Watches are more than just something that tell time. It reflects its wearer’s personality, may symbolize a memory, and can signify a stage in its owner’s life. For Paolo Martel, growing up with timepieces at home meant a lifetime almost of living and breathing watches. “My father was a big collector, so since I was six, I was very much exposed to watches,” says the watch specialist and partner in Vintage Grail, a company that offers pre-owned and brand-new hard-to-find watches from all over the world.
“One of my very first watches was a gift from my father. I was eight or nine. He gave me the Audemars Piguet ladies’ Royal Oak. It had to be a lady's because my wrist was so small. I really liked the AR. That’s something I remember. Another memorable watch of mine is again another gift from my father: my first perpetual calendar from Glashutte in stainless steel. I had that I think when I was in my early 20s and up to now, I still wear it. Every time I travel, that’s the watch I wear.”
These early gifts spurred Martel’s love for fine timepieces, and later led him to start a business dedicated to helping others discover the same kind of joy he had as a young man. “We decided that the Philippines is in need of a reputable establishment that can offer collectors watches from all over the world,” Martel says. “(Instead of relying on the internet,) people can firsthand really see, feel, touch, and there’s a reputation and name behind each watch. If anything happens, we’re there to stand by them.”
The company, which Martel runs with Franco Verona and Jesse Maxwell, started in the last quarter of 2017. “Ninety percent of our watches are pre-owned. We do have a few new ones we buy ourselves and these are pieces that are hard to find—they entail a long wait.” Martel’s fascination for timepieces has led him to several watch-related projects. He has, for example, been holding watch auctions since 2013. “I think I did maybe eight to 10 watch auctions, moving several hundred pieces,” he shares. “Anything from a simple vintage Rolex up to a 22-million Rolex, which we sold in 2017.”
This weekend, he will be staging his next auction, this time in partnership with Finale Art File's Vita Sarenas. Among the things he's auctioning is a very rare Rolex Daytona Paul Newman Reference 6240 which begins at an estimated PHP 12,000,000 to PHP 20,000,000.
His last watch event was for Vintage Grail, an exhibition called "Box and Papers" where every single watch displayed came with its presentation box and complete documents. "Some of them even had tags, receipts, service receipts. What this basically means is each piece’s provenance is 100 percent,” Martel says. “I think that was something that’s never been done (in the Philippines).” The show lasted five days but took six months to curate, and was composed of 50 to 60 timepieces, some of which were sold even before the exhibit opened. “Basically, we kind of know what the Philippine market wants, we wanted to make sure that the watches are really desirable; we will only have new watches if they were very hard to find or if it would normally entail a long wait and we can deliver immediately.” Needless to say, the exhibit offered many interesting pieces: a Rolex 6240 vintage Daytona from the late ‘60s, for one. "It’s the first screw-down and waterproof version of the Daytona, and over the last two years, the Daytona model has gone crazy, with the most expensive wristwatch being sold a year ago abroad for US$17 million," offers the watch expert. A few months ago, a Daytona sold abroad for US$5 million. "It’s a huge cult," Martel adds. "It’s the most popular vintage sports watch in the world and to have a 6240 here in Manila was probably one of the first, if not the first. As soon as it arrived, it stayed here for five minutes. A Japanese collector literally came here with a check to grab it. We were a little sad to see it go so soon.”
Sometimes it's the previous owners who have fascinating tales. “There’s one collector in the Philippines who basically buys and buys and buys Patek Philippes and he had a couple of Pateks maybe ranging from five to 10 years old, all never opened," Martel says.
Martel himself has a considerable watch collection, and says that it’s for him to name a favorite. “The problem is, I go through so many watches every day that it’s just so hard to commit to a single piece for myself,” he says. He did admit to one, though. “I love the Nautilus. I have two, both with Tiffany dials, so that’s extremely hard to find. In fact, one of them, I’ve never even worn and I don’t intend to. I’m going to keep it brand-new for as long as I possibly can,” he says. “It’s understated, it’s elegant, it wears really nicely, it looks good, from an investment point of view, the price constantly appreciates. It’s an investment-grade piece, and it looks really nice.”
