Only Watch auction 2023: ultra-elite timepieces that may sell for millions

Only Watch charity auction has been held in Geneva for several years now, and will see some of the most valuable models ever made come to the market

This year's Only Watch Audermars Piguet lot features a 41mm case and white ceramic bracelet that's paired with AP calibre 2972

Everyone knows there’s a lot of cash, spare or otherwise, circulating in the luxury watch industry, but here’s a fun fact: Since 2005 108 top brands have collectively raised 100 million Swiss francs (€103 million) to benefit research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). They’ve made this happen by donating one-of-a-kind timepieces to the biennial Only Watch auction, established in 2001 by Luc Pettavino, whose son had just been diagnosed with the disease.

The first auction was held in 2005, in a small salon at the Monaco Yacht Show (of which Pettavino was the longtime chief executive officer). Some of the 34 watches were bought by Pettavino himself. Others were purchased by Albert II, Prince of Monaco, who’s been a patron since the beginning.

The idea, to say the least, has caught on. Only Watch has been held in Geneva for several years now, and an auction house donates its services to the sale — this year, Christie’s wields the hammer. For a while, it was held in an event room at the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues, with a capacity of just under 400. The last auction, in 2021, was attended by 900 people in a hall at the Palexpo, Geneva’s convention centre. It raised 30 million francs. This year’s sale, slotted for November 5 at the Palexpo, will be limited to a capacity of 1,000, an audience that will include collectors, journalists and a who’s who of Swiss watch industry titans.

The event is an increasingly important venue for watchmaking showmanship, in which brands compete to outdo one another, creatively and mechanically, as well as beef up their image by tallying up the highest prices ever paid for watches under their marques. The 2019 session broke the record for a wristwatch: €28.5 million for the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime.

“It’s been like a hike where a few of us started out together saying, ‘OK, let’s meet on the parking lot Sunday, and just let’s have a nice walk to the lake,’” Pettavino says. “And you end up climbing a mountain together. It’s the Montblanc. And we are suddenly a thousand people.”

Lot 56 is Bird on a Rock mechanical pendant by Tiffany & Co

Pettavino’s son, Paul, was diagnosed with DMD in 2000 at the age of four. It’s an incurable degenerative muscular disease that affects 1 in 5,000 males at birth. The afflicted are typically wheelchair-bound by age 12. By 21 most are paralysed from the neck down. The end result is always the same. Most don’t live beyond their 20s. Paul passed away in 2016 at the age of 21.

His daughter, Tess Pettavino, is now running the charity into which 99 per cent of the auction proceeds are channelled, the Association Monégasque contre les Myopathies. As a result of research driven by funds from the auctions, clinical trials have just begun on a promising therapy. “It is called SQY51, and it helps to repair the mutated parts of the genetic flaw that causes DMD,” she says. “It creates the missing protein called dystrophin that normally holds the muscle cells together. The first injection of the trial was just a few days ago. The first therapy we’re testing is for muscular dystrophy, but it is believed that there will be many applications for different diseases, and they’re actually already working on adapting.”

The 62 one-of-a-kind timepieces on this year’s roster are a feast of colour and nonconformity. There are surprises aplenty. For one thing, several ladies’ watches are in the mix. Two are pendant pieces, one of which was made by Richard Mille, otherwise famous for its large, uber-masculine sports watches worn by race-car drivers and tennis champs. The other was made by Tiffany & Co., in a version of its famous bird on a jewel design.

Oddities abound: Urwerk’s Time-Space Blade is a clock designed in a vertical glass column that illuminates hours, minutes and seconds, as well as—perplexingly—the Earth’s daily rotational progress in kilometres. De Bethune’s space-themed DW5 Seeking Perfect watch has a case of hand-forged iron ore and a moon made of meteorite. Its tourbillon movement can be seen only from the back. As always there are several firsts: Collector favourite F.P.Journe created the first all-tantalum watch, the Chronomètre Furtif, with an 18-karat rose-gold movement; Kari Voutilainen, master of the habillage (the term for a high watchmaking finish), made his first cushion-shaped case, with a green dial that’s engine-turned by hand.

Only Watch has been held in Geneva for several years now, and an auction house donates its services to the sale — this year, Christie’s wields the hammer

At least 10 lots have high estimates in the six figures, which in this auction can easily become seven figures, from the likes of Jacob & Co., Audemars Piguet, Biver and Gerald Genta, which weighs in with a special-edition Mickey Mouse watch. And then there’s the colour, always a strong factor at Only Watch. Pettavino chooses a theme colour every year as a loose criterion—adopting it in the designs is completely optional. This year, on the occasion of the 10th session, he’s assigned a handful of colours: blue, yellow, orange, red, fuchsia and green. Several of the lots display all or some of them, from Zenith’s quartet of red, yellow, blue and green Chronomaster Sports and Hermes’ multicoloured Arceau Le Temps Voyageur to Jacob & Co.’s multicoloured Astronomia Revolution and the multicoloured case and strap of Bell & Ross’ BR 03 Cyber Rainbow.

Lot 26, the Girard-Perregaux Neo Constant Escapement Only watch edition
Lot 39, Louis Vuitton’s Tambour Einstein Automata

As for Patek Philippe’s entry, always a much-anticipated treasure, there was no picture or description of the watch at press time, but the company did issue a statement saying it will be a tribute to Philippe Stern, honorary president and father of current President Thierry Stern. The watch will contain an entirely new grand complication movement that will never be used again.

“They [the watch brands] are the project,” says Luc Pettavino. “We are just a part of it. All of us are part of something much bigger than ourselves.” The buyers, of course, also play a key part. Because of the way charity laws are structured in Monaco, buying a watch at the auction doesn’t allow for a tax deduction (though it may be deductible in a buyer’s country of fiscal residence)—it’s a pure expenditure, so the generosity is real. “And they really go for it,” he says. “You may remember that when we finished the 2021 auction, the total was 29,740,000 [francs], but then one of the collectors announced he wanted to round the results to 30 million. I was so much in the rush of adrenaline, I was stunned and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s nice. He added the 26,000.’ I realized later he had added 260,000.” Quite a tip.

Only Watch takes place on 5 November, 2023.

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