By Terence Patrick Repelente
Images by Noel Pabalate
Timepieces have always been relevant in changing the course of history, sometimes in the revolutionary process of creating them, but most of the time in the hands—or should I say around the wrists—of those who wore them. A Zenith pocket watch with alarm complication reminded Indian activist and peace advocate Mahatma Gandhi of his daily prayers. A Longines tonneau-shaped 14K yellow gold wristwatch accompanied physicist Albert Einstein when he wrote his famed cosmic model and other analyses in 1931. Actor James Dean considered his pocket watch, a Gold‐filled Standard US with Elgin movement, his “lucky charm,” because he acquired it in New York in late 1951, the same year his acting career started to take off. Even genius artist and political comedian Charlie Chaplin regularly wore a left‐handed Rolex Oyster.
Wristwatches are still the most convenient way to tell time. Especially in today’s era of late stage capitalism, where being on time, being efficient is a must. But why should you buy an expensive watch if you can just use cheaper ones? They’d have the same function anyway. Not really. Watches also embody craftsmanship. Some pieces are put together carefully, with extreme precision, and artistically for several months. So, when you wear a valuable timepiece, you’re also wearing a complex piece of technology, history encased in an intricate mechanism. It expresses your style, your personality, a symbol for social capital.
Today people from all around the world flock to Hong Kong, Geneva, and New York to participate in premier watch auctions, searching for the next valuable timepiece to acquire. In the Philippines, there is also a growing market of timepiece collectors—one of them is Paolo Martel. Not just a collector, Paolo is a watch specialist. He co-founded the country’s first watch magazine in 2001, Caliber, he set up a company called Vintage Grail, which mostly specializes in sourcing vintage watches all over the world, and he has been in the business of watch auctions for five years—a true watch connoisseur.
In an exclusive interview with the Manila Bulletin, Paolo shares his love for timepieces and the art of auctioning it. “My dad’s a big watch collector, he influenced me a lot in terms of collecting,” he says. Paolo used to own a lot of watches, but ever since he got into the business of selling and auctioning off watches, his regular collection has grown smaller and more select. “I see so many nice watches every day, whether it’s for the auction or whether it’s through Vintage Grail, when we’re sourcing the world for the store’s stock. And because I see such nice pieces, parang I get so confused and overwhelmed, and I end up not buying anything. Now, personally, I just own seven watches,” he says. “It’s like art. When you’re beginning as a collector and you only collect prints, but every day you see 10 to 20 amazing oil paintings, you’re going to go crazy!”
The serious collectors will find a few ultra rare collectibles that they would never think would be offered in the Philippines. To get these types of watches, they would have to fly to auction houses abroad. They would have to fly and work with international dealers. They will be surprised to find them here.
Most of his watches are usually shuffled, sold, and upgraded, but there are a few pieces that are very special to him, which, he says, he will never sell. “One is a perpetual calendar by Glashutte, which was given to me by my dad when I was 22. It’s the first perpetual calendar that I own. The second watch that I really love, especially how it looks, is the Patek Philippe Nautilus 5712,” he says. What makes it special, according to Paolo, is the Tiffany & Co dial in it. “But I also have the plain version of that, the 5711, which I have never worn. Ever since I bought it, it’s just been in the vault, and I want to keep it like that for as long as I can. Just having it there for the next 20 years, untouched, that’s my target.”
Paolo is first and foremost a businessman, but he says one of the many businesses that he enjoys most is the auction business. “I enjoy it so much, everything about it—the setup, talking to the clients, the sourcing. It’s fun,” he says. “The sourcing is the most difficult part of it, but it’s what excites me the most, because it’s also the most rewarding. You basically speak to different collectors and owners, and you’ll never know what you’ll find, and sometimes you get surprised because you find it in places that you least expect.”
One time, Paolo found a 6263 Paul Newman. He found it from a person who didn’t even know what she had. And she didn’t know the value of the watch. He has also found very rare vintage Pateks and Rolexes, the ones that nobody would ever think existed in the Philippines, and these are from local collectors.
