For many companies, moving toward an Eastern clientele is a new strategy; but for Swiss watchmakers, a Chinese audience is a tale as old as time—or at least a tale about timepieces.
Since the late 1700s, Swiss watchmakers have been creating watches specifically for a Chinese audience. Through the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Eastern tastes ran to enameled pocket watches with intricate musical components. Today, the timeless beauty of these pieces is fetching top dollar at international auction houses.
“Depending on the type of pocket watches, some have clearly increased one hundred percent in the last couple of years,” said Christie’s International Head of Watches Aurel Bacs.
According to Sotheby’s Hong Kong head of watches, Vanessa Herrera, part of the resurgence in these watches’ popularity is because investors, after rising prices of gold, are looking for alternative investments. The other part, Herrera says, is due to a renewed interest among Chinese collectors in enameled objects.
For Chinese collectors, the most sought-after watches are not just those that are most beautiful. The Chinese prize watches that have some connection to the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled in China from 1735 to 1796. The emperor collected Western clocks, automata, and pocket watches; in 2008, Christie’s auctioned a rare pair of enameled pocket watches from Qianlong’s collection for $375,000.
A number of pocket watches can be spotted at Sotheby’s and Christie’s spring sales in Hong Kong. Sotheby’s April 7 sale included 40 to 50 eighteenth-to-twentieth-century watches, many of which were originally manufactured for the Chinese market. Christie’s May watch auction will feature a pair of matching gold-and-enamel singing-bird pistols, circa 1820. The pistols feature a complex mechanism shaped like a bird. The mechanisms, designed by Freres Rochat, were, in their time, placed in cages and mirrors in addition to decorating pistols.
The pair of pistols is extremely rare, and believed to be the only matching pair in existence. Most of these pistols are housed in private collections and museums. The pair offered by Christie’s is valued at approximately $5 million.
photo credit: christie’s