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The incredible story behind the 5 most expensive watches in the world

By: anna zhannifer Mar. 17,2023
More than 30 years ago, Antiquorum in Geneva pioneered modern watch auctions with its "Patek Philippe Art" sale. Until then, the idea that fine watches could be collected was rather quaint - it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that inexpensive electronic quartz models emerged, distinguishing traditionally made watches as more than mere keepers of time.

This landmark auction, which took place in 1989, also cemented Patek Philippe's position as the de facto investment of choice in the fine watch industry. This reputation continues to this day, thanks to the brand's enduring tradition, innovation and cult aura. Last November, the Patek Philippe Titanium Grand Master Chime broke all records when it fetched $31 million at Christie's.

But Patek Philippe is by no means the only choice for watch collectors. Many other brands, from PLEX to Rolex, have set off fierce bidding wars at auction, and the waiting list for new models is long. While the astronomical price tag often boils down to rarity and preciousness, a great story certainly helps. Here are five fascinating examples.

Marie Antoinette's lost watch

Breguet No. 160, often referred to as Marie Antoinette or the Queen

Breguet No. 160, Marie-Antoinette, 1827, valued at $30 million in 2013.

If the Parisian horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet were alive today, what kind of watches would he make? To be honest, the "godfather of modern watchmaking" - who is considered the industrializer of fine watchmaking and countless technical innovations - would probably not be making watches at all. A master of practicality, innovation and problem-solving, he's more likely to make a fortune in Silicon Valley.

In fact, his 160th watch, the legendary Marie Antoinette, is a watershed masterpiece of supercomputing.

The story of this timepiece is divided into two parts, one the story of the killer's origins, the other a modern-day heist scandal. It all began with a twinkling-eyed guard at Marie-Antoinette's Versailles court who, in 1783, commissioned Breguet to make the most complicated and precious watch for his increasingly unpopular queen.

Breguet dutifully equipped this transparent pocket watch with many of his own inventions (including automatic winding) and many others (such as celestial time, winding state and perpetual calendar), all made of precious metals. However, there was a problem: the watch's 823 parts took most of 30 years to produce, meaning it was not completed until long after Marie-Antoinette's execution and four years after Breguet's death (it was completed by his workshop under the supervision of his son).

It was subsequently acquired by Sir David Salomons, and after Solomon's death in 1925, the watch joined the British lawyer's vast collection of 18th and 19th century pocket watches as a central exhibit at the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem (founded by his daughter in the 1970s). A few years later, on April 17, 1983, more than 100 of Sir David's rare timepieces, including the Marie Antoinette, vanished into thin air overnight.

For 23 years, the theft remained a mystery until the Israeli police received two reports that someone had shown them the collection. It turns out that Naaman Diller, the infamous Israeli cat burglar of the 1960s, had bypassed the museum's security system on his own before hiding the watches in safes across the United States, Europe and Israel.

The most complicated watch of today

Patek Philippe Henry Graves Jr Super Finish, 1932, sold for $24 million at Sotheby's in 2014.

The new Patek Philippe Grand Master Chime may have sold for $31 million last year, but the record it broke is full of blue blood pedigree.

The Supercomplementation, designed for famed New York banker Henry Graves Jr. and featuring 24 "complications" (in other words, functions other than chiming), was considered the most complicated watch ever made until 1989, when Patek Philippe (the company's first watch in the world) sold it for $24 million. Patek Philippe launched the Calibre 89 for its 150th anniversary in 1989.

But the fact remains that it is still the most complicated watch ever made without computer-aided technology - with a minute repeater with a "Westminster" clock, a stopwatch that can record two simultaneous events A "chronograph", a perpetual calendar, moon phases, indications of sunrise and sunset, and a celestial chart of the New York City night sky, among other things. All of these were drawn, calculated, manufactured and assembled by hand.

Paul Newman's Rolex

Rolex Cosmograph "Paul Newman" Daytona, 1968

Sold for $17.8 million in 2017 at Phillips.

This 1960s chronograph is not made of precious metal, just plain old steel. Nor does it have any clever complications - its stopwatch functions on the same principle as tens of thousands of watches of the period - and its case back is engraved with the crude, ungrammatical inscription, "Drive me carefully. "

But this is not an ordinary watch. This is Paul Newman's own Daytona Cosmograph. The ultimate example of the most collectible Rolex, it was given to the Hollywood star by his wife Joanne Woodward in 1968, when his passion for motorsports really took off (hence the engraving).

The blue-eyed star was often photographed wearing the watch, which was characterized by its "exotic" dial color and "mushroom" buttons - an unpopular substitute for the 1960s and 1970s. The unpopular Daytona watches of the 1960s and 1970s mean that examples of these watches are rare, and intact watches with boxes and paper are even rarer.

Despite its relative simplicity, the watch was the highlight of an already high-profile auction in New York in 2017, surpassing countless Haute Horlogerie creations by the world's greatest makers and effortlessly breaking the previous world record held by Patek Philippe, which had sold in the same room the previous year for $11.1 million.

Timepieces taken into space

The George Daniels Space Traveler I

1982, sold for $4.6 million at Sotheby's in 2019.

It may only occupy 16th place on the list of the most expensive watches ever sold at auction, but this beauty transformed from a classical style is still revered for its superb individual watchmaking.

As far as the legacy of watchmaker George Daniels is concerned, the coaxial regulating mechanism inside every mechanical Omega exists. But his bloody "Daniels Method", which allowed him to handcraft each and every part in raw metal without any automation, not to mention the addition of staff in his remote workshop on the Isle of Man, is arguably his most impressive feat.

This method required mastery of more than 30 crafts that Daniels had honed through years of restoring vintage Bulgar covers, and his career output was limited to 35 watches, which he made for a handful of wealthy customers. However, these 35 watches have led many horologists to regard him as the world's greatest surviving watchmaker. His most famous creation, the Space Traveler Pocket Watch, was named in honor of NASA's Apollo program and, as Daniels put it, "the kind of watch you need for a trip to Mars" because it had celestial time indications.

Watches for private jets

Richard Mille RM 62-01 Airbus

Worth $1.3 million in 2019.

Aside from the spectacular $1.75 million Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon, this is the most expensive new and off-the-shelf watch you can buy right now.

But it's top-notch modern astrology at its most uncompromising. renowned for its minimalist back, F1-style aesthetic, performance in extreme conditions and cutting-edge materials, Richard Mille has turned the sophisticated, slightly dusty world of traditional Swiss watchmaking on its head.

The branding of his latest creation is in line with that of the Airbus jet, hence the introduction of a porthole-shaped carbon and titanium composite case. But the innovation doesn't stop there. It has a "vibrate" setting (a feature familiar to fans of early 20th century cell phones and pagers) thanks to a small unbalanced solid gold weight that spins at 5,400 revolutions per minute at the time specified by the alarm clock, discreetly reminding your wrist of the set time.

It also has a whirring "tourbillon" cage that resists the effects of gravity on the delicate balance spring. It's made of ultra-light, ultra-tough carbon and titanium, and a second time zone function keeps track of the time you get home when your private airbus lands.
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