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Collectible watches can encapsulate an owner’s sartorial sensibilities in such a succinct way.Marko Pekic/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

“A gentleman’s choice of timepiece,” the James Bond author Ian Fleming once wrote, “says as much about him as does his Saville Row suit.” That statement isn’t lost on people who build their luxury wristwatch collections with the same attention to detail as a discerning museum curator.

For them, a watch is an expression of taste and character. There are few collectibles, after all, that can be worn in virtually any setting and can encapsulate an owner’s sartorial sensibilities in such a succinct way.

And even though the smartphone has supplanted the wristwatch as the dominant time-telling tool for many people, as a collectible, the watch is still very much de rigueur.

“I’ve been a collector of many different things my whole life,” says Dan Tanenbaum, president of Toronto-based Bump 50:50, a maker of raffle software used by professional sports foundations. “But I thought [watches] were a brilliant way to collect because it’s a collection you can wear.”

A reflection of wealth

Like so many watch aficionados, Mr. Tanenbaum – who began his collection about 20 years ago starting with vintage Rolex sport models – became fascinated with timepiece minutiae.

He obsesses over the intricacies and stylistic quirks of bezels, crowns and hands. He marvels over complex watch movements that track everything from the date and time to moon phases, with precision accuracy. “It’s mind-blowing to me, and it’s a lost art,” Mr. Tanenbaum says.

Just as awe-inspiring are the prices that some well-heeled collectors are willing to pay for a prized timepiece with a unique provenance, such as past celebrity ownership that can double or even triple a piece’s value, or a limited production run.

In many cases, their brand preferences and willingness to spend hefty sums on a watch is a direct reflection of their wealth.

When the late actor Paul Newman’s now legendary 1968 Rolex Daytona sold at auction for a record US$15.5-million in 2017 (excluding buyer’s 12.5-per-cent premium), a spotlight was shone on a rapidly expanding collectibles subsector that’s seen demand for iconic watch brands such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, F. P. Journe, Omega, Cartier and Audemars Piguet skyrocket.

Other recent jaw-dropping auction sales include a rare stainless steel Patek Philippe Ref. 1518 model that fetched more than US$11-million at auction in 2016 (fees included).

Competition for rare pieces sends prices soaring

Most luxury models are far more affordable but can be exceedingly difficult to acquire.

Take the Patek Philippe Nautilus: With years-long waiting lists, some versions of the watch retail for approximately US$30,000, but often fetch prices in excess of US$100,000 on the secondary market due to high demand.

“It’s explosive growth and no one knows where it’s going to stop,” John Reardon, the international head of watches for the Christie’s auction house in New York, says of the luxury watch market.

Mr. Reardon pegs annual turnover in the pre-owned and vintage watch market at more than US$8-billion. According to data from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, Swiss watch exports last year alone reached nearly US$23.7-billion.

Among the affluent, Mr. Reardon says increased knowledge – and expanded access to supply through specialized e-commerce platforms such as Watchbox – is prompting dinner party one-upmanship over who has the most impressive wrist adornment, from limited editions to those with historical cachet.

“They’re competing to have the best, the rarest, the finest,” Mr. Reardon says. “We’ve crossed over into the world of pop culture where it seems like everywhere you go, even outside of watch circles, there’s always a watch collector talking to his buddies and getting more people interested. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

That interest is driving steady auction price increases, in some cases well into the seven figures – values Mr. Reardon says were once unheard of in the watch world.

Social status or investment?

Mr. Reardon attributes much of the rise in popularity of watch collecting – particularly at the luxury level – not only to the desire among the wealthy to explore new collectible categories, but also social media.

Image-centric platforms such as Instagram are driving demand for everything from vintage chronographs to rare dive watches, all sparking the interest of a new generation of collectors, investors, buyers and sellers.

It begs the inevitable question for upstart collectors: Is it better to purchase watches as an investment, or for the love of the look, brand and feel?

“Don’t do this for investment,” Mr. Reardon says. “People that buy for the sole purpose of making money are the ones that are the first to lose.”

Building a well-curated collection is less about potential investment returns than indulging the buyer’s own interests, says Kathleen McGivney, CEO of RedBar Group in New York, one of the world’s pre-eminent watch collecting communities.

“When [collectors] get together they talk about the reference number of a specific model or the movement that’s in it,” she says. “For people with a certain kind of collector, or mechanically-inclined mindset, that kind of stuff is very appealing and people get very passionate about it.”

At times, all it takes is a style tweak to fuel the craze for a specific model. An example is Tudor’s Black Bay 58. Once Tudor introduced a smaller movement and thinner case proportions to the standard version that resembled a vintage model, Ms. McGivney says collectors pounced.

“People lost their minds over it,” she says. “They’re very difficult to find in stores because they’re that popular.”

Ms. McGivney urges would-be collectors to start by doing their research, networking with other collectors and turning to blogs such as Worn and Wound, Watchonista or Hodinkee to build their knowledge before making the first purchase. And whether it be a new or vintage piece, she recommends buying from reputable dealers.

A watch for every occasion

For Mr. Tanenbaum, choosing a favourite watch is impossible. His most prized pieces include a selection of vintage Tag Heuer racing watches, a vintage Rolex Submariner 6538 whose provenance and condition value it at more than $100,000, and the quirky Urwerk 103.09 that looks as though it might require an owner’s manual to operate.

“It’s an incredibly cool-looking watch by two young guys who decided to revolutionize the way we tell time," he says of the Urwerk.

He loves, and wears, them all. And, if a watch falls out of favour, he trades or sells it.

While he stresses that every horological collection should reflect a buyer’s taste and style, he recommends assembling pieces in four categories before branching out: a versatile everyday watch, a chronograph or dive watch, a dressier timepiece and a conversation-starting novelty model such as his beloved Urwerk.

“Within those categories,” he says, “there’s a lot of opportunity to have a nice, focused collection.”

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