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Room For Improvement

Pricey watches are aplenty, but there’s room to grow in the million-dollar market.

Members of the Forbes billionaires list and anyone with a net worth of eight figures or more are the kind of people who can comfortably afford to wear watches costing $500,000 and up. Take, for instance, Francois-Henri Pinault. He received a Greubel Forsey GMT for his 50th birthday in 2012. The watch, which retails for around $800,000, was a gift from his billionaire father, Francois Pinault – the 53rd-richest man in the world.

The growth in the wealth of the much-maligned 1 per cent has led to the proliferation of a special class of timepieces costing well into six figures. This is driven by the same people that enable the likes of Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini to sell record numbers of cars. True, there have always been expensive timepieces, but never so many. And some actually cost as much as a Rolls.

Enough of such pricey timekeepers have been sold that watch companies keep making more. All the major brands have jumped on the bandwagon – it’s hard to find a high-end brand that does not offer at least one piece priced in the mid-six-figure range.

Even Rolex, which does not make complicated watches, had the diamond-studded GMT-Master “Ice” in its catalogue. It is the most expensive Rolex, with a price tag north of $700,000. And even Louis Vuitton offers a minute repeater priced at over $400,000.

In fact, over the last decade, the demands of the super-rich have been sufficiently lucrative for a company like Greubel Forsey to cater only to them. The independent watchmaker produces only about 100 watches a year, with the cheapest costing about half-a-million dollars.

Richard Mille, though starting at a lower price point of about $150,000, also caters to the same private jet set. In recent years, the brand has unveiled sapphire-crystal cased watches with price tags of over $2 million, as well as ultra-light watches in the $700,000 price range.

But are there enough deep pockets to buy such watches? Probably not. Despite the rapid growth in the number of wealthy people all over the world, there are likely more watches than buyers. The business overall is slowing, as evidenced by Swiss watch exports which were flat last year, compared to a rise of almost 11 per cent the year before.

Paradoxically, there is still room for growth at the very, very top end. There aren’t enough millionaires prepared to buy $500,000 watches, but there aren’t enough watches targeted at the mega-wealthy who buy $100-million yachts.

Comparatively speaking, watches are pretty affordable, in relation to other pursuits. Even the most expensive haute-horlogerie complication, or a multi-million-dollar vintage timepiece, pales in comparison to art, classic cars or boats, when you consider the sums being paid for the latter items.

Though there are probably too many watches costing several hundred thousand dollars, there are very few contemporary complicated watches costing several million dollars. Gem-set million-dollar timepieces are common enough – Hublot famously made the $5-million Big Bang, entirely covered in diamonds – but those are more jewellery and flashy statements of wealth.

Vintage timepieces by Patek Philippe and Rolex routinely hit the million-dollar mark at auctions, but there are conspicuously few complicated, current watches with price tags of several million dollars. There remains room to go up into the stratosphere, for complicated, contemporary timepieces targeted at the very top of the market.

A. Lange & Sohne’s 2-million-euro (S$3.4-million) Grand Complication is one recent example, as are a handful of models by Patek Philippe. And, given that Patek is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, there will likely be at least one million-dollar timepiece in the line-up due to be unveiled in October. But they are still few and far between.

To go from buying a $100,000 watch to a $1-million watch is a big jump – 10 times, in fact. But to double from $1 million to $2 million is entirely conceivable, for one in the really big league. Watch brands, start work now. Mr Pinault’s 60th birthday is only eight years away.