Alex Ghotbi on The Vintage Market

Interviews • 16 May 2019

Alex Ghotbi on The Vintage Market

by Blake Reilly

Interview and photos by Blake Reilly

Geneva seemed the place to be last weekend. Not only were thousands of feet pounding the pavement around the lake for the Geneva Marathon, but all the renowned auction houses of Phillips, Christie’s and Sotheby’s were each holding their own watch auction in the historic watchmaking city. Naturally, there were some absolutely exquisite pieces on offer. Phillips were proudly set up in the gardens of La Reserve Hotel for their highly anticipated Geneva Watch Auction Nine, and it was there where I had the chance to meet up with Alex Ghotbi, Head of Sale for Phillips in Geneva.

Erudite, eloquent and effortlessly debonair, Alex Ghotbi is a true professional within the industry who rightly possesses an extraordinary passion for fine timepieces. Though gently spoken, he exudes a remarkable sense of composed confidence – his thorough expertise of the watch world means that when he speaks, people listen.

Amidst the ringing telephones of Phillips staff, the flurry of prospective bidders browsing the evening’s lots, and the floating figure of esteemed auctioneer Aurel Bacs dashing between clients, we managed to find a quiet moment to chat. Two espressos were placed in front of us, and so we began.

Alex thank you so much for taking the time to talk today. Bringing things back, can you remember your first watch related memory?

Well my parents used to travel to Switzerland once in a while and as a gift they used to bring back watches – I don’t remember what sort of watches although they were probably cheaper ones… When I was twelve or thirteen the Swatch watch came out and I remember by parents buying me that first Swatch –  I thought it was the coolest watch in the world. All my buddies in school had Swatch watches too so we started trading! “Oh I like your strap it’s green” or “oh yours is red etc.” and so the trading would go on. As I grew up I became more and more interested in watches.

For my first job in law I didn’t go to the job that paid the most or was the most prestigious – I went to the one where the partner that interviewed me had the nicest watch! When I walked in to the first interview – I remember it very well – he was wearing a Breguet Tourbillon. The second interview he had on a Cartier Tank American – gorgeous. So even my legal career was somehow based on watches!

Was there a first watch which you were particularly proud to own yourself?

Interestingly, with my first pay-cheques from that job I bought two watches that really set my passion. I wanted a rose gold watch but I didn’t have the funds to buy a modern one, so I bought a vintage Vacheron Constantin – that started my love for vintage. My second (which I bought around the same time) was a time-only Daniel Roth when Roth was still at the helm of his own brand – that sparked my love for independent watchmaking. Unfortunately, both were sold long ago to fund other purchases, but they really formed my taste and appreciation for vintage and independent.

How did you make the jump from the law to the watch world?

To go back a bit, in 2001 I co-founded a website called The Purist. None of my friends were interested in watches so I had no one to talk with about my passion! If you wanted to link with other collectors all you had was a forum called timezone, so we decided to create our own. Eventually I set up a Vacheron forum, and when I was in contact with Vacheron for their 250thanniversary I started doing some consultancy work for them in online client marketing. Everyone is talking about online client marketing these days but back then the internet was seen by companies as just a black hole where people sold fakes. I suggested that we created a forum sponsored by the company and we called it The Hour Lounge.

At the time I was still a lawyer in Paris. When my company wanted me to go to New York to help set up the firm over there, Vacheron said “no please work for us”! It was a three second decision: I quit everything, moved the family to Geneva and joined Vacheron as the Social Media and Community Manager. I stayed there for almost 8 years and met a lot of great people and collectors. Three years ago I joined Phillips as Head of Sale here in Geneva.

Has the vintage market changed during your time at Phillips?

I’ve only been working in the auction business for those three years, but of course I’ve been following it for twenty or so. The market is always shifting: Rolex has become the undisputed king of vintage and although it used to be Patek for decades, Rolex is now very, very, very strong. There is one thing however that just does not change: the search for quality. Prices are exponentially higher for pieces of exceptional quality. People also want individuality – things that set them apart.

We are increasingly seeing a lot of younger clients – millennials even – which is why there is great interest in sports watches. The next trend we are seeing develop is an attraction towards independent watchmaking where here really is a rarity factor and not because of marketing, but because these independents have the capacity to produce only a few watches a year. There is also a story to it – almost everything produced now becomes obsolescent but these things are made to last. It is an amazing time to be in the auction world.

Is there anything that the watch market can learn from the art market?

People have been collecting art forever – think of all the great patrons throughout history – but collecting watches is relatively new and with wristwatches it’s only really for the past forty years. It is a very young object of collection.

Even though George Daniels did say that ‘in the hands of an artisan a watch becomes a work of art’, it is difficult to compare art with watches. An artwork is systematically unique (well maybe not if you’re buying Koons or Hirst…) and so I think watches are craftsmanship, not art. Art brings an emotion and watches bring an emotion, but watches are also useful and mechanical and they tell the time – you can’t really walk around with your Basquiat under your arm.

Do you have any advice to a budding collector?

Have a few and buy what you like. Always, always, always buy what you like and don’t buy the hype. Even if that means you need to save for a few years, buy the watch you want and don’t buy something else because you will always regret it and will probably end up buying the other one in the future anyway. Buy quality and do your homework. Buy from a reputable source, because if you think you’re getting a good deal, you’re probably not. A fair deal exists, a good deal doesn’t.

Do you have a favourite watch in your collection?

Well, I would say my most important watch and the watch closest to my heart was the watch that belonged to my father: a Patek 3445 Calatrava automatic from the 1960’s in white gold. He wore it all his life and I received it when he passed away. It’s a watch that has huge sentimental value to me, and although I don’t wear it very often it is the one with the greatest meaning.

Tell me about what have on today?

So this is a De Bethune Starry Varius – I read somewhere that it is ‘the greatest brand you have never heard of.’ I think De Bethune is truly one of the greatest modern independent watchmakers because they have a kind of scientific approach to watchmaking and their head watchmaker Denis Flageollet is a genius. He is designing 21stcentury movements – when you see a lot of funky case designs they’re often still using typical 18thcentury technology, but here we have 21stcentury technical architecture and it’s really forward thinking. If Breguet were still alive, he would be doing De Bethune today.

If I may, let’s try to build an idea of your perfect watch with a few quick questions – answer whatever first comes to mind.

Movement: manual or automatic?


Metal: Precious or steel?


Dial: light or dark?

Ha! Depends… dark.

Strap: Leather of bracelet?




Style: Vintage or contemporary?

Ah! Vintage… and independent.

Alex Ghotbi, thank you very much.

Tags: interview philipps watches

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