“The Numbers Are Too Big Now”: Inside the Sale of the Record-Obliterating $31 Million Patek Philippe
Over the weekend, a Patek Philippe wristwatch sold for $31 million. Why? And what does it all mean?
When the bidding for the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime reference 6300A reached 18 million Swiss francs, there should have been pandemonium. It is the sort of momentous occasion that warrants a balloon drop, cannons firing confetti, or a Gatorade bath. Instead, over the weekend in Geveva, at the Only Watch auction held in conjunction with the auction house Christie’s, the room was relatively tepid. The milestone was met with scattered applause, a few whistles that floated up from the back of the room from shy catcallers, and Only Watch founder Luc Pettavino, wearing a suit the blue of a perfectly cloudless day, dipped his face into his hands in disbelief. The Patek Philippe had just swiped the crown of most-expensive wristwatch from Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona, which sold for $17.8 million in the winter of 2017. “I thought there would be more excitement when the auction hit 18 million,” says Eric Wind, a watch dealer who formerly worked for Christie’s and was in the room for this auction, “but people were sort of already expecting that.”
The room was packed with men in suits and women dressed in sweaters and scarves, all neatly attired to attend one of the world’s most expensive spectator sports. Rahul Kadakia, behind the rostrum at the front of the room accepting bids and Christie’s international head of jewellery, was hardly content with the result either. After a bid of 18.5 million francs, he looked longingly over at the row of people manning phones connected to the world’s most desirous watch collectors.
“Say it!” Kadakia demanded.
Everyone laughed, but the woman on the phone obliged. “19 million,” she said while knifing her hand into the air. Another round of applause. The room took on the atmosphere of a Rolling Stones concert that’s entered the encore, the juicy section where Mick and company are only playing the hits. Every hand in the crowd shot up in the air and gripped a phone, every new utterance was greeted with whoops, clapping, and the occasional hushed “wow” shuddered through the crowd.
The next milestone came only six minutes into the bidding when a bid for 25 million francs arrived. There was no doubt any longer: the Patek Philippe would be the most expensive timepiece ever sold, breaking the record previously held by a Patek Philippe pocket watch commissioned by the banker Henry Graves in the 1920s that sold for $24.4 million in 2015.
Still, the numbers continued to pile up like a Jenga tower—the end was inevitable, but for the time being everyone was having one helluva good time. After a brief pause following the 27 million francs mark, Kadakia chided his suddenly turtled bidder. “He’s changing his story,” he joked. “The numbers are too big now.” But the numbers kept getting bigger anyway: 28 and 29 million came and went. 30 million received a big clap and a woman on the phone raised her hand so casually to announce, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, 31 million. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Kadakia said before finally bringing his hammer down, “once in a lifetime.”
The motion made the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime the most expensive watch ever sold by a wide margin. It is a stunning result. Unlike the Paul Newman, this watch was not vintage nor powered by incredible provenance. The Grandmaster Chime is a modern watch made specifically for the Only Watch auction, which donates 100 percent of its proceeds to Duchenne muscular dystrophy research.
The watch is the most advanced ever produced by Patek Philippe, which is already renowned for making the world’s most advanced wristwatches. The watch comes with 20 complications—think of them like apps for a watch—including minute repeaters that chime out the time, a perpetual calendar, second time zone, moonphase indicator, and dials for the day and date. Plus, the watch is, astoundingly, reversible. On one side, a sleek black dial and on the other a salmon-colored face that’s etched with the words: “The Only One”. “[Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern] told me he had written the mention of ‘The Only One’ to emphasize its uniqueness and that he was sorry he didn’t have the idea before,” Pettavino writes over email. It allegedly took Patek Philippe 10,000 man hours in total to make the watch. “Since the beginning [of Only Watch’s paternship with Patek Philippe,] in 2005 their idea was to go crescendo,” says Pettavino. “And this time, super crescendo!”
While the watch is exceptionally complicated, marking the watch as “The Only One” is likely what armed this watch with the sledgehammer to smash previous records. There are many beautiful Patek Philippes collectors can buy, and many highly technical ones, but what makes this particular reference a $31 million watch is its one-of-oneness. “Obviously it’s the exclusivity of it,” says Wind.
Only Watch isn’t the only winner from this auction, either. Leading up to the auction, people whispered that Patek Philippe was in it for glory. “All the conversations before were that Patek Philippe really wanted to overtake Rolex as the most expensive wristwatch ever sold,” says Wind. “It was very discomforting to them to not have the record for most expensive wristwatch. So from day one they set out to make the watch that could surpass it.”
Watch collecting largely will benefit from this ceiling-raising piece, too. The watch community has long wondered why watches weren’t considered as valuable as cars or pieces of art. While this result alone won’t put watches in the same tier as those collectibles, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. “It’s good to see the goalposts getting expanded for the field of watch collecting,” Wind says.
In the days leading up to the auction, Wind says opinions were split on the watch’s worth. “A friend of mine who is pretty well tied in with the Asian collectors said that there was a lot of talk it would surpass the [Henry] Graves, which several days ago people were saying would be so outlandish.” Wind laughs at the memory now. Days later, a $31 million wristwatch still elicits that reaction: laughter, or disbelief. “I did not expect this level to be envisageable,” Pettavino says. “It’s so strong I still have difficulties to integrate this amount. Above the Everest and the sky. Somewhere in space…”