This story first appeared in the inaugural Watches supplement to The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
At the global press preview of Rise of the Guardians in May at the Cannes Film Festival, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg spoke onstage dressed down in a black V-neck sweater and white T-shirt.
On his wrist was an inconspicuous — to most eyes — stainless-steel Rolex. But any reasonably savvy Hollywood watch connoisseur would have recognized it as one of the most collectible timepieces of the past decade, a pre-1961 Rolex that would have sold for as little as $300 back in the day but is now worth upward of $20,000.
These days, having a vintage timepiece on your wrist has become a status symbol among the Hollywood caste for whom owning a Gulfstream is no reach. In a world where the latest disposable iPhone flies off the shelves every year, power players increasingly see vintage watches as pieces of history that combine craftsmanship, value and an undeniable masculine glamour (some of the most covetable collectibles were made popular by James Bond films, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman).
At the top of the collectible vintage list are sporty Rolexes and dressier Patek Philippes, some of which have outpaced real estate and stocks as investments in recent years. One oversize stainless steel Rolex chronograph made in 1942 sold at auction for $1.16 million in 2011. And even tickers of a far more recent vintage draw high prices: A rare 18-karat pink gold Patek, which dates to only 1997, netted $452,000 at auction this past June.
Rolex, the single largest mechanical watch brand (it sells 1 million timepieces a year), was founded in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in 1915 by watchmaker and importer Hans Wilsdorf; it’s now owned by the Wilsdorf Foundation. Under Swiss law, the foundation does not even have to publish detailed yearly accounts, but the setup only adds to the mystique of the brand and its stability. No one expects Rolex to change much. It’s the “widows and orphans” investment of the watch world. Its allure is such that even the nonworking prop Submariner that Roger Moore wore in 1973’s Live and Let Die — its movement was removed and a small circular saw substituted so that Moore could cut through ropes — sold for $231,800 by Christie’s in November 2011.
Rolex’s only serious competition in the vintage market, Patek, has an even more storied history. The brand was founded in 1839 in Geneva and early on engineered finely wrought models with keyless winding and hand settings. “Their business model is predicated more on exclusivity and refined craftsmanship of dress watches as opposed to sports models,” says Josh Briest of Philippe’s Watches in Beverly Hills, whose clients include Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock.
Some of the top watch collectors in Hollywood include Eric Clapton, Adam Levine, Charlie Sheen (who so trusts the advice of his private watch broker, Robert Maron, that he made him a co-executive producer on Anger Management) and Orlando Bloom (whose trove of Rolexes was targeted by the Bling Ring thieves in 2009). Singer John Mayer is said to have one of the largest collections in the world of Rolex Daytonas (an iconic watch among racing drivers) and writes an occasional column for Hodinkee, a website tracking the industry’s most collectible vintage timepieces. Mayer — so says Ken Jacobs, owner of Melrose Avenue’s Wanna Buy a Watch — “is so advanced, it’s like being a baseball card collector.”
Female stars and execs are just as likely to jump into vintage collecting, from Ellen DeGeneres to Jennifer Aniston. “The whole ‘I am wearing my boyfriend’s watch’ look is in style, which makes vintage watch collecting quite conducive to the savvy female buyer,” says Briest. “Older Art Deco styles and watches with ornate or stylistic elements inherent to the era are also considered desirable.” Briest cites UTA partner Tracey Jacobs as an avid collector who has dozens of vintage Rolex and Patek Philippe pieces.
Many iconic vintage models carry Old Hollywood panache, and the aura captured by wearing one appears to be addictive. Ken Jacobs credits Rolex as his store’s most important vintage: “The ‘actor’ watches were nicknamed by collectors and not the given names by Rolex. The number one in popularity is a Paul Newman, a racing watch used to measure lap time, number two is the Steve McQueen Explorer in the $15,000 to 20,000 price range, and third is a James Bond Submariner that Sean Connery wore in Dr. No, which can sell for anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000.”
