7 minutes

The 5 Top-Performing Watches of the Past 3 Years

By Troy Barmore

Watch collecting as we know it today is generally agreed to have begun in Italy in the 1980s. Something those early collectors knew that everyone else couldn’t yet see was that mechanical timepieces have intrinsic desirability that elevates them above mere jewelry. A watch collection can be more than just a handful of watches that one owns – it can be an intentional, curated portfolio. With this perspective in mind, watch collecting has become an alternative asset class for investors, not unlike wine or fine art.

In recent years, however, this investment-centric focus has come to equal, if not eclipse, the passion for watches themselves, with each subsequent auction surpassing the last in terms of eye-catching, breathtaking, and mind-boggling prices. There are undoubtedly a handful of specific timepieces that have led the charge. As those few rare watches and companies continue to skyrocket into the financial stratosphere, the average watch enthusiast and collector has been left looking around wondering which watch could be next?

As in all things (but especially in speculative matters), perspective is key. Data is crucial to understanding trends in an emotionally-charged environment like the watch market. As the largest online marketplace for watches, Chrono24 has a unique capacity to look at such things via its internal pricing index. So, we thought we’d take a look back over the past three years to see exactly which timepieces have grown significantly – not merely by dollar amount but by relative value. After all, if we are to have a hope of understanding where we’re headed, we must first make sure we understand where we’ve been.

1. Patek Philippe Nautilus

The Patek Philippe Nautilus

In a turn of events that will surprise absolutely no one who pays even the slightest bit of attention to the watch market, one of the timepieces that has appreciated the most in value over the past three years is the Patek Philippe Nautilus, with prices increasing by approximately 96%. There’s a certain poetry to the fact that the Patek Philippe Nautilus, in virtually all of its various references and incarnations, has been such a disruptive and seismic force in the watch world as of late. You see, in a way, the Patek Philippe Nautilus has been a troublemaker since it first arrived on the market in 1976.

Fresh on the heels of his unprecedented success at Audemars Piguet, Gérald Genta was tasked by Patek Philippe to essentially catch lightning in a bottle a second time. By this point, the entire watch industry saw exactly what a luxury steel sports watch could do on the market, and everyone wanted a piece of the action. While not a direct copy of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, the Nautilus shows certain key similarities in its overall design language, with the porthole being the core aesthetic inspiration (evidently, Genta really liked looking out of boat windows). Fast forward to today, and the Patek Philippe Nautilus, specifically the ref. 5711, has arguably become the most sought-after modern timepiece. Of course, when Patek Philippe announced that they would be discontinuing the nautically-themed watch in early 2021, that only poured fuel on the fire.

2. Patek Philippe Aquanaut

The Patek Philippe Aquanaut

Yet another luxury steel sports watch, also from Patek Philippe, has made the list of the fastest-growing timepieces by value. While the Patek Philippe Aquanaut has been among the top-performing watches over the past year, it has appreciated by an incredible 153% in the last three years. While the Nautilus has historically been in the spotlight when it comes to Patek sports watches, the Aquanaut is not without its fanbase. Despite primarily being sold on a distinct rubber strap, it still shares a sporty, contemporary aesthetic with the Nautilus, as though one grew from the other. That is to say, while the Aquanaut has its own appeal and can certainly stand on its own stylistic two feet, its rise in popularity and value has not occurred in a vacuum. 

In all likelihood, the model’s popularity is not due to just one thing in particular but rather a confluence of factors. Undoubtedly, the success of one influences the desirability of the other. Can’t find a Nautilus? Why not take a look at Patek’s other steel sports watch, the Aquanaut? Still, want the integrated bracelet and retro 70’s vibe? Maybe pick up Genta’s other seminal design! Already own a Royal Oak? Snag Patek’s answer and collect the whole set! On and on we go in a financial feedback loop, with one fire stoking the other. These are watershed watches that continually contribute to the popularity of one another. How long will this trend continue? Well, if you’ll pardon the pun, only time will tell.

3. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

If the first two timepieces weren’t a shock, then it is very likely that this one won’t be either. The whole category of steel sports watches has been on fire over the past three years, with each subsequent year seemingly outpacing the last. Indeed, while the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was one of the fastest-appreciating watches of 2021, the same trend has been consistent over the past three years as well, with the model increasing in value by approximately 145% in that time. As these integrated bracelet behemoths have seen meteoric rises in both value and popularity, availability has dropped in kind, which makes perfect sense. 

However, the more interesting question to ask is, what about the Patek Philippe Nautilus and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak specifically has made them so voraciously sought-after? On paper, neither the Royal Oak nor the Nautilus is exceptional compared to the catalogs of their respective manufacturers. Both feature relatively simple, albeit pleasantly decorated, automatic movements in steel cases. The overall finishing is in keeping with the expectations of their station, but there is nothing groundbreaking here. So what gives? Yes, the Royal Oak was the first. It was not merely the trendsetter; it blew up the trends of its day! But why the more recent explosion in desirability? Again, perspective is key. Therefore, perhaps the answer lies in the increased value of yet another luxury steel timepiece?

4. Cartier Trinity

The Cartier Trinity: a quartz watch with rising prices.

Cartier is arguably one of the most enigmatic watch brands out there today. It is a company that has some serious history behind it, having created some of the most iconic watches in history, such as the Cartier Tank. What’s more, they even produced the first dedicated men’s wristwatch (and technically the world’s first pilot’s watch) with the Cartier Santos. But with all of this fascinating history and world-class pedigree, one would expect their timepieces to be among those fetching record-breaking prices at auction. The truth is until very recently, most of their watches went largely unloved or under-appreciated on the vintage and secondary market. 

You see, the amount of focus Cartier puts on their watchmaking department has ebbed and flowed over the decades. According to some, many of those years were spent (or misspent) on less horologically serious timepieces. Despite that, folks are coming around to the fact that Cartier has consistently made some very compelling watches. After all, the numbers don’t lie: The Cartier Trinity, though likely not the first watch one thinks of in connection with the Parisian jewelry house, has gone up in value by approximately 86% over the past three years. Does that mean all readers should rush out and buy a Cartier Trinity? Well, no, not unless you like the watch. But what it should communicate is that there are a host of incredibly compelling, up-and-coming timepieces in the Cartier catalog that remain surprisingly affordable… for now.

5. Seiko Spirit

Seiko Spirit

Seiko is – not unlike Cartier – one of the most under-appreciated yet widely-known watchmakers in the world. Just about everyone on Earth knows what a Seiko watch is: an inexpensive, accessible, and all-around reasonable watch from Japan. However, what most people don’t know is that this description barely scratches the surface of Seiko’s importance in the watch world. In fact, Seiko has both created some of the most innovative mechanical timepieces in history (like the Seiko 6139, arguably the first integrated automatic chronograph movement in history) and brought the entire watchmaking world to its knees with the advent of the battery-powered quartz movement.

While quartz watches certainly have not risen to the level of desirability that mechanical watches have (yet), certain Seiko timepieces have begun to really pop. One such example is the Seiko Spirit, a classic, understated, do anything/go anywhere watch, which has risen in value by approximately 100% over the past three years. Now, the “Spirit” moniker has been used to denote a few different series of watches over the years, but the SARB series has become a cult favorite among both Seiko fanatics and watch collectors in general. The SARB033, for example, is a timepiece that often comes up in the same discussions as the Rolex Explorer I. Ever since its discontinuation in 2018, the SARB series has been creeping up slowly but consistently in value.

But what about Rolex?

While the aforementioned Rolex, or indeed many Rolex watches, have been some of the most headline-grabbing of the past few years, the observant reader will notice that they are conspicuously absent from this list. While it is difficult to point to one specific reason why this may be the case, there seems to be a general sense among the collector community expressed at watch meet-ups and on forums that value in Rolex seems to be harder and harder to find on the secondary market. As such, collectors have begun looking further afield for watches that may have slid under the radar. To that end, whether for speculative reasons or for the pure passion of collecting, there is perhaps no better single brand to explore than Seiko.

About the Author

Troy Barmore

I have been a watch enthusiast from a young age. My obsession began when I took a summer job for the sole purpose of buying my older brother’s Girard-Perregaux chronograph. My tastes have since expanded to include vintage tool watches and modern independent brands.

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