Watch collectors look at more than face value

For watch collectors, it's the beautiful object that gives the pleasure, rather than how much it is worth

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 2:13am

Hong Kong is watch-mad. Every other store in prime shopping districts such as Causeway Bay or Tsim Sha Tsui seem to be selling high-end watches. And people do not just buy one, they buy several, often spending tens of thousands of dollars on a collection of timepieces.

Non-collectors might wonder why people would routinely spend such vast sums on devices that offer such a minor utility. If you want to know the time, surely, just look at your mobile phone.

To see why someone would spend HK$195,900 on, for example, a Rolex Yacht-Master II, you have to understand that Hong Kong is a Mecca for watch collectors. As a tax-free hub, it draws buyers from all over Asia and, in particular, the mainland, who come for the cheapest timepieces in the region.

Watchmakers in turn make a priority of supplying Hong Kong with the most in-demand items. Watches that may require a six-month waiting list in Europe are available immediately in this city.

"Hong Kong is the best," says Olivier Talon, a manager at the watch retailer Roger Dubuis. "You can find a better range and better limited edition numbers. If there's a limited-edition watch, all the best numbers, like one, eight, and 88, will automatically be given to Hong Kong."

The high supply and the proliferation of shops and marketing feed a watch-owning culture in Hong Kong. Locals find themselves drawn into owning multiple numbers of watches.

Hans Brasseler, a corporate lawyer, moved to Hong Kong six years ago and has indulged his interest in watches during his time here. He now owns 10 watches, which range in value from US$3,000 to US$10,000.

Brasseler says: "I generally have two watches in my apartment: a dressy one to come to work wearing, and a sporty one to wear on the weekends. Every so often, I rotate. I'm not a real collector, in that I wear my watches. They don't sit shrink-wrapped in factory packaging. It hurts the resale value a bit, but why else buy?"

His "buy to wear" attitude was influenced by a meeting with the master watchmaker Kurt Klaus, who invented the perpetual calendar. "It was incredible. If you are a fashion freak, then it was the equivalent of meeting Karl Lagerfeld. He's a legend," Brasseler says. He recalls that Klaus had around US$250,000 of watches on him but to Brasseler's surprise, the watches were scratched and dinged.

"I said, 'Mr Klaus these are such beautiful watches, but no offence, they look like crap.' He got kind of mad at me and said in a strong German accent, 'My friend, these are not jewellery. These are tools. They are meant to be used. We are not women!' He would just throw the watches over to me and they'd bounce off the table. I was amazed, and those things stuck with me. Ever since, I don't spend that much time polishing my watches."

People buy watches for personal reasons. The items confer status. For men, it is typically the most expensive item they can wear, and a rare opportunity to bring flash and personality to conservative business dress.

"I'm in a suit five, sometimes six days a week," Brasseler says. "There's only three ways for men to show individuality: through cufflinks, shoes, and watches. I can't wear a yellow and green tie to meet a client."

Watches are also ideal collectibles. The items are well traded and tend to hold their value. You will get at least 70 per cent of your money on a Panerai, or 100 per cent or more back on a Rolex. A used watch such as the Rolex Daytona in steel will cost the same as or more than a new one, thanks to strong interest from collectors.

Jackson Lam, a commercial property fund manager, owns more than 20 watches, including the latest limited edition Audemars Piguet, several Rolexes and a Patek Philippe.

Lam says: "I think the waiting is the most enjoyable part. When you don't have it, you go on the internet just to look at it and there's a longing to see that watch. After you have it, it's still nice but there's more joy in the anticipation than having it."

He has been on the waiting list for an A. Lange & Sohne Zeitwerk Striking Time for over a year now: the watch displays time in numerals, digital clock style, and costs in the neighbourhood of US$100,000.

Ultimately it is the owning rather than the value that makes watch collectors happy, however. Lam says he got huge satisfaction from the first watch he owned, a modest Tudor that cost just HK$11,800. Tudors are a sort of "baby Rolex", Lam says. "It's what somebody buys when they can't really afford a Rolex."

Lam found this first watch the most satisfying. "I just finished school and that was really expensive for me. There was no need for an expensive watch back then, so it was a real luxury. I looked at it and touched it every day for a whole month. I was really happy."