Jeffrey Hess owns Old Northeast Jewelers in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., runs the antique watch site Hess Fine Art and is author of Rolex: The Unauthorized History. Hess cites two reasons for the continued popularity of the Rolex brand. “Essentially they’re indestructible. From the ’20s through the ’70s, they have been at the forefront of watch design, and they’ve made a lot of variations that the collectors love. Lastly, they change their designs over the years, which renders the older stuff obsolete and suddenly collectible in many people’s eyes.”
What does it cost to buy a vintage Rolex? According to Hess, “You can buy an entry-level 1980s GMT Master if it’s in rough condition, needing restoration, for $2,000 to $3,000, but certain versions that have the box, papers and are near mint can cost upwards of $10,000 or $20,000.” Restoration can be problematic: Parts are sometimes scarce, and the process itself can lessen the watch’s value. “This is a hotly contested debate with collectors,” says Hess. “Many feel that a watch is not even buyable unless it’s 100 percent original; however, a good 80 percent of the pre-1980s watches have a part or two that has been appropriated from another Rolex or that may not even be Rolex.” The bottom line: You’ll pay less for a restored Rolex but take a hit on long-term value. “The watch is still collectible, just don’t expect a top return on your investment,” says Hess.
With Patek Philippe, Hess advises buying the best one you can afford. “Even if it’s an entry-level Patek Philippe, they hold their value probably better than any other watch on the planet.” He also cites pre-’60s Cartier as a good bet for newbie collectors.
A-list watch adviser Maron’s vintage boutique in Thousand Oaks, Calif., specializes in Rolex and Patek. His philosophy on dropping big bucks for a watch: “You can drive a Ferrari, but you can’t drive it into a restaurant. You can hang a beautiful Warhol on your wall, but it doesn’t sit on your wrist at a business meeting or at a dinner at Madeo.”
Maron’s clients include Mayer and Bloom, but his most loyal client is probably Sheen, a collector for more than a decade. “Sheen is an important collector of vintage and, recently, complicated modern watches by Patek Philippe — his collection is world class,” says Maron. Two and a Half Men producer Mark Burg is also a collector, as is reality star Rob Dyrdek. Maron adds that “Jennifer Aniston has a keen eye for beautiful modern and vintage Rolex” and “Alec Baldwin collects custom and unique Bamford PVD Rolex watches” customized by Londoner George Bamford.
Burg has about a dozen watches — all Pateks that he’s bought from Maron. “He’s extremely knowledgeable,” says Burg. “Every time I buy one, he calls and asks me if I want to sell it back to him for more money.” Burg follows the philosophy that if you buy the right watch, it will only increase in value, and he always listens to Maron when making a purchase. “I was shocked when I began collecting, but I’ve learned to trust him. Every watch he’s told me to buy, a year later he calls and offers me 20 to 25 percent more for it.” Confirms Maron: “I sold Mark a Patek 5970G for $85,000 when it came out around 2005. I bought it back for $120,000 one year later.”
Maron credits the rebounding economy for spurring interest. “We are seeing the upperechelon buyers spending again with cars, art and watches. You could pick up a Rolex Ref. 1655 ‘Steve McQueen’ for $4,500 to $6,000 10 years ago, and today they are selling for $15,000 to $20,000. I sold a guy in the tech business 16 Paul Newman Daytonas at $9,000 to $16,000, each over the period of 1996 to 1999, for a total of $190,000. He sold them back to me 10 years later for $1.04 million.” Maron has customers who have bought 20 at a time as an investment when they got a bonus.
Hess has a saying for new collectors: “Either know what you are buying or trust your dealer. Find two or three who you trust and stick with them, or buy at public auction. If you buy at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, 99 times out of 100 you will be fine.” Says Briest: “You are buying the seller as well as the watch. There are so many fakes and Frankenstein versions out there that have been put together after market.”
For all the hype and celebrity intrigue, vintage collecting boils down to the fact that the brands that matter make watches that stand the test of time. Small wonder that Hollywood players, accustomed to the caprice of the box office, find time for something as dignified and enduring as a pedigreed watch.