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Independent watchmakers steal the show in Geneva

Independent watchmakers steal the show in Geneva

Monday, 27 May 2019
By Flavia Giovannelli
Flavia Giovannelli

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5 min read

For the third time, Phillips put independents front and centre of its sale, headlined by George Daniels. Connoisseurs packed the saleroom for the British auction house’s May date, with the hammer coming down on several record-breaking lots.

The most memorable May sale this year was that of Phillips, which achieved CHF 25,800,625. As always, watches by Rolex, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin contributed to this record figure. However, the highest price was realised by the George Daniels Grand Complication (lot 34) which at CHF 2,420,000 more than doubled its estimate. This spectacular and historically important instantaneous perpetual calendar minute repeating yellow gold pocket watch with moonphases, thermometer, power reserve, equation of time, retrograde date and co-axial tourbillon was the highlight of the sale.

The George Daniels Grand Complication, one of the last and most complicated pocket watches made by the late British watchmaker.
The George Daniels Grand Complication, one of the last and most complicated pocket watches made by the late British watchmaker.

Another watch by Daniels, the self-taught founding father of modern independent watchmaking, set a world record under Aurel Bacs’ gavel. Part of a 35-piece limited edition celebrating the 35th anniversary of Daniels’ invention of the co-axial escapement, it fetched CHF 456,250. Interest in the independents was at a height, piqued by a pre-sale exhibition, and every lot in this section sold – proof of collectors’ continued enthusiasm for contemporary independent makers.

Thirteen of the best

Understanding how the event came about means going back a couple of years to 2014 when, after dazzling salerooms at Christie’s, Aurel Bacs set up Bacs & Russo, a consulting firm that became a kind of annex to Phillips watch department. Bacs’ aim was to bring something new to the watch auction world. Alex Ghotbi, head of sale and associate director at Phillips Watches, would be the ideal partner with whom to engineer an innovative project intended to bring thirteen contemporary watchmakers together in one place. Earlier this month, the public were able to view their work inside an elegant marquee in the grounds of the Hôtel La Réserve in Geneva.

Visitors were able to contemplate such rarities as the Grande Sonnerie from Philippe Dufour.

Visitors were able to view up-close outstanding pieces by Akrivia, Louis Cottier, De Bethune, Philippe Dufour, Laurent Ferrier, Charles Frodsham, Greubel Forsey, F.P.Journe, MB&F, Derek Pratt for Urban Jürgensen, Roger W. Smith, Urwerk and Kari Voutilainen. Among the rarities on show were a Grande Sonnerie from Philippe Dufour, prototypes of the Nautilus, the work of genius designer Gérald Genta, and the Oval Tourbillon with detent escapement by Derek Pratt.

The exhibition was tailored towards an audience of connoisseurs, eager to see (often for the first time) and hold tomorrow’s vintage watches. “Phillips is renowned for its rigorous selection,” commented communications manager Asta Ponzo. “Our sales rarely exceed 200, at most 250 lots. We wanted to showcase the vitality of these extraordinarily creative independent makers.” Unconstrained by the imperatives and marketing diktats inherent to the big watch groups, these individuals are free to follow their own direction.

Meet the makers

For the brands on show, some of whom had watches in the sale, the exhibition wasn’t something to be taken lightly, as Charris Yadigaroglou, head of communication at MB&F, confessed. “We were a little nervous. Three of our timepieces had been entered in the sale by clients. You have to realise that we have no control over the reserve price. Fortunately, results were excellent, starting with the Music Machine which made more than twice its pre-sale estimate.”

These artisans are the guardians of a centuries-old craft to which they bring their fabulous creativity.
Alex Ghotbi

The exhibition was beneficial to all, from the most “off-the-wall” makers to those more closely attuned to George Daniels’ legacy. Where the two meet is a point of interest. “The question is,” says Charris Yadigaroglou, “are we talking about vintage or pre-owned?”. As a relative newcomer, established in 2005, MB&F is proud to see its timepieces already rank among what we can consider to be tomorrow’s heritage.

George Daniels and Roger W. Smith, Daniels's former protege
George Daniels and Roger W. Smith, Daniels's former protege

For the likes of François-Paul Journe and Félix Baumgartner, the exhibition was a chance to meet and chat with collectors, taking time to explain the intention behind and the finer point of their watches, and to lift the veil on some of the mysteries that add to the charm of these exceptional pieces. This melange of exhibition and sale, tribute to watchmakers past and celebration of today’s stars, proved a winning formula. Alex Ghotbi was delighted by events throughout this long weekend. “Not only was this the first time these watchmakers showed their work together, it was also the first time certain pieces had gone on public display. The exhibition was a chance for Swiss and international collectors to discover magnificent creations, and for those already familiar with the makers, to meet them afresh and discover these rare pieces. Phillips makes it a point of honour to inform on the value and extreme importance of these artisans’ work. They are the guardians of a centuries-old craft to which they bring their fabulous creativity.” Plans for a similar event are already in the offing.

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