Will independent watchmaking be the big trend of 2023 ?

 In The market's eye

Part 1

The international auctions that took place last year allowed us to observe a phenomenon that continues to grow in the contemporary watch market: the rise of independent watchmaking.

While vintage is still popular and the dominant brands such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, Richard Mille and Audemars Piguet have further strengthened their leadership in 2022, there is a growing interest in independents.

Their creative principles and their vision of watchmaking, while they may sometimes seem to run counter to commercial trends, are in fact their greatest strength.

Although they were initially known and encouraged by a handful of great connoisseurs, they are now conquering the hearts of various enthusiasts and their watches are gaining in value exponentially.

Philippe Dufour, François-Paul Journe, George Daniels, Roger Smith or Christian Klings, they are thrilling the market and exciting collectors, but do you know why?

Panorama on 5 watchmakers to follow closely in 2023!

Philippe Dufour
Philippe Dufour

The connoisseur’s favourite

Philippe Dufour is the independent watchmaker with the best results at auction and on the secondary market today. CHF 4,749,000 is the absolute record obtained at auction for one of his creations, a unique yellow gold minute repeater with grand and petite sonnerie.

Trained in the Vallée de Joux in Switzerland, Philippe Dufour obtained his watchmaking diploma in 1967. The sign on the door of his workshop reads “Complicated watchmaking”, because almost instinctively, Philippe Dufour turns to complications… And sobriety! In Philippe Dufour’s watchmaking, there are no tourbillons, moon phases or chronographs. His watches are not loaded with a thousand complications that would contradict each other; they are sober, like his emblematic “Simplicity” model, one of which was recently sold for more than one million euros by Phillips in Geneva (lot 232, sale 5 November 2022).

Technical and complex pieces are often made to order. In 2017, Philippe Dufour announced that he was working on a pocket repeater Grande Sonnerie in collaboration with the art enameller Anita Porchet. A watch made especially for an Asian collector who had to wait a few years for the piece to be delivered.

If his watches are so popular, it is because his approach to watchmaking is based on an artisanal, even ancestral, vision of the profession. Philippe Dufour works alone and by hand. This “slow” execution explains the very limited number of pieces available and the record prices recorded during auctions.

For Philippe Dufour, more than the complications, it is the finishing touches that make a great watch, as well as its proportions. Finding a subtle balance between these two imperatives is the talent of great watchmakers.

At more than 70 years of age, Philippe Dufour continues to work alone in his workshop because, as he likes to say, “I have to make a living and, as an independent, I only have a very small pension. But [ … ] I am happy. I love what I do and every watch I finish gives me pleasure.

F.P. Journe
F.P. Journe

An ever-increasing coastline

François-Paul Journe is a name that has been causing a stir at auction for several years now. This French watchmaker trained at the École d’Horlogerie in Marseille, his native city, has enjoyed international success. 

The latest striking result: €4,460,000! This is the price obtained last November by Christie’s auction house for a model with a grand and small striking mechanism and a rare mirror dial known as “Blue Petrole” (lot 2111, Legendary & Unique watches, 6 November 2022).

While François-Paul Journe’s watches have continued to increase in value in the eyes of collectors over the past three years, a new breed of watch lovers has also set its sights on this signature timepiece: investors. 

The cause of this craze is an auction: the Only Watch 2019 edition. Although Only Watch is a charity auction, it is also and above all a watchmaking event that counts. For all independent watchmakers, being represented at Only Watch and recording a seven-figure price is an endorsement, a reward that immediately raises their desirability rating. For the general public, a record price is sometimes interpreted as a sign of a signature to bet on and invest in. In 2019, F.P. Journe set a world record for a prototype, Astronomie Blue, with tourbillon and minute repeater, selling for nearly 1.8 million euros, the result that triggered “Journe Mania”.

Grand complications and rare complications are the DNA of F.P. Journe. It is by revisiting the great principles of antique watchmaking that the watchmaker has won over a handful of demanding connoisseurs. With a limited production of 900 watches per year, F.P. Journe is a rare signature and therefore not easily accessible. This rarity explains the rising prices and increasing desirability on the market. 

The absolute reference

If independent watchmaking is so successful today, it is thanks to one man: George Daniels. Self-taught, he was the first watchmaker to break away from the big manufacturers in the 1970s, and began developing his own watches alone in his Isle of Man workshop. Paving the way for a trend that had not existed before, he is a reference and mentor for today’s leading independent watchmakers.

But it wasn’t all done in one day, and it took the British watchmaker a long time to set out on the road to independence – over 20 years to be exact. George Daniels opened his first watchmaking workshop, dedicated to watch repair, in the aftermath of the Second World War, but it was not until 1968 that he launched his first watch: a one-minute pivoting detent tourbillon chronometer with retrograde hour indication. Unlike contemporary watchmakers, Daniels almost never worked on commission. 

