Editor’s Note: Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. And, as it turns out, the truth also makes for a really good read, so it makes sense that Andrew’s story of sky-high sales has been one of our most popular articles this year. It’s got everything: shady characters, high drama and, at its heart, the love between and a man and his watch.
This is a true story about a man who offered me $10,000 cash for my stock-standard Panerai PAM 111 in Business Class. It even had a factory strap. We’d been talking, chit-chatting through the pre-flight champagnes, then we’d both rolled into red wine. He was picking up some kind of motorbike in California. I had business in New York. He expressed an interest in my watch. What was it? And then, not much later, entirely out the blue, he propositioned me. “I’ll give you ten grand for it.” I blinked. “Sorry?” “Cash. 10 grand for the watch, as is. In US.” He reached down and unzipped the side pocket of his bag. Sure enough. As Diddy might have said back in the day, there was a big ol’ bundle of Benjamins. As I live and breathe. I’d never really met anyone who carried around fat stacks in their hand luggage. In a way, I was pretty impressed.
But of course, this man knew nothing about watches. He just knew that he was wealthier than me. And, as well as buying the watch, I could tell he wanted to prove it. His own Rolex, a Datejust of some kind, was in fact a lovely piece, but he could tell me nothing about it. It had been “a corporate gift”, he grunted, before his hungry eyes returned to my wrist and the PAM. Meanwhile, partly to stall, I regaled him with Panerai stories. Including the fact that Panerai and Rolex are in fact connected, their fates interlinked by the Second World War and by Italian frogmen whose Panerai designed watches contained Rolex-made movements. The truth is, the PAM 111 is only worth $6 or $7,000, but I still didn’t budge. I didn’t sell it. In fact, I didn’t really even consider it. Which was interesting to me, because I can be cold blooded when it comes to flipping a watch every now and again. Things are worth what they’re worth. Or so I thought.
The experience brought home to me an important truth about watches. The value you place on it rubs off on the piece itself. This guy didn’t just want to buy the watch; he wanted to buy the way I felt about it. And the stories that came with it. Watches are, I realised, completely unique objects in terms of the way we think and feel about them. When the man eventually nodded off in some Jason Statham movie after his sixth or seventh Scotch, probably also starring PAMs (Statham loves a Panerai) I sketched out why the deal was not done:
- Obviously, the situation was suspicious. There were deeper reactions, to be properly detailed below, but the first was pure skepticism. That money couldn’t be real? What if it was a trick? What if it was drug money? What if it was money for drugs? The John Le Carre reader in me went instantly into a creative panic about the nefarious possibilities.
- The story you have about your watch makes it more valuable than it really is. Today, buyers of luxury goods do not just want an object, they want a story to tell about it, too. If you can give them one, or several, they’ll pay more. Simple. After all, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” according to poet Muriel Rukeyser. Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn can prove it, too. In 2009, the duo embarked on the curious ‘Significant Objects’ project: they would purchase cheap trinkets and then ask creative writers to invent stories about them. They would then post the stories and the objects on eBay to see whether the invented story enhanced the value of the object. Without exception, it did. The useless, often broken bits of junk, originally purchased for a total of $128.74, sold for $3,612.51 — a whopping 2,700% mark-up. For example, a daggy globe paperweight was bought for $1.49 and, after Debbie Millman included a moving handwritten story in the eBay product description, it sold for $197.50. If a paperweight with a bit of a story about it can sell for way over 100 times its actual worth, what was this PAM’s true value?
- Few objects become as “human” as a watch. This is largely due to their intimate proximity to our bodies and to the fact that they are attached to our hands, the parts of our bodies we commonly use to do whatever it is we do. When I’d overcome point one (the drug dealer suspicion wore off; this bored rich guy had more in common with Barry White than Walter White) and was actually considering parting with the PAM I’d looked down at it and noted the wear marks on the band where it sits on my workbench, a MacBook Pro. I became strangely sentimental about them. These marks were not there when I bought it boxfresh. They were as much a part of me as the scar on my eyebrow, or the callouses on my fingers from playing guitar. This makes the connection to the watch as an object far more personal and more physical than most things we own.
- Your relationship with your watch is on a cycle. And it’s a slow-moving one. There will probably come a day (block your ears 111) when I will trade this PAM for another watch. It’s not a lifetime piece – despite all of the above, there’s nothing particularly special about it that makes it a ‘never sell’. But I realised, when the moment of the sale came on so abruptly, that I wasn’t ready. The decision to move your watch on is one that you inch toward, while slowly getting used to the idea of NOT having that patinaed strap and that polished silver case, and that sandwich dial, and that unusual small seconds and….
- If my watch is going to be passed on, today or any day, I’d really rather it be to a good person. Because this guy was a jackass. Anyone who offers a stranger 10 grand for their watch on a plane, in any class, is an idiot.
- Lastly, watch purchases are like sex. They’re much nicer when they’re not transactional. Which is why watch lovers usually seek solid ongoing relationships with retailers and dealers. (Hi Mike, hi Graeme.) So, to wrap up, yes I could have landed at LAX like the pimp I never was, with my first ever fat stack tucked safely away. But instead I strolled through customs, unafraid of a random bag check, with nothing to declare but an even deeper love for my watch.
This article first appeared in Revolution Australia. Illustrations by Lee Sullivan