Gold, Silver Prices Endanger Future of Antique Watch Collections

This high-quality, 18k gold pocket, made by little-known watchmaker H.L. Matile in a small town in Switzerland, is a fine example of a “technical watch.” But its day may be numbered, simply because it contains about $4,300 worth of gold. More and more gold watches are getting sold for scrap, melted down and disappearing from the collectibles market forever.

The gold and silver markets have been doing a steady rise for the last year or more, bringing on the demise of literally thousands of gold and silver collectibles and antiques of all nature. But watches have been hit particularly hard. I just returned from a National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors‘ Regional Show in Daytona Beach, Fla., and witnessed a scene that would sicken any serious collector.

A gentleman I had never seen before at any of these shows was buying gold, silver and even gold-filled watch cases for scrap. He was rapidly up filling a showcase with his purchases for all to see. His obvious aim was to buy as many cases as he could and take them to a smelter to have them melted down into an ingot, assay it and sell it to one of the many gold buying organizations that deal in precious metals for a profit. With the price of gold on the date of this publication is $1,434, you can see why he was busy for three days as collectors and dealers alike lined up to sell their watches.

The process is quite simple, if not brutal. Many of the watches had already had their movements and crystals removed, but there is almost always a non-gold part that needs to be removed, via a pair of pliers or a hammer. Watches—a complex compilation of different metals and parts—are in some cases, of dubious karat. The process involves chopping and filing into the covers and applying aqua regia acid to ascertain the actual gold content. This is almost always a callous and brutal process, but it doesn’t really matter, because you’ve already made the decision to destroy and melted down the watch in the end. The only thing that really matters here is the almighty dollar—how much you can get for the gold or silver content.

Now, I have been a professional watch dealer for more than 35 years, and I have scrapped my share of watch cases, jewelry and silver objects, so I’m no saint and I really don’t mean to sound sanctimonious, but God Almighty, there’s got to be a limit! At this rate, there won’t be any watches left to trade, and that will be the demise of the watch collector’s hobby!

The dial of this watch is made of three pieces of high-quality porcelain enamel work of art, precision-fitted to each other perfectly, and the beautifully detailed second and minute track, topped off with Breguet-style blued-steel hands.

As a watchmaker and watch dealer, I have put together an extensive collection of watch movements and parts (sorry, not for sale!). Now, I’m talking about a huge pile of watch movements here, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg; there’re many more folks out there just like me. It is true, all these now-defunct watch companies like Waltham and Elgin made millions of watches, but there is an end. Mr. Jon Hansen, Esq., founder of NAWCC Chapter 149, has been exposing for years on the evil of dismembering watches for parts and profit. He is RIGHT! There has to be an end to this practice of destroying these mechanical works of art simply for an immediate profit.

I have pictured in this article a fine, high-quality but very heavy 18k gold pocket watch as an example. While it is a great watch, it is a “technical watch.” In other words, it is more of a complicated mechanical wonder than an artistic diamond-studded beautiful work of art. Its beauty is intrinsic and lies in its mechanical achievement and high quality. Its maker was a little-known watchmaker located in a small town in Switzerland devoted to the watchmaker’s art, Locle. His name was H.L.Matile, and he made very fine watches—his devotion and passion is evident in this very fine example bearing his name. Every part is quality and finished to near perfection. No expense was spared in the production of this watch: solid pink gold jewel settings; pink gold gears; beautiful and detailed damascene pattern on the bridges; mirror polish on the steel parts; beautiful ruby jewels. The chronograph mechanism is located under the dial and is a mechanical wonder! Even the steel parts under the dial are polished and finished perfectly. The dial is a high-quality porcelain enamel work of art comprised of three parts, precision-fitted to each other perfectly, and the beautifully detailed second and minute track, topped off with Breguet-style blued-steel hands.

The chronograph mechanism is located under the dial and is a mechanical wonder! Even the steel parts under the dial are polished and finished perfectly.

The crowning achievement to this fine watch is the case, although Matile probably didn’t make it, (few watchmakers made their own cases or dials), but there was no expense spared here. In total, it has a very-high gold content of nearly 3 ounces of 18K-gold! That translates to almost $4,300 of scrap gold in today’s market! The value of the raw material will most certainly ring a death knell to this very fine watch. Watch collectors will only pay so much for a simple gold chronograph pocket watch, and $4,300 is nearly three times what the collector market will bear, especially with a little known maker like Matile.

I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and purchased this fine watch before a scrap dealer could put his pliers and hammer to work. But I am a dealer, and my investment can only sit for so long. I will try my very best to place this watch with a watch collector or investor, but I have bills to pay and limited capital to work with. How long can I tie my money up in a watch that simply won’t sell for more that it’s gold content? To add insult to injury, this fine watch has provenance: it was presented to its first lucky owner in 1882 from his father, then passed on to his son in 1910. This very fine family heirloom has been in the family for three or possibly four generations, and was a treasured for decades until just recently, when it was sold for scrap metal to pay the bills. What a shame, and a sad, sad, sad state of affairs.

David Mycko is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in antique and vintage watches.

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