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BW Businessworld

Timed To Be Perfect

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I learned about high-end wristwatches before I was able to afford one. The experience was both frustrating and exciting. On the one hand, I was able to begin to list timepieces I would aspire to own in an ideal future. On the other, I was motivated to learn about how to put monetary value on timepieces and where to put my own money. The luxury world is populated by many beautiful items, but it requires expert knowledge to know what is worth your investment.

What Makes For A Luxury Watch?

Despite what many retailers would have you believe, a high price does not make a watch luxurious. Meaning, anyone can put precious stones on an item and mark up its price. Today, timepieces aren’t the necessary gadgets they once were when people didn’t have other options to tell the time. While it would be silly to suggest people don’t use their watches for their intended purposes, the majority of timepieces out there are worn for emotional rather than purely practical reasons.

There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, you will derive the greatest level of ownership satisfaction from wearing a timepiece that you feel a connection with, or something you’ve lusted over for years — a restored watch handed down to you by a relative. A luxury watch should be distinct in terms of how it is produced and what it is made from. Most watches we have today are mass produced in a short time. Good watches take time, and often require hours, even months, to produce. A. Lange & Sohne watches can take up to 14 months to create.

High-end timepieces are designed to spare little expense in their production. Movements and cases may contain exotic materials, and the best watch cases are individually milled in precision machines and polished by hand, such as those from brands like Patek Philippe and Piaget. A good watch case is made from solid metal (or another material) and can take up to a full day or more to cut and finish.

Luxury watch movements are completely mechanical. Tradition plays a large part in the luxury buying experience, and electronic quartz watches have no seat at the high table. Mechanical watches are little machines that apply historic mechanical watch design, often produced in today’s modern machines. Having said that, no luxury watch movement escapes the careful hands of a skilled watchmaker. Luxury watch movements are hand-assembled and tested and, in the best cases, are hand-decorated, such as those from Breguet or Bovet.
PERFECTION: Watches from Greubel Forsey are famous for their exquisite finish
Detail is really the true hallmark of luxury. Everything in a luxury watch should look and work perfectly. Materials should be attractive to the eye and to the touch, and everything produced in the miniature dimensions of a watch’s interior (such as the dial) need to be the epitome of precision. Among the best finished watches in the world are those from Greubel Forsey.

What Is Good Design?
The most popular luxury watches have ‘timeless’ design. They have endured the test of generations and still look good today — examples being the Rolex Submariner, Omega Speedmaster, Cartier Tank and Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. It is impossible to design ‘new’ timeless watches because they simply haven’t passed the test of whether they will look good 20 years from now. Timeless designs often appear simple at first sight, largely because they are subtle in appearance. Flamboyant watches with high prices often go out of style quickly, so simple designs that flatter your appearance tend to be best.

No watch can be considered to have good design if it is not legible. Many watchmakers today forget that timepieces are instruments for telling the time. Status items apart, watches are tools, and a tool must work, which is why so many classic sport collections are popular sellers today. Legible watches have hands that are of the right size, and high-contrast dials that allow you to see the hands and hour markers in different light conditions.

This is why diving and aviator-style watches are popular. It may seem trivial to bring this up, but it is surprising how many watchmakers get this wrong. No matter how beautiful or luxurious a watch may be, legibility should always be a prime consideration when it comes to purchase.

Do It Yourself
The most esteemed watchmakers today are those who produce as much of their own parts as possible, such as Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Zenith. This is important because the more components that are made in-house, the more the quality and design of the watches can be controlled. It is true that many watchmakers will charge a premium for movements they produce themselves. Having said that, it is often best to rely on the skills of those watchmakers who have been producing their own movements for at least a few decades.
It is appropriate to ask how much of a watch has been produced by the company whose name appears on the dial. The greater the proportion, the better the value of the watch. Even if the watch costs more out the outset, watches from ‘true’ manufacturers often fare better on the resale market. While brands like Omega and Breitling are quickly becoming esteemed movement makers, even those that do not produce their own movements, but make just the dials and cases, deserve respect. It is also often the case that the older a brand is, the more valuable it can be. Look for brands that have operated continuously for at least a few decades (or longer).

Most Valuable Watches
When you reach the absolute pinnacle of the luxury watch ladder you find a few common elements. One of the most important things is technique. The world’s most complicated watches have features that no one else can replicate. Those can be complications in the movements or particular aesthetic techniques such as hand-engraved art that only that brand can produce. When you pay for the highest level of luxury, you are also paying for exclusivity. Brands like Christophe Claret offer dazzling technical marvels, while few can reproduce the handiwork of independent watchmakers Urwerk or Thomas Prescher.

Many of the world’s best watches do not just have movements made in-house, but ones that are carefully made by hand such as those in a Philippe Dufour. This includes not just assembly of the movements, but also meticulous decoration of almost every part that goes into the movement — regardless of whether the wearer will ever see them. Hand-decoration can extend to artwork on the movement, as well as engravings on a dial or case.

Bespoke creations are also popular amongst the world’s most dedicated watch collectors. Top luxury watches are made to order, and often include unique designs, treatment, or other elements that make them unique to the owner. This often involves an intimate exchange between the watchmaker and client to ensure the piece is perfectly personalised. Every timepiece made by Grieb & Benzinger is unique, and companies such as Blancpain have an entire department dedicated to custom orders.

Many top luxury watches contain precious stones and materials. These materials may be expensive but aren’t difficult to acquire. Look for talent and skill in design versus a generous helping of diamonds when looking for the world’s best watches.

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 07-10-2013)