Value: An Elusive Concept?

By Richard Paige

Many years ago, when I made my living as a watchmaker, I specialized in the restoration and repair of American Pocket watches. I found it very therapeutic to work on these masterful machines, and it seemed to set my work apart, while the rest of the world went crazy over the new digital and quartz technology.

The Swiss watch market was in ruins and had no foreseeable future, and the Japanese had forged ahead and saturated the watch market with new fangled watches that ran on batteries and changed the time with magnets.

I got quite a reputation in the San Francisco bay area as an expert in Early American Pocket watches, and people from all over the Bay area sought me out to work on their cherished keepsakes.

As part of this service, I also did appraisals on these timekeepers for insurance or estate purposes, and this was always challenging.

One day a gentleman came into the store to have his great grandfathers pocket watch appraised for insurance purposes. The watch was a “6 size” Waltham Hunters case watch of yellow gold filled, with a 15 jewel movement. I dated the watch around 1896 from a book of serial number datings that I had to reference from. On the inside back cover, the watch was engraved “Robert Washington” ( I don’t remember the exact first name, but I do think it was Robert). The gentleman proceeded to tell me that the owner of this watch, his great Grandad, was George Washington’s great-great grandson, our first American president.

I told him to give me a day or two, and I would have the watch serviced and appraised, and went about my business of working on the watch. The next day I worked on the appraisal.

The gentleman returned the following day to pick up the watch and appraisal.

Upon opening and reading the result of my appraisal, the guy became noticeably agitated, and then lost his temper:

“You’re an idiot. I thought you were an expert. I was told you would be thorough. I’m not paying you for this trash!!!”…he went on…”I told you that this was a watch descended from George Washington and you appraise this watch at $250.00…are you crazy or just stupid!! This watch is worth several thousand dollars”

I went to my showcase and pulled out another waltham pocket watch, very similar in age, metal and design.

“look, I’m selling this comparable watch for $175.00…your watch is worth basically the same. I have no idea if this watch is really the great-great grandson’s of George Washington or the nephew of Attila the Hun for that matter. What I do know is that I can replace your watch with a like item for around $200 to $250…It’s your responsibility as the owner to prove provenance of this watch. I need documentation from an expert or proof of ownership from a reliable source before I’ll sign any document categorically stating that this watch is George Washington’s great-great grandson and the value is 20 times it’s replacement value. And even if you do produce this document, I would still need to research it’s value based on current market values for watches of this nature.”

This only enraged him more. “Give me the watch, I’ll take my business elsewhere. You’re incompetent and have no idea what your talking about!!”.

What did I learn from this experience, besides the possibility that George Washington had some mighty high-strung descendants???

A watch value reflects current market trends and popularities. A watch owned by Andy Warhol may be worth twice as much as the exact same watch owned by Shirley Temple, or 1000 times as much as the same watch owned by me. But maybe someday my watch will fetch 200 times more than Andy Warhol’s. It all depends on whether I become famous or notorious or just stay a nobody, and whether Andy Warhol falls out of favor. Recently, astonishingly high prices were paid in auction, for Marilyn Monroe artifacts, and a $200 piece of costume Jewelry sold for tens of thousands. This type of market pricing transcends the Limited Edition system of pricing by supply and demand. A limited Edition means that only a select few can have one, hence the watch should be of higher value (in theory), but a watch with provenance means that it may only be a one of a kind, even though there may be thousands exactly like it. An example would be Elvis Presley’s Hamilton Ventura, worth tens of thousands of dollars, yet the exact same watch from my next door neighbor, may only be worth $900.

This is a picture of my personal Jaeger LeCoultre Grand Taille Reverso, made of steel and 18kt gold. I had this watch specially engraved for me by an engraving artist from New Zealand. The engraving inspiration was taken from one of the Plaques in the RCA Building in New York City. It’s “Hermes”, the ancient Greek God who was the herald and messenger of the other Gods. The watch has it’s root designs in the Art Deco period, so I thought this image was appropriate for the watch. This is a one of a kind watch. There are thousands of the stock models without the engraving, but only one in the world exactly like this. It’s not a limited Edition of 1, but there’s only 1.

How can one value a watch like this??????






Certainly it’s worth more than the same watch without the engraving. But is it? What if this particular engraving was not in fashion or just plain unattractive, and only someone like me could like or appreciate it. Or what if it had a very fancy ,one of a kind design of my initials, and no interested buyers of the watch had the initials “RP”.






Value can be very elusive, and can change from country to country like a chameleon. Certain numerical edition numbers in Asia, are thought to be bad luck, hence less valuable. An appraisal only captures the moment of evaluation, and may be a worthless evaluation a year later or the next day in another country. A Rolex Daytona may be worth $7,000 today, but may only be worth $1,000 five years from now, or $50,000, depending on market conditions, popularity, and tastes.

Limited Edition watches will fluctuate in value just as any limited commodity may. The smaller the edition may have no affect on the value if the watch proves to be unsuccessful in the market place….but conversely, even a limited edition watch with a high production number may far exceed initial list prices if the market determines that it’s something of true value and treasure.

Hope you enjoyed this article.

Best Regards,
Richard Paige