If you’re a reader of multiple online publications, then you’ve likely become familiar with articles previewing notable pieces on their way to the auction bloc. Names like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, and Antiquorum come to mind. Often times, these articles focus on the “big weekends” in Geneva, which occur in May and November of each year. The blurbs show tremendous pieces that are often well beyond the reach of most and often speak of of fancy hotels and eateries. Frankly speaking, it can sound daunting, inaccessible and a bit snobbish. Well, having just returned from the city just a few days ago, I’d like to share my insights on the Geneva Watch Auctions. What I hope you’ll come away with is that not everything is as it seems and these events are a lot of fun.
I flew over to Geneva on a Friday afternoon to attend the Watches With Nicknames event by the Davidoff Brothers. (You can read more about this great event.) It turns out that the Brothers played host throughout the weekend to Christopher from Bexsonn, a few clients we also know well through our site, and me. This may sound like, from the beginning, we had an insider’s take on the Geneva Watch Auctions, but with what I’ll explain to you, the access we had is truly afforded to all.
If you’ve never been to Geneva or the Geneva Watch Auctions, you know you’re headed to something (and somewhere) special from the moment you set foot in your home airport. Chances are that you’ll recognize someone on your flight – I saw a dealer who frequents the Frankfurt watch shows – but if not, stealthily glance at the wrist wear. I fly a lot, but I’ve never seen a concentration of Rolex like I saw on my flight to “Genf”. I know that Geneva has a huge concentration of wealth so nice watches are commonplace, but I saw some serious vintage. Case in point was the lady on my flight holding her toddler; she casually had a 60’s panda Daytona on her wrist. The AP’s and Pateks? Yes, they were onboard too.
Landing in Geneva was a nice experience because the city is literally a 6-minute train ride away for 3 Swiss Francs. No, you don’t get fleeced from the first moment in Geneva for the Geneva Watch Auctions, so that’s pretty nice. Once in the city, you also find that everything is within 5-10 minutes walking distance aside from the “big show” that goes on with Phillips – they’re a 10 minute ride away at the La Reserve Spa. As an aside, Switzerland has Uber (something we will get again in Germany in 2050 when the country finally modernizes) and the rides are 15-18 Swiss Francs from downtown during normal times. If you’re with me so far, the take away is that Geneva is utterly convenient.
Regarding the previews for the Geneva Watch Auctions, they open at 10am on Saturday and Sunday. The auctions are held in seriously swanky 5-star hotels with legendary names like The Four Seasons, The Mandarin Oriental, the aforementioned La Reserve, and The Kempinski. If you’re put off by these hotels with carpet so plush that one could lose a shoe, don’t be. Everyone goes inside. And by the way, while the very well heeled are having a 200-300 Franc brunch, get there by 10 at the latest to see everything that you’d like to see. Huh?
Yes, at the Geneva Watch Auctions previews, it’s like walking into a high-end jeweler where all the lots are placed into showcases. Friendly assistants are happy to welcome you behind the showcases to sit at a table to closely view watches or will show you pieces directly on the countertop in a lined tray. If you’d like to sit, perhaps send an email requesting a viewing appointment. Either way, if the preview isn’t crowded, seeing and handling the watch of your dreams is simple. Truly interested in a watch and want to take a peek inside? No problem: the watchmakers will open casebacks. The bottom line is that these auction houses want you to bid.
In a very high-end setting, nothing felt elitist and the service was fantastic. There’s even gratis water upon arrival and the massive and beautifully produced catalogs are yours for the taking; if nothing else, these provide a great way to read up on watches. Conclusion: whether or not you buy or choose to bid on anything, previews are a great way to see if that piece you’ve been pining for is as great in person as it seems in pictures. By the way, we need to give friend of the site Eric Wind some special thanks for spending so much time with us while we photographed watches. It was great to hold a Patek that sold for $2.9M!
Apparel wise, I was also very surprised that anything goes at the Geneva Watch Auctions. You have a real mix of people who attend the dress follows accordingly. You have the highly dressed whom come festooned in silly blazers with crests on them replete with white trousers. And, naturally, you have those wearing things that, just maybe, they shouldn’t be wearing any longer (if my grandfather had worn skinny jeans, I’d now have a complex). However, the bulk of the crowd is dressed in decent jeans, a shirt and loafers (sorry RJ, no Santonis). Still, it was not uncommon to see people sporting funky lightweight Nikes or Adidas (drop the Yeezy’s, though) – these will be my choice next time as there is a lot of walking, walking on cobblestones, and standing in general.
