Inside Bonhams
One to watch

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 80

There's no time like the present for our new head of department. Ruth Fletcher meets Jonathan Darracott

Bonhams' newly appointed Head of Watches, Jonathan Darracott, has been in on the ground floor of some of the most prestigious and interesting sales of recent years. One source of particular pride for him was the sale of the 'Graves' watch in 1999, named after Henry Graves, the wealthy American who commissioned it. "It was the most complicated Patek Philippe had ever made and was later included in the sale of an American collector called Seth Atwood, who bought only premium pieces," says Darracott. "Everyone in the trade scoffed at Atwood because of the ridiculous prices he paid, but he got the last laugh when the Graves watch fetched $11m. To be involved in that sale was extraordinary – all the pieces were of the best quality and the whole collection made $36m."

Another highlight was the very first sale of a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar stainless steel watch in the late 1990s. "No one had seen one before," he recalls. "They didn't really know they existed. We were a little unsure about where to go with it, but in the end it made £570,000, which was a huge amount in those days. Stainless steel watches have made more since then of course, but they have entered that mystical territory that only some watches inhabit."

Darracott comes to Bonhams full of ideas for the future – and about what it will hold. "Things are going to change quite radically over the next ten years as Apple-type watches arrive on the market. Suddenly brands that have held sway have the biggest brand in the world competing on their patch. But there will always be space for people who love prestigious mechanical watches. There is a huge global market and I intend to put Bonhams at the center of that."

Darracott is also one of the very few specialists who can actually build a watch himself, and he has carried this practical knowledge throughout his career. It all began at his mother's work bench. "My mother was a jeweler," he explains. "From an early age I would sit at her bench and play around with the materials. Very simple things at first, but soon I was making quite complicated pieces – a hinged bangle with a hidden clasp had my mother sitting up, I recall – and I realized this was something I was good at."

Next step was university in Surrey for a degree in design – and then the need to make a living. "I had made a speciality of silversmithing but it's a very limited market. I soon realized that I had to broaden my horizons and that's where watches came in." Jonathan was determined, however, not simply to buy the component parts and assemble them into watches, as so many others have done. He wanted to know – literally – what makes watches tick. A friend had heard that the legendary watch maker, the late George Daniels, was looking for an apprentice. With the brashness of youth, 23-year-old Jonathan rang the great man. It was the shortest conversation of his life. As he remembers, it went as follows:

"Hi, I hear you want an apprentice."
"Right, sorry I disturbed you."

Undeterred, Darracott wrote to Daniels who then replied more encouragingly, and several exchanges later Jonathan found himself not only with a friend for life, but a scholarship that Daniels had set up for him to study watchmaking in London's East End for two years. "George was a very particular person. I don't think I would have survived a month under his tutleage," he reflects.

A further six months at a prestigious Swiss school thanks to a grant from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, gave him invaluable insight into the techniques of the world's finest watchmakers. "I recognize how fortunate I have been," he says. "When I first moved into the auction trade I quickly realized how few people had any practical experience of watch building. I had been totally immersed in the process at a formative age and I know watches inside out." He was as young as eight when he took apart a broken alarm clock. "'I can see what's wrong,' I said to myself, 'there's a hair on it!' So I pulled it out and it was the balance spring. I'd ruined it for life." As a student he earned extra cash by working as a car mechanic, and has also rebuilt two motorbikes. "The first time you look at the parts for a chronograph is like when you take a bike apart and say 'What have I done? How am I ever going to put this back together?'"

Although mending watches is still a passion, it is the interaction with people and technology that Darracott finds fulfilling. "Bonhams is an auction house where connoisseurship is taken seriously. I know about watches – inside and out – and so I feel I am in the right place." Bonhams watch department couldn't be in a better pair of hands.

Ruth Fletcher is Bonhams Press Officer for Cars, Watches and Jewelry departments.

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