To watch Aurel Bacs conduct an auction is like seeing a drama unfold, or an artist unveiling a masterpiece. Each timepiece he auctions is treated like a work of art—and it probably is, for Bacs, 50, only deals in rare, vintage watches with price tags that run to hundreds of thousands or even millions. Bacs is a senior consultant at Phillips Contemporary Auction House, which deals in watches, fine jewellery and art.
The “rockstar of the auctioneering world”, as one Indian collector described him, was in Delhi recently and spoke exclusively to Mint about trends shaping the world of horology, the drivers behind the unusual editions launched in the recent past and why he believes India will be a top consumer market for fine watches.
How has the watch world fared over the last few years? What was your experience of conducting an auction online?
Auction houses, retailers, dealers all wondered about the future of high-end watch collecting given that it is such a personal experience. Whether you visit a brick-and-mortar boutique, gather with collectors at a forum or meet at an auction room in Geneva, Hong Kong, or New York, you need to touch the watch. You need to travel a lot. I admit I thought there was going to be a brutal, negative impact to the industry as a whole. We delayed our first spring auction from May to June this year, simply because the Swiss authorities did not allow us to gather more than five or 10 people, which is impossible when you already have 30 or 40 staff, and normally 400 to 500 clients in a room. Then in June came my greatest professional surprise: people were comfortable to bid from afar. We had the same number of bidders. Our jaws dropped because we wondered how can people spend $50,000, $100,000, even millions, when they were not able to see the watch or try it on? I think two elements came into play that we did not foresee. One, how important it is to be trusted, and two, to be technologically on top of the game. In terms going to bid online, providing a livestream from the auction, the best unretouched life images of watches.
I also got the sense that prices were rising despite the slowdown covid caused in other spheres. Would that be true?
Well, for certain brands far more than the others. We’ve had the so-called “hype watches”—the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, the Patek Phillipe Nautilus, Richard Mille with brand new ceramic bezels, and the sports Rolexes. For lesser valuable watches, we saw prices of the Laureato from Girard-Perregaux, Vacheron Constantin and Zenith’s El Primero rise. At every price level, there were popular watches that, due to social media, suddenly took off and achieved unprecedented results.
We’ve also seen, an incredible amount of new wealth creation around the world. In NFTs, crypto, commodities and real estate, so many people earned well in 2020 and 2021. The collecting market as a whole—art, wine, rare motor cars—grew.
Do you see the possibility of a shift in India for high-end watch buying as we have observed in China over the past decade?
Yes. First and foremost, India, as a country, will very likely soon be the world’s largest nation. Second, I believe India’s economic growth is outpacing many other fast-growing economies, including China. So the economic framework is promising.
Are the exorbitant duties a barrier for India?
I’ve had lengthy conversations with industry leaders regarding the duties. China has luxury duties as well as other countries in Asia. And it hasn’t stopped the growth of the market. I’ve seen collectors attending events in India wearing not just the classic Rolexes and Patek Philippes but also independents such as FP Journe, MB&F, Richard Mille. What I’ve seen probably was only the tip of the iceberg. I think India will see shortcuts on the learning curve and will be a very, very important player.
Last year, quite a few special editions were launched with colours and new re-issues. What has been the trigger for that?
My simple takeaway is that brands reacted, some quicker than others, to an ever-younger audience. When I started in this business, Patek Philippe and Rolex were watches for someone who in the second half of their professional career, wanted to reward themselves. It was the elder gentleman’s high-end watch. Today, we have a very young dynamic audience. I can see it in our own auctions at Phillips. We have collectors from the age of 16-18 upwards. We see it also in other domains such as in fashion, cars. Patek Philippe’s most popular watch is Nautilus, with a Tiffany blue dial. I see Rolexes with stones or coloured dials, Richard Milles with bright straps and yellow, red details on the grand complication. This has been an initiative coming from the younger generation inspiring the watch industry to create watches that go with their fashion, their footwear, their cars, their apartments. Look at art. Impressionist art is associated with what museums do and what our fathers and grandfathers enjoy. Now you look at living artists, including Jeff Koons making a red metallic rabbit for $100 million dollars. Or Banksy… street art suddenly going for tens of millions. I believe there’s been a shift in what luxury looks like, feels like, and stands for.
German and Japanese brands have made serious strides in the world of high watch-making. Will that ever pose a threat to the Swiss hegemony?
Again, there are parallels in other domains. In the past, what we called high fashion was either French or Italian. It was the same with luxury cars. The Japanese tried to break into this some 25 years ago when they launched Lexus. With wine, it used to be French and Italian; now you have California, Australia, New Zealand. I do still believe that true luxury products must have a credible DNA, which means a luxury car has to be German or English, a luxury watch Swiss, a luxury wine French or Italian. But when you look at how the Japanese broke into the motorcar world, I believe we will see smaller independents. Look at Roger Smith in England, Voutilainen, who is Finnish but works in Switzerland, and Francois Paul Journe who is French but lives and works in Geneva. And it would not surprise me that one day if India’s most skilled independent maker can do something special. It will take a generation or two, 20 to 40 years but it will happen.
Pavan Lall is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of Forging Mettle: Nrupender Rao And The Pennar Story.