George Daniels
George Daniels
George Daniels

Over €4 million was the record price achieved by Phillips for one of his creations last November, a Spring Case Tourbillon in yellow gold (lot 27, sale on 5 November 2022, The Geneva Auction). Since his death in 2011, prices have risen sharply and the market is going crazy for this genius who certainly did not get the attention he deserved during his lifetime. 

How can such a price and such a level of desirability be justified? Simply because it is one of only two wristwatches that the watchmaker made alone by hand during his entire career, his production being mainly oriented towards pocket watches.

But why is George Daniels so fascinating to the greatest connoisseurs? It is certainly his friend Sam Clutton who gives the best clue to the answer: “That one man could have the intellectual capacity to conceive such a mechanism, the technical capacity to execute it with an accuracy matched by almost none of the great masters of the past. 

Today, modern watch design is routinely computer-aided, but George Daniels was a watchmaker from another time, perhaps the only one at the dawn of the 21st century who could create and assemble such complex watch mechanisms without any technology. 

It is this unparalleled genius that led him to discover in 1975 one of the greatest watchmaking innovations of the last 250 years: the co-axial escapement. This invention was taken up and developed by Omega in 1999 and is now used in practically all the brand’s models.

Each piece signed George Daniels is entirely hand-made, which explains why George Daniels only made 25 watches (23 pocket watches and 2 on bracelets) during his lifetime. 

It is a name that will continue to grow in value over the years and every piece that comes up for auction in the future will certainly be a high profile event. 

As evidence of Daniels’ extreme popularity, on 6 November 2021, a signed and autographed autobiography of the master watchmaker was sold for nearly €30,000 by Phillips (lot 142, sale 6 November 2022, The Geneva Auction).

The Space Traveler II remains the emblematic piece that best illustrates the enthusiasm of collectors for this genius watchmaker, its second version, the most complicated, was sold during the memorable sale of the George Daniels estate in 2012 in London at Sotheby’s for 1 329 250 GBP then returned to auction in 2017 with a new record of 3 960 250 GBP, which is a perfect example of the fascination of collectors in all fields for this name which remains a monument of independent watchmaking.

The recent consecration

It is a name that has become inseparable from George Daniels, that of his protégé: Roger Smith, for whom the year 2022 was one of consecration! With a world record of €788 000 recorded in June in New York for a Series 2 Open Dial watch in platinum, a piece made in only four pieces, Roger Smith has established himself as one of the most expensive signatures on the market (lot 11, 11 June 2022, Phillips).

Roger Smith
Roger Smith

Roger Smith joined the Daniels workshop in 1998, nine years after graduating from the British Horological Institute. 

He was George Daniels’ only apprentice and collaborator, yet the relationship between the two men was far from obvious. Roger Smith began his career at Tag Heuer’s SAV, but wishing to devote himself to Haute Horlogerie, he asked Daniels to become his apprentice, unfortunately Daniels refused. Determined, Roger Smith left Tag Heuer to embark alone on the creation of his first pocket watch: a tourbillon with a detent escapement. After 18 months of hard work, he presented his creation to George Daniels, who was not entirely convinced and asked him to make another piece. Five years later, Roger Smith presented a second pocket watch with a tourbillon and perpetual calendar. Daniels was impressed and agreed to train him for three years. At the end of his apprenticeship, Roger Smith set up his own workshop, located right next to his mentor’s, on the Isle of Man. 

It is estimated that around 120 watches have been made by Roger Smith since his early days. 

While no piece bearing his signature sells for less than €500,000 today, the watchmaker has only recently made his mark on the auction market, in 2016 to be exact. In 2014, one of his watches was presented for the first time by Sotheby’s, but remained unsold for lack of a buyer. 

Recently, one of his creations sold for €530,000 at auction (lot 845, 29 November 2022, Phillips).

Roger Smith embodies exceptional watchmaking expertise and is considered by connoisseurs and collectors to be the heir to George Daniels. As such, none of his pieces seem likely to depreciate in value, and his name is likely to remain one of the most prestigious signatures in independent watchmaking. 

The German signature 

It is a German name that is still little known to the general public, but extremely promising: Christian Klings. This “watchmaker-artist” – as he calls himself – set up his workshop in Dresden, the city where the roots of German watchmaking lie, almost 30 years ago. 

Working only on commission, Christian Klings creates extremely complex pieces for a handful of discerning collectors. 

Christian Klings
Christian Klings

His speciality? Innovation and the development of new complications in the purest watchmaking tradition. Some of his creations required several years of development, such as the latest watch sold at auction: a tourbillon with automatic trigger, a world first in watchmaking. This piece went for €165,000 (lot 25, 5 November 2022, Phillips). This extremely ingenious complication was difficult to develop, as Christian Klings started the project in 2001 and finally completed it in 2016. This perseverance is all the more appreciable when you consider that Christian Klings makes all his designs by hand and never uses computer assistance. 

In 2017, Christian Klings gained considerable visibility and international recognition by being represented at Only Watch for the first time. Since then, a few rare pieces have been presented at auction. If the results of his watch creations now oscillate between €165,000 and €252,000, the real question is “For how much longer?

Christian Klings is a name that should gain even more visibility this year!

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