Diary of a Patek Philippe collector – Rarity or condition? (13th June 2020)

As a watch collector, what rings the bell loudest for you: condition or rarity? Watch collectors inevitably fall more into one category than another.

Forgive me for this analogy as I have made it several times before. However, it is particularly apt for this subject. Occasionally, I like to paint. Not often, but every now and then. I have now around 10 different paintings. In this sense, a WatchBaron painting is incredibly rare in comparison to, for example, Picasso. Over the course of his lifetime, Pablo produced well over 10,000 paintings. If one includes sketches, prints and engravings then it is considerably more. He was prolific.

Yet, when it comes to selling price, Pablo’s work consistently scores substantially above my own work. Absolute rarity, is a misleading concept. I remember once a Parisien collector trying to get me to buy a rare vintage JLC. There were perhaps just a handful or so of these watches made. Yet, the demand for the watch in question was possibly not far from the demand for a WatchBaron painting. Hence the price for the watch was very low. The paradox is that absolute rarity is actually quite common. And, for most, not especially interesting.

However, when something is rare in relation to the demand for it, then that it is an entirely different matter. Supply that is rare in relation to demand is indeed a thing of beauty!

Yes, please forgive this basic economics lesson. However, it is quite central to the issue of rarity versus condition. I remember a very seasoned Swiss collector once telling me that when he goes into a room full of watch collectors, he likes to have on a watch that nobody owns. The particular example we were discussing was the Rolex Playtona. He described it as “forum rare” but not really rare. Watches that show up occasionally on forums were, for him, just too common. What he wanted was something that rarely, if ever, turns up on a watch forum. However, he also wants that watch to be something that has a stack of demand for it. Hence it will also be valuable.

Patek Philippe Ref. 5575G. A limited edition of 1300 watches. Some would say that this is not such a rare watch. Yet, in relation to the demand for it, it scores high. First owners of this watch seem reluctant to part with it.

I know another seasoned collector (this time from the US) who adopts a different approach. For him, condition is paramount regardless of rarity. Obviously, it is even better when you get rarity AND condition together, but for choice he always takes the condition factor into account most prominently. For this collector, when he goes into a room, having the rarest watch is secondary to having whatever watch is on his wrist being in pristine condition. Condition is his trademark.

Between these two collectors, there is obviously a full spectrum of different permutations. However, I think it is fair to say that we all tend towards one camp more than the other. Now, I know some collectors will say that they love super rare watches and they love them to be in pristine condition. Honestly, I think that’s a cop-out argument. When push comes to shove, collectors err (in a wide range from marginal to categorical) to one of these camps. The question is why? In the same way that collectors err towards either vertical or horizontal collecting, collectors do appear to have a predisposition to rarity or condition.

As a collector, I love to wear each and every one of my watches. I categorise them into watches that I wear frequently versus watches that get worn on special occasions. My Patek Philippe Ref. 5070P, for example, is a very rare watch that is in pristine condition. I wear that watch for very special occasions and am very careful about keeping its pristine condition intact.

A watch like the Roman 5070P is well beyond forum rare – piece unique. I want to keep it in pristine condition. However, if it came to me in poor condition would that have stopped me buying it?

No. I would just want something this rare.

My Ref. 5650G, on the other hand, is a watch that is certainly rare but not in the same way as the 5070P. I will wear my 5650G much more frequently and it has the “scratches of life” that come with that.

Ref. 5650G – in a limited edition of 500 watches. I would descibe this watch as rare, but in a different league to the Roman 5070P. I will take care of this watch, but its condition is not a priority for me.

Between my two collector friends above, I am definitively in the category of wanting relative rarity above condition. @DrJuanola recently raised this topic on Instagram. Faced with a dilemma of an extremely rare watch that had had a service dial replaced by Patek Philippe, how would I feel about such a scenario? Would I prefer a watch that was less rare but with its original dial? Decisions. Decisions.

Obviously it will vary from one example to another, but I think I would err towards the rarity factor 70% of the time. A lot would depend on the level of rarity. If a watch was “forum rare”, then for me there would not be enough of a scarcity factor to compromise too much on condition. However, if a watch was much rarer than “forum rare”, then quite possibly I would be prepared to accept the watch in way less-than-perfect condition. That is how I would view it.

I am hunting for a particular Aquanaut at the moment. I don’t want to spoil that process until the hunt is completed. But suffice to say that the watch is not often seen on forums but at the same time it is not super rare. With enough time and patience, I will find what I want in a condition that is pristine. Now, if I was hunting an Aquanaut that was so rare that finding one was, in itself, a once in a 5yr occasion, then I think I would compromise on the condition.

So, I believe that everyone sits somewhere on this 0-100 rarity/condition spectrum. My Swiss friend is probably at the 70-80 level. My American friend is definitely below 50. How much below 50, I will need to ask him. I think he is at an extreme level. Condition is way more important for him, but rarity is not unimportant. So, I am going to guess he is around the 20-30 level on the spectrum. Maybe the range is theoretically 0-100, but the reality is that everyone falls somewhere between 20-80?

When I put a watch on my wrist, I want it to do a lot of things for me. It has to tick a lot of boxes. This blog has gone through many of those requirements over the last year. Memories of people. Memories of events in life. Aesthetic preferences. Dial style. Complications. I could go on and on. But one factor that has always been important to me has been the relative rarity of a watch. When I wear a watch that I know is stunningly rare, it sends a frisson of energy through me that is way greater than the same effect from a less rare watch in perfect condition.

Each collector will differ on what particular nuance they attach to condition or rarity. If I was to give one factor that pushes me to the rarity angle, it would be that feeling that I mention above that goes through me when I wear a rare watch. Theoretically, every single watch in existence has been in perfect condition at some point in time. But a rare watch is something else. And if that rarity can be combined with condition, then it becomes a masterpiece.