Rolex Daytona ref. 6263

BETTER WITH AGE

STEEL SPORTS WATCHES FROM THE 1950S-70S ARE ENJOYING RECORD AUCTION SALES PRICES, WHICH SPELLS GOOD NEWS FOR THAILAND'S COLLECTORS OF VINTAGE TIMEPIECES.

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WHEN

July 2016

Now is not a good time for Thailand’s Swiss watch market. The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FHS) reported in May 2016 that the distribution of Swiss watches to Thailand will this year fall by 12 percent over 2015, from a value of 24.4 million Swiss francs (B885 million) to 21.5 million (B780 million). These figures are symptomatic of an industry in decline, with global values now 9.7 lower than they were at this time last year. “The trend,” says the FHS, “remains clearly negative.”

 

At the same time, auction records show that the market for vintage timepieces—watches made between the late ‘50s and ‘70s—has seen steady increase year on year since 2008. New investors are being attracted to a segment of the market previously known only to enthusiasts, and collectors who got in on the market early, whether through canny investment or a love for the era’s styling and functionality, have been lucky enough to see the values of their timepieces soar.

 

A 1958 Rolex Milgauss ref. 6541, for example, which sold at Christie’s in Geneva in 2010 for 123,000 Swiss francs (B4.46 million), saw the hammer go down this year at 227,000 Swiss francs (B8.2 million). Similarly, a 1970s Rolex Paul Newman Daytona ref. 6262 which sold in 2010 for 62,500 Swiss francs (B2.27 million), sold again this year for 233,000 Swiss francs (B8.45 million), also through Christie’s in Geneva—almost fourfold appreciation in just six years.

 

Here in Thailand, the market is flourishing. Pakawat “May” Waiwitaya, guitarist for the band Kidnappers and owner of Atomix audio production studio, has a collection of around 30 Rolexes, all from the ‘50s-70s golden period of vintage watch design. As he puts it: “I’m a bit crazy about vintage Rolex.”

 

The pride of his collection is a mint condition 1970s Rolex Daytona ref. 6263 with the Paul Newman dial. Now selling for upwards of a million dollars, 6263s are like the holy grail of Paul Newman Daytonas. The words “Paul Newman” have nothing to do with Rolex itself, but are a monicker bestowed by collectors on a certain group of Daytonas (Rolex’s iconic racing chronograph) thanks to their connection with the late Hollywood actor. Produced in unison with non-Paul Newman Daytonas, the only difference is a subtle—and much less-favored at the time—dial featuring different numerals and other styling details.  

 

“The market for vintage Rolex never goes down,” says Pakawat. “I know only one time when prices dropped, during the economic crash of 2008. Since then they’ve been going up steadily. There is only a set number of these watches and there will never be any more. It’s supply and demand. Say in the world you have only 10 perfect condition Daytona 6263s, but the number of people studying these watches and falling in love with them is always increasing—and in Thailand the number of people who love Daytonas has increased so much recently.”

 

Rarity isn’t the only factor that has determined the Daytona’s value. In fact, according to Katharine Thomas, vice president, head of watches at Sotheby’s in New York, they aren’t all that rare at all. “During a sale in December 2014 we had five Paul Newmans and each was labeled as ‘an important and rare vintage chronograph,’” she explains. “There comes a point where you can’t say that with a straight face, because these watches were made in great quantities. I’m not saying there’s any deception involved but you must remember these were made to be useful, inexpensive watches.”

 

While a new Rolex Daytona today would cost you around B760,000, a new Daytona in the 1970s would have cost you around US$300—or roughly $1,600 (B56,500) in today’s money.

 

“One of our clients had a pre-Daytona Rolex gifted to him from his parents,” says Thomas. “He chipped in 125 dollars and his parent chipped in 125 when he was a 25-year-old kid. That watch just sold at Sotheby’s for US$30,000 [B1.06 million]. By his own account he was just a regular guy. The figures for these watches are so dramatically different from what people originally paid. Steel was just not meant to achieve these prices—it was made to be worn for sport and sold in great quantity for that purpose.”

 

So if these watches aren’t rare, why are they so valuable? To Pakawat, the value lies in aesthetics and heritage. He’s been collecting vintage watches for over 20 years, long before prices became so stratospheric, and continues to do so drawn in by a love not just of the watches, but also of researching the history around them. Others in the Rolex community refer to him as “The Master,” owing to his encyclopaedic knowledge on the brand’s huge list of model derivations.

 

While Pakawat might be the “pure” kind of collector, in it for the love of vintage watches, he now needs to share his hobby with a more practical kind of investor; those who have identified vintage timepieces as a safe place to park their money. As Nicholas Biebuyck, senior watch specialist at Christie’s Hong Kong, explains: “When looking at the boom in vintage watch prices, we do have to talk about a degree of investment in alternative assets. You see the same thing reflected in the vintage car market post-2008. People don’t want their money in the banks so they might as well buy a Ferrari 275 GTB instead, and that has spilled into watches—they both fall into the boys’ toys market, driven by similar mechanisms.”