Here again, unless you’re dirty or forget to shower (and even then), no one cares or casts an awkward glance. So, come as you are and be comfortable. Remember, despite the currency difference, Switzerland is still Europe and that means climate control is likely of the same age as that vintage piece you’re viewing – it was truly muggy inside the Phillips tent on the first night.
Now that you’re packed, dressed and you’ve seen some watches, what’s it like to attend one of the Geneva Watch Auctions? Good question! I attended the first night of the Phillips auction and it was a lot different than I expected. It’s held in a tent on the front lawn of the La Reserve hotel and it’s absolutely free to enter. You pass through a metal detector, grab a free bottle of Evian, the catalog and try to grab a seat. I say “try” because Aurel Bacs and co have established themselves as the theatre-esque event and, therefore, it’s generally crowded. People come and go, especially after a notable piece exits the stage, but it usually remains full.
Watching an auction itself, to be honest, is not the high-energy spectacle it often seems to be when streaming from the comfort of one’s living room. At Phillips, Bacs is known for slowing the pace and his colleagues read the room (and the phones) in order to exact bids. Versus other houses, each lot receives a lot of time. It’s not boring, but it’s definitely more fun when, either a piece appeals to you (I’m not a Patek guy) or a bidding war erupts. We saw a few of the latter and they were dramatic. So, the auctions are fun because they’re at night (Geneva isn’t really known for its nightlife), they’re free, and you generally run into or see people you know from Internet lore.
Speaking of the crowd at the Geneva Watch Auctions and their wrist hardware, this was amazing. If you attend an event like Phillips, you will almost definitely walk away with an opinion on the Rolex Daytona. First off, the Daytona is the undisputed king amongst those who attend, as is the brand itself, and it comes across as anything but rare (ok, they’re not). Second, you’ll either leave thinking everyone needs, and deserves, one or it might just turn you off and lead you to going harder into something less seen such as a Speedmaster or even a Heuer. There’s no doubt, the concentration of Daytona’s was unlike anything I’d ever seen – akin to a gathering of Ferraris on the lawn of Pebble Beach or something in that realm.
The other thing I noticed at the Geneva Watch Auctions is the steady, but apparent, comeback of yellow gold. I understand that the metal never truly lost favor in the Mediterranean countries, but gold models (GMT’s, Submariners) and two tone watches seem to be finding appeal amongst the mainstream to some degree after being gone for so, so long. See, Robert-Jan, that gold Speedy was a damn good buy! Personally speaking, maybe it’s because I turned 40 recently, I’m actually starting to like the “fairer” metal. Like always, though, I’m likely too late!
When it comes to the other expenses around the Geneva Watch Auctions, you’ll find the necessities to be all over the map. Food is stupidly expensive at most restaurants, but smaller, primarily ethnic, places are affordable. Christopher turned me onto a local rotisserie chicken place (loose translation of “My Cousins House”) that has several locations within the city. There, a pile of decent food and a big beer was procured for about $25 – heck, we even saw Goldberger sitting there with a group of Italian watch dealers.
Drinks at a swanky bar are ridiculous, unless you think a $25-35 beer not named Westvleteren (and even then) is a good deal. Heck, bring a hip flask or pull “a Christopher” and grab some high-end whiskey samplers at your departure airport. Lodging, on the other hand, is actually a pretty decent deal if you go through AirBnB or stay at a hotel near the train station. Sure, the neighborhood isn’t glamorous, but it’s a 5-minute walk from all the action. Plus, if you choose a hotel, your room tax affords you a free public transportation card during your stay. That’s not bad and actually pretty traveler friendly.
Will I head to the Geneva Watch Auctions again? Absolutely and next time I will do my best to canvas more of the previews while making a point to attend more of the auctions on a Sunday and Monday. If auctions become tiring, there’s usually a vintage watch market at one of the hotels beginning at 8am on a Sunday morning. Yes, despite the standoffish reputation of this expensive and luxurious city, it’s actually very welcoming and sure to provide what must be one of the vintagest watch-packed weekends around. We’ll hope to see you there next time!
Michael was born in South Florida in the USA. As a full-time role, he works in the Automotive Industry. He's lived and worked in many locations and when he's not cruising at 30,000 feet, he calls Germany home. Michael became... read more