In 2022, where most people just use their phone or a smartwatch to tell the time, the idea of spending thousands – if not tens of thousands – of dollars on a high-end mechanical watch seems completely absurd. But watches are more than just horological instruments: they’re pieces of art that you can wear on your wrist.
Just like art, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a watch to get something cool or beautiful. Real watch collectors have just as much love for Casio and Seiko as they do for OMEGA and Rolex, for example. Also like art, many people buy expensive watches just to flaunt their wealth, not because of any sincere appreciation for what they’re buying – which is a shame, but such is life.
But we’re not here to philosophise about the nature of watches or art. We’re here to share what are, undeniably, the most expensive and valuable watches of all time. These are the absolute height of luxury and excess – they make Hublots and Richard Milles look like peasant’s watches in comparison.
Watch the top 5 most expensive watches ever sold at auction (as of January 2021) below.
Let’s dive a little deeper and explore why these watches are the most expensive watches in the world. What makes them so desirable and able to command such insane prices at auction? We take a closer look.
1948 Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph (ref. 1518) – US$9,570,900
Spoiler alert – 4 of the top 5 on this list are Pateks. That’s perhaps not so surprising: Patek Philippe has long been one of the most desirable and exclusive watchmakers on the planet, and forms one-third of the exalted ‘Holy Trinity’ of watchmaking alongside Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin.
Made in 1948 and formerly the property of Prince Tewfik Adil Toussoun of Egypt, this well-preserved example of the legendary ref. 1518 – the world’s first serially produced perpetual calendar chronograph – features an extremely rare and desirable pink dial and pink gold combination.
1943 Patek Philippe Stainless Steel (ref. 1518) – US$11,137,000
#4 on our list is yet another Patek Philippe ref. 1518: this time in stainless steel, and on a matching Milanese bracelet. But why is a stainless steel 1518 worth more than a pink gold one?
Generally speaking, stainless steel Pateks are highly desirable – in many cases, they’re more coveted than Pateks made from precious metals, such as gold or even platinum. It’s partly a supply issue: only around 20-30% of total Patek production is stainless steel watches, so naturally, demand far outstrips supply.
Remember this for later on in this list.
1968 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ‘Paul Newman’ (ref. 6239) – US$17,753,000
It’s perhaps fitting that the only non-Patek in the top 5 most expensive watches of all time is a Rolex. Rolex is easily the world’s biggest watch brand as well as perhaps the world’s most valuable brand full stop. It’s a byword for luxury, success and exclusivity… And this is the most exclusive (and famous) Rolex of all time.
‘Paul Newman’ Daytonas, named after the American actor, race car driver and salad dressing mogul who popularised the watch, are unbelievably popular, but this one takes the cake: it’s one of only a few actually owned by Paul Newman, and the only only “exotic”-dialled one (i.e. the only ‘Paul Newman’ Paul Newman Rolex).
It’s even got an engraving on the back that reads “DRIVE SAFELY – ME”. Talk about a Holy Grail…
1932 Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication (piece unique) – US$23,983,000
Back to your regularly scheduled Patek programming. This is the only pocket watch on the list, and it’s an absolute behemoth of a pocket watch, too.
Made especially for Henry Graves Jr., a prominent American banker, this was for a very long time the most complicated watch in the world. It boasts a whopping 24 different functions, including Westminster chimes, a perpetual calendar, sunrise and sunset times, plus a celestial map of New York as seen from Graves’ old apartment at 834 Fifth Avenue.
Graves spent CHF 60,000 (US$15,000) when he commissioned the Supercomplication back in 1925. Adjusting for inflation, that’s roughly equivalent to $229,533 in 2021. A bargain, all things considered.
2019 Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime ‘Only One’ (ref. 6300A-010) – US$31,000,000
And now for #1: the most expensive watch of all time. The Grandmaster Chime ref. 6300 is the most complicated watch Patek currently makes, with 20 complications including 5 chiming modes. This is the only one in stainless steel (hence the name, the ‘Only One’, which even features on the dial) – but it’s not just the case material and dial that makes this timepiece special.
The ‘Only One’ was created specifically for Only Watch: a biennial charity watch auction that supports research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The world’s top watchmakers create exotic, special, typically one-off watches for the auction in order to raise the most money for charity, and this was Patek’s 2019 entry.
$31 million on a watch is excessive, but when you consider that the bulk of that went to charity, it makes it a little easier to justify. We guess.
What is the most expensive watch ever?
The Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime ‘Only One’ (ref. 6300A-010), which sold for US$31,000,000 at auction in 2019.
What is the most expensive Rolex watch ever?
A 1968 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ‘Paul Newman’ (ref. 6239) that was actually owned by Paul Newman, which sold for US$17,753,000 in 2017.
Why are watches so expensive?
High-end watches are expensive for a number of reasons: they're often made of precious metals, they are extremely limited in number, and are mechanically very complex. Even a relatively mass-produced watch like an OMEGA or Rolex takes hundreds of hours to produce. The level of finishing, quality and detail in a luxury watch is also very labour-intensive. On top of that, high-end watches are also considered investments and are traded as such.
How much should I spend on a watch?
It all depends on what you want a watch for. If you just want something that'll tell the time and last for a long time, a Casio digital quartz watch won't cost much more than $30. If you want a decent mechanical watch, a Seiko 5 will set you back around $170. For something a little fancier, an entry-level Swiss watch like a Hamilton or Tissot is more like $500. The cheapest Rolexes sell for around $5000.