One of the recurring themes with customers, colleagues and collectors has always been the confrontation between Rolex and Patek Philippe markets. Almost like when I was a boy and humanity seemed to be split between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the world of collectors is similarly divided into two main strains: Rolex fan and Patek fan. Even those who love both brands, or even wear a different watch manufacture, more often reserve their deepest admiration for one of the two. The consensus is that Patek Philippe represents the absolute excellence in term of prestige, tradition and quality of product, and nobody really discusses this. On the other hand Rolex created around it’s own name an aura of “coolness”, unmatched in the world of watchmaking. We are talking about Paul Newman’s, Steve McQueen’s and Sean Connery’s watches, and there is nothing more to say about it. Thus, in a world that tends to standardize everything, creating an endless series of clichés, thus who show off a Patek Philippe are those who want to stand out for their elegance, good taste and class; but whoever wishes to reflect a casual and masculine image of himself, characterized by a strong but apparently unaware style, wears nonchalantly his beautiful Rolex, possibly a vintage one. Up to this point, this trend only involved custom and culture, and it obviously has also a strong impact on the watch market.
At the beginning of this adventure, Patek Philippe and Rolex simply belonged to two different worlds concerning their values: Rolex has always recorded a higher frenzy by the public, but the phenomenon was also determined by the price of Patek, too high to be affordable to the same buyers. The classic Patek chronograph, the small 130 ( not even to think of a rounded buttoned 1463!) seemed to represent everyone’s dream, but it was double the price of a gold manual winding Daytona, six times the price of one in steel, so it remained the prerogative of those few customers who already were starting to put together the actual collections. You would have said that the world of fans would only buy Patek Philippe, if they only had been available at the same price. In the early 90’s the 3800 model, a men’s steel Nautilus regular size, cost three times the price of a Submariner 1680 red writing, or an Explorer II 1655 Freccione. Speaking in absolute terms, today’s records of awards at international auctions can all be traced back to important Patek Philippe models. But in terms of growth in prices, market volumes and amount of trade, Rolex has far surpassed its most famous, and maybe former, competitor. How do you explain this? What does it mean? It is perhaps discovered that old Rolex’s are rarer or even better then Pateks? Are they really worth more? Why does a Rolex “Padellone” 8171 ( a simple triple calendar with moon phases) cost more than a Patek Philippe, apparently similar but with a unique mechanical perpetual calendar, which originally cost five times more then the other, and which is perhaps easier to sell? In my opinion, this is what led to the change and what is the current state of the market: We must consider the impact of generational change and global consumer’s culture modification. Today’s buyers are mainly aged between thirty and fifty: objects, designs, style that can be interpreted by them as retro, go back to the years of their childhood or early youth, in this case the 60s and 70s in particular. The watch our father wore on wanted to wear, the car of his dreams, the painting of the most innovative artists if his days, just like my first customers who are now between sixty and eighty, 25 years ago they mainly searched and appreciated watches produced between the 30’ and the 50s.
Tastes change, evolve, and the value of things adjust: who of us wants to see today a 16th century gilded wood chandelier on his desk? A nice Artemide Tizio suits much better to nowadays taste. Also the attitude of the consumer has changed. Up to the time when my grandparents were my today’s age, the quality of products determined the price and the reputation of the manufactures. At least for clothes and everyday items such as pens, watches, typewrites, etc. They bought and paid more for what was better quality: even the richest people bought long lasting shoes, they purchased the best cloth tailored coat, which would have been able to be adjusted years later by the same tailor, if necessary, to adapt it to the dictates of new fashion, or opted for a better built car, made with materials that could guarantee solidity and durability.
Now the reputation of the manufacturer and of the product is called brand: in one name, it identifies the history, tradition, quality, style and prestige of the manufacturing. Today the “brand” is worth more than the object itself: the same shirt, having or not a crocodile embroied on the chest, has a completely different market, image and value. Then we could say that Rolex as a brand has come to cost more than the value of the object it identifies with, but I do not think it is actually like this: certainly the look, the image it evokes, the testimonials and history of Rolex, are elements that determine the value beyond the intrinsic one.
This phenomenon makes understandable and acceptable the fact that the price determined by the market, depending on points of view, may be ten or hundred times the one resulting merely from the actual texture of the watch.
Are we going to see the sunset in the market of collection classic timepieces? Are old Patek Philippe’s lovers slowly disappearing, the market of which will eclipse in the same way the strong 60s and 70s pocket watches market extinguish? No, I don’t think so. But I am also speechless toward those who feel the market of some Pateks will have a great comeback. I believe that while the solid, strong and unstoppably growing Rolex market will go on this way, buyers interested in really important watches will clearly understand the product that can extinguish their thirst for knowledge and satisfy their desire, is and keeps on being Patek Philippe, as the result of the auctions systematically confirm. A few days ago in Scottsdale, Arizona, a 1951 Ferrari 212 Export Touring Berlinetta was sold. Given the choice of having a car as a gift, I am sure that most of the young car collectors would choose a fascinating Porsche 911 Carrera RS. Or a Mercedes 330 SL Gullwing, rather than a jalopy like that: however, Bonhams sold it for $3.19 million.