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Watch auctions bid hello to NFTs

Watch auctions bid hello to NFTs

Tuesday, 18 May 2021
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

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3 min read

After the Geneva spring auction season ended with a raft of record prices, are collectors prepared to shell out for a watch represented by a non-fungible token?

Now that the worst effects of the Covid-19 pandemic appear to be diminishing in those countries that are fortunate enough to organise vaccination campaigns, consumers are hungry. Hungry for everything, especially luxury goods and especially in China. The Jing Daily KraneShares China Global Luxury Index, which tracks the global market performance of the luxury sector, clocked 333 points at end April. This is its highest level ever; higher even than the 250 points registered pre-pandemic, prompting Jing Daily to declare that “China’s luxury consumers are back with a vengeance, spending like never before and buoyed by a passion for fashion like the country has never seen.” Another indication – more specific but just as telling – comes with the results of the spring auctions that recently took place in Geneva, where Antiquorum, Christie’s and Phillips, three of the biggest houses, totalled CHF 74 million.

Ref. 2523, sold for CHF 7 million at Phillips © Patek Philipe
Ref. 2523, sold for CHF 7 million at Phillips © Patek Philipe

Records tumbled as collectors vied for exceptional pieces from Patek Philippe and Rolex, alongside A. Lange & Söhne, FP Journe, Omega and Roger Smith, among others. And it’s this “among others” that is piquing the interest of watch brands in search of novel ways to attract the younger buyers whose spending will help drive growth in an industry that has consistently emphasised tradition and authenticity. Always one step ahead, industry veteran Jean-Claude Biver, a man with a gift for turning around brands’ fortunes, sensed that digital assets were one of the ways to go.

Bigger Bang All Black Tourbillon Chronograph, sold at auction as an NFT © Hublot
Bigger Bang All Black Tourbillon Chronograph, sold at auction as an NFT © Hublot

On March 30 he put up for auction the first ever watch NFT (non-fungible token): a kind of “digital twin” of the Hublot Bigger Bang All Black Tourbillon Chronograph from his private collection, which he says he will never sell. The auction was held on the OpenSea platform in collaboration with WISeKey, a Geneva-based cybersecurity firm that developed the blockchain-enabled cryptographic signature that records the authenticity and provenance of the NFT. “What we are doing today is a world first that will have wings. We are at the start of something great,” declared Jean-Claude Biver at the launch of the sale. Keeping up his track record of career “firsts” meant some careful manoeuvring vis-a-vis Jacob & Co, helmed by Benjamin Arabov since March, which had already announced that it would be offering its first watch NFT as a 3D animation. This SF24 Tourbillon Pièce Unique is based on the Epic SF24 travel watch, with the addition of a tourbillon and the names of ten cryptocurrencies replacing the cities in the split-flap display.

Still image of the NFT Jacob & Co SF24 Tourbillon Pièce Unique
Still image of the NFT Jacob & Co SF24 Tourbillon Pièce Unique

Considering the growing craze for blockchain-certified digital artwork – in March, a digital collage by Beeple fetched $69.3 million at Christie’s – expectations ran high… only to be dashed. Despite the best efforts of the Jean-Claude Biver one-man publicity machine, the Hublot Bigger Bang NFT struggled to reach $63,000 (with an unknown reserve price). As for the NFT that Jacob & Co proposed on the ArtGrails platform, it went for $100,000, compared with the $210,000 retail value of an Epic SF24. So was that the end of that? Certainly not. A couple of weeks later, Jacob & Co, in tandem with WISeKey, was back with an Astronomia Sky NFT that went under the hammer with the physical watch. Ressence also proposed the first watch in the Spymaster limited edition with its NFT. For Jacob & Co, the next step will be a complete collection of watch NFTs that will exist only in the digital space, which it says allows for greater creativity. As something that is certain to interest the smartphone generation, watch NFTs are to be taken seriously… and perhaps not that different from the real-life watches collectors keep in a safe.

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