Watches: a buyer’s guide

Expert advice on picking out the perfect watch

Mechanical watches are remarkable things. An inanimate movement, made up of hundreds of parts, until the addition of a wheel and spring bursts it into tick-tocking life like the first beats of a heart. And unlike the inconsistency of the human heart, the moment that a watch begins to track time, without the use of a microchip, it will continue to do so in the same manner. This means that in the lexicon of watchmaking, you hear words such as perpetual calendar, or moonphase, where a watch is engineered in such a way that it can tell you what part of the cycle the moon is in and can have the foresight to take leap years into account. Can your iPhone or phone do this? Yes, of course, but if you also intend to pass your Apple produce on as a family heirloom then I can’t help you. Watches have the capacity to enhance your today as well as guarantee your next of kin something to remember you by, in full working order, and hopefully, having kept its value.

Buying a watch is, however, a bit of a labyrinth. Yet, as with my buyer’s guide to tailored suits, the process can be broken down and made manageable, so here goes…

A Rolex on display

High-end (£20,000 and above)

The high price point for these watches is eye-watering, but is representative of the work and the materials that have gone into it – and the scarcity of talent that can pull it off. Within this is the bulk of the haute-horlogerie watch brands. Haute-Horlogerie is loosely translated as ‘the high art of watchmaking’. People who buy these watches can be split into two categories, those who are attracted to the price tag and those who are attracted to what’s underneath the sapphire crystal dome, the ultimate expression of science and art. Many brands that feature in the mid-range list (to follow) will have also pieces that extend into these upper price echelons, and for several reasons.

Firstly, the use of metal, platinum, yellow, white and rose gold, diamond embellishments and enamel work on the dial will always push the price up. The other reason is the addition of complications. A complication is defined as an apparatus within the watch that adds a function other than telling the time. The aforementioned moonphase and perpetual calendar will count, and perhaps best exhibited by the impossibly beautiful creations of the high-priest of watchmaking Patek Philippe. As well as this there are minute repeaters (basically an alarm within the watch) and chronographs (stopwatch). The more complicated the more expensive. In 1934, King Farouk of Egypt was given a pocket watch containing 12 complications, he was 15 at the time.

The tourbillon is often what can truly makes watches in this category so special. Invented by perhaps the most underrated brand on the market, Breguet, it is not traditionally a complication as its function is purely to reduce the effects of gravity on the accuracy of the watch. It is a technological and engineering marvel and means that you will tend to see tourbillons clearly visible within the dial.

Best to think of watches in this price range as works of art, not owning one needn’t mean you can’t admire their genius, engineering and beautiful design. Keeping an eye on these watches is also a great way of gaining a better understanding of individual brands.

Pick of the bunch: Patek Philippe ref 5970. The horological intelligentsia regards the perpetual calendar chronograph by Patek Philippe as a holy relic and this is one of their crowning glories. As very few are made, the ownership of one is akin to having a first folio on your coffee table.

A watchmaker gets to work

Mid-Range (£5,000 – £20,000)

Within this range you will find the largest number of the haute-horlogerie roster. Watches at this price, in a way that distinguishes them from their more expensive brothers, can be divided into the ‘sports and/or military’ bracket and the ‘dress’ bracket. So the latter designs cater for slimline, elegant, formal wear whereas the former packs a slightly more brutish punch. However, because names such as Gerald Genta are involved in these designs, sporty often carries the right amount of élan. As far as I am concerned, some of the sportier designs are perfectly adequate for formal wear but it’s tougher to pull off a dress watch in more casual environments.

Some of the most iconic watches ever created sit within this cohort, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak on the sporty side, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso on the dress side, and perhaps the best known of them all, the Rolex Daytona. Interestingly enough though, if you were deciding to take the leap and get your hands on a brand new steel Daytona, at retail price, you will find it nigh on impossible to get one straightaway. The waiting list is something like eight years, such is the demand of the flagship design of world’s most recognisable brand. Also in this category are other well-known brands including IWC, Panerai, Bulgari and Montblanc, who all have the in-house design and craft acumen to create watches to appeal to each end of the spectrum. If complications aren’t involved, what you will see are rehashes of older designs, but with innovative changes such as thinner, thus more comfortable, movements (a watch’s working mechanism) and enhanced designs on the dials. Much in the same way that car-brands evolve old designs, each year revealing a new aspect to tempt the discerning buyer.

Pick of the bunch: Girard Perregaux 1966. The ultimate statesman’s watch, not many people have heard of Girard-Perregaux, but collectors and watch journalists alike are pretty much unanimous in their praise for it.

The back of a Patek Philippe watch displayed in a mirror

Entry level (£1,000 – £5,000)

Dismiss this category at your peril. Some of the best watches on the market sit in this price range. Perhaps you are thinking ‘this is more digestable’, and yes perhaps it’s easier to get your head around not spending the same on your watch as you did on your car, but you can nevertheless wade through enormous amounts of watches that take your fancy. There will be brands you have heard of including Omega, whose heritage is far cooler than all of that James Bond product placement would suggest (astronauts on Apollo 13 used their Speedmasters to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere without combusting). One of the great iconic designs, the dressy yin to the Daytona’s sporty yang, is the Cartier Tank, and though Cartier’s watches can find a home in all these three categories, you can get a Tank Solo for less than £3,000, so I thought I’d save them for here. Other brands to consider include Oris, Rado, Longines and Raymond Weil.

Perhaps the sportier watches have a heavier presence in this price range, but they all make valiant attempts to not alienate a formal-leaning watch buyer. Grand Seiko and Tudor are excellent examples of this. The former has a classic, simple design that plants its feet firmly in both territories, with a sporty steel bracelet clasping the striking, clean aspects of the dial, and Tudor have struck gold with their Black Bay, a watch that has military heritage and is a fantastically versatile model, with new colours (bronze, black, Harrods green) every so often to great fanfare and, most importantly, high demand.

Pick of the Bunch: Bell and Ross Bellytanker – only 500 of these were made but for around £3,500, you can get this incredibly well-designed watch with a fantastic backstory to boot – it’s design is inspired by the hot rods made from repurposed drop tanks on the underside of planes in World War II.

A shopper peruses the window display through the Christmas themed window displays of a vintage watch dealer in Burlington Arcade

Second hand

Used watch purchases can be a very dangerous game to play, as there are so many unreliable sources to go through, with forgeries becoming harder to spot. I just want to keep this simple and say that if you go to any of the watch dealers in Burlington Arcade, such as David Duggan, or more specialised rare watch dealers including Watch Club in Royal Arcade, you are in safe hands. Online is becoming safer and less of a minefield, but perhaps like me you don’t like giving someone money without having the thing you bought. Don’t write off horological e-commerce yet, though.

Pitfalls

There is always a nicer watch. You have to make sure when you buy a watch that you have done all the window shopping you need to do. Imagine spending (for the sake of argument) £8,000 on a watch, only to pass another shop and see a watch you prefer even more for the same price. The sheer volume of brands available is a bit painful to get your head around, but the effort is worth it to get something that you will always regard as special.

My father-in-law collects vintage cars, and he says that the value is always in the paperwork, not in the car. Similar can be said for watches. If the box and the paperwork and service history is all there, then you can proceed with a certain amount of confidence. By the same token, when you buy a watch, never ever throw away the packaging.

Indicator of quality

Poinçon de Geneve: A small seal, often visible on the rotor at the reverse of the watch. It is the official seal of approval of the watchmaking school of Geneva and carries a legal guarantee. Not all watches carry this seal but its presence will be a good guide to quality if you aren’t sure.

Tom Chamberlin  is editor of The Rake magazine


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