For most regular consumers (read: not the obscenely rich), the idea of wearing a good chunk of their annual salary on their wrist is unfathomable. It’s. Just. A. Watch. Isn’t it?
Actually, no, it isn’t (unless you see a watch as an instrument to tell time and nothing more).
There are many factors that explain why there’s an astronomic price difference between your average Casio or Swatch and a premium timepiece. And even on the luxury scale, the gulf between brands and models can be enormous.
The popular site, ablogtowatch.com – regarded as a definitive guide by horology buffs – puts entry-level luxury watches at around USD$1,000. Mid-range goes from there up to USD$20,000.
High-end is anything above that and, in extreme cases, could figure in the same ballpark as a Ferrari or a condo penthouse.
Here, we shed some light on what goes into the hefty price tags of high-end timepieces.
Photo: Cartier / Instagram
Most luxury tickers (save, perhaps, sports or tool watches) are made of expensive metals like yellow, rose and white gold, as well as platinum (such as the new Cartier Tank Cintree Skeleton watch pictured).
There’s also palladium, a white metal that resembles platinum. Although it’s lower in price and weight compared to the latter, it’s very rare and there are only a handful of brands that use it in their watches, such as Cartier, Vacheron Constantin and Ulysse Nardin.
Is it practical? Not entirely, given that stainless steel and titanium are much hardier materials while precious metals are more difficult to work with.
But they lend an air of refinement and a beautiful finish to the watch that signal their value to connoisseurs.
Mechanical movements are the very small, complex “engines” that power the watch through mechanical energy. They come in a myriad of grades and styles, and their number of parts also vary widely.
Not only are mechanical movements expensive to design and develop, they also require a lot of testing and fine-tuning to ensure they’re durable and reliable – all of which add to their cost.
Quartz movements, on the other hand, run on the electric current passing through quartz crystals. They have far fewer parts, are highly accurate in time-keeping and far cheaper to produce.
According to ablogtwatch.com, quartz movements generally range from a few dollars to about US$20 for a Japanese quartz chronograph, whereas a basic Swiss mechanical chronograph movement alone can cost US$250.
At the really high end of the luxury spectrum, watches can have wildly complicated movements that require years to develop and months to make and decorate by hand.
Photo: Ulysse Nardin Executive Moonstruck Worldtimer
In horology lingo, a complication refers to a feature a timepiece has in addition to telling time, such as a calendar, chronograph (stopwatch), moon phase and minute repeater (chiming function). The more complications it has, the more, erm, complicated and interesting it becomes.
Every added complication also makes a timepiece that much harder to create because of all the extra elements that need to be worked in, and so it becomes a reflection of the maker’s level of skill.
At the moment, the most complicated wristwatch in the world is said to be the Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4 (pictured), which packs in a whopping 1,483 components and 36 complications including a 1,000-year calendar and a grand sonnerie that plays the Westminster Chime.
The price tag? Around US$2.7 million.
Photo: The Watch Quote
One word: workmanship. Though the numerous tiny parts that go into a luxury watch are usually machine-made, they require teams of people spending hundreds or thousands of man-hours to refine, decorate and put together.
It’s an incredible amount of painstaking work, traditional skill and technical expertise – and that’s what you’re paying for when you buy a luxury ticker.
One Forbes report states that fine timepieces above US$30,000 commonly require weeks if not months to make. And auction house, Christie’s, says it takes about nine months to make a basic Patek Philippe watch and over two years for its more complex models.
Photo: Patek Philippe
Premium watches are from luxury marques, some of whom have been around for centuries. Vacheron Constantin, Blancpain, Chaumet and Girard-Perregaux all hark to the 18th century, while many industry big hitters like Patek Philippe, Baume & Mercier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, A. Lange & Sohn, Cartier, Audemars Piguet and Omega started in the 1800s.
Not only are you are paying for a trusted name, such watch brands are also associated with the aristocracy and the rich because of the quality and exclusivity of their products.
Breguet has created timepieces for Napoleon and Marie Antoinette, while past owners of Patek Philippe watches include Pope Pius IX, Queen Victoria and Albert Einstein.
Other top-end companies have proven their mettle through the heavy-duty usage of their watches. Officine Panerai, for example, was the official supplier of the Royal Italian Navy.
Rolex’s reputation for durability and reliability under extreme conditions made it the brand of choice for Royal Air Force pilots during World War II, as well as that of Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest-scaling team and oceanographer Jacques Piccard.
IWC and Breitling have also long been favoured by pilots and the aviation industry.
Photo: IWC Portofino Automatic Moon Phase 37
Not only does this bring a new dimension to luxe with watches that are truly one-of-a-kind, it imbues them with life and backstory – in some cases you’re literally wearing a piece of history on your wrist.
Swiss brand, Romain Jerome, is one of the frontrunners (some would say enfant terrible) in this area. Its watches contain such remarkable materials as metal dredged from the wreck of the Titanic, actual moon dust and steel from the Apollo 11 spacecraft, and ash and rock from the massive 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano.
The maison is hardly alone though. Jaeger-LeCoultre and Ulysse