Beyer Chronométrie Zürich is a veritable institution. Dating back to 1760, the watchmaking Beyer dynasty came to Zurich in 1860 and in 1927 moved into the premises it still occupies today, at the heart of the city’s shopping and banking district. An agent for Patek Philippe without interruption since 1842, IWC since 1893, Rolex and Jaeger-LeCoultre since 1932 and another twenty or more other prestigious brands, Chronométrie Beyer is also the owner of a very large Horology Museum exhibiting numerous masterpieces collected over the years by the family, and open to the public since 1971. But Beyer has also had a Vintage Watches department since 1965, which has given it no mean edge over its rivals. Europa Star met Juergen Delémont, who heads up that department.
How come Beyer created its Vintage Watches department so early?
It all started with the museum; that is, it was a strictly private affair. The Beyer boutique was very successful in the 1920s, and rather than follow the example of other shops and open new branches, Théodore Beyer invested in old watches. Wristwatches had just been invented at that time and nobody was interested in the old watches any more. That’s how he came to collect a number of very important items, Breguet watches especially, Patek Philippe and other, even older watches. Watches that have gained incredibly in value since then. Beyer had buyers trawling Europe, visiting auctions. But it was purely out of a personal interest, without any idea of making a business of it. A museum was gradually built up and the Vintage department opened in 1965.
We’re seeing a growing craze for vintage watches, how do you explain that?
Yes, it’s true that the market for vintage watches is just growing and growing. I think there are several reasons for this, and the economic factor isn’t the most crucial one. A vintage watch has depth, a history, a pedigree. For the people of my generation, born in the 1950s, 1960s or even the 1970s, vintage items remind them of their youth. There’s something reassuring about them. I’ve also noticed that many buyers choose a watch that bears the date of their birth, it’s a sign. Another reason is the design: many of buyers are virtually addicted to one particular design, they want it at any price. And then there’s also a desire to stand out from the crowd by wearing a watch that’s one of a kind. Having a truly unique or very rare timepiece always produces a “wow” effect, as people say. Our “vintage” customer base is made up essentially of designers, architects, independent professionals, store owners…it’s a very urban public.
But another, quite different reason, also plays a role in this passion for vintage: size. Vintage sizes are much more wearable, pleasanter and ergonomic than many of the exaggerated sizes you see today. And not everybody has wrists the size of a lumberjack’s, far from it. But today we’re seeing that, mindful of this wave of popularity, the brands are slowly returning to their roots.
Why would anyone come to Beyer to buy a vintage watch?
We’ve occupied the same prestigious building, a stone’s throw from the famous Paradeplatz (Editor’s note: the heart of Swiss banking), since 1927 and we’re a family business, which people greatly appreciate. We have an unimpeachable reputation for dependability – 15 watchmakers work in our workshops – and we have been a veritable tradition in Zurich ever since the days when the important stages in life were marked by the purchase of a watch. We treat vintage watches like new watches. All are inspected and restored in-house and have a one-year technical warranty. Each watch comes with a detailed history and is accompanied by a signed certificate.
Also, I’d say that, in theory, you can buy anything anywhere. But buying a vintage watch in situ, a watch that you can touch beforehand, presented in a convivial setting over a drink, is an irreplaceable experience that goes perfectly with the vintage spirit in which you purchase it: you remember a physical purchase, you know where and when you bought it, who was with you, whether it was sunny or rainy that day… All that gives an object depth, it’s an ongoing story. And to be able to buy, for example, a new Patek Philippe or a vintage Patek Philippe in the same shop is enormously reassuring as the quality of the latter.
Has your customer base changed since 1965?
Oh, certainly, general knowledge about products has developed quite considerably. Customers ask lots of questions, often highly technical. Buying a vintage watch goes hand in hand with a certain cultivation, a certain education: our customers know where to buy such and such a watch, on the Internet or in a physical boutique, here or elsewhere. But I’d date the start of the great vintage wave to the late 1990s, when the Italians went mad about Swatch. When Swatch fever was over, the people who, in the meantime, had become collectors, turned to vintage watches, primarily Rolexes, because they were the only really waterproof watches and had a reputation for robustness that stood the test of time. And it spread from there, first to the Rolex Prince, then to the other brands. And then it got fragmented: there are those who swear only by a Rolex Pepsi, others by a Day-Date or a Milgauss, and so on. But everyone is in search of interesting items first and foremost, items with character, a history, whether it’s a Patek Philippe, a Rolex, a Jaeger-LeCoultre, an IWC, an Omega or whatever. That’s why it’s important to have a range that’s broad and deep. We’re always in search of acquisitions.
But isn’t there a risk of a real vintage bubble?
No, I don’t think so because I wouldn’t compare the vintage market to a bubble, but to a foam bath with hundreds of little bubbles. If one bursts, others a short distance away are growing, while others are shrinking. There are ups and downs. Of course, there are peaks, limits, that have been attained. For example, two years ago we sold a Rolex Daytona Paul Newman for CHF93’000. Today, we’d have to pay the same price ourselves to buy a same one… It would be unsellable, because we have to have a mark-up, don’t we? But in fact, the range of interesting watches is very broad and made up of many, very different items.
The vintage market seems to be almost exclusively male…
Yes, 92% are men’s watches. But the share of ladies’ watches is steadily growing. Women like shopping, they’re buying more and more for themselves, wear men’s watches, and often it’s the women who buy for their man. But we have something for everyone: we start at CHF3,800 and our vintage watches are divided into three price ranges: up to CHF10,000, up to CHF20,000 and over CHF20,000. Another point is that we never push customers to purchase and we only show them watches in the price range they asked for.
What do you think of the new players who have come onto the market via the blogs and other social media?
They exchange images for the most part, but little more. They may do business, but Beyer sells stories, memories. That’s the whole difference.