Over the past few months, I have covered many aspects of the luxury watch world: I dispelled some of the most common myths regarding high-end Swiss timepieces, provided some intriguing facts about Rolex watches, and offered a list of alternatives to the venerable Submariner diving watch. All of this information can help inform, but I have yet to address the most important question of all regarding the world of quality Swiss watches: What exactly makes these timepieces so expensive and what truly separates them from their more pedestrian counterparts?
It would be impossible to cover every nuance of high-end watchmaking in such a brief piece, but this article is intended to function as a primer on the hallmarks of quality to look for when buying your first true luxury timepiece and to also highlight the details that differentiate these high-dollar watches from department store offerings. Rationalizing the high price of a Rolex or Patek Philippe may be difficult when the watches do not keep time more accurately than a Casio from Macy’s, but trying to justify the cost of a fine Swiss timepiece in such a purely utilitarian way ignores the appreciation of the craft itself. A Toyota Camry will reliably get you from point A to point B for much less money than a Bentley, but the Bentley does so with a level of style, craftsmanship, and precision that the Toyota can never match. It is the understanding of the art of watchmaking and the appreciation of the craft that drives people to buy the very best wrist watches the market has to offer.
The movement is the heart, or engine, of any watch. Detractors of expensive Swiss watches often cite that a battery-operated Timex keeps better time than a Rolex, but they are forgetting that a cell phone keeps better time than any watch and that the purchase of any dedicated timepiece, regardless of price, is now an action that arguably lacks any real utility. High-end luxury wrist watches are typically built around complex mechanical movements that require precision engineering and impeccable craftsmanship techniques to build. There is little room for variance from spec in order to create a mechanical movement that keeps accurate time in an array of conditions and that precision requires expensive tools and skilled craftsmen. As you seek more accuracy and/or added complications from a mechanical timepiece, the required tools and craftsmen become more expensive.
Precious metals like gold and platinum are expensive in raw form and it is not necessary to discuss why a watch made of such materials is pricey, but things get a little more difficult when trying to justify an $8,000 stainless steel watch like the Rolex Submariner. You are primarily paying for the movement and the unique construction of the watch’s case – more on that in a moment – so are watches like the stainless Submariner, Omega Speedmaster, and most of Tag Heuer’s lineup just made of the same steel as a Timex from the corner store? In a word, no. These expensive Swiss watches use high-end surgical grade stainless steel for their cases and bracelets and the utmost attention is paid to their finish and polish. Most watches in this realm use 316L stainless, but Rolex uses an even higher-grade 904L stainless for its timepieces. This stainless is more resistant to scratches and dings and also maintains a more brilliant and consistent luster than mass-market stainless steel. Examine an older stainless steel Rolex Submariner and you will notice that it has worn better than a more pedestrian watch subjected to the same conditions; scratches from desks will be minimal and there won’t be any noticeable pitting from oxidation as you would find on less expensive watches. The difference is discernible over time and makes these surgical-grade stainless steel timepieces true heirloom pieces.
The raw material cost difference between standard stainless steel and a high-end grade like Rolex’s 904L is marginal in the grand scheme of things, although the benefits are significant. The construction techniques, however, display a bigger disparity in manufacturing price. High-end Swiss watches are noted for their impeccable and consistent finish and for their ability to withstand the pressures of deep-sea exploration; none of this would be possible without intricate craftsmanship and brilliant engineering of the watch’s case, or the enclosure that surrounds the mechanical movement. Rolex’s Oyster case in one of the most well-respected designs in the watch world due to the fact that the case itself is milled from a single piece of stainless, creating a solid watch case that is nearly impenetrable even when subjected to extreme levels of outside contaminates like dirt, dust, and water.
Bracelet / Band
The bracelet on cheap watches might rattle when you wiggle your wrist, especially as the links loosen up from regular wear. High-end watches are made to exacting standards with virtually no manufacturing variance in the size and consistency of each link. The intricately crafted bracelets on luxury watches do not loosen up over time, meaning that the watch will fit almost exactly the same way on your wrist in ten years as it does on the day of purchase. Hold the watch up by its case and look for flex in the band of a well-worn luxury watch and you will notice that the band often has less “give” than a brand new watch from a cheaper marque.
The watch crystal is the “glass” part of the watch that allows you to see the dial and tell the time of day. Department store watches can easily start looking very worn as they accumulate scratches on their crystals since they are typically made of plastic which is prone to scratching. High-end Swiss-made watches are almost always exclusively fitted with sapphire crystals. This synthetic sapphire crystal material is highly resistant to scratching, allowing watches from Rolex, Vacheron Constantin, and Breitling to look like new for decades. Some Omega Speedmaster watches are notable exceptions to the standard sapphire crystal fitment. The Speedmaster is generally fitted with a Hesalite crystal, which is a fancy form of plastic. Why would they do this? Omega’s Hesalite is lighter weight, provides less glare, and is shatterproof – it’s also a great material for trips to outer space. Although Hesalite is somewhat prone to scratching, the scratches are easy to buff out.
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