Spending It: Wrist Action

How to purchase expensive timepieces and watches

Nello, the owner of the trendy eponymous eatery on Manhattan's Upper East Side, is a connoisseur with wide-ranging tastes. The amiable Romanian's kitchen is famous for its white truffle dishes and Florentine-style steaks. Yet Nello says his real passion is collectible timepieces. That's right, watches. It began in his childhood, he says, when he heard the chimes of a Vacheron Constantin pocket watch that was given to his family by Romanian King Michael. Since then, he's acquired 20 prized timepieces.

“I'm not collecting for investment,” says Nello. “I love the aesthetics, the mechanics. Fine watches accent a man's individuality, and they're fun, a joy to look at.”

Fine watches can also be excellent overall investments — assets that are fun both to own and appraise.

“Timepieces from long-established houses, watches that are little mechanical wonders, retain their value,” says Osvaldo Patrizzi, chairman of Antiquorum Auctioneers, the world's leading auctioneer of vintage watches. “Today's buyer wants art on his wrist, a watch that clearly speaks to tradition.”

New watch fanciers would be wise to first decide why they are buying a wristwatch. To be cool? Or to be cool and be able to sell it a few years hence and get their money back? Collectability is based on many factors: The quality of the precious metal, the number of functions (does it have, for example, a chronograph, perpetual calendar, “minute repeater” or chime?), the condition and the amount of such timepieces made. The more complicated the watch's movements and functions and the more elaborate the handiwork (guilloche dials or other hand-engraved embellishments), the more value the watch is likely to retain.

Matthew Morse, New York editor of the magazine WatchTime, says, “There are attractive, reasonably priced steel timepieces. Yet, if you don't want to lose 20 to 30 percent in value the moment you buy, choose a pricier watch with panache. Brands with mystique have definite liquidity. They can be stockpiled for either psychological security or to hide assets from estranged wives and the IRS.”

Morse cites two models in particular that are all the rage. One is the radiant Chopard L.U.C. 1.96. In yellow gold with understated smooth lines, this stunning piece sports a $10,250 price tag. The other is the sporty 44mm from Pannerai, this year's hot watch among Hollywood's conspicuous consumers. A virtual Hummer H2 for the wrist, promising “big men big adventures,” this World War II Italian Navy favorite, starting at around $3,000, is being heavily promoted.

If you're serious about collecting and investing, it pays to do your homework. Attend auctions to see which pieces retain their value over time. (For a listing of upcoming events and prices of watches sold at auction, check out www.antiquorum.com.) Read watch magazines (such as WatchTime and International Wristwatch) to learn the terminology. Always go comparison shopping. And be wary of Internet “deals.”

You might do well to stick to the big names. Foremost among these is Patek Philippe, the watchmaker universally acclaimed as the “Rolls Royce” of the industry. Patek Philippe's Calatravas ($8,500 in yellow gold) is considered one of the ultimate heirloom watches, and it lives up to the billing. The World Time watch is another Patek Philippe favorite. Its self-winding instruments simultaneously display the hour in two time zones and feature a transparent caseback that allows a full appreciation of its 53-jewel mechanism. In rose gold, today's hottest metal, the World Time retails for $18,950.

In addition to producing top-quality timepieces, Patek Philippe endears itself to collectors by buying back many of its own pieces at auction to showcase in its Geneva museum, which helps keep the prices high. Many rarer Pateks have appreciated by 500 percent since the mid-1990s — a trend that could continue. “An influx of Asian and Middle Eastern collectors, even during these troubled economic times, will assure the continued 20 percent to 50 percent appreciation of many timepieces,” Morse says.

Jaeger-LeCoultre also offers a handsome multiple-time-zone watch. Combining a round, silvered dial with day/night display and an aperture with the names of the world's leading cities, its automatic Master Geographique is clever, elegant and reasonably priced at $7,100 (in stainless steel).

“The Geographique is the best travel watch,” raves Leon Adams, owner of New York's Cellini watch salon. “Perfect for sport or dressy occasions, it's great looking, easy to operate and Jaeger is a quality brand with real marquee value.”

Adams himself wears a platinum Lange 1 ($28,600), the signature triumph from the industry's newest phenomenon, A. Lange & Sohne. Destroyed during World War II, the German company's factory didn't resume production until 1994. Now, Lange rivals Patek in panache and artistry. The 53-jewel Lange 1 is widely acclaimed for its trademark oversize date window and striking silver dial with off-center hour and minute hands. In rose gold, this distinctive looking piece is seductive, even at $19,800.

Vacheron Constantin is the world's oldest continuous maker of watches (since 1755). Its latest gems are the Malte Large Calendar Window ($11,900) and the tonneau-shaped Malte Tourbillion ($89,000), a modern classic offering the stunning combination of sword-faceted hands and indices in a rose gold case.

If Patek is the Rolls and Vacheron the Bentley, two other brands at least win honorable mention. Chopard complements its sponsorship of an Italian road race with the self-winding Mille Miglia ($3,250), while IWC's rhodium-plated GST Perpetual Calendar ($14,000) might very well make your heart race.

Finally, if you must go to extremes (and can afford to), try Audemars Piguet, where the future is celebrated in its $155,000 Royal Oak Concept wristwatch, an indestructible, octagonal delight fashioned from cobalt and super alloys.

Whatever your passion, take Nello's advice and select a watch that truly seizes the moment. “It's a joy to see my daughter's eyes light up when I show her my collection. She's appreciating beauty, and that's what watches are all about.”

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