The five Souscription watches, dated 1999 to 2004, are being sold individually by Phillips on Sunday
The five Souscription watches, dated 1999 to 2004, are being sold individually by Phillips on Sunday

The eyes of the watch world will be on Geneva this weekend for two of the year’s most anticipated sales: the biennial Only Watch charity auction hosted by Christie’s; and the Geneva Watch Auction XIV at Phillips.

The focus for many will be FP Journe. With one of the independent brand’s pieces surpassing the $2m mark at auction for the first time a few weeks ago, there is interest in seeing how high the bidding climbs when some of its rarest watches go under the hammer.

First up is the FFC Blue, one of 55 one-off timepieces offered in Saturday’s ninth edition of Only Watch, raising funds for research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The prototype, the result of a conversation between the Geneva-based founder François-Paul Journe and film director Francis Ford Coppola in 2012, uses the fingers and thumb of a blue hand — inspired by a mechanical hand created by the 16th-century French surgeon Ambroise Paré — to indicate the hour.

The tantalum piece is “quite revolutionary in design and technique” for Journe, says Remi Guillemin, head of the watch department at Christie’s in Geneva. It carries an estimate of SFr300,000 to SFr400,000 ($328,000-$437,000) but Guillemin expects to “be surprised” by the result.

Then, on Sunday, attention will turn to the Geneva Watch Auction XIV, where a complete set of FP Journe Souscription watches is up for sale for the first time. Each of the five watches is Number 1 in a 20-piece subscription series and consigned by the original owner. This makes the set “not only incredibly rare but also historically relevant”, according to Phillips.

When French-born Journe, who had been making one-off timepieces, wanted to start a larger production, he offered 20 people the opportunity to buy his tourbillon at a 50 per cent discount in return for payment upfront to finance his endeavour. The buyer of the first piece had right of refusal on the first of four subsequent models.

The watches, dated 1999 to 2004, are being sold individually. “It’s unclear how many millions of dollars that [set] will go for,” says dealer Eric Wind, owner of Wind Vintage. “It could be absolutely bonkers.”

The Tourbillon Souverain Souscription alone is likely to surpass the combined high estimate of SFr1.46m ($1.60m) for all five watches. Sotheby’s set a new auction record for a Journe piece when it sold number 13 of 20 for HK$15.9m ($2.04m) last month.

The previous record was the SFr1.4m ($1.53m) achieved by Phillips for number 14 of 20 in June last year. Prices had already risen sharply: number 19 went for SFr161,000 ($176,165) in 2016. “We’re looking at an 8x increase in four years, which is phenomenal to the point where these watches overshadow watches from Patek Philippe and Rolex in the Geneva auctions,” says Wind.

Prices are up across FP Journe watches. “The highest increase we’ve seen is the period from 1999 to 2004 . . . [when] his models were 38mm in diameter and had brass movements,” says Alexandre Ghotbi, head of watches for continental Europe and the Middle East at Phillips. Journe then switched to 18-carat pink gold movements.

“Journe was always a brand that spoke to the watch geeks and the connoisseurs . . . but he remained more or less a name known to the cognoscenti,” says Ghotbi. “Then, in the past three, four years, it’s been really picking up.”

This is down in part to the watches’ rarity and craftsmanship: the manufacture, which creates 95 per cent of components in-house, makes fewer than 900 mechanical timepieces a year. “He’s one of these rare brands where immediately you see his watches from afar, you know who made it,” says Ghotbi.

Another factor in FP Journe’s “meteoric” rise, according to Wind, is the Patrimoine Service launched in 2016. The brand, which has sold 90 watches through the scheme to date, openly buys back watches no longer in production, services them and resells them with a new three-year guarantee. “That for me was the beginning of the turn to make Journe watches so extremely desirable because prices began to go up at auction and new interest was driven towards the brand and discontinued models, which then spurred interest in their current production models,” says Wind.

Ghotbi says Journe himself is “not a man who is easy to access” and does not given many interviews (an interview offered by the brand for this article never materialised). However, Guillemin says Journe is “very active” in the watch community.

“He’s a very passionate individual — he’s a genius when it comes to developing watches — and he really imposes a respect,” says Guillemin. “Buying from an independent watchmaker today is like buying a painting from an artist that is still alive. You can really follow him . . . and you can interact with him so there is this human touch, which collectors are really after.”

With FP Journe’s success part of a broader upturn for living independent watchmakers, Wind predicts further price growth due to the level of interest in horology. “The sky seems to remain the limit,” he says.

Only Watch auction 2021

An unprecedented 54 brands have contributed one-off watches for the ninth edition of this year’s Only Watch auction, which takes place tomorrow in Geneva, writes Simon de Burton. The biennial event, which has so far raised more than €70m towards research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy, was founded by former Monaco Yacht Show chief executive Luc Pettavino after his then five-year-old son Paul was diagnosed with the disease, which is characterised by progressive muscle weakening leading to a reduction in the function of vital organs. A Patek Philippe Grand Master Chime became the most expensive watch ever sold at auction when it raised $31m at Only Watch 2019 — almost two years to the day after Paul Pettavino died, just short of his 21st birthday.

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