Exclusivity and scarcity are everything in the world of luxury watches and special editions made for select retailers tick both boxes for the brands and their partners. The technique goes back to the days when the glamour of the Tiffany & Co. name, the exoticism of a Serpico y Laino signature, or the restrained elegance of a Gübelin-signed dial, got pulses racing and is being continued to this day by the likes of Harrods, Bucherer, Boodles and The Hour Glass. Tom Mulraney reports.
Nothing gets a watch collector’s pulse racing like seeing the words “Tiffany & Co” on the dial of a sought-after vintage model. Particularly one from the likes of Rolex or Patek Philippe.
This small line of additional text can allow certain watches to command serious price premiums, despite the fact that they are no different functionally from their peers. Virtually non-existent these days, this practice of watch manufacturers creating double-signed dials for their best retailers (or allowing them to add the additional signature after delivery) was a popular strategy to establish brand awareness and credibility.
In today’s challenging environment, it provides a timely reminder of the influential role prominent retailers play within their local markets.
It might be hard to believe, but brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, Omega, and so on, weren’t always the global power-houses they are today.
The advent of the internet, and more recently, social media, has allowed brands to gain exposure to and communicate directly with potential customers in every corner of the globe. But sixty or seventy years ago, it was a different story.
Back then, watchmakers rarely ventured out of Switzerland. Instead they relied heavily on complex networks of distributors and retailers around the world to market and sell their products.
Often times, these retailers were held in higher regard than the brands themselves. Pillars of their local communities, they had earned the trust and respect of their customer base. Not surprisingly, both the watch brands and the retailers wanted to capitalize. Hans Wilsdorf, visionary founder of Rolex and Tudor, was among the first to truly appreciate the value of this strategy.
He wanted his product sold as widely across the globe as possible. As such Rolex was something of a prolific producer of double-signed (or co-branded dials), providing this service to dozens and dozens of its retailers around the world in the 1920s and 1930s.
Most of these watches are not considered particularly collectible. Although they do add a nice novelty factor to the dial. There are however a handful of retailers who stand out for the significant roles they played in establishing major brands in certain markets.
When names like Wempe, Gübelin, Beyer, Serpico y Laino, and even Cartier, to list but a few, show up on the dials of certain vintage watches at auction you can expect increased interest and scrutiny from collectors. None, however, seem able to match the incredible appeal of American retailer turned global brand, Tiffany & Co.
It’s not possible to point to one single reason as to why this is, as many factors play a role. Tiffany’s & Co’s own extensive legacy, for example, as both a manufacturer and purveyor of fine goods, makes it one of the most storied luxury brands in the world in its own right. In fact, Patek Philippe’s relationship with the company began all the way back in 1851 and has remained strong ever since.
Even today, “Tiffany & Co.” is the only American retailer’s name to appear on the dial of a Patek Philippe watch. Likewise, its exclusive customer base means that some of these co-signed watches were at one time the accouterments of modern history’s most powerful and influential figures.
Today, brands are less reliant on their retail partners to help them gain exposure in local markets. Global marketing budgets, social media and the broader influencer movement have all played a role in that. But, that’s not to say watch companies aren’t still working collaboratively with their retail partners, far from it. In fact, brands creating exclusive models in conjunction with their authorized representatives remains a key strategy. Whether it’s to reward a high-performing retailer, mark a special milestone, or offer an exclusive colour scheme, there is no shortage of limited-edition models on offer.
If history is anything to go by though, it’s unlikely the majority of these will go on to be considered “sought-after” by future generations of watch collectors. That’s because many of them lack the historical significance – or “story” – required to make them special or in some way significant. That said, there are some that stand out from the crowd. Here are our picks.
In 2018, British fine jewellery brand, Boodles, celebrated its 220th Anniversary. In addition to unveiling a spectacular necklace, the company also announced a special collaboration with Patek Philippe. Demonstrating the importance of the UK retailer to the family-owned Geneva watch manufacturer, Patek Philippe created a special edition of its iconic Ref 5230G World Time watch. Already coveted by collectors, this variation has specific appeal to those based in Liverpool, Boodle’s city of birth.
