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Somewhere between finalizing the auction catalogue in London, touching base in Geneva and taking off for an exhibition in Hong Kong, Eva-Maria Dimitriadis catches up with Christie’s Watch Specialist and International Co-Head, Aurel Bacs, to talk about radical innovation, Picasso’s nose and his dream timepiece.
How did you become so passionate about watches?
Well, it was a long chain of events which goes back to the 1970s when Japan started making quartz, battery driven timepieces. These were more precise and much cheaper than mechanical watches and the Swiss watch-making industry became threatened by the new technologies. My father had always enjoyed treating himself to a nice quality watch but he was faithful to Swiss handmade watches, and for a decade or so there was hardly anything on the market that suited his tastes. So, he turned to vintage watches which, despite not being the latest inventions, offered immense quality at reasonable costs. As a teenager I followed him around as he visited auction houses, antique stores, the homes of other collectors... I was privy to many a detailed conversation about these watches and picked up a lot of terminology. It slowly became a subject of great interest for me and before I knew it, I was abandoning my Law and Business studies to try my hand as a junior specialist at an auction house. What I thought would last only a few months turned into a lifelong passion and career.
Which young watch manufacturers do you think have the most potential?
This is an excellent question. And one that every journalist and young collector is asking. Everyone wants to know what quality watches now will gain value with time. There was a time 100 years ago, when people asked “Pablo who?” and more recently, “Damien who?” It takes time to become a celebrated icon in the field and I think you have to consider the difference between innovation and radical innovation. There are two ways to improve a product. You can do the same as someone else has done before, but do it better. Or you can question what others do and look for brand new approaches. Going back to Picasso, there was a time people did not understand his work. “Why did he paint a nose above the eyes?” And now, he is probably one of the most celebrated painters in the history of art.
When looking at young companies I have two personal favourites, one of which is F.P Journe. His inspiration is entirely unique and looks back about 200 years to 18th century French chronometry, with of course, a modern twist. Producing only 1,000 watches a year he never compromises his style or quality and his work is very credible. His designs were not fully understood 10 years ago when he entered the market but today he is amongst the most respected watchmakers. There is a nice private collection in the November sale with half a dozen of his earlier pieces. (See lots 118–122)
I am also very fond of Richard Mille’s creations. He has not copied anything or anyone and his watches are truly machines. They have a rough, dangerous and powerful edge that most resembles a high tech motorbike. And when you think of these superbikes you see everything; the tubes, the bars, the springs. That’s his style. It’s celebration of technology, masculinity and engineering.
If we could ‘travel forward in time’ to the year 2020, what differences would you expect to see in the high-end watch-making industry?
I expect we will see further innovation. In the world of mechanical watches, you’re never going to see anything as dramatic as a watch with an inbuilt phone or GPS; these watches are hand made objects. But I expect there will be more innovation with regards to technology, design and materials used. For example, we might see more in the way of high tech materials on the market. Regarding technology, watchmakers are constantly trying to improve the accuracy of their products, and in time they may significantly reduce the need for regular servicing. I also think the spectrum of watchmakers will diversify and we will see more niche suppliers filling the gaps that bigger manufactures cannot and will not occupy. And clients from new markets, specifically China, Russia and India, will start demanding products that are not yet available today. This will encourage the industry to make new things creating an even more interesting market from which consumers will benefit.
Do you yourself have a collection of watches?
My wife and I may have more watches than the average couple but it is not a collection as such. Her tastes have changed enormously since I first met her and her most recent acquisition was a yellow gold Daytona with a yellow gold bracelet. A very bold and self-confident choice for a woman! In my heart I would be the ideal watch collector, but working at Christie’s I don’t have the desire to own more watches for myself. Each auction is like my own collection that I get to look after for a few months. It is a privilege to have all these gems accessible to me and heaven forbid what collecting habits I might take up should I ever leave this job!
What is your dream timepiece?
My dream watch is always the next discovery. When the gavel comes down on the last lot in an auction, my mind immediately skips to the next season as I dream about the incredible watches that might appear. The kind of watch that excites me most is one that really adds a further layer of knowledge to the world of watch collectors.
IMPORTANT WATCHES Including A CONNOISSEUR'S VISION
16 Nov 2009
Watches & Wristwatches