In an era when you can order “bespoke” suits over the Internet, and everything from an iPhone to a fragrance can be personalized, the concept of customization gets a bit watered down. However, that doesn’t mean the trend is on the wane. Take Vacheron Constantin’s recently completed 891-component, 17-complication Vladimir watch, with its white gold guilloche-paneled dial and 12 zodiac signs hand-carved about the flanks of a burly 18-karat pink gold case. Four years in the making for an undisclosed owner, the Vladimir is the ultimate one-upping of the brand’s iconic $1.6 million Tour de l’ile 250th anniversary model. It also serves as the ultimate calling card for the company’s ever-growing special-order service, Atelier Cabinotiers, which was launched in 2006 to meet high demand.
“The Tour de l’ile was the most complicated watch in the world at the time, but the owner of the Vladimir wanted one more complication,” says Vacheron’s North American president, Hugues de Pins. In his airy Fifth Avenue office, fresh off a trip to Dallas, where he helped inaugurate the North American Institute of Swiss Watchmaking (NAIOSW), de Pins holds forth on another recent Atelier specimen, Philosophia, through which the owner wanted to express his laissez-faire joie de vivre. The end result is a surprisingly simple, exactitude-skewering, moon-faced tourbillon without a minute hand (though the exact time can be heard via minute repeater). And as if that weren’t enough, an American customer is currently awaiting the arrival of the most complicated pocket watch in history. At Atelier, the question is not how much are you willing to spend, but how far you can push their team — a master watchmaker, guillocheur, enameler, gemsetter, engraver, and their attendant artisans — who work in a secret, light-flooded, invite-only room unknown to most employees at the firm’s Geneva headquarters. Atelier deals with some 30 projects at any one time, so you might think of it as the DARPA lab of the watchmaking universe.
While Vacheron eagerly tests the outer boundaries of the complication realm, they draw the line on aesthetics, ensuring they conform to house standards. “If you’re a big fan of the Dallas Cowboys, and you want a helmet on your dial, we might ask you to rethink that and try to suggest some different ideas and maybe do a star somewhere,” jokes de Pins, noting that Atelier sends customers video and photo updates of their watches during the multiyear design and build process.
In this growing field, the custom concept exists on a sliding scale. Changing dials, metals, and movements is one thing, but a totally unique watch — built from the ground up with its own aesthetic profile and inimitable complications — is the Everest summit for the most rarefied of collectors, or what Benjamin Clymer, founder of the industry watchdog blog Hodinkee, calls the “nano-segment” of the industry. Not only do you need to be a “friend” of Vacheron — or Patek Philippe or any other top firm — even to make this type of ask, you have to petition the watchmaker as to why you deserve such a special-order commission, which can take upwards of five years to complete. Clymer recalls that a friend of his spent 12 years on the waiting list for a watch by Philippe Dufour, widely considered the top independent watchmaker in the world, who got his start restoring 19th- and early 20th-century pocket watches.
Dufour, unlike his contemporaries, doesn’t actually make unique watches. “Some people ask me, ‘Could you do this? Or this? Or this?’” he explains. “I say, ‘Of course I could, but I’m not going to do it because it’s not going to be my watch anymore.’ I say, ‘Okay, I’ll do it and put your name on it.’ They say, ‘No, I want a Philippe Dufour.’ And I say, ‘But it’s not a Philipee Dufour.’ I make my model, and if people like it, they order it.”
In fact, the only unique timepiece Dufour ever made was his first, a 19-line minute repeater grande sonnerie pocket watch, which he tried to market but couldn’t because he wasn’t a known quantity in the early ’80s. After friends suggested working for a brand, he sold the design to Audemars Piguet, who ordered five watches, which took him three years to complete. Then he went back to his Swiss studio and emerged two and a half years later with a historic grande et petite sonnerie wristwatch model, made in an edition of six, one of which fetched nearly $620,000 at a sale of important watches at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this past April. Still, Dufour won’t relent to market pressures. “I refuse orders every week for Simplicity because my production is not big enough,” says Dufour, referring to his most recent model, which just closed out with its 200th example in September. Adhering to the name, the wristwatch comes with three case choices (platinum, white gold, or pink gold), two dials (white gold dial with Roman numerals or guilloche in gray or white), and a relatively modest price range, from $54,000 to $68,000.
