Musings · Watches

What’s it Worth?

I’m sure by now everyone has read about the recent auction of Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona which sold for 17 million US dollars and I’m reading about it online and having discussions with people about it and the question that is always asked is: Is it really worth it? In the context of this particular watch, probably not to me or a lot of other people, but it was worth it to someone because that’s what they paid.

And really you can apply that logic to a lot of the watch world. To pay a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars for an antiquated device that “just tells the time” seems absurd, but then if that’s what you think, you are really just missing the point.

The most accurate timekeeper in your possession in your lifetime will most likely be your smartphone. No 17 million dollar Rolex Daytona or 50 thousand dollar Patek Phillipe is ever going to be more accurate than that. But if you apply the “just telling the time” logic to other things, you could say that a Bugatti Veyron is “just a car that gets you from A to B” and no more useful than a Kia, and a Turnbull & Asser shirt is “just a shirt” which covers your body and no more useful than a potato sack. If you apply that kind of logic to everything in life, life becomes pretty dull. Yes, once upon a time mechanical watch’s worth was judged by its ability to keep time, often in the context of diving, sports or war. But this device has been superseded by other devices which are much better at doing this job. Mechanical watches now can be appreciated by their craft, history, and as an artform. Its worth is measured by a different yardstick. If I was to buy a vintage car, would I be buying it because of its aircon and Bluetooth connectivity?

That’s not to say there isn’t significant markup in the industry – there most certainly is. By most people’s estimates of inflation, a Rolex is still many times more expensive than it should be. And the vintage market is just insane at the moment. But then there are many other makers that are notable and have very reasonable pricing for the product they are offering. For watch nerds there are often only specific watches or one “grail watch” which can scratch the itch. It might be a rare reference with a story, a watch with a sentimental connection, or some other unfathomable reason. Often they will have to pay a premium for the pleasure. If they are handing over the money, then it is worth it.

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