 

Rising prices among Rolexes and Pateks—the “blue-chip brands,” in Biebuyck’s words—has also driven demand for other timepieces that were long overlooked. “The market has matured so quickly,” says Biebuyck. “Up and comers that 12-18 months ago were affordable are now out of the grasp of most people. The Omega Speedmasters are a good example of this. Also Heuer, which has some incredibly iconic models but also lesser-known timepieces like the Carrera and the Autavia, which are basically Rolex Daytonas with a different name on the dial. I bought a  Carrera in 2004 and paid US$1,000 [B35,000] for it. That same watch would now be worth US$20-30,000 (B708,000-1.06 million). Unfortunately I sold it a long time ago.”

 

You’ll find all of these models in the collection of Paradai Theerathada, TKTKKTKKTT. His watches span a huge variety of brands, from the early Rolex Submariners and an original Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (the watch credited as the first steel wristwatch designed from the outset to be valuable) to esoteric models like fiberglass Tissots and an early titanium-cased Seiko dive watch, the 600M.

 

“People gravitate to Rolex because there’s always a secondhand market and it sustains its value,” he says. “If you look at collecting from a sustainability perspective then you go with something that shows steady increase. But I only buy watches that resonate with me.The only speculation for me is that I get to pass this collection on to my kids.”

 

Despite increased popularity for lesser-known vintage watches worldwide, the market here in Thailand, says Paradai, remains very one-track minded: “The collectors I see here are very focused on Rolex. A niche group extends to the legacy of Omega and Heuer, but really it’s always Rolex and Patek.”

 

Another Rolex collector, Kittichoke “Lex” (as in Rolex) Asadornsak, a former fruit and vegetable trader, explains why Rolex so dominates the attention of Thai collectors. “I am Chinese and the tradition of Chinese in Thailand is to use only Rolex, that’s why the market here is so strong. I grew up seeing my mother’s friends and father’s friends who would all always wear Rolex—uncles, aunts, everyone.”

 

His collection includes a highly-coveted Rolex Submariner specially produced by Rolex for the French dive company Comex, which he predicts to be only one of two in the country. It all began in his 20s, when his mother bought him a Datejust in gold and steel. Today though, like most vintage watch collectors, his interest lies firmly with the less-flashy, more wearable all-steel models.

 

“I know a Thai-Chinese woman whose husband died,” he says. “After his death she went into his safe and inside was a steel Rolex. She didn’t understand; why did he keep this old steel watch in a safe? It’s not a gold watch, there are no diamonds, how can it have any value? She showed it to me and it was a 1970s Submariner with perfect pumpkin patina on the indices. Wow!”

 

Pumpkin patina refers to the light orange tinge which the luminescent hour markers of a watch dial can take on over time. Originally the mark of a defect in quality control, pumpkin patina has become a desirable trait among vintage watch collectors.

 

“This is a new concept for Thai people, who have always loved everything new and pristine,” says Paradai. “There has always been a stigma attached to anything secondhand, even cars and houses with superstitions about spirits. But I think that’s changing and people are beginning to appreciate things like patina. The character that comes with a distressed watch tells its story. It’s something that’s very hard to reproduce.”

 

Entry into the vintage Rolex club, according to Pakawat Waiwitaya, will currently cost you around B200,000, for which you should be able to find a good-condition 1970s-era Rolex Submariner. However all the watch collectors we spoke to warned against buying off eBay, where watches pieced together from various different parts—so-called “Frankenstein watches”—await unweary buyers. While you can also go the route of big international auction houses to ensure provenance, Paradai points out that prices here can regularly become “ridiculous.” Instead, you should join the online forums and familiarize yourself with the community of vintage collectors here in Thailand, who regularly sell watches to finance their own next purchases. The website Siamnaliga.com is a good place to start.

 

As the modern mechanical watch industry faces dwindling sales, its solution has been to bask in the glory of yesteryear, with modern houses increasingly reissuing models from their past. This decade we’ve seen the return of the Ploprof dive watch to Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre regenerate the original Reverso design, and Zenith wind the clock back to 1965 on its El Primero chronograph. It’s easy to see why. Watches from this era are not only practical, but they look as good on the wrist today as they did when they first rolled out of the factory.

 

With values of genuine vintage timepieces reaching seven-figure sums, this poses something of a problem for the people who love these watches most. “The funny thing is,” says Thomas, “we have customers who are actually sorry to hear their watches are worth so much. They don’t want to sell them, but now they’re too scared to wear them as well.”