In the world of rare watch collectors, $50,000 is just the starting price

Time has never been more ubiquitous and in your face. It's on the phone, the computer, the car and every blasted appliance.

"You don't need a watch to tell the time," confesses timepiece connoisseur Watch Anish at a midtown Manhattan cocktail party celebrating luxury watches. (Real name: Anish Bhatt, but as an Instagram brand, he's so beyond that.)

You hear this observation plenty in the haute horology world, even from people selling six-figure timepieces.

Also, that a Timex tells pretty good time.

But facts matter not a second hand to obsessive collectors, almost all of whom are male, in a market where $20,000 models are deemed "middle-class" timepieces.

Porsches for the wrist

Luxury watches are Porsches for your wrist, Birkin bags for boys that speak stacks of cash about the owners. To aficionados, that thing you're wearing, especially if it's a quartz movement, isn't remotely interesting. It's barely a watch.

Attending a watch event is like landing in a tiny, exotic and costly country, where you never really master the language or the customs.

At expertly lighted booths that make the watches sparkle like diamonds (the ladies' models are often encrusted with them), the dealers resemble charming Bond villains in dark clothes and black gloves – so as not to smudge the merchandise.

There are many tall men of impeccable grooming named Roland and Lothar, with seductive accents, with whom you might care to discuss the merits of a minute repeater or a flyback chronograph into the wee hours. The saleswomen are exceptionally knowledgeable and, it will come as no surprise, attractive.


Those noble brands

Their brands sound like 19th-century nobility and are treated accordingly: Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre. Their ads feature Formula One racers and tennis and international film stars who bankroll luxury magazines, which would be naked – and probably defunct – without them. Luxury watch ads seem more ubiquitous than the objects they're selling.

Some collectors have mastered a way of getting paid for their obsession. Watch Anish travels the capitals of the very rich reporting on luxury watches, paid by the manufacturers and tracked by 1.6 million Instagram followers.

"There's a whole lifestyle element" to his take on luxury watches, says Watch Anish, who is the very Instagram of an English dandy. He wears a custom gray windowpane suit, a diamond bouquet pin and, most important, a 1950s Rolex GMT 6542 with Bakelite bezel and Arabic numerals, blue on top, red on the bottom, that he says would sell for about $535,362 – if anyone were selling. Anish figures there are about three models extant.

Anish owns about 60 or 70 watches. Like many enthusiasts, he's not saying the precise number – possibly because it's in constant flux or the total is too great to fathom.

A Renaissance

Need has nothing to do with luxury, which traffics in exclusivity and desire. The high-end watch world markets in history and tradition, the design and craft of venerable Swiss houses that almost went kaput during the quartz crisis of the 1970s – uttered in near horror – only to be reborn by the production of even finer, highly mechanical timepieces, some with up to 500 moving parts, that have been known to make grown men swoon.

Baselworld in Switzerland serves as the watch Olympics, but events such as this showcase, WatchTime New York, hosted by WatchTime magazine, occur regularly wherever there is wealth and appetite.

WatchTime is a bimonthly publication devoted exclusively to, er, watches. "For a time, we had a spirits column, a car column, a cigar column," says publisher Sara Orlando. "But the readers didn't like that."

The magazine runs a popular "Facetime" feature of readers' photographs. It's akin to Town & Country's wedding announcements – except that the beloved is a watch.

A new era of appreciation

By general consensus, we're experiencing a watershed in the production of luxury watches. "I don't think there's been any period of this much diversity and of this many fine mechanical watches," says Jeffrey Kingston, a San Francisco lawyer, watch authority and collector. Some fine watchmakers produce fewer than 50 timepieces a year. Some custom watches take four years to make.

There are watch guys who are just into watches. At the Blancpain counter, I meet a man who traded in his Bentley so he could amass more timepieces. But there are also enthusiasts who are into plenty of everything.

Kingston loves fine cars, wine, planes. "Watches are just another fine mechanical thing," he says. He has his limits. He's no fan of Rolex, once known as the "Texas Timex," an industry giant that produces more than 800,000 timepieces a year. To many collectors, Rolex is a starter watch – well, not Anish's rare vintage piece – to a more complicated, exciting world.

"I respect Rolex for what they do. It's a very good industrialised product," Kingston notes, "but they're of absolutely no interest."

Supply and demand

Despite the advances in design and mechanisation, these are also challenging times for fine watches, given decreased demand in China and Hong Kong; depressed oil prices and interest in oil-producing nations; a strong Swiss franc (although fine watches are produced elsewhere, including Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, even Lancaster County, Pennsylvania); and smartwatches, which many enthusiasts own, yet tend to dismiss.

"I wear it as a notification device," says Kingston, who often dons an Apple watch on his right wrist, a fine timepiece on his left. But "it's a mediocre watch with an atrocious application platform."

Kingston is a clinician about his watches. "It not something to show off. I'd rather people wouldn't notice. It's for me," he says. "When I go out in public, I pull my sleeve down."

Which is so not the case with the RedBar Group.

Big shots and wrist shots

These devout watch guys are delirious tonight, many of them double-wristing – a fine watch decorating each wrist – throwing their babies on a high-top table to share and admire.

They're big on posing for "wrist shots," selfies for the wrist, and are able to ID a watch by make and model from 20 paces.

"Oh, man, is that an MB&F HMX?"

Why, of course it is.

The MB&F HMX, Maximilian Büsser & Friends Horological Machine X, is a five-figure novelty watch that doesn't so much resemble a timepiece as a portion of the Starship Enterprise's control panel. The time isn't even displayed on the face but slyly on the side, as though it were a state secret.

Where like minds meet

The RedBar Group, co-founded 10 years ago by former copywriter Adam Craniotes and named for the Midtown Manhattan bar that plays host, exists to drink and discuss watches.

Which they can easily and regularly do for five to six hours. On a weekly basis.

RedBar has 2000 members in more than 20 cities on four continents.

Craniotes is given to saying things like "watches get interesting around $6690 to $8000" or, of one exclusive manufacturer, "for a Richard Mille, you need at least $130,000 to get in."

A silly hobby

He owns about 20 "good ones." His wife doesn't understand his obsession. So, four years ago, he traded in three pieces and borrowed $13,400 from his mother to purchase a $38,600 IWC Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar Top Gun, which is the watch and story that defines him.

However, it's no longer his favourite – that would be his limited edition IWC Collectors' Forum Pilot's Watch Chronograph – or the timepiece that he wears tonight, a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso.

"This is basically a silly hobby," he says, admiring his RedBar brethren's timely baubles. "If you're not having fun, you're doing something wrong. We spend too much money on these things that you don't need."

The Washington Post