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A fellow dealer recently came to Justin Gruenberg—co-founder of LA-based vintage shop The Keystone and digital auction site Loupe This—asking after a rare piece by beloved watchmaker Daniel Roth: a double-signed tourbillon that came from luxury retailer Asprey and is labeled number 18. It’s in The Keystone’s inventory—Gruenberg and his partner purchased it for $20,000 in 2018. There was just one small problem: the watch is missing. “I looked extensively [for it a few years ago] when they were worth $40,000,” Gruenberg says. “I tore everything apart.” When the dealer approached Gruenberg earlier this year, he was armed with an offer of $250,000, an absurdly high number, but one that still failed to Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice the watch into reappearing.
Gruenberg is usually against such rapid value multiplications—the type of unsustainable inflation that courts speculators, squeezes out real collectors, and typically ends with a big crash—but the quarter-million-dollar offer is illustrative of how much has changed for Daniel Roth—and the industry at large—over the past couple of years. Watch industry execs and designers have long pillaged their own archives. Tag Heuer’s headlining release this year is a reproduction of a 60-year-old Carrera, Zenith dug through its IP for a special Gay Frères bracelet, and IWC revived an old Gérald Genta design. But it’s not just old models that the industry is bringing back, but dormant labels, too, with Roth and Genta coming back to life.
Unlike earlier revivals (Fears, A. Lange & Söhne), Genta and Roth are being resuscitated not by descendants of the founders, but large corporations—in this case, Louis Vuitton’s watchmaking manufacturer La Fabrique du Temps. I mean this as a compliment: Bringing them back is a business decision. (Roth, now almost 80, no longer owns the brand but reportedly has input in this new incarnation. Genta died in 2011.) “There’s a financial benefit to these companies to cater to both the niche and mass market,” says Gruenberg. “It’s an important thing for them to do and probably important for the industry.
Gruenberg says that what the watch industry is doing is similar to what sneaker companies have successfully accomplished over the past couple of years. Watches from Genta and DR will be the low-production, impossible-to-buy Travis Scott Nikes of the watch world. They’re not going to be the biggest profit drivers—DR is only making 20 pieces of its debut watch, the Tourbillon Souscription—but they build prestige and help the companies court a growing type of watch consumer.
Watch collecting has always been a battle for status, but the weaponry is changing. As new collectors flooded into the hobby over the course of the pandemic, it made impressing your friends (because that’s what this is about at the end of the day: dressing for the fellas) even more difficult. Everyone knows the numbers 6239 (a Rolex Paul Newman Daytona) or a 5711 (the discontinued Patek Philippe Nautilus). It’ll take a more dedicated collector to familiarize themselves with a revived Swiss watchmaker that’s only producing 20 pieces (for now). “If you’re part of the 20 to get it, it’s more of just like a signifier of you being on the inside than anything,” Gruenberg says.