These Under-the-Radar Vintage Watches Are About to Become Serious 2024 Grails

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Many watch grails are famously late bloomers. In fact, initial apathy upon a watch’s release can become a boon for that same model generations later. The most famous example of this is the “exotic” dial Rolex Daytona, originally a lame-duck variation that the Crown allegedly stopped producing in the late ‘60s because customers found it too funky. It wasn’t until the ‘80s, after salad dressing fat cat Paul Newman started wearing it, that the watch earned its nickname and legendary status. At its upcoming Rough Diamonds auction, Sotheby’s and its partner heist-out—the bad boys of watch media—are betting on two dozen watches they believe are just one solid co-sign away from joining the elite club of horological icons.

I was extremely activated when I got my first peek at one of the pieces up for grab in the Rough Diamonds sale: a diamond-set car that flips open to reveal an Audemars Piguet-stamped mother-of-pearl dial. It’s whimsical, loaded with dazzling gems, and comes with a great backstory: the Sultan of Brunei commissioned the AP car, along with teddy bear-shaped ones, for his children. The rest of the collection offers more of that same offbeat energy. Some standouts include a Patek Philippe that spills out into a mosaic of enamel-painted pieces, a Chopard that looks like a treasure from an enchanted forest, and a golden Jaeger-LeCoultre ring.

None of these are the types of watches that have typically been lionized by collectors. The Paul Newman Daytona’s specialness, for example, requires a small research paper to understand. It satiates the nerd part of our noggins with back-of-the-baseball-card stats and trivia. The watches in the Rough Diamond sale, by contrast, are just plain fun. Rings, bangles, and car shapes: delightful. Tide-Pod bright colors: yum. Shiny diamonds: more, please.

Once the initial high of letting your eyes devour these watches wears off, however, the Sotheby’s sale elicits a secondary thrill. An institution of this caliber wouldn’t just put its weight behind lots like this for kicks—their endorsement and belief in these pieces means they all have a legitimate shot to be serious money makers in 2024. “We’ve seen the trend with sporty watches like the Patek Philippe Nautilus and Daytonas, and I think people just want something different now,” said Manon Hagie, Sotheby’s sales director for watches. Hagie believes a new generation of younger, more open-minded collectors—in combination with a few older ones primarily looking to purchase pieces for their wives—will make this sale a success. Sotheby’s notes that it’s attracted more buyers under 30 over the past three years than ever before.

One thing that irks me slightly about the ascension of these silly gem-set pieces is that no one has anything that interesting to say about why collectors are suddenly so interested in them. It’s explained away with the somewhat tired logic of trend cycles: we wore and coveted spartan sport watches, so now we shall wear the opposite.

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