The first sign of new life for mechanicals in the quartz era came in 1978. Osvaldo Patrizzi, co-founder of Galerie d’Horlogerie Ancienne, a pocketwatch dealer and auction house in Geneva, noticed that pocketwatch collectors were expressing interest in vintage wristwatches. Part of it was nostalgia for wind-up watches now that they were about to become obsolete. And part of it was an awareness that their pending rarity might make them more valuable. Patrizzi decided to include a special session devoted to wristwatches in an upcoming pocketwatch auction.
That was a first. At that time, wristwatches were stepchildren to prized pocketwatches in the collector world. People told Patrizzi he was crazy to muddy his auction with wrist pieces. “Osvaldo, what are you doing? No one will buy these watches,” they told him.
They were wrong. In his first sale, a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar went for CHF6,500, a record price for the watch. Encouraged, Patrizzi held a second sale of wristwatches. A Patek Philippe perpetual calendar with chronograph bought CHF18,000. The vintage wristwatch boom had begun.
Patrizzi began holding auctions devoted only to wristwatches through a new company, Habsburg Feldman, which later became Antiquorum. Other auction houses took notice. Sotheby’s held its first major wristwatch auction in 1980; Christie’s in 1981. The recession of the early 1980s slowed down the vintage market, but it came roaring back in the mid-1980s (more on that in a minute).
Meanwhile, in Swiss watch executive suites, there were pockets of resistance to the quartz wave. George Daniels was not the only quartz-watch counter-revolutionary. Some Swiss watch executives had the same blind faith in the durability of the mechanical. Two of the biggest believers were Jean-Claude Biver and Rolf Schnyder.
In 1982, Biver, who today heads the LVMH Group’s watch division, hatched what at the time seemed a truly loony idea. Biver had just resigned from Omega, along with a group of other young executives known as “The Young Turks,” who were frustrated by Omega’s timid response to the quartz crisis. Biver was aware that Omega had a dormant sister brand called Blancpain. In its 1950s heyday, Blancpain was best known for its Fifty Fathoms dive watch. During the quartz crisis, however, it still made some mechanical movements, but the brand had disappeared. Biver’s brainstorm was to buy the brand and resurrect it as an expensive mechanical watch. He joined forces with Jacques Piguet, owner of Frédéric Piguet S.A., a mechanical-movement maker in Switzerland’s famed Vallée de Joux, who had plenty of mechanical movements.
They bought the rights to the Blancpain name for the equivalent of $9,000 in January 1983. At a time when world production of digital watches had just surpassed mechanicals, Biver came to market with a spanking new mechanical watch from a totally obscure brand. Everything about the scheme seemed cockamamie – except the marketing. Biver did two clever things, a sign of the marketing genius that would be a hallmark of his career. He unearthed a founder for the brand, a certain Jehan-Jacques Blancpain, a watchmaker who had lived in Switzerland’s Jura Mountains in the first half of the 18th century. True, the quotes attributed to the founder in Blancpain promotional literature (“As he used to repeat, ‘We are writing today a page in the history of tomorrow.’”) were a little too sound-bite slick. But why quibble?
More importantly, Biver came up with an advertising slogan to describe the essence of the brand: “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be.” It was true enough. Nobody had made a quartz watch until 1969. But that was not the point. The slogan implied that Blancpain had been making mechanical watches since the days of Jehan-Jacques. And it boldly conveyed the Blancpain credo: We believe in the beauty, tradition, and value of a hand-made mechanical watch. If you want to buy a commonplace, machine-made quartz watch, go right ahead. But if you value traditional craftmanship, buy a Blancpain. Biver’s bold anti-quartz campaign was startling in 1983. And it worked. Blancpain sales grew. Biver’s pro-mechanical marketing was an early ripple that helped create the mechanical-watch wave of the next decade.
The same year that Biver and Piguet bought Blancpain, Rolf Schnyder, a Swiss who was making watch parts in Kuala Lampur, purchased another quartz crisis casualty, Ulysse Nardin. The company employed two people: one full-time, one part-time. Despite the damage quartz watches had already inflicted on the company and the industry, Schnyder wanted to continue making mechanicals, and only mechanicals. He had a slam-dunk rescue plan: a mechanical watch that would provide such arcane data as the times of the solar and lunar eclipses, true solar time, the presiding astrological sign, and the position of the moon and stars in the sky. As a feat of mechanical wizardry, the Ulysse Nardin Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, made by a young watchmaker Schnyder hired named Ludwig Oechslin, was amazing. More amazing, though, was that in its debut year, 1985, Schnyder sold 80 of them at a price of CHF37,500.