Simon de Burton
Back in October 2019, the galleries of Phillips auction house on London’s Berkeley Square exhibited an ultra-rare, yellow gold Rolex Cosmograph Daytona from 1972 with a black and gold dial – a combination that has led to the model being known as the ‘John Player Special’ on account of its similarity to the famous livery of the John Player-sponsored Lotus F1 cars from the 1970s and 1980s.
It was just the sort of rarity that might be expected to perform well had it crossed the block at Phillips, which revived its watch department just seven years ago and is now the leading house in the category.
But instead of being among the lots in a high-end auction, this particular ‘JPS’ Daytona was available for immediate sale – to anyone with $1m burning a hole in their pocket.
The watch was one of the first major offerings to appear under the banner of Phillips Perpetual, the firm’s then-fledgling retail enterprise that is the creation of James Marks, a former hedge fund manager who joined Phillips to pursue his passion for haute horology after retiring from the world of high finance at the age of 37.
Perpetual opened with an initial offering of 40 pieces worth around £3m between them, with early highlights being one of just 38 steel-cased FP Journe tourbillons from a series produced to mark the end of the 38mm model’s production, one of five Edition Two watches by the independent, Isle of Man-based maker Roger Smith and one of 50 examples of Cartier’s distinctive Crash Radieuse.
Two years later – and despite the global chaos caused by Covid – Perpetual is now shifting around 200 watches per year both on-site and online, and Marks is steadily realising his dream to turn it into a ‘one-stop shop’ for watch collectors and enthusiasts regardless of how much or how little they have to invest.
‘The aim of Perpetual is to offer clients a variety of options in terms of both buying and selling,’ Marks says. ‘We often have an excess of consignment requests for our auctions, duplicate watches or watches that arrive too late – but Perpetual means we can still give vendors an opportunity to make them available for sale as soon as possible. We are, however, focusing on vintage watches and models by independent makers,’ he adds. ‘That means we won’t generally be offering recent Rolex GMT Masters, Cosmograph Daytonas and so on, but we will have a great selection of really collectable pieces.’
It’s no secret that the pre-owned and vintage watch market is currently red-hot and that tens of thousands of models are available from numerous specialist dealers around the world. But, says Marks, Perpetual offers something unique. ‘Where we differ is in the fact that we have a global team of watch experts and enthusiasts that has a proven track record of scholarship and is known for having been behind the sales of some of the rarest and most valuable watches in the world.’ [Notably the Paul Newman Rolex Daytona that fetched $17.8m in 2017].
‘But many new collectors are intimidated by the auction process – so Perpetual gives them access to our knowledge through a retail route that they feel comfortable with. And once they have bought from us, as many as 50 per cent go on to buy at auction.’
Marks says the ability to source watches globally ensures a regular supply of fresh, high-calibre stock with many pieces coming from Japan where, he believes, ‘high quality watches in excellent condition are truly cherished’.
Perpetual also offers a long-term storage facility that enables collectors to keep their watches safe, secure and fully insured for as little as £95 per year. ‘The storage service became especially popular during lockdown because it was more difficult to access regular safe deposit boxes, yet many people had more time to enjoy their different watches – so it was exactly when they wanted to be able to get hold of them.
‘We have continued to operate as normal, meaning anyone who wants to retrieve a watch just has to give us 48 hours’ notice and we will get it out, check it, change the strap and set it ready for use, regardless of whether it is a simple, three-hand watch or a complex perpetual calendar piece. We have one particular client who has more than 100 watches stored with us.’
Perpetual is also branching out into the sale of accessories such as watch rolls and boxes and pre-owned, high-quality writing instruments, Marks says. It is also the sole representative and stockist of Singer Reimagined, the watch brand born out of California’s Porsche backdate/upgrade/restoration specialist Singer Vehicle Design.
‘The great thing about Perpetual is that we can keep on building on it – it’s a 365-day, 24-hour operation that gives people the chance to buy what they want, when they want with the help of a global team of passionate watch collectors,’ concludes Marks. ‘Essentially, it’s a whole new approach to watch retailing.’