The man who loves watches


“An important man” is how I would describe Paolo Martel. Not so much for his looks as for what he says, even if indeed he appears to be exactly the urbane gentleman that he is, right at first glance and first meeting.

PHOTO shows from left Paolo Mortel, Vita Arenas and Jayson Ong.

Paolo backs up his talk with matching paraphernalia, making available for bidding to collectors and investors the finest watches and tasteful jewelry, one piece of the former expected to be had and smothered with the new owner’s devotion for a mere 10 million pesos.

When I first met Paolo at the Finale Auctions, he walked me through the glass cases containing the watches and jewelry I could only hope to stare at in all of my nine lifetimes, unless the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office miraculously intervened or Lance Gokongwei, well, recruited me as a spare, err, life buoy if not exactly his Wednesday night pillow.

These two sets of treasures — the watches and the jewelry — were Paolo’s contributions to the two-day auction that was to take place, one day for paintings — including those of the millennial artists whose grotesque and seemingly inane creations were even expected to fetch higher bids than the saner and more fathomable works of the 20th century masters — and the other, for these magnificent time pieces, earrings, necklaces and body ornaments that would make a rich ugly woman pretty in her own eyes and those of her own retinue of sycophants, but not turn a monkey into a human being no matter if she carried a Chanel Diamond Forever classic bag. I say all these with envy, of course.

Famous, I imagined immediately, for his expertise on the matter of watches, Paolo had his first look at beautiful time pieces when he was a child, his father having been in possession of a number of these rich men’s toys of utmost utility (where would we all be without the knowledge of time?). His dad was his first mentor.

“I liked what I saw,” he recalled to me. “I learned to like them.”

Paolo normally speaks rather fast, rattling off facts, figures and trivia that, one might suspect, he would forget if he said them slowly. But no, I didn’t think of him that way. This is one guy who knows whereof he speaks, no matter if you turned around the specs of each watch and dismantled its parts for Tessa Prieto Valdes and Kaye Tinga to put back together as in a jigsaw puzzle. (Lesson for social climbers: Drop the names of the moment even for the wrong reasons, just so your listeners would think you’re chummy with them and that you attended the latest charity shindig they organized for the Red Cross. But if you want to be more impressive, mention someone who’s connected to the subject being talked about, in this case, watches. Hence, drop Virgie Ramos, Jaime Zobel and Mikee Cojuangco. The more dated the reference, the more you are perceived as old rich.)

Going back to Paolo, I decided on the first day I met him that this is a genuinely charming and friendly guy whose brains harmonize with his clean and handsome looks. He speaks flawless English (the way royals make themselves clear although not as quick), one I could understand, even if I assumed he went to the best schools where he could have easily acquired a little wurz wurz here and there. (Strange that he didn’t seem to.)

I would buy anything he sells to me, I promised myself. If only I owned half of the Harrison Plaza, even foregoing everything inside the Central Bank across the street (and what’s been flown out of the country by certain people in cahoots with one another) and the zoo farther down the prowlers’ side streets.

Paolo, to car enthusiasts, is the guy who publishes C Magazine which, amazingly, is still around. It was this same young gentleman who started the first and only watch magazine in the Philippines called Calibre, which “is also still in existence today.”

Paolo himself, I wasn’t surprised to find out, has been collecting watches, but it was only recently that he turned into a purveyor (okay, the word also means supplier, seller, vendor, outlet and source) of watches.

“I opened a store with some partners in Peninsula Hotel,” he related to me. “It’s called Vintage Grail. I have two partners who are my old friends. That’s the retail arm. Some people like to go to a store where the price is fixed. This is the cost of the watch and one can haggle a bit. Or if I want to sell a watch, I consign it to you. This is my net price, that’s it.”

“But some people prefer the auction,” he nippily added.

He explained furthermore: “From a buyer’s point of view, sometimes, some things are very hard to find. At least as far as watches are concerned. In an auction, you find a lot of vintage.

Whether it’s jewelry or watches. Sometimes, too, you can buy at an exceptionally good price. The perception is if it is bought at the auction, it is expensive. But that’s not true all the time. You like something and it turns out there’s no other bidder, so you get it at the lowest rate.”

From a seller’s point of view, Paolo continued, “If I have one item, I’m going to put it in a huge marketplace where there is a potential for it to rise in price. The market dictates the price, and you open it to them. People bid for it, people compete for it, and ultimately the seller could walk out with the best possible deal.”

Auctions moreover allow sellers to put something on an even playing field.

“Instead of selling something among friends, which could be embarrassing when either party haggles, the market forces dictate. This happens because with the Internet, information is available globally. So people can compare, especially with watches. This Rolex or this Patek Philippe was sold at this price in that auction, so more or less they pace the pricing,” said Paolo.

Paolo started watch auctions in the Philippines as early as 2013.

WATCHES on display during the Finale Auctions.