Dufour is currently planning to launch a new wristwatch from his two-person workshop next year. “I don’t like to talk about it until I’m finished, but in terms of complications it’s between the grande sonnerie and Simplicity.” Even the most well connected of collectors can expect four-year waits out of the gate.
“Today everybody thinks it’s all about money, but it’s not. It’s about understanding what the watchmaker wants to express through his watches,” explains Geoffroy Ader, European head of watches at Sotheby’s in Geneva, which rarely sees these one-offs at auction. That said, Sotheby’s is pressing further into the vein of independent watchmakers — and the exclusivity associated with them. Its biggest get is the landmark George Daniels Horological Collection sale on November 6 in London. On the heels of the wildly successful Graves Fullerton Collection in June — featuring the best of banker-collector Henry Graves Jr.’s special orders that shouldered Patek Philippe through World War I — the Daniels Collection is, in Ader’s estimation, one of three top watch sales in the auction house’s history, on par with the 1999 Masterpieces from the Time Museum sale that realized what is still the highest price for any timepiece at auction, with the Graves Super complication pocket watch fetching $11 million.
Known as the godfather of independent watchmaking, George Daniels more or less saved the industry in the late 1960s and ’70s with completely handmade watches, just 37 in total (excluding prototypes), that have become the holy grail for collectors. Not merely aesthetic wonders, these watches feature innovative escapements — like the coaxial, which was later adopted by Omega — that averted the impending demise of mechanical watches at the hands of the increasingly popular quartz movement.
“When George Daniels made his watches, he sold them to the people he thought could appreciate his work, so it was really about, ‘How do I envision horology and do the people I’m going to sell this watch to understand my philosophy?’” explains Ader of the master, who passed away last fall at his home on the Isle of Man. “It’s really the genesis of independent watchmaking, and he’s a genius, so we’ll have a lot of interest from new customers in emerging countries.”
Daniels’s best-known protégé, fellow Isle of Man resident Roger W. Smith, is just one of many indies—including Bart and Tim Grönefeld; Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey; François-Paul Journe; Peter Speake-Marin; Kari Voutilainen; and the elder statesman, Dufour — sparking a serious interest among collectors looking for time pieces they literally can’t find anywhere else. Interest, however, doesn’t always equate with higher market values.
Antiquorum watch specialist Nate Borgelt puts it a bit more broadly, comparing the market to custom furniture or art commissions. “These watches are very costly and normally do not bring near their original price on the secondary market because of the personal connections that one has with a commissioned piece,” Borgelt says. “Custom watches will always have a niche market, but it comes down to the brand and exclusivity. Some pieces do go up in value, and the main factor in this is brand name: It is far more difficult to get a custom watch from Patek Philippe than from the majority of other companies. Brands such as Dufour, Grönefeld, and Smith already have such limited production runs that each watch is in its own way unique and custom.”
Like most of his peers, Smith, who found his calling after meeting Daniels in a college course, can make only 10 editions per year of his Series 2 production model, which offers material and engraving options, at a cost of $130,000 to $180,000. Though they haven’t appeared on the auction block yet, these models have already traded hands privately at a profit. His uniques, which can take three years to finish and run up to 10 times the price, aren’t in circulation.
“The unique pieces are really what I learned from George. I just wanted to make watches by hand in his way. That overall approach, where just one person sits down and makes the watch, is our appeal,” says Smith, who is currently 18 months into a unique special order that will take at least another 12 months to finish. “There are limiting factors though, because I have to like the watch and will only make it to my design and style. I’m not a great fan of overcomplicated watches because the more you complicate them the less reliable they become. I want to make watches that will last for generations; I’m interested in the long-term approach.”
De Pins agrees that longevity is the key to success for this rare breed. And while he has great respect for the independents, he wonders about their customers down the road. “There are other excellent watchmakers and niche companies, but who knows in 100 years if there will be somebody at this company and if the company will still exist,” he says, juxtaposing Vacheron’s two-and-a-half centuries in business — and its commitment to legacy maintenance through the sponsorship of institutes like the NAIOSW in Dallas — against the artifact status of the Daniels collection. “When you spend this amount of time and money, you want to make sure this timepiece will cross the generations.”
While customer service is important, the ultimate bond is between the client and the individual timepiece. So why should the Danielses and Dufours of the world matter at all? Ader answers, “These people ask, ‘Can I go beyond the limits?’ And that is the definition of an artist.”
Published in Art+Auction, November 2012.