And in 2006, Mr. Scheufele opened the L.U.CEUM, a museum whose name plays on the initials of the company founder, Louis-Ulysse Chopard, and the Latin word lyceum, a place of learning. The center, at the Chopard factory in Fleurier, Switzerland, is open by appointment only. It showcases Mr. Scheufele’s own collection of timepieces dating as far back as the Renaissance and as recently as Chopard’s current L.U.C collection.
“It puts us into the context of history and shows we continue in the tradition of watchmaking,” Mr. Scheufele said. “And underlines that we are all about movement manufacturing, so it helps Chopard be recognized as a serious watchmaking brand.”
It works for sales, too, he said, although he declined to be specific. “Almost every visit — maybe six months later or maybe immediately — have resulted in sales, including sales that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
While most brand museums are free or restricted to V.I.P. clients, the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva charges 10 Swiss francs ($9.90) for anyone older than 18 to see its collection of timepieces from the 16th century as well as watches made by the company since its founding in 1839. The museum drew 45,026 visitors in 2016, and Thierry Stern, Patek Philippe’s president, said in an email that the fees help cover maintenance costs.
Even relatively new brands are tapping into the resource. Nick English, co-founder of Bremont, the 15-year-old British watchmaking company, said the company plans to open its archive at its Henley-on-Thames headquarters next year so “collectors can see the money and effort we’ve spent on our products.”
Breguet has three in-store museums, in Paris, Zurich and Shanghai. It’s an invaluable opportunity to bring in “top-level people” and prospective new clients, said Emmanuel Breguet, the company’s head of patrimony and seventh-generation descendant of its founder, Abraham-Louis Breguet. “We show new watches with the watches of the past in the hope of selling more.
“It’s an opportunity to have a discussion that is more than a business or sales discussion, which is special to clients,” he said. “They feel that they are in a club, which makes them more loyal.” He also noted that books are good supplements for such displays as “it is easier to buy a book than a watch.”
The Shanghai boutique’s display features timepieces, antique watchmakers’ tools and reproductions of some company documents. “The store’s in front of the Langham hotel,” Mr. Breguet said, “so the museum attracts clients from this hotel and others, and brings in the Chinese who are traveling inside China, as we are the only watch brand with a museum in the city.”
In China, which top-end watch companies have eyed eagerly in recent years despite the sales deterrent of Beijing’s crackdown on gifting, several brands have made a special effort to promote their archives and have found receptive audiences. As Mr. Bonay of Jaeger-LeCoultre said: “Western Europe has grown up around watches, but there are many markets around the world like Asia, certain parts of Latin America and the Middle East where high watchmaking is new, so the need for educating people through our archives is enormous.”
At Omega, for example, its two-year-old Planet Omega exhibition will visit nine Chinese cities this year, including Ningbo, a port south of Shanghai with about eight million residents in its region; Tianjin, a northeastern port of more than 15 million, and Shanghai, with more than 25 million.
“Exhibitions bring attention to us,” said Raynald Aeschlimann, president and chief executive of Omega. It has mounted traveling shows of pieces from its archive of more than 7,000 watches for the last 10 years.
They are always installed in places with lots of traffic, he said. “We hold them close to our stores and to the stores of our partners because they bring people in,” Mr. Aeschlimann said, “because one day, maybe a month later or 10 years later, one of these people will buy one of our products, so it creates an opportunity of knowing us better.”
Cartier has what it considers a cost-effective way to maximize use of its 500-piece heritage watch collection, usually kept in a Geneva vault. Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s head of image, style and heritage, said the company makes pieces available to cultural institutions — “and they pay for everything.”
Case in point: The Design Museum in London, which opened in a new Kensington location in November, wanted to display some Cartier watches on a permanent basis, Mr. Rainero said. Instead, the house worked with the museum to create an exhibition showcasing the brand’s association with travel, scheduled from May 25 to July 23.
Panerai’s chief executive, Angelo Bonati, has been expanding the company’s archive since he joined the company in 1997 shortly after its purchase by Richemont, then called the Vendôme Group. What had been a timepiece supplier to the Italian Navy is now a fine watchmaker, with a 100-object archive, but Mr. Bonati prefers to exhibit it only every four to five years. “If we regularly show the archive, people will lose interest,” he said.
Lucia Boscaini, heritage director of Bulgari, which has been expanding its watch archive since 2011, echoed the sentiment that lending watches to museums can produce business.
She cited the company’s loan of some 1950s and 1960s ladies’ watches for the “Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion” exhibition last year at the NSU Art Museum, part of Nova Southeastern University in Florida. The event “brought in an art and fashion crowd to see our pieces who we wouldn’t attract alone,” she said, adding that sales of the B.zero1 collection at the nearby Bulgari store were likely related.
As brands recognize the financial benefits of their archives, some have begun to spend significant amounts on expansion.
Blancpain, for example, placed the high bid of $225,000 to buy back its Art Deco-style diamond and platinum watch once owned by Marilyn Monroe during a sale of her possessions last November by Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles. The timepiece had been expected to sell for $80,000 to $120,000.
And Tiffany & Co. paid $40,000 in September during an online Christie’s auction to secure its yellow gold and diamond wristwatch owned by Nancy Reagan. The sale price had been expected to be $2,000.
In February 2016 at the French auction house Artcurial, Breguet bought one of nine 1930s dashboard chronographs it had made for Ettore Bugatti, a sale that led to a joint client event with Bugatti in July in Japan. “Some invitees were car fans but not fans of Breguet,” Mr. Breguet said, “so this acquisition really opened up the car market for us.”
Buying back watches can lead to new sales, too, as dormant relationships are reactivated and people who sell vintage watches buy a new one, Ms. Boscaini of Bulgari said. And new client services sometime result. For example, Vacheron Constantin now finds and restores historical pieces for clients for a premium fee and mounted a touring show of some of these pieces last year.
More watch collectors with more knowledge has meant increased competition and higher prices for brands buying back their watches — although the internet also has helped.
“Collectors see we have a museum and contact me directly, who would never have come to us otherwise,” said Willy Schweizer, Girard-Perregaux’s curator. He has expanded the company archive from a suitcase full of random watches in 1984 to a collection that includes 350 timepieces, 100 related machines and the original gold medal document presented to its Esmeralda pocket watch at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, the world’s fair in Paris. The company is opening a display space later this year in the JeanRichard Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.
Buyback strategies differ by brand. Omega looks for rare and exclusive models, while Girard-Perregaux goes for unusual designs. Cartier adds to its archive when “we find an earlier model,” Mr. Rainero said, while Breguet searches for special examples from its collections, inventions and any watch initially sold to a celebrity. That way, Mr. Breguet said, “there is something that fascinates any client around the world.”