Buying a watch today serves two purposes, first is for time telling and second as a fashion statement and not necessarily in that order. There are many watches below $500 which serve a particular functional purpose whether it is a sports chronograph such as Timex or a fashion piece from a department store such as a Calvin Klein. Beyond watch brands in the Watch category are brands of varying levels of luxury and sophistication.
Watches can perform a number of functions and have a number of features commonly referred to as complications. A date indicator for example is a complication. Watches are built for certain functions such as for diving, dress, sports, chronographs, navigational, aviation, fashion/style, etc.
Buying a watch under $500
Look for some characteristics that you care about such as the style, cost and function. These watches are typically not serviceable except for the occasional battery replacement. In short, buy a watch that you like based on aesthetics and some function such as water resistance or a chronograph, alarm, size, color, etc.
Most of these watches will have a mineral crystal and if the watch is a mechanical automatic the movement is likely made in Asia, perhaps a Citizen Miyota variant.
Buying a luxury over $500
These watches will often perform similar functions like the lower cost watches do but they cost more, much more, and in some cases such as Philippe Dufour or Dewitt can cost much much more - as in millions of dollars.
The key criteria behind a quality Luxury watch are:
- Sapphire Crystal - the glass
- The movement - usually mechanical automatic self-winding while more advanced pieces using tourbillons
- Quality of the craftsmanship
- Precious metals and stones
- Brand heritage and history
- Exclusivity (number of pieces made)
The crystal in any quality watch must be of Sapphire which is second in strength only to diamond.
There are two types of movements. Quartz or Mechanical. Quartz is battery driven while Mechanical means that it has some sort of spring mechanism wound manually or automatically by gravity and natural movements of the arm.
Watches made in Switzerland bearing the mark "Swiss Made" have distinguished themselves as being quality time pieces for hundreds of years. A watch is considered to be Swiss Made if more than 50% is made and assembled in Switzerland. The definition varied over time but the point is that most of the watch is made in Switzerland.
Movements in these watches can be in-house meaning that it is made by the brand itself such as Rolex. Other brands like Tag Heuer, Tissot, Hamilton, etc. use 3rd party movements such as the ETA's Valjoux 7750 which is considered to be the workhorse of the industry.
So what are the attributes that make the very expensive watches such as Patek Philippe, Breguet, Jaeger LeCoultre and Urwerk so expensive?
- Complications and innovations
- Craftsmanship and attention to detail
- Precious metals such as gold, platinum and diamonds
- Exclusivity - uniqueness and scarcity
Refining on characteristics of Luxury watches, distinguished watch makers will use precious materials in hand-made unique or rare complex watches that approach an art form resulting in astronomically priced horological marvels. Examples are Patek Philippe Henry Graves Pocket Watch estimated at $11 million and the Chopard 201 Carat Watch estimated at $25 million.
So how do I go about buying a luxury watch?
A good place to start is cost. Again, use our watch-rankings to gauge what category you can afford.
Then look for the function you want for the watch (diver, sports chronograph, aviation, trains, fashion, etc) and consider the person you're buying the watch for. For a young person under 20 years old consider a fashion watch, perhaps a Movado, Calvin Klein, or even a Breitling.
For somebody in their early 20's consider adding Sapphire and start getting closer to the Swiss Made brands such as a fun Tag Heuer or a Tissot.
A meaningful purchase will consist of sapphire crystal and a mechanical automatic movement. The price of the watch increases when the movement is higher ETA or Sellita grade or better yet an in-house movement meaning that it is bult by the brand itself. The price continues to rise when the watch workmanship and refinement increases, certain complications are added and precious metals such as gold and diamonds are used.
Someone in their 30's can have a couple of Automatic watches, perhaps a Cartier, IWC or perhaps a Corum.
Someone in their 40's can start having a Rolex, Harry Winston or a Zenith while someone in their 50's can go all out with the likes of Patek Philippe, Breguet, Jaeger LeCoultre.
If limited to two watches, a good option would be to have a normal wear watch as a Rolex and a dress-up watch as a Patek Philippe.
If your budget has no limits AND you're in the circles where a rare timepiece can be appreciated then pick from the Ultra Luxury brands.
See our fun related article: Goldman Sachs Elevator explains the hierarchy of watches on Wall Street