“I think it’s good that we have more watch auctions now,” said Paolo, who shared that the best brands today in the Philippines and globally are Rolex and Patek Philippe.

Referring to the 62404 Paul Newman Rolex watch, he said it could easily fetch P12 million, “but in the world market it is worth USD400 to 500 thousands.” It is almost unbelievable that we have it in the Philippines, but Paolo easily found it because it came from his own friend, a collector.

“We also source and go out, so we know more or less who has watches,” said Paolo. “The collectors are constantly changing their pieces. They want to upgrade, or they get tired of certain pieces. Luckily they also get certain things from us.”

“We look at historically important pieces too,” he explained. “We also have pieces that are 40 or 50 thousand pesos.” That put a gleam in my eyes. Proust can dream, can’t he?

When Paolo said that there were three pieces in that particular auction that they were expecting to sell at over 10 million pesos, I shot back, ‘But what kind of person would buy that kind of watch?”
“We have a lot of low-key people who wear millions of dollars’ worth of watches,” he said, giving me that surprised look. (“Proust, where were you all these years?”)
“Nobody knows that they’re wearing a 300,000 dollar watch. It is so simple and so understated.

“Those are investments already, and with them, you will make money over time. You cannot lose especially if it is a nice Patek Philippe, especially if it’s a vintage, which is very rare.”

Proust, letting go of his pretensions to being in the know, just had to ask, “How did you learn about all these?”
His reply: “Reading, talking to collectors, researching, that is all I do every night. I do my sourcing every night. There are always new things at the internet. But you have to do your due diligence. I don’t rely on my opinion alone. I also work with other specialists in the Philippines quietly. There is one gentleman in the Philippines I consult with a lot. He’s like a walking encyclopedia. He is a collector. I met him a few years ago, and he has been supportive.”

In Hong Kong, too, he meets up with people who are knowledgeable. “I attend watch fairs, not only to learn, but also to source. I check out everything,” Paolo clarified.

“One should be able to assess the authenticity of the watch,” said Paolo. “Is it real or fake? You would know, but sometimes they are so good at faking you can’t tell. More important than that is the originality of the watch — the right dial (has it been retouched?), the right hand, the right caliber, is it the right bracelet for the watch? Has it been serviced by the proper authorized center? Sometimes, I have the movement checked. It’s the originality that counts in a watch. Once you start messing around with its parts, they call it Frankenstein. The value goes down. And then, also, if you look at the dial and it looks so old already, some collectors love that.”

Expectedly, all these words came tumbling out one after the other. From the mouth of experts, you would know because they don’t dilly dally with what they have to say. This Paolo’s for real, I told myself. His charisma comes from his sincerity and possession of knowledge. If he didn’t know what he was talking about, he would hesitate, like that politician of yore who touched his head and scratched it. You would know he was fibbing.

Surprisingly, Paolo, who is 37 years old, has clients who are 22 and 23 years old.

“They buy USD100,000 watches, wear them for two years and then unload them. In the process of trading, they make money, and then they upgrade,” he shared.

So, where do they get their money? Proust was imagining things. “They’re very entrepreneurial. I mean not a lot, but we have one or two,” said Paolo, who briefly shifted gears, as he called my attention to the beautiful and very well priced jewelry from Cartier, Graff, and all those big names. No, he said, they did not belong to his irrepressible grandmother, the legendary and fun Luz Puyat Martel. As an aside, we talked about her.

Of his grandmother Luz, Paolo said, “She really appreciated the finer things in life. She spoiled us but she made sure we didn’t take things for granted. She had old school values, and she was a very elegant lady. She was very frank and real. If she liked you, she liked you. She knew exactly how she wanted things done in her home and in her life.

LUZ Puyat Martel, grandmother of Paolo Martel.

“She loved her jewelry while my grandfather, Antonio, was extremely simple and didn’t indulge. He was focused on his business.” No, he would not go into details. But then, some things are better not said outside of the family and the circles it moves around in.

Going back to our topic, I asked him if there were buyers, and who were they?
He simply explained, “The economy is doing right, there is a lot of disposable income, and there are a lot of people looking for the finer things in life. Art, jewelry and watches have a direct correlation with the economy. When the markets are down the purchasing goes up. I carefully look at up to what point people are willing to pay for pieces. Three to five years ago, people paid only up to three million pesos. Today, people buy at five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 and more millions.”

It was all that I needed to hear. Abruptly, I had to take my leave. It was almost six in the evening. I needed to look for a lotto ticket outlet. It was around this time, if I recall right, that the prize had ballooned to one billion pesos plus. Imagine what Proust could bid for. Of course, he had to buy his ticket surreptitiously. He didn’t like bumping into the drivers and yayas of those he pretends and aspires to be friends with. Although he is aware that they’re buying tickets for their señoras, too.

Next week, Proust goes down the memory lane on one hand, and on the other, relates his brief yet delightful conversation with Dedes Zobel, EZ’s daughter, and the charming trustees of the Asian Cultural Council.