Name Game: The Tiffany Set

There are retailers, and then there’s Tiffany. Revolution looks at the story of the name that watch companies repeatedly allow to share dial space with their own.

One’s name is one’s calling card, and both protectiveness and ego are involved in maintaining its value. When sharing one’s name with another, it is crucial that it be of equal merit, worth and repute. Hasselblad and Zeiss, Rolls-Royce and Connolly, even Penderyn whisky and Brains. Some commercial relationships seem innate, appropriate, almost as if their familial bonds were intended by nature itself.

Even when the relationship has ceased to exist, the spirit often lives on in the imaginations of collectors and enthusiasts. Just picture the fervor and emotion raised among motor-racing fans by the mention of Team Lotus and Coventry Climax, their engine-builders.

Horology is no exception when it comes to paired associations. Some of the most important advances in timekeeping in the 20th century have come as a result of such couplings. The world’s most accurate clock came about in the 1920s as a conjoining of the ideas (and signatures) of the highly opinionated Welsh-origin clockmaker Frank Hope-Jones and the quietly studious South Londoner, William Hamilton-Shortt. The Shortt-Synchronome clock was the most accurate clock ever devised, surpassed only when quartz crystals and caesium atoms replaced pendulums. It was said that the US Naval Observatory’s 1930s Shortt clock was still ticking as a backup, under its original vacuum dome, until as late as the 1980s.

Shortt-Synchronome clock at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology museum

For the slightly more mainstream, consider the World Time ébauches by Cottier for Patek Philippe, which were for decades the last word in that field. Moving even higher-brow, there is the Jura watchmaker Victorin Piguet, whose masterpiece is unquestionably the Henry Graves Supercomplication, also signed Patek Philippe.

So horology is no newcomer to the world of co-branding. It is not always seen as a good thing, though. Consider the sniffiness with which many collectors approach anything with movements made by a third party, be it ETA or all the way up to Frédéric Piguet or Vaucher. Not that your correspondent is in the sniffy camp – to understand the watch industry is to know that the sharing of technology has been absolutely key to its development and success for nearly 700 years.

Ticking teamwork

From the beginning, mechanical timekeepers have been collaborations. No clock was a clock unless the blacksmiths who made the iron movements worked with the bell-founders, whose bronze castings could never sound without the help of the bell-hangers and their special oaken beams, which were nothing were it not for the stone towers of the masons, and none of them could do ought without the patronage of the feudal lord or the wealthy monastery in whose “name” the thing was built in the first place, even though there were a half-dozen names or more who could legitimately claim to sign it.

A bit of isolationism by 20th-century collectors over industrial DNA-sharing was certainly instrumental in enlivening the romanticism of the manufacture brand, but is not going to change the fundamental nature of horology, whose roots are unequivocally a collaboration of specialties. One obvious area where such second-party signatures positively add to the appeal of the vintage wristwatch is that of the co-signed dials. I don’t refer to specific examples, where a special model or embodiment of a watch especially made for an organisation, like Rolex for COMEX, or Audemars Piguet (and now HYT) for Team Alinghi.

What I refer to here are the rather unusual special relationships that have been formed between Swiss watchmakers and some of their more highly regarded retailers. Names that immediately spring to mind upon mention of this are the likes of Beyer, purveyors of important watches and jewels in Zurich for over 250 years. Another strong player has been the German jeweler, Wempe, whose 25 boutiques around the world are an important source of revenue for Patek Philippe, giving them the rare advantage of having contemporary Patek models co-emblazoned with their name.

Early in the 20th century across the Atlantic, the retailer Gondolo & Labouriau, later just “Gondolo”, would enjoy its name being impressed onto some of the highest-grade Patek Philippe pocket watches of their day. The name is preserved to this day by Patek in homage to this successful early co-signing – the company’s “Gondolo” models having nothing to do with Venetian water taxis and everything to do with a favored retailer.

The ultra-sleek, consummate 1980s dress watch, the Golden Ellipse, with Tiffany on the dial

One could also cite the examples of smaller jewellers who were influential enough in their local sphere to have the names of their shops added to the dials of early Rolex Oysters. It is not uncommon to find evocative co-signatures emanating from British Imperial outposts as far-flung as Madras, Bombay, or Cape Town.

None of these collaborations, though, seem to be as enduring, or as consistent as that which was forged by the American jeweler, Tiffany. One doesn’t need to analyse sales figures too deeply to see that the presence of the name Tiffany on a Rolex or Patek dial will consistently improve its chances of selling well, be that at auction or privately. Among the very modest number of Tiffany-dial Rolex watches that actually saw the light of day over the past three or four years, I found that they sold for anything between 1.3 and 3.7 times the price of an equivalent un-signed model.

Rolex Tiffany dial GMT-Master
Rolex Tiffany dial GMT-Master

What’s in a name?

As ever, there are no shortcuts to true value. Patek Philippes and Rolexes are inherently desirable, while the Tiffany name represents added value. Imagine the worth to collectors of one vintage watch dealer’s find: a 1969 Omega Speedmaster Professional with the Tiffany & Co. name on the dial, which qualifies as a real mystery to investigate. Undoubtedly, given Tiffany’s longevity and prestige, there may be others. But having a watch with “Tiffany” on the dial is no guarantee of a premium. We must first have respected the fundamentals of collecting, and prime among these is condition. No field of art is above this. Start always with the best example available, and move upward from there.

Tiffany dial Omega Speedmaster

Additionally, as with the discussion on “tropical dials”, the value of a watch that is co-signed tends to echo the inherent value of an unsigned equivalent. As stated before, Patek Philippes and Rolexes for the most part are worthy, and a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona that is co-signed Tiffany is doubly desirable because the underlying watch is already of interest. A knackered Lady-Datejust is not. There are plenty of humdrum watches with co-signatures that can be had for pocket money, where not even the alchemic imprint of the New York jeweller’s name is capable of breathing any life into their prices.

So what is it about Tiffany that causes those watches to enjoy such premiums? Why have two of the world’s most conservative watch producers consistently travailed to sustain a relationship with this independent third party?

Is it something to do with Tiffany’s nearly 200 years as a leader and innovator in the world of art and architectural design? Is it because it produced innovative watches and clocks in its own right for great chunks of its history? Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that through its impeccable connections and once-ubiquitous Blue Book, Tiffany was able to put the world’s finest wristwatches onto the world’s most far-flung wrists?

Tiffany dial Rolex Daytona
Tiffany dial Rolex Daytona

Perhaps these are some of the reasons, perhaps not. Rather than trying to discover the precise details about why the market behaves one way or the other, the one thing that all my watch collector associates tell me is that it’s the overall pattern by the active players that is of most relevance: for value to be sustained or even improved, the objects involved must firstly have an honest history. I do not suggest that “new” brands are without value – far from it. Is the brand genuinely new, and proud of it? Good. Is it new, but pretending to be inspired by the spirit of this or that luminary in the history of the craft? Bad.

Unlike the horological social climbers out there, Tiffany, Patek and Rolex have never pretended to be anything other than what they are. Sure, there has been some pretty close-hauled advertising by both camps (“You never actually own a Patek…”, or the gradual shift in public thinking that nothing but a Rolex has ever been close to the summit of Everest), but the brands themselves still have an irreprehensible reputation when it comes to their self-identity, and that will always be rewarded by knowledgeable collectors.

Rose gold Patek Philippe Annual Calendar with Tiffany dial

Secondly, brands must have the resolve to stand behind their products, and each other’s. There can never have been even the slightest doubt or hesitation by Tiffany when considering whether Rolex or Patek were suitable partners with which to share their name, and likewise the corollary – the watchmakers would only
tolerate sharing their dial real estate with a name they respect. This was not a licensing exercise of the kind seen in films or TV, where one year your hero is wearing one watch and the next year (under a new director with a different budget), another. This is about a long-term, mutual trust and acknowledgement.

Exceptions (like the Speedmaster) aside, this story involved three of the greatest names in wristwatch history, the beneficiaries being collectors of the watch brand or those who acquire “anything Tiffany”, and who want something a bit different. We are, after all, talking about watches that are unchanged from the normal issue save for a name on the dial, unlike, say, COMEX watches, which have technical differences.

An old advert for Tiffany & Co. shows the array of co-signed dials available

These Tiffany pairings form a minuscule sub-genre of exclusive watches that historians can ponder when writing the sagas of these legendary houses. They are, not unlike arranged marriages or the alliances of dynasties, and in that respect, they ooze a sort of romance that would not be quite the same if, say, Aldi were to have its name embossed on an Ice Watch.

Tiffany-dialled Rolexes and Patek Philippes – while not hyphenated – enjoy the same status in collectors’ circles as double-barrelled names enjoy among genealogists. As a cult, it’s tiny. As a statement of provenance? Solid gold.

Tiffany dial Rolex Datejust
Tiffany dial Rolex Datejust
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