What Makes Watches So Expensive?

7 min read
What makes watches so expensive?

Let’s look at the priciest men’s watches of all time to find out

Working on a magazine like MOJEH, you get to see a lot of watches. We’re pretty lucky. But a question we’re often asked is, why does this one cost that much, and why is it more than the other one next to it? The best place to find answers is to go straight to the top. If you look at the most valuable watches of all time – the ones that have cost their owners the most, more than any other – then you can find some surprising clues.

Currently, in the list of the top 10 most expensive watches of all time – all sold at auction – eight of them are Patek Philippe models and two are Rolexes. But as of December last year, there are actually eight watchmakers to have surpassed the US$2 million (AED7.34 million) mark for one of their models – the two mentioned so far, plus Breguet, George Daniels, Urwerk, Zenith, Vacheron Constantin and TAG Heuer. But we’re delving into the top five, starting with a Patek Philippe Gobbin Milan ‘Heures Universelles’ from 1953, sold for just over US$8.9 million (AED32.68 million) at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong in 2019. A complicated watch from years ago, with a revolving ring on the dial bearing the names of 40 cities, with only three made, and just one other known to still exist. So there you have your first reason: rarity.


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At No 4, we have a Patek Philippe Stainless Steel chronograph from 1943, sold at a Phillips auction in Geneva in 2016 for US$11.1 million (AED40.76 million). But this model is said to be the world’s first perpetual calendar chronograph, and very few were made in stainless steel, with this one in excellent condition. So for the second reason, we’ll say: historically significant. The No 3 slot gives us our most expensive Rolex of all time: a Cosmograph Daytona from 1968, once owned by the actor Paul Newman, sold for US$17.8 million (AED65.37 million) at a 2017 Phillips auction in New York. These were always popular Rolex models, nicknamed the Paul Newman as it was known he owned one, noted for its ‘exotic’ dial, with a white face, black sub-dials and Art Deco font. Newman’s own featured an engraving from his wife, Joanne Woodward, on the back. And if a watch was owned by somebody famous… Then we’re back with Patek Philippe at No 2 for its Henry Graves Super-complication pocket watch, dating back to 1932, sold by Sotheby’s in Geneva in 2014 for US$24 million (AED88.14 million). It was New York businessman Henry Graves Jr who commissioned Patek Philippe to build him the world’s most complicated watch, no matter the cost, as part of a gentleman’s wager. The result was an 18k gold timepiece, with 920 individual parts and 24 complications, including timekeeping, calendar, chronograph and chiming functions, and it took 10 years to make. Clearly, craftsmanship and the time involved are a huge factor in the value.

And the most expensive watch? The Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime, sold for US$31 million (AED125 million) by Christie’s in Geneva in 2019 – the same year the watch was made. Wait, a brand new watch? Yes, part of the Only Watch auctions, where watchmakers create one-off pieces to sell for charity. A unique version of a watch from 2014, in a stainless steel case with an interchangeable rose-gold dial, inscribed with the words ‘The Only One’, that can be swapped for a striking black alternative. It actually sold for 10 times its estimate.

But what does this tell us? Rarity, significance, craftsmanship, a famous owner and just being one of a kind can all have an effect, and it does apply in a simplified way to some of the models we see more frequently. Limited editions, movements taking years to perfect, the finest materials, first of a kind and one of a kind, all of this factors in, and can also help the watch accumulate value over time. Plan your purchase carefully, and you might have found the record-breaker of tomorrow.

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