Christie’s is set to celebrate 40 years of standalone watch auctions in Geneva in May with a catalogue of 314 lots ranging from the 16th century to the more recent past, starring the usual bevvy of beauties from Patek Philippe and Rolex with eye-watering estimates that break the hundred-thousand Swiss franc barrier.

As the estimate of 70,000 – 140,000 Swiss francs for a reference 6542 Rolex GMT manufactured in 1958 shows, so-called “tropical” dials, where the original black has faded over time to a velvety chocolate-brown, continue to appeal to collectors. But history and rarity also remain a big draw, providing that the name on the dial is Breguet, Patek Philippe or Rolex.

The stars
For Breguet, the star item at the sale is a pocket watch that the company’s archives indicate was sold to Pauline Bonaparte on 25 October 1813 for the sum of 2,400 francs. This “half-quarter” repeating cylinder watch, with its 58mm diameter, seems an odd choice for a lady at the time. But its hidden compartment for a portrait – sadly long since disappeared – suggests that Princess Borghese may have bought it as a gift for a lover. The watch has been in the same family for four generations and has a guide price of 90,000-180,000 Swiss francs.

Breguet No. 2539

Breguet No. 2539. 18-carat gold openface half-quarter repeating cylinder watch with secret portrait compartment, sold to Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese. © Christie's

To the delight of Rolex collectors, words such as “Double Red” and “COMEX” already promise much from the sale. But the star of the show is likely to be a model that, precisely because of its rarity, doesn’t have a nickname. Lot no. 282 is a Ref. 6538, manfuactured in 1956, which makes it one of the earliest Submariner models ever produced. Furthermore, avid Rolex fanatics will notice a “big crown” and an extremely rare red depth indication at 6 o’clock without any indication of feet or metres. All this, together with an original letter indicating that the watch was a gift from the Sultan of Johore, plus the fact that the piece remains in entirely original condition, all add up to a substantial estimate of 60,000 – 100,000 Swiss francs.

As far as Patek Philippe models are concerned, the star is also likely to be a less showy model. Despite the presence of a Skymoon Ref. 5002 (estimate: 650,000 – 1.3m Swiss francs) and the only slightly less complicated Ref. 5016 (estimate: 450,000 – 1m Swiss francs), serious collectors are likely to be more interested in the Ref. 3700/031 diamond-set Nautilus model in platinum. The watch is previously unknown to the market and is possibly unique. What is more, it is in impeccable condition and has clearly hardly ever been worn. Thomas Perazzi, Head of Watches at Christie’s Geneva, admitted that the estimate (200,000 – 400,000 Swiss francs) had been kept enticingly low in order to generate excitement. Christie’s sold a similar model with less diamonds for some 700,000 Swiss francs just two years ago.

Patek Philippe Nautilus in platinum with diamond-set bezel

Patek Philippe, ref. 3700/031, movement no. 1'308'349, case no. 552'218 , manufactured in 1982 Cal. 28.255 automatic movement, bezel set with 128 Top Wesselton Pure diamonds, platinum Patek Philippe and Gay Freres bracelet. Weight approx. 260 grams. © Christie's

The unsung heroes
Those daunted by such eye-watering prices for a wristwatch should not be put off the sale altogether, however. Thomas Perazzi reasurres us that there are plenty of accessible watches under 10,000 Swiss francs in the sale. There is even a Blancpain minute repeater with an estimate of 15,000 – 25,000 Swiss francs (lot no. 68), which seems almost a bargain. Lot no. 230 is a snip for Paneristi, offering a PAM 372 from 2012 for 4,000 – 6,000 Swiss francs.

Panerai PAM372

Panerai limited series no. N1202/2000, ref. PAM00372, movement no. 567'958, nos. OP 6834 and BB 1'473'790, circa 2012. Cal. 6497-2 automatic movement, brown dial, luminous baton and Arabic numerals, luminous hands. © Christie's

Your editor’s pick is a quirky bomb timer produced by Universal Genève for the Italian air force. It is 52mm of pure functionality, with a huge onion-shaped crown, trigger and reset buttons that were clearly designed for military use. We are told so often nowadays that we don’t need to have a watch to tell the time, so why not buy a vintage watch that was never intended to tell the time?

Universal Genève bombardier's watch

An unusual stainless steel World War II bombardier time recorder/countdown wristwatch, made for the Italian Air Force, circa 1939. © Christie's

Future trends
The appetite for vintage Patek Philippe and Rolex models is unlikely to diminish as long as the world’s major auction houses continue to dig up rare models such as those on offer at the Christie’s Geneva sale in May. But Thomas Perazzi is nevertheless seeing two new interesting trends emerging.
“I am wielding the gavel so I see what’s happening in the room and I have noticed a stronger presence of ladies at the auctions and a new trend of collectors buying and collecting bracelet watches from the 1950s to 1970s. At the last Geneva sale there was an increasing interest for vintage Piaget watches from the 1950s and 1960s and we have some more of them in this year’s sale, too.”