On the one hand, you have the luxury of the Queen, and on the other hand that of the Kennedys.
Paris, because everywhere you go, everything you see is beautiful. I like the museums, the streets, the architecture, and I.M. Pei's pyramid in front of the Louvre.
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