From the Warwickshire to the West End
Third-generation jeweller Charlie Pragnell talks to Timothy Barber about bringing fine watches and diamonds to Mayfair’s Mount Street, and why Patek Philippe and Rolex are hotter than ever
By Timothy Barber
September 24 2019
It is, as Charlie Pragnell points out, a remarkably good time to be selling fine watches. Brexit uncertainties have not dampened any eagerness among the wellheeled for Switzerland’s finest offerings, and indeed in certain quarters demand is soaring through the roof: particular Rolex and Patek Philippe models are so in-demand that lengthy waiting lists are now the norm. The grand Pragnell boutique on Mayfair’s Mount Street, a few doors along from the Connaught hotel, is the only private retailer in London to carry both of watchmaking’s most famous names.
“Those two brands are hotter than ever – demand is increasingly outstripping supply,” Charlie says. For those who wish to spend wisely, rather than merely whimsically, that’s a good thing. “People do see investment in watches, particularly Patek and Rolex, as a safe and enjoyable thing, just as with high quality diamonds. I think prices will inevitably appreciate, but it’s fundamentally because people love and value these things, and hold onto them.”
As the third Pragnell to run one of the country’s most revered jewellery and watch businesses, Charlie knows a thing or two about investing wisely. Pragnell’s was founded in Stratford-upon-Avon by his grandfather, George Pragnell, who in 1954 opened a jewellery shop in a Tudor cottage built by a carpenter friend of Shakespeare’s. The shop now sprawls into a further two neighbouring premises, while Pragnell’s kept acquiring other businesses and skills as it grew. These brought a showroom and workshops in Leicester, and a 150-year-old London heritage in the form of Philip Antrobus, the Bond Street jeweller responsible for the engagement ring given by Prince Philip to the then Princess Elizabeth, and a bracelet she wore for their wedding.
Royal connections (before opening his shop, George looked after Queen Mary’s jewels) and the ability to create bespoke, world-class jewellery, mean that Pragnell’s has never simply been one more stately, regional purveyor of finery. An eye for rare gems, often sourced from the family vaults of the British aristocracy, and long-established relationships with Swiss watchmaking’s most exalted marques, have brought a firmly international clientele.
Yet expansion from Warwickshire to Mayfair, with a sumptuous showroom on two floors, is still an ambitious move. It’s one that Charlie seems to have taken in his stride, however.
“We’ve always had a presence in London,” he says – as well as Antrobus, there were by-appointment offices in St James’s and on Berkeley Square. “But this has taken it to the next level. We’ve got Patek and Rolex under one roof, alongside six- and seven-figure rare jewels, including antique and bespoke pieces. That combination is very unusual at this level worldwide.”
While the grand paintings, Deco chandelier and antique jewellery provide a lavish milieu on the ground floor, it’s in the VIP zone below that things really get interesting. It’s here, amid hand-painted floral wallpaper in vibrant green (a reference to the theatrical convention of the ‘green room’, supposedly a Stratford invention), that clients can decide on those once-in-a-lifetime purchases in privacy. If they need a pick-me-up to help things along, there’s even a bar tucked behind a secret door.
for people, and we want it to be memorable,” Charlie says. “These are things you’re keeping for life, and that you may be passing onwards as well.
The experience is everything.”Pragnell’s is one of very few retailers to have had a special edition of watches made for it by Patek Philippe: a black dial version of the yellow gold minute repeater, Ref 5079J. It became an instant collector classic, and one example set an auction record for the reference, of over £330,000.
So which of this year’s watches take Charlie’s fancy? “Patek Philippe’s new 5172G chronograph has a really sophisticated retro-chic style, and the case design and hand finishing are sublime,” he says. “From Rolex, the new white gold Yachtmaster is the epitome of understated, state-of-the-art contemporary watchmaking.”
Is he worried that the digital world and the rise of smartwatches will ultimately impinge on the desirability of fine watches? Not a bit of it.
“The passion and knowledge for watches is getting stronger, and in the UK there’s a great affinity for it. It goes back to us being the country of engineering, of industrial revolution,” he says. “The market keeps growing, and we’re proud to deal with the brands at the pinnacle of desirability.”