Good Watch Collections Start With the Groundwork

In recent years, as I met watch collectors and researched jewelry trends, I became increasingly fascinated with the idea of building my own collection.

But all my newfound knowledge and late nights scrolling through Instagram for inspiration just left me confused. How should I start? And, especially considering my limited budget, how would I choose the right pieces?

To answer these questions and more, I enlisted the help of some experts, including Jill Heller, a New York City-based vintage jewelry consultant and curator (in other words, a treasure hunter who finds those special pieces for her clients’ collections).

“Timeless watches and jewelry, just like artwork, just keep getting better,” she said. “I find pieces at auctions, estate sales and even flea markets.” Ms. Heller grew up traveling the world, and worked as the market editor covering watches and jewelry at Esquire magazine from 1996 to 2000, then started her own business in 2005.

Here’s what I learned: Almost everything important about building a good collection happens before you make that first purchase.

First, spend some time — and that means more than the five minutes waiting for your mobile order at Starbucks — analyzing your lifestyle, your likes and dislikes.

According to Leigh Zagoory, head of sale, important watches, Americas at Sotheby’s in Los Angeles, those deliberations should include determining what you want from a watch.

“Is this an everyday piece or do you want this to wear on special occasions?” she wrote in an email. “One helpful piece of advice would be to create a mood board or put together a collection of images of watches (or people wearing them) to create the aesthetic you’re going for.”

She also said you should go to retail stores or auctions to try on various models, even ones you might not be thinking of buying. “It is important when trying them on to gauge what sizes you like and look best on your wrist, as well as the shape,” she wrote.

For Ms. Heller, current trends shouldn’t be among your primary considerations. “If you’re investing all this money, why do you want to have the same thing that every single other person is wearing?” she asked. “I personally like to stand out and show my individuality and my creativity.”

She suggested looking at old auction catalogs from Christie’s, Sotheby’s and other auction houses. “Go back as far as, you know, 20 years and see what speaks to you,” she said.

Masaharu Wada, an editor and web producer at Hodinkee Japan, stressed that an understanding of fundamental watch terms also was important for a novice collector. “It is a good idea to start with a basic knowledge of watches,” like the differences between mechanical and quartz timepieces, he wrote in an email.

Ms. Heller said starting a collection took just a few basics. “I recommend having three great timepieces in your collection that become your style signifiers,” she said. “But based on someone’s style, those pieces are a little different.”

And, unsurprisingly as she specializes in vintage finds, she says she believes that pieces found at auction or secondary sales sites often have superior workmanship. “Back in the day,” she said, “there was way more attention to detail and gorgeous artistry.”

One of her recommendations for a first purchase is a vintage Bulgari Serpenti Tubogas, a snakelike look first introduced by the Roman house in the 1940s with a bracelet that coils around the forearm thanks to its flexible links. (Contemporary versions start at $10,400.) “A classic gold or stainless-steel Bulgari Serpenti is an iconic piece that will never go out of style,” she said. “It makes a statement, but its sexy sleek design gives it an air of effortlessness that is perfect for everyday.”

And there is a bonus: It doubles as a piece of jewelry. “Not only are you wearing a watch, but you’re also wearing this iconic piece of jewelry,” Ms. Heller said.

And for your second purchase? She recommends “a watch with a more masculine silhouette like an extra thin, extra large Audemars Piguet Royal Oak or Patek Philippe Nautilus.”

That reflects Ms. Heller’s own collection: She received a Breitling Chronomat as a gift at her bat mitzvah. “I’ve had my Chronomat since I was 13 and still love it today,” she said.

Ms. Zagoory agreed that an initial collection should be limited. “It’s hard to put a number on how many pieces should be in a collection, because ultimately you could have one that you change the bracelet and straps for, consistently giving it a new look every time,” she wrote. “Start with one, but I feel like three to five is a great number.”

She also is a strong advocate of vintage. “Historically, you used to get more bang for your buck, which of course is not necessarily the case any more in today’s market,” she wrote. “However, you can find very rare and unique pieces by browsing auction catalogs.”

Your collection should not be stashed away in a box, Ms. Heller said, so think about that while you are considering brands and models.

“You should have pieces you can wear on a plane or wear to the different places in the world that you travel,” she said. “If you’re not wearing something that feels comfortable and feels like it’s part of your DNA, you’re never going to want to wear it.”

In general, experts suggest that a novice collector should focus on precious metals — particularly gold — rather than unusual materials like ceramics or contemporary styles like stainless steel or titanium.

When it comes to jewelry, Ms. Heller said, “If a piece makes a statement, and the style and workmanship is just spectacular, it does not necessarily have to be signed. But it has to be 18 karat gold.”

Her go-to piece? The Verdura Curb-Link bracelet ($25,500). “I think that is something that everyone should have. That bracelet is works with everybody and everyone’s collection,” she said. (Greta Garbo famously wore one on each wrist). The style also comes as a timepiece, the Verdura Curb-Link bracelet watch.

Frank Everett, global director of sales, luxury division, at Sotheby’s, based in New York, also favors the look: “For somebody starting out, I always said, go for something gold.”

He explained that it all came down to the weight. “It’s a wise investment, because at an auction house you’re going to pick up a piece like that basically for the market value of the weight in gold,” he said. “That’s the way they’re priced at auctions, it’s literally their weight in gold.”

Finances should be part of your prepurchase deliberations: What can you afford to spend and how much will you feel comfortable spending? After all, they may not be the same amount.

“You should be able to find something that ultimately fits within your budget,” Mr. Wada of Hodinkee Japan wrote. “You don’t need a ton of money to get a good watch. Seiko and Hamilton have a wide selection of attractive entry-level mechanical watches. If you want to broaden your horizons, you can look at vintage and micro-brands as well.”

Mr. Everett said there should be an aspirational aspect to building a collection, so realizing that your budget doesn’t match your desires shouldn’t destroy your dreams. “Say you have set your sights on something that might be a little bit out of reach, a little bit out of budget,” he said, “then start setting aside that money and make it happen.”

“Think of it as an investment,” Ms. Heller said. “When you’re going outside of your comfort zone and buying something that is more than you ever thought you would spend on a watch or a piece of jewelry, it’s almost like getting a tattoo, because it’s with you all the time.”

Echoing the advice of fashion figures, who say that responsible fashion is buying quality pieces you will wear for years — Ms. Heller said that when you made a first purchase that “speaks to you and fits into your style, you’re never going to want to take it off.”

And in the end, she said, the success of a collection is based on a good foundation. Building a collection “is a language,” she said. “And once you become a little more sophisticated and grow deeper into the understanding of this, after your basic pieces are purchased, then you can go for more.”

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