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Only Watch auction’s pieces unique are a valuable gauge of a brand’s star power

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Advancing treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy is by far the most valuable contribution the biennial Only Watch auction makes to the world, a cause that the watch industry has embraced as warmly as Luc Pettavino, who founded the fundraiser. The results of the auction also give a guide to what watch collectors value most these days in terms of brands, materials, styles, provenance and storytelling; fascinating insight that contributes to current and future timepiece development, suggests Robin Swithinbank.

Not quite two years ago, I was in Geneva for the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, the awards do industry insiders like to refer to as the Oscars of watchmaking.

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That year, the Special Jury Prize went to Luc Pettavino, founder of the Only Watch charity auction that has so far raised more than 70 million euros (£60 million at today’s rates) for research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and one of the nicest men in the business.

As Mr Pettavino, whose extraordinary gift has been to persuade so many of the world’s finest watch companies to donate one-off watches to his cause, took to the stage to receive his award, the audience stood as one and applauded – long and loud. You would have had to have a heart of stone not to have been moved. It was comfortably the most emotional moment I’ve experienced in the watch industry in almost two decades covering it.

Only Watch founder Luc Pettavino.

Mr Pettavino’s award was richly deserved. In the 16 years since the first Only Watch auction, the event has proved itself an extraordinary force for good that far supersedes the sometimes frivolous business of making and selling expensive watches (and certainly that of writing about them).

Just two days after Pettavino’s standing ovation, the eighth edition of the event raised a staggering CHF 38.5 million (£30.4 million), thanks largely to a one-off steel Patek Philippe that hammered at CHF 31 million (£24.4 million), making it the most expensive watch ever sold.

The next edition, scheduled to take place in Geneva next month under the High Patronage of H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, will see a further 53 lots sold, with 99% of the proceeds going to research into the cruel, debilitating disease Mr Pettavino’s son suffered from. Only Watch is the watch industry at it’s very best.

It’s also the industry at its most revealing. Such is the interest in the auction and its piece-unique watches that it’s become the industry’s most reliable barometer of brand desirability.

In a level playing field, where brands are showcased alphabetically, it’s left to collectors, the apex predators of the watch-buying world, to vote with their wallets and decide which watches and which brands carry the most cachet. The event may be biennial, but it’s become the most important event in the watch calendar.

Aside from Patek’s, no example makes the point better than Tudor’s Black Bay Bronze One, entered into the seventh edition in 2017. It had a left-hand crown, an aluminium bezel and the brand’s then new-ish in-house 70-hour automatic.

The estimate for the One watch was set at CHF 4,500 to 5,500, only a little more than the £3,110 retail price commanded by today’s almost identical collection piece. It went for CHF 350,000 big ones (£275,000), more than 60 times the high estimate.

The sale price wasn’t an indication of the quality of the watch, which was solid but not in the same league as Andersen Genève’s exquisite Tempus Terrae world timer that collected CHF 55,000 that year, nor Breguet’s astonishing in-line perpetual calendar that realised CHF 110,000.

Instead, it was a klaxon sounding Tudor’s ballooning brand power, less than a decade after its relaunch. Only Watch confirmed Tudor was hot, and then turned up the thermostat.

The same can be true the other way round – and how painful it must be. The same year as Tudor’s golden moment, a striking white gold Harry Winston Ocean with off-centred hour and minute hands and a big date went for CHF 40,000, just over the low estimate.

Perhaps uncomfortable with being overshadowed by an industrially produced bronze watch, Harry Winston withdrew. It has not taken part again since, the highs of Max Büsser’s Opus series a distant memory. More’s the pity.

Even Patek Philippe, with its lofty, seemingly impregnable position at the top of the auction charts and waiting lists year after year, will know that Only Watch has amplified its story. The Monday morning after the 2019 event and that record-setting sale, it posted a story on its website proudly announcing ‘The Most Expensive Watch In The World’, caps its own.

This year’s Complicated Desk Clock, a contemporary expression of a piece made for the early 20th century American automobile manufacturer and Patek collector James Ward Packard, is Patek flexing on all cylinders. It will be fascinating to see what it commands.

Patek Philippe’s desk clock for Only Watch 2021.

As it will with the other 54 lots in the 2021 collection. Talking of flexing, Francis Ford Coppola’s involvement in F.P. Journe’s ingenious FFC Blue automaton elevates Only Watch’s status further still, and Journe’s with it. The watch’s origin story begins with a gloriously starry recollection of a dinner at Coppola’s house in the Napa Valley.

F.P. Journe’s FFC Blue.

Others appear to be using the event to experiment, or, one suspects, to tease the market with newly revived forms. TAG Heuer’s mythical 1970s black Monaco, or the Dark Lord, resurfaces in all-carbon, while Girard-Perregaux’s decision to partner with Bamford Watch Department and produce a carbon-cased version of the Casquette, an oddball 1970s piece with an LED display, is surely a pointer. A one-off revival, with all the cost that incurs, or a trailer for what’s to come? The company’s chief executive, Patrick Pruniaux, is no mug.

Girard Perregaux and Bamford Watch Department’s Casquetter revival.

Such is the power of Only Watch to amplify a brand that some of the smarter newcomers are now leveraging it, rather as British start-ups once piggybacked on the reputation of the bigger payers – apologies, players – at Salon QP.

Baltic watches has only just come up for air, and yet here it is in this year’s sale. Its Pulsometer Chronograph Monopusher 1/1 is listed between Audemars Piguet and Bell & Ross, and not far from Bulgari, Chanel and Hermès. Not a bad place to be for the plucky French start-up. And talking of AP, this year’s auction is expected to be the last stand for the brand’s generation-defining Royal Oak Ref 15202. No surprise to see Only Watch nominated as the curtain-closer for an industry icon that turns 50 next year.

Undeniably, Only Watch is a wonderful thing and at heart still a beautiful, timeless expression of a father’s desire to save his son’s life. Five year’s on from Paul’s death, it always will be. At the same time, for every participating brand it’s become an instant and hugely valuable gauge of exactly what the watch-buying public thinks of what it does.

And that makes it the only watch event of its kind.

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