Only Watch 2019: 'The most expensive watch in the world', and why that sucks

The Grandmaster Chime reference 6300A-010 for Only Watch 2019, the only of its kind in stainless steel.

The Grandmaster Chime reference 6300A-010 for Only Watch 2019, the only of its kind in stainless steel.

On November 9, Christie’s played host to the biennial Only Watch auction, raising money for research into Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Some of the most renowned manufacturers create unique pieces for the auction (with F.P. Journe even developing a unique movement for his pieces). Much of the speculation around this year’s auction was around the unique Patek Phillipe Grandmaster Chime in stainless steel: would it become the most expensive watch in the world? Of course, Paul Newman’s Paul Newman had set the record for most expensive wristwatch at $17 million in 2017, while the Patek Phillipe Henry Graves Supercomplication pocket watch held the record for the most expensive watch, having sold for $24 million in 2014.

Well, the Grandmaster Chime blew away both watches, hammering for CHF 31 million. The watch is polarizing, mainly because … it’s kind of ugly. One can acknowledge the technical accomplishment of building this watch, but still be disappointed that this watch now carries the mantle of “most expensive watch in the world,” and will become representative of watch collecting as a whole in many ways.

In terms of getting people into watch collecting, consider me a hater. It’s unfortunate that if people Google something like “most expensive watch in the world,” or happen across a story about this record-breaking watch, they see this ugly, hard-to-wear piece. When the Paul Newman set the record in 2017, it was mainstream news: everyone knows who Paul Newman is — his movies, looks, philanthropy, Newman’s Own — he’s an American icon and spawned an entire industry of watch collecting.

To me, there’s an accessibility to vintage Rolex collecting — or even, vintage sports watches more generally — even as prices continue to sky rocket into the six- and seven-figure range. Meanwhile, there’s never been an inherent accessibility to Grand Complication Patek collecting. It’s a small circle, inhabited by modern Henry-Graves-type characters. And that’s fine; there should be a place for all collectors in a community. But, I’m wary of these types of watches grabbing headlines and being the aesthetic with which the larger collecting community is associated.

As a collector in Chicago, I rarely see complicated Pateks anywhere, and I have to imagine many others are the same. Sure, they’re interesting from a pure technical perspective, but I’m unlike to spend $31,000, much less $31 million on one. One can acknowledge that it’s great this piece exists, while still wishing it didn’t carry a mantle for an entire community of collecting.

By the way, we should also mention that this is also an indictment of our (and sometimes, my) tendency to focus on headline grabbers and not do the work to find watches under the radar. This doesn’t necessarily apply at a high-profile auction like Only Watch, but my goal with Rescapement is always to introduce you to a range of watches, not just those already grabbing headlines on other publications.

So congrats to Patek, Mssr. Stern, and Only Watch, but I can’t help but feel the watch world is losing something by having this reign as the “most expensive watch in the world.”

Other Lots from Only Watch


Tudor Black Bay Ceramic

With Rolex sitting out Only Watch, Tudor always has room to take the spotlight, and they rarely disappoint. The ceramic, blacked out Tudor Black Bay received a ton of attention in the run-up to Only Watch, and with good reason. What the watch lacks in practicality it certainly makes up for in aesthetics.

“If [Rolex] actually stepped in, it would be another $5 million, at least”, wrote Professor Cunningham at Horolonomics. He pointed out that while the Patek outperformed its estimate by 10x, this Tudor outperformed its estimate by 63x. Sure, estimating this unique Black Bay under CHF 10,000 was a bit of a laugher, but I’m not sure many expected it to achieve a CHF 350,000 hammer price like it did.

Other highlights from Only Watch, where total sales reached CHF 38,593 include: