Sotheby’s vintage watch sale of 24 spectacular avant-garde designs sells out in one hour

Patek Philppe's crazy-paved cuff and Audemars Piguet's emerald car are the star lots, pointing towards a new era of idiosyncratic opulence in watch design

Car watch in precious gemstones by Jacqueline Dimier for Audemars Piguet
(Image credit: Courtesy, Sothebys Geneva)

Could the fact that Sotheby's Geneva sold a totally outré vintage cuff watch for eight times its estimate, at 393,700 CHF, in its flash 'Rough Diamonds' sale in Geneva last night mark a turning point in the watch design business? Timed to co-incide with Watches and Wonders 2024, when Geneva is swarming with serious international collectors, it was part of flash sale of 24 avant-garde vintage watches. It took just one hour for every piece to sell – online, on the phone and in the room.

Sotheby’s Rough Diamonds vintage watch sale, Geneva

It goes to show that, for the first time since the 1980s, outré watch design is fashionable again. In fact you could say it's having something of a Schiaparelli moment, as surreal, ornate and, frankly psychedelic designs become highly covetable. There's no doubt that the influence of stars such as Bad Bunny and ASAP Rocky, who are partial to wearing vintage jewelled watches, typically designed for women in the 60s, 70s and 80s, are inspiring global interest.

Patek Philippe Gilbert Albert era watch in gold, pearls and gemstones

Patek Philippe, designed by Gilbert Albert (circa 1962), part of a jewellery set

(Image credit: Sothebys)

The ‘underground’ auction of weird and wonderful vintage watches spanning the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, was a Sotheby's Geneva collaboration with secretive watch collective Heist-Out. The vintage watches were ‘carefully extracted from horological history’ by specialists and the Heist-Out team. The sale also brought to light lesser-known design greats including Charles de Temple, Gilbert Albert, Jacqueline Dimier and Daryoush Shafa, among others.

Audemars Piguet 1980s watch with chevron bracelet

Audemars Piguet Cobra 'Khanjar' in white gold, with day and date dials (circa 1985)

(Image credit: Sothebys)

'In an industry where each new release often melds into the next, it is invigorating to pay homage to the trailblazers of yesteryear and affirm that audacity has always been pivotal in shaping watch design,' say Maxime Couturier and Lorenzo Maillard, co-founders of Heist-Out, of their curatorial approach.

Car shape secret watch with precious stones by J Dimier for Audemars Piguet

A unique car-shaped white gold, diamond and emerald-set quartz wristwatch, designed by Jacqueline Dimier for Audemars Piguet, circa 1995

(Image credit: Courtesy, Sotheby's)

The best selling lots in Sotheby's Geneva's Rough Diamonds vintage watch sale:

Patek Philippe by Gilbert Albert
A unique Patek Philippe set designed by Gilbert Albert in 1962, featuring a bracelet watch, a ring and a necklace. Achieved 393,700 CHF (435,727 USD) from an initial estimate of 30,000 - 50,000 CHF

Audemars Piguet
A possibly unique white-gold bracelet watch with day and date, Cobra ‘Royal Khanjar’, by Audemars Piguet dated 1985. Achieved 165,100 CHF (182,724 USD) from an initial estimate of 50,000 - 100,000 CHF

Audemars Piguet by Jacqueline Dimier
A unique car-shaped white gold, diamond and emerald-set quartz wristwatch, designed by Jacqueline Dimier for Audemars Piguet, circa 1995. Achieved 107,950 CHF (119,474 USD) from an initial estimate of 40,000 - 80,000 CHF

Vintage Chopard jewelled watch cuff in ribbons of gold

Detail of a Chopard yellow-gold and stone-set bracelet watch with hydrogrossular garnet dial (circa 1975)

(Image credit: Sothebys)

Men in particular, such as Dune: Part Two star Timothée Chalamet, who often wears gem-set watches, seem to be broadening their tastes beyond ubiquitous heavy gold, sports timepieces to avant-gard vintage and jewelled ones. Josh Pullan, global head of Sotheby’s Luxury Division, agrees: ‘Collectors are increasingly seeking out uniquely expressive pieces, and our Rough Diamonds vintage-watch auction concept is set to capture the imagination of watch aficionados and budding collectors alike.

vintage white gold and sapphire Piaget secret starfish watch

Piaget white gold, lapis lazuli and diamond-set-bracelet secret watch with hidden dial (circa 1975)

(Image credit: Sothebys)

While it has a subversive touch, is the Rough Diamonds title something of a misnomer? I'd say that gold is the unifying precious material in this showstopping curation of 24 jewelled vintage timepieces. Unless you’ve seen them, however, it would be hard to explain the sheer inventiveness of the thinking behind them.

You might see them, as I do, in terms of the musical influences that abounded in the years they were launched: 1960s John Coltrane (Patek Philippe), 1980s New Order (Boucheron), 1975 Pink Floyd (Piaget), and 1985 Audemars Piguet (The Jesus and Mary Chain). Have a look and make up your own mind about the creative origin of these jewelled delights, because they are so brilliantly outré, you’ll want to keep looking and looking...

Sotheby's Geneva

Caragh McKay is a contributing editor at Wallpaper* and was watches & jewellery director at the magazine between 2011 and 2019. Caragh’s current remit is cross-cultural and her recent stories include the curious tale of how Muhammad Ali met his poetic match in Robert Burns and how a Martin Scorsese Martin film revived a forgotten Osage art.