In a rare move, the city chapter ring marking the 24 time zones has been adapted, replacing London with Liverpool for this exclusive model. The word ‘Liverpool’ is included in pink, in tribute to Boodles brand colour, and the 220th Anniversary of Boodles is engraved on the back of the timepiece. The dial is not double-signed but its unique lay-out will no doubt make it sought after by future generations, even those not hailing from the northern city.
When it comes to watch brand/retailer collaborations, there are few more prolific than the Swiss power-house Bucherer. Working closely with partners both inside and outside of the watch industry, it has built an entire lifestyle collection called BLUE, which features dozens of pieces created exclusively for the retailer. Most, like the recently unveiled IWC Schaffhausen Portugieser chronograph Bucherer BLUE, incorporate the retailer’s distinctive blue colour scheme.
Others though, like the H. MOSER & CIE. Heritage Blue Edition are more subtle. A manufacturer known for doing things its own way, it chose to develop a model inspired by the Moser watches of the early twentieth century. With a vintage pilot watch aesthetic, it is unlike anything else in the Moser line-up. Turning the watch over reveals the distinct Burcherer blue incorporated into parts of the automatic movement and the interior of the strap. Also appearing on the back is the Bucherer name and year of founding (1888).
As one of the world’s premier purveyors of fine luxury goods, an endorsement from Harrods is one of the highest honours a luxury brand can receive. And one that is almost guaranteed to generate significant interest. Particularly when the product or model from said brand being endorsed is already in hot demand. Such was the case in 2017, when Tudor unveiled the Black Bay “Green”, exclusive to Harrods.
The response was so great that collectors were booking trips to London specifically for the purposes of buying the watch. Many variations of the Black Bay already existed of course, ranging from blue to black to burgundy bezels, not to mention a bronze model and a few others. But it seems watch lovers just couldn’t get enough of the bezel in Harrods’ trademark green. The tip of the seconds hand and the waterproof depth rating “660ft/200m” on the dial were also done in a matching hue. Again though, the lack of overt branding on the dial means that even today, only dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts would truly appreciate the significance of this watch.
Few retailers — online or off — can claim a success rate for co-creating limited edition watches comparable to that of Hodinkee. Starting out life as a New York-based watch blog, before later evolving to a fully-fledged media business and now an authorized retailer for several prominent brands, Hodinkee x “insert watch brand name here” collaborations are notorious for selling out within a matter of hours. Sometimes even a matter of minutes.
The web giant’s most recent project comes in the form of a special version of the legendary Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, created exclusively to Hodinkee’s specifications. Offered in a limited number of 100 pieces and at a competitive price, it’s no surprise that all 100 were spoken for almost immediately.
Each piece is individually numbered and the Hodinkee name appears on the rotor underneath the Blancpain logo. Whether this and other collaborations go on to be highly prized collectibles or mere reminders of the incredible hype generated in the early years of the digital revolution remains to be seen.
The Hour Glass
As one of, if not the, most influential retailers in Asia, The Hour Glass has been responsible for launching the fortunes of many watch brands in the East. This year, the company is celebrating its 40th anniversary and has already unveiled several limited-edition pieces created in collaboration with their brand partners. With the promise of more to come. The first to be announced – and likely to be the most desirable to collectors – is a unique iteration of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Self-Winding Chronograph, crafted entirely in platinum.
It’s a first for AP, which has only previously used the precious metal sparingly on the model. What really catches the eye though is the forest green, tapisserie guilloche dial, paired with yellow gold-tone counters and hands. Limited to just 20 examples, the dial is not double-signed. In fact, in a wonderful display of restraint, there’s no overt mention of The Hour Glass anywhere on the watch. Instead, the use of the retailer’s signature colours have been judged to be sufficient. After all, those meant to know, will know.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tome Mulraney is the founder and owner of The Watch Lounge.