Peter Machlup has an instinctive feel for the worth of a fine mechanical wristwatch. He has nursed his passion since he was a small child and was one of the first South Africans and among the pioneers worldwide in the fine art of collecting timepieces.
A very young Peter Machlup used to go to town with his mother, in the days when no self-respecting woman went into town without a hat and gloves. Coming from a family of jewellers, the two would stop at every jeweller’s windows, but while his mother would gaze at the diamonds, Peter would stare, open-mouthed, at the wristwatches. This was a passion that would long outlast the elegance of downtown Johannesburg, Peter’s training as a goldsmith and would finally become his business.
After training as a goldsmith, in the tradition of four generations of his family, Peter gave in to the great love of his life in the late 1980s, actively buying old watches, selling them, and feeling out the market. He admits he was feeling in the dark in what was a new area of collecting, but in South Africa, he was an expert and he learnt the business along with the rest of the world’s collectors. He absorbed all the little quirks and foibles of the trade like the fact that a Rolex Prince in white gold is incredibly rare.
Today Peter Machlup can offer shrewd advice about the collectability and value of a range of watches, mainly Rolex, Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Cartier, Breitling, IWC, A. Lange & Söhne and Officine Panerai. He is evangelistic about the enjoyment of collecting watches and their value as an investment. “They are an excellent Rand hedge as they have a hard, asset-based value which is basically the same all over the world. They are transportable. Most of all though, they are so much more fun than share certificates!”
“When I started actively buying old watches in the late 1980s, I was feeling in the dark. It was a new area of collecting and when I went to the United Kingdom to try to sell watches, one person would offer me ten pounds, another 1000 pounds. Although I had a sense of what was good quality, there was no general knowledge of value or rarity. For example,” says Peter, “nobody knew that a Rolex Prince in white gold was incredibly rare.”
This was a time of wonder and “also of the blind leading the blind.” He quickly realised, however, that “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. However little I knew, in SA I was an expert.” In the process of travelling throughout the country and overseas, buying and selling valuable timepieces, Peter not only taught, but also learnt. “Collecting watches is like collecting any luxury items, like art, oriental rugs, pens or vintage cars. Part of the thrill is the speculation – proceeding on the basis of knowledge, but also instinct and feeling.” Today, Peter is one of the foremost experts in the field and has helped to shape the world of watch collecting.
Like most serious collectors, Peter Machlup only deals in fine mechanical watches. Watchmaking started in Europe four or five hundred years ago and the technology is basically unchanged since then. “There have been some major developments in wristwatches, developed by companies like Breguet as far back as the 17th century, that are still used today.”
Sometimes, however, a client asks him if a watch is faultlessly accurate. His answer is simple: “If you want to-the-minisecond timekeeping, you would be better off buying a R20 digital watch. It will keep perfect time, but will be no fun. The most collectable watches are mechanical and serious watch lovers avoid quartz movements like the plague.
“Fine mechanical watches, even with chronometer ratings, will still be out two or three minutes a month and will be proud of that,” he points out. “I think it is because we have become so bored with our high-tech lives,” says Peter, “that we need to take refuge in craftsmanship. It makes these watches live and reminds us that they were created by human hands, not churned out on an anonymous production line.”
In an age of mass production, collectors prize individuality and the big brands allow for that. Craftsmanship and heritage are prized, and this is what makes it such an interesting field for collectors. “We don’t collect watches,” he points out, “ we are buying the entire, colourful history of the mainly Swiss watchmaking tradition. Like buying art or antiques, where the provenance adds to the value, watches have to have something behind them. I am not selling timekeeping; I am telling stories.”
However, Peter does not deal in every watch brand, but only those “in the narrow range of watches that hold their value over time.” The main ones are Rolex, Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC, Patek Philippe, Breitling, Breguet, A. Lange & Söhne, Officine Panerai. This means he has only the best, most exciting of various ranges to show his clients. “The advantage is that if I am prepared to sell it, I am prepared to buy it back.”
This is the strength of Peter’s service. Many of his clients regularly buy and sell back to him. One man has bought forty watches from him over time but has only kept one – the rest he has sold back to Peter, upgrading or simply changing as his tastes have shifted. However, another client has bought sixty fine watches from Peter and still owns them all. Peter can pride himself on the role he has played in building some of the most impressive collections in the country. “Anyone who owns more than three fine watches is a collector,” he adds.
Peter points out that many people may have inherited a watch but, unaware of its value, have simply locked it away in a bank vault or left it to gather dust in the back of a drawer. If it is one of the brands that hold their value, he encourages them to find out what it is worth. “You never know – you may be sitting on a sizeable investment.”
Peter Machlup speaks about his beloved watches in the same knowledgeable and passionate way that as any collector of fine objets d’art. He also has the ability to inspire the same love in his clients. “Even the most jaded, world-weary customers will find themselves captivated by these beautiful timepieces and the stories behind them.”