What Makes A Watch A Grail Watch, And What You Should Look For In Yours
When collectors talk about grail watches, they’re normally referring to prohibitively expensive, extremely rare or sought-after timepieces. Frequently, the object of their desire will be a watch that possesses all three qualities.
London-based entrepreneur Ahmed “Shary” Rahman is the curator and guardian of one of the world’s most enviable watch collections. “I think the term ‘grail’ when it is applied to a watch is difficult to define, because it means very different things to different enthusiasts or collectors,” he says.
“For me, a grail watch would usually be a watch of high horological excellence, or something that is unique, perhaps even made bespoke just for me.” He cites the Patek Philippe 5970G Salmon Dial Perpetual Calendar Chronograph he acquired several years ago as a personal grail.
“The grail watch is often one a collector has never even seen in real life,” says Glenn Meijer, sales director at WatchBox, a digital luxury watch trading platform. “It could be the best of the best, like a Breguet tourbillon. It could be a discontinued watch like a Rolex Paul Newman Daytona, or simply a current production model that’s virtually inaccessible at retail.”
Rolex presently produces several watches in the latter category. Perhaps the most récherché among them is the gem-encrusted rainbow Daytona. This glitzy trophy watch is made in such small quantities that customers lucky enough to have purchased one from a Rolex dealer have been able to sell it for triple its original price.
Of course, top watch brands do not want their clients flipping sought-after rarities in this manner. That is why, to receive official dispensation to acquire, at retail, hot properties such as a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar chronograph, an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Jumbo Extra-thin, or the aforementioned blinged-out Rolex, prospective customers undergo strict vetting.
Clients that get past this process and betray the brand’s trust by selling a watch within a year or two of its purchase might find themselves blacklisted. But the return on investment can be too great to resist, when an eager collector is willing to pay a large premium to acquire something otherwise out of reach.
“I’d never sell this watch,” says collector George Glasgow Jr, the CEO of British bespoke shoemaker George Cleverley. He’s referring to his “everyday” timepiece, a stainless steel Patek Philippe Nautilus ref 5711, which many consider a grail, so tricky is it to procure. This year, Patek announced that it was going to cease making the Nautilus in steel, which will only add to its value. “It’s an iconic watch, aesthetically beautiful and now, the end of an era,” says Glasgow.
You could argue that to be an authentic grail, a watch has to be legitimately irreplaceable. Think about where the moniker comes from: a medieval quest to uncover and possess a unique, sacred object, the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper. Obtainable only after overcoming hardships and great dangers, this singular relic was believed to have all manner of spiritual, magical powers. It could grant enlightenment, immortality and more.
No matter what Dan Brown tries to tell you, the story has little basis in historical truth. Nevertheless, the parallel with the hunt for a grail watch is clear. And just like the Holy Grail, a proper grail watch is—in this writer’s opinion, at least—one that is special because of its association with a particular individual.
The type of 1960s Rolex Daytona Paul Newman wore? That’s nice. The actual 1960s Rolex Daytona that Paul Newman wore? Now, that’s a grail. The Omega Speedmaster worn by Buzz Aldrin in 1969, when he became the second man to walk on the moon—which was lost in the post en route to the Smithsonian Museum and has remained missing ever since? Grail!
Grails don’t need to be famous, nor especially valuable in a monetary sense. One of my own most precious possessions is a 1955 Omega Seamaster that belonged to my grandfather. He had another more modern Omega, which was bequeathed to his best friend when my grandfather died in the 1960s. I can only guess at what it even looks like. But to me, that is a grail.