In Conversation with Paul Boutros of Phillips Watches

In your position with Phillips, what exactly do you do?

The Watch department at Phillips is still quite new, having officially launched in November 2014. As Head of Americas, together with my NY-based team, we represent the department on this side of the Atlantic taking in watches, serving American clients, building the foundation and developing the community for future auctions to be held here through valuation days, collector events and partnerships. As the department’s International Strategy Advisor, my team and I help create digital and traditional marketing strategies to build our brand globally. In preparation for our auctions, I assist the team with the writing of each season’s catalogs–working to explain the greatness of every watch we sell on behalf of our clients.

How did you get into watches?

My interest in watches began when I was a child–thanks to my father. He was a coin collector, and after a major NY coin show in 1986, we were walking down 5th Avenue when we stopped at the prestigious watch boutique, Wempe. I was awestruck by the watches I saw in the windows, and when a beautiful saleswoman showed me the movement of an IWC Portofino pocket watch, it was love at first sight. Seeing the jewels, gilt bridges, and ticking balance wheel shimmering under the bright lights of the boutique, it was that moment that sparked my lifelong passion for watch collecting.

What do you like about watches?

Watches encapsulate so much of what I love: science, history, art, culture, design, and engineering, and I consider them four-dimensional objects of art. From the smallest individual tooth of a gear to the tip of a seconds hand, they are one of very few man-made objects that, for the finest watches, can approach perfection in terms of human craftsmanship.

Do you remember your first watch? What was it?

When I was around four years old, one of my earliest memories are of badly wanting a digital watch, ironically. A friend of the family heard my constant begging and gave me the watch on his wrist–a Casio digital watch.

What gets you up in the morning? What do you enjoy about your job?

Meeting and working with passionate clients, and with team members who are equally passionate about watches. Also, being able to handle the finest watches in the world, on a daily basis, is an absolute pleasure. Nothing excites me more than receiving a message from a client with photos of a very rare, never-before-seen watch. Such fresh-to-the-market timepieces get all of our hearts racing.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned over the course of your career?

Collecting vintage watches is much more difficult than it appears. Also, it’s essential to buy what you love, and to deal with experienced sellers who will always stand behind their watches. Finally, choose quality every time over quantity, and it’s far better to pay a premium for top condition watches than to pursue a bargain for a watch in mediocre condition.

Why do you think vintage watches are so popular right now?

There are several things at play. First, consumers increasingly want things that money can’t easily buy, which is the case with obtaining rare vintage watches.

Vintage watches transport their buyers to a different era–bringing out much excitement and passion. With the rise of social media, when a collector shares their acquisitions online with their friends and followers, their contagious enthusiasm attracts attention–and more and more people to the world of vintage watches.

Finally, influential blog sites and watch magazines, with their increasing coverage of auction results, have opened people’s eyes to their long-term value and appeal.

What is the current hot trend?

Stainless steel sports watches, especially chronographs and diver’s watches, are highly sought after. We’re also finding that factory gem-set sports watches by Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Rolex are also especially desirable.

How do you find the watches you put up for auction?

Favorable press coverage and our social media channels have led new clients to us. As the word spreads about Phillips, more and more watches are being sourced from collectors and private owners who were unknown to us previously.

How much sleuthing do you have to do?

We are always searching the world for the very best examples of collectible watches we can find. We also hold valuation days across the globe in hopes of unearthing fresh-to-market watches. Every watch we take in is vetted thoroughly for authenticity and to ensure originality. We are the only watch auction house to have a “Board of Advisors,” a group of highly experienced collectors and renowned scholars we consult for their opinions–especially when we encounter a watch with features we’ve never seen before.

How much convincing do you have to do?

For some clients, parting with a cherished timepiece is quite difficult. While we never pressure anyone, to help convince reluctant consignors, we do explain the advantages of selling at auction, provide an assessment of the current market conditions for their particular timepiece, and explain how we work hard on their behalf to find as many potential buyers as possible to maximize the sale price.

What is your favorite auction city? Why?

Geneva. Phillips’ Geneva auctions are a major event in Switzerland, with people traveling from all over the world to watch and participate. Our saleroom is always packed during an auction weekend–standing room only with over 400 people trying to take part in the action. The buzz and excitement in the room is electrifying.

What do you enjoy about auctions?

Personally, I love conversations with collectors and clients, and also, the research and writing process during cataloging. Every watch we offer tells a story, and learning about a particular timepiece–its history, horological significance, provenance, rarity–is so rewarding. It’s such a pleasure to be able to open people’s eyes to the greatness of these watches through the catalog essays and one-on-one discussions. At the same time, when speaking with clients, I’m so often learning something new from them.

What advice would you offer a beginning collector?

Take the time to educate yourself and learn from seasoned specialists. Identify and focus on those brands and watches that appeal most to you personally. Get out and try on as many watches as possible, and read books devoted to those brands that interest you most. Obtain a basic understanding of watchmaking topics–especially finishing. Only buy watches that you love, in the best condition you can afford.

What is your “holy grail” watch?

There are a handful of “ultimate” watches for me–the unique platinum Patek Philippe J. B. Champion Observatory Chronometer or a platinum Vacheron Constantin minute repeating wristwatch from the 1940s.

What is your favorite vintage watch find?

From my collection, it is a Rolex “Kew A” Observatory Chronometer wristwatch–a reference 6210 handmade in 1954 by Rolex’s top watchmaker. It is one of the rarest of all Rolex references with only 24 made, and one of the most accurate wristwatches ever sold to the public by any brand. It received a Kew A rating from the Kew Observatory in Teddington, England, the world’s most stringent timekeeping tests used to approve large ships’ chronometers for use at sea. For a tiny wristwatch to be able to pass such a rigorous test, it demonstrates the exceptional watchmaking skill Rolex was capable of.

Are there any “mythical” watches you are on the lookout for?

Since wristwatch collecting is still such a young hobby, having only really begun in the mid-1980s, I’m certain there are many incredible watches waiting to be discovered. Watches with superb provenance, such as John Lennon’s Patek Philippe reference 2499 perpetual calendar chronograph, is at the top of my list.

Is it easy for you to predict what current watches will become collector watches? What do you look for?

For long-term “collectability,” a watch should be meaningful in some way, with a superb design, limited production, a high-degree of hand craftsmanship, or have advanced the state-of-the-art of mechanical watchmaking.

How careful do people have to be today not to get burned?

Manufacturers of fake and counterfeit watches and components are getting better and better. Collectors also have to be on the lookout for put-together watches—so-called “frankenwatches”—where genuine parts from a less desirable model are modified and fitted on a more desirable model. These deceitful watches are especially difficult to identify.

You should always exercise caution and perform due diligence by buying from experienced and trusted sellers who will always stand behind their watches.