Do You Have the Time?
The luxury watch industry is a curious creature. In Switzerland, home to almost every high-end brand that matters, it was worth over £14 billion to the national economy in 2013 alone. That’s despite the fact that anyone who can afford one likely has a much more accurate timekeeper in their pocket – which can also send emails.
Even though the manufacturers that populate Lake Geneva make claims about the mechanical accuracy of their products, a luxury watch is not about telling the time. At least, not primarily. Because unlike anything else that proclaims its technical innovations so proudly, watchmaking is one of the few industries in which the more advanced the product is, the less it costs.
A Brief History Of Watchmaking
When cogs and gears surpassed water as a time tracker in the 14th century, clockmakers focussed on making mechanics more accurate. For 700 years, coils and springs were bent into ever more ingenious arrangements to stay precise in increasingly hostile environments – from ocean beds to the surface of the moon.
Then, in the 1920s, came a new way of telling the time. Instead of tightly wound springs, the oscillation of quartz crystals was translated into a mechanism that ticked infinitely more reliably than metal ever could.
Fifty years later, this technology found its way from wall-hanging clocks to wrists, and Switzerland’s watchmaking industry, being slow to adapt, was decimated. In the 1980s, the Quartz Crisis destroyed more than two thirds of Swiss watch jobs as consumers embraced the chance to get greater accuracy for less outlay.
It took the rise of Swatch to save the industry by buying up struggling companies with centuries of history – think Omega, Longines and Breguet – and repositioning them as luxury brands. In doing so, Swatch turned the mechanical wristwatch into a status symbol.
Today, mechanical watches exist in a state of arrested development, where technical advances that mean more accuracy, functions or resilience are applauded as though the Quartz Crisis never happened. Like classic sports cars, mechanical watches are works of technical wonder that appeal to men who value complicated craft over ease, and who recognise the appeal of tradition, even if it comes with an anachronistically high price tag.
Which Type Is Right for Me?
This really depends on why you want a watch in the first place. If you don’t have a fascination with timekeeping – nor at least a grand going spare – then a mechanical watch probably isn’t for you. The expertise required for building mechanical styles means they’re far more expensive and often demand more care than their quartz cousins.
To put things into perspective: an Omega Speedmaster will put a £4,100 hole in your pocket and keep worse time than a £20 Casio. So, if all you need is something to measure your rest periods in the gym or get you to work on time, look to Japan, not Switzerland.
An Omega Speedmaster looks beautiful, but actually keeps worse time than a £20 Casio
Not that more zeros always reflect higher quality. “Some of the big brands spend a lot of money on celebrity endorsements, expensive showrooms and huge advertising campaigns,” says Alan Moore, founder of watches brand Twisted Time. “These overheads are reflected in the retail price, so don’t be afraid of lesser known brands.”
For instance, swapping the historic prestige of Rolex for its recently relaunched baby brother brand, Tudor, gets you an almost as mechanically impressive timepiece for a third of the price.
Swap Rolex for Tudor and you get an almost as mechanically impressive timepiece for a third of the price
If you’re looking to mark a milestone or buying as an investment – and provided you’ve got the budget – one of the famous marques could be a better bet. Quartz watches are plentiful and so don’t tend to hold their value. But buy a brand like Rolex or Patek Philippe and, should you ever fancy a change, you’re almost guaranteed to get at least your original spend back.
For all their outdated technology, with the proper care a mechanical watch could well outlast you. There’s more than a grain of truth in Patek’s slogan that you’re only looking after your watch for the next generation.
With proper care a mechanical watch could well outlast you, making it a true investment piece
Watch functions fall into two distinct categories: things that are useful – stopwatch, date, alarm – and things that only really display the talent of the watchmaker, such as moon phases and chiming out quarter hours in the style of Big Ben, à la the $7.75m Patek Philippe Star Caliber 2000.
What’s key is finding a watch that matches your lifestyle. “Do you need an annual calendar or stopwatch?” says Ian Latham, UK country manager for Bering watches. “Make a list of what you use a watch for, if it’s not just to tell the time.”
Remember that certain functions have applications beyond what was originally envisioned – for example, the rotating bezel on diving watches is meant to keep track of when you’re running out of oxygen, but it will probably get more use making sure your pasta is perfectly al dente.
It’s not just the bells and whistles that should be your focus. “Attention to detail is key,” says Moore. “If the small details like the crown, buckle and caseback have been taken care of, then you can rest assured that the important things haven’t been overlooked.”
The crown and caseback are often a good indicator of quality and show attention to detail
Just as vital is buying something that complements how you dress. “Choose a style that matches the clothes and accessories you wear,” says Terry Markham, buyer and online merchandiser at WatchShop.com.
If tailoring rules your wardrobe, then a chunky chronograph (a watch with an independent timer) might not look as good as a slimline dress watch. Equally, if you’re more a denim and biker jackets kind of guy, go for something that looks like it could stand up to some abuse.
It’s important to choose a watch style that complements the way you dress
If you’re prone to rings and bracelets, make sure the metals match. A gold watch next to silver jewellery looks just as out of place as brown shoes worn with a black belt. And if you’ve got a leather strap, make sure it’s also in a shade that complements your footwear.
Not that you should let the strap steer your buying choices. “They can be switched easily and inexpensively at any time,” says Moore. More important is the case style’s longevity. “If you’re planning on still wearing the watch in five years’ time, go for classic styles and neutral colours. You don’t want to get sick of it after six months.”
Yet whether you’re investing in a timeless design or picking up something more fashion-led, it’s wise to hold some of your budget back for at least one cheaper model in a different style to ensure you’ve got something that suits every occasion. And because you probably don’t want to wear your new multi-thousand pound purchase when you’re cutting back the garden.
Over the last few years, watches have grown ever larger. Perhaps as befits their status as symbols of success, men seemed to think that sporting a watch that obscured their entire wrist made a louder statement than something subtler. But as you know, fit is everything. The same rule applies to your watch as your blazers.
“Chunkier dials and cases look better on men with a thicker wrist,” says Markham. So if you’ve been hitting the gym a lot, don’t be shy of considering a style approaching 45mm. As a rule of thumb, a watch fits when the lugs (the arms that extend to hold the strap) hit the edges of your wrist and the case doesn’t dig into either the back of your hand or your wrist bones.
Case diameter and bezel width should be in proportion to your wrist sizeWatch: Linde Werdelin Oktopus Rose Gold
If you’ve got a thin wrist, try a slimmer bezel. “It gives the illusion of a larger face without sizing up the case width too much,” adds Markham. Don’t think that buying a bigger watch inherently looks more masculine; if it’s flapping off your arm, it makes you look ridiculous and your wrists even thinner.
Perhaps the reason for the watch’s enduring popularity as a fashion item, despite its lack of practicality (in comparison to something like a smartphone), is that it’s the one piece of jewellery men can splurge on without feeling self-conscious. Sport a diamond ring and you’re going to get looks. But strap on a Zenith El Primero and not only does it mark you out as a man of discerning taste, it’s also a subtler way of displaying that you’ve got deep enough pockets to afford it.
Fundamental, though, is getting something that works for you. The right case to match your wardrobe and lifestyle, a strap that speaks to your personality, even a dial that injects a subtle flash of colour into a staid office uniform, will show that you’ve considered your purchase rather than simply plumped for the most recognisable brand name you could afford.
What are your main considerations when shopping for watches, and is it still worth investing in craftsmanship when your phone does the job better? How many watches should be in a collection?
Do you prefer something that looks like you could use it to actually land a plane, or a watch with a dial stamped with just the makers name?
Let us know in the comments section below.