Hello there, and welcome to the WristWatching guide to luxury watches. The world of luxury watches can be a difficult one for beginners to navigate. Brands like Rolex and Omega have achieved levels of recognition that make them synonymous with luxury watches, but the story doesn’t end there.
By far, the most common perception of luxury watches it that they’re expensive. And that’s true, in general, they cost a lot more than their department store jewelry section counterparts. The main differentiating factor between luxury vs consumer or fashion watches is time and craftsmanship. Really nice timepieces take a long time to create. The bottom end of the market, say up to about $5,000, might take a day or two to assemble, with heavy assistance from mechanized, automated processes. Once you start advancing into the handmade, artisanal quality timepieces you’re looking at several days to weeks, or possibly even months to produce a single watch.
A lot rides on a particular companies reputation. In the collectors market, Rolex has a reputation of being overpriced and consumer focused. More of a fashion statement than investment grade, for example. Now, this is certainly not to say that Rolex’s are overpriced, or not worthy of owning – they make a very very nice, respectable timepiece, but with certain popularity and recognition comes derision.
Any fine timepiece will be noted for its accuracy. When we talk about accuracy within watches, we normally put things in terms of a percentage or in the format of -x/+x (i.e. -4 seconds / + 4 seconds). While .1% might seem small, if a watch were only 99.9% accurate it would be off by 1 minute and 27 seconds every day. Chronometer certified watches must be accurate within -4/+6 seconds per day on average between all positions.
Here is a quick table showing various accuracy ranges within COSC certified chronometers and their perceived grade.
|Standard||– 4 seconds / + 6 seconds||99.994% accurate|
|Typical||– 3 seconds / + 3 seconds||99.996% accurate|
|Excellent||– 1 seconds / + 1 seconds||99.998% accurate|
Another factor is build components and materials. Precious metals can exponentially increase the asking price of a watch. For example, a pre-owned Gold Rolex might start around $10,000, whereas a stainless steel variant might be available on the market for as little as $2,500 or so. Same watch, same movement, different materials.
Complications are another factor of price. If the watch has a chronograph or day/date displays, alarms, or self winding mechanisms, this increases the complexity and price of the piece.
Like any rare, handmade artisanal product, there exists a strong aftermarket rife with speculation and investment interest. Some brands produce so few watches that many are purchased for investment, to be resold at a later date. Limited availability of expert watchmakers and very long build times lead to reduced output – some companies simply can’t produce more than a handful of watches per year. This extreme attention to detail and rarity can lead to serious demand within the timepiece collecting community.
So in a nutshell, timepieces are valued for many different reasons, a few of which are: reputation, rarity, time to build and materials.
A watch is made up of many hundreds of individual components. Below, we’ll go over a few of the most common pieces that are included in buying and evaluation decisions.
Fairly self explanatory – this is the band that attaches the watch to your wrist. Leather and stainless steel or other metal are the most common types of bands.
The ring that surrounds the dial (face) of the watch. Some are able to rotate in order to keep track of elapsed time or other metrics.
This is the metal and glass / crystal housing that contains all of the parts of the watch. The ‘watch’ itself.
The crown is the outside wheel that is used to wind the watch or adjust the time.
The crystal is the front ‘screen’ of the watch. Normally made from glass, acrylic or sapphire. You want to evaluate based on scratch-ability, durability and look. See here for a full discussion of watch crystals.
Rubies or synthetic gemestones that act to reduce friction to allow the watch movement to well, move.
Not technically a single part, but rather the core ‘guts’ of the watch. This is a major buying component. The three main classes of movement are mechanical, automatic and quartz.
While Rolex holds the top slot in name recognition, and is the go to for many gifts and windfall purchases, there are many super high quality brands renowned for their craftsmanship. Here are a few of our favorites:
Very high end, based in Glashütte, Germany since the mid-19th century. The company was notably shut down by the Soviet government after World War II, but was reopened in the 1990s.
Founded in Paris, France by Louis-Francois Cartier. Has been creating mid-range -> high range luxury timepieces since 1847.
Highly innovative Swiss watchmaker. One of the oldest currently producing watches (dating back to 1791).
Founded in Switzerland by an American businessman in the 19th century. One of the quintessential Swiss watches.
Famously known as the Watchmakers watchmaker, Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of the leading Swiss watchmakers. Dates back to the early 19th century.
Founded in 1906 in Hamburg, Germany, by a pen company. Known for a very low service-turnover and very good quality, this continues to be a popular brand for entry-level to mid-level luxury watches.
Second only to Rolex in name recognition. The preferred watch of James Bond. Very popular, great quality for the mid-range.
Founded around the beginning of the 20th century, Rolex doesn’t need much of an introduction. The most popular Swiss watch maker on the planet (also the most popular counterfeits – learn how to spot a fake rolex instantly).
Many high end luxury watches can be broken into style categories. It’s not an exact science, every watchmaker has their own flourishes and details that set their timepieces apart, but many of the hallmarks of each style are present in their offerings. In many cases, the styles were originally created for specific uses: nautical, sports, fashion, etc.
The Rolex Submariner (pictured above) is probably the most prominent of dive watches. The hallmark here is water resistance (obviously) and some may have built in chronographs or illuminated faces and other diver friendly complications.
Another popular configuration is watches made for pilots or featuring aeronautical themes that resemble the cockpit. Above is an IWC Pilot’s Watch Saint Exupery 2012.
These watches are commonly amongst the most expensive watches in the world. Some may have complications, rare and precious metals or gems and elegant designs. Often found with few, or very very complex complications, so as to not sacrifice elegance or formality. Above is the Patek Philippe Calatrava 5227.
The first major class of watch movements is the mechanical movement. Mechanical movements can be broken up into two major classes: manual and automatic. Many watch aficionados hold mechanical movements as the true pinnacle of watchmaking craftsmanship. These watches have incredibly intricate internals. They are notably less accurate than even a cheap quartz movement, but are unrivaled in terms of style and substance.
The upper echelon of mechanical movements may feature a tourbillon, to counter the effects of gravity on the escapement as the movement progresses. Presence of a tourbillon should enhance the accuracy of the timepiece.
Essentially, a mechanical watch that needs be wound. The winding is done by twisting / turning the crown, and most owners will adjust time once per day and wind, though a full wind will often last 48 or more hours.
Very similar to the manual movement above, the distinct difference for automatic movement timepieces is that they do not require manual winding. Instead, they can be powered by tiny movements in the wearers wrist or kinetic energy.
The second major class of watch movements is Quartz. Essentially a watch with a battery. Notably less complex, and comprised of far fewer moving pieces, these watches have a replaceable battery. They are notably more accurate than even COSC certified chronometers.
There are 2 general types of quartz movements, distinguished by power source: Battery powered and solar powered.
Contrary to popular belief, the presence of a battery doesn’t itself indicate an inferior timepiece. Seiko in particular makes some really beautiful and elegant entry-level luxury quartz timepieces, and some of the high quartz movements make simply incredible timepieces that can easily rival the best mechanicals.
If you’re interested in learning more about the three types of movements, please see All About the Different Types of Watch Movements.