This year, Paolo explores new possibilities with new partnerships. He teams up with one the most respected and experienced gallery owners Vita Sarenas of the Finale Art File for an auction in October, which will open three categories—visual art, jewelry, and watches. Of all his gallery owner and auction friends, why Vita? “She’s been around the business since ’83. She used to do a couple of auction from the late ‘90s to early 2000s. She revived her auctions last October 2017, she had one recently, last April. She’s very credible, being around for three decades, and that’s precisely why I chose to partner with her,” he says. What’s nice about the partnership, according to Paolo, is it’s a fresh start, which means a lot of new fresh ideas can be implemented. “Finale, of course, has a fantastic client data base. They have a lot of old collectors. Vita has a lot of long-term collectors, who have been with her for many years. She is very trusted. It’s like starting on a clean slate. We can inject a lot of new innovations and ideas, because we have the flexibility.”
At this point, Paolo and Vita concentrate on getting the best pieces for all the three categories. “We want to make sure we please both the consignors and the bidders. Sometimes you have fantastic results, in a sense that everything goes high, and sometimes the bidder goes: ‘oh it’s so expensive, I can’t bid there anymore,’ which is good for the consignor, but it’s good to have a balance of both.”
Another important thing for Paolo is the screening process of the watches. “We just don’t take any piece. We make sure they are vetted, we check the condition, and we check things like its desirability in the market. And we try to cater to both male and female collectors. Especially now, a lot of women like to wear men’s watches. It’s the current trend.”
During the interview, Paolo gave me a glimpse of some of the pieces that will be available in the October auction with Finale. “We have this beautiful 1972 Patek Philippe 3448. It has a perpetual calendar, but it’s the first automatic perpetual calendar. What makes it special is that it is owned by its very first owner. It was bought by the parents of this collector. So, the collector still has everything that comes with the watch—from the certificate to the box. And it’s in absolutely perfect condition,” he says. “To find that in the Philippines is really satisfying. Because those are the type of pieces you would find in international locations like Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Geneva. You would never, in your wildest dream, think that that’s in the Philippines. When you have a piece like that, you will definitely attract not only local collectors, but also international ones. It kind of puts the Philippine auction scene on the international radar—for me, that’s special. The other piece is the GMT Rolex Blueberry. This is from the ‘70s, it is also very rare. They say only about 500 of this exist. What I like about this is that it’s a vintage Rolex, but the price is still within attainable range for collectors. This watch, our low estimate, would probably be in the range of P1.5 to 1.8 million. For the Philippine market, it’s within range.”
But Paolo also carefully thinks of the overall price range of the auction. He thinks the collection has to be tailored in the sense that you can’t have many high-priced items—this is to support the ones who are just starting out as collectors. “If you’re someone who’s just starting to collect, it’s nice to go because you’ll see a whole curated sale of three categories. It depends na lang on what you’re interested in. One guy might be interested in the art, the other might just be interested in the jewelry, or the watches, or they might like two out of the three categories,” he says. “But we’re presenting a whole sale of various lots that will cater to different collectors, at different price points. It’s almost like going to an art fair, where you see everything.”
The October auction will present a whole range of watches—from vintage timepieces from the ‘30s and the ‘40s all the way to the current models. It’s a rare opportunity. “Even if somebody with no intention of buying comes, we will welcome them, because that curation is a rare experience, and you can only see that specific curation once,” he says. “I encourage people to just come and look. You don’t necessarily have to bid, don’t be intimidated. Yes, you’re going to see watches that are going to be sold in the five to 10 million-peso range, but we also have watches in the 100, 200, 300 thousand range for the ones that are starting collectors.”
As for the old collectors, Paolo leaves a tease: “They’ll find a few ultra rare collectibles that they would never think would be offered in the Philippines. To get these types of watches, they would have to fly to auction houses abroad. They would have to fly and work with international dealers. Right now, it’s in the Philippines.”