Martel has a preference for classic-looking timepieces, something that hasn’t changed since he bought his first watch. “It was a Vacheron Constantin 1972 leather strap in rose gold. That was nice. I remember that very well. It’s a formal dress watch. I was walking in Rustan’s, I saw that it was on sale, so it was a good deal. I liked it because it was clean, it was time only, it was rose gold, it had an asymmetrical curved case, and was extremely unique,” he says. “I like very elegant watches. Today, the fashion, a lot of the watches are huge. I’m more traditional for my personal taste, so I go for iconic models like the Nautilus, the Royal Oak, the Day Date of Rolex is nice, of course the Daytona which has been there since the ‘70s, I don’t really go for fashion trends with watches.”
And despite running a watch business, there are still a few watches out there that he would like to own. “There’s this AP Royal Oak, which is a boutique edition, 250 pieces made in titanium and platinum, but the prices have gone so high I don’t even know if I can catch that. There’s a new Longines also that’s just come out, and of course vintage Rolex,” he says, before switching back to business. “We’re always looking for the best pieces all over the world, and we have a few good ones coming soon.” The local watch market, which has been around for a long time, is seeing serious growth. “We’re far behind our neighboring countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Indonesia where they have massive collectors,” Martel says. “Here, it’s a really small group but growing. I think it’s slowly being touted as an investment rather than a luxury or a want versus maybe five years ago. Now there are more avenues to buy and sell. Auctions, companies—the internet is there, which allows collectors to access information. Ten years ago, you couldn’t access information. So today, pricing is very transparent. And the nice thing with watches is it’s an international commodity. A Rolex is a Rolex whether it’s in the Philippines or in New York or Europe.”
But it isn’t just the timepiece that’s attractive—there’s a thrill to finding the perfect piece that reflects a specific part of one’s life. “Collecting is a journey. You don’t buy everything right away. It’s a whole process and people’s tastes evolve over time,” Martel says. “I think collecting watches is a fantastic experience.”
There are guidelines to making sure that one’s collecting journey is painless and enjoyable. “First of all, I think it’s very important to buy what you like. The biggest mistake is when people start obsessing on the investment value because honestly, most watch brands will not hold value,” he says. “It’s very important to always research and study. Do your due diligence before you buy. There’s no rush to buy because there are so many watches all over the world always available so one must do homework diligently. And always ask other collectors because every-day there’s something new coming out. No one knows everything. That’s one thing I’ve learned in this business.” He has high hopes for the Philippine market. “In the past, people would only focus on Swiss watches, today you have a lot of collectors going for Grand Seiko from Japan. You have a lot of young collectors and you’ll be shocked at their purchasing power, and they’re constantly upgrading. And you have the older generation who’s also upgrading. It’s a nice cycle, so I think the next five years will be very interesting,” he says. “And vintage is huge worldwide. It’s exploding and it’s still going to continue to explode.”
Martel continues to crave the chase. "The more difficult to find, the better. And whether I’m looking for watches for me or for a collector or client, the looking for that super rare watch, it just gives me a high,” he says. “The other thing is, I enjoy curating collections. I have a few friends whom I’ve known for a few years who ask me to find their watches, so searching for the watches, curating the collection, discussing what to buy, what to sell, how to sell, where to sell, the timing of when to sell, and constantly upgrading the collection, that’s fantastic.”
Martel's passion leads him to attach meaning to each piece he acquires. “People buy watches when their children are born, some people buy watches based on their birthdays. Some people buy watches when a deal is closed, and also I think for men, it signifies I’ve accomplished something.” Even though his statement refers to men in general, one can see how it also refers to him in particular.
Photographs by Jc inocian
Grooming by Cats del Rosario
Shot on location at Provenance Gallery,
Shangri-La The Fort, BGC
This story first appeared in Metro Society Magazine Vol.15 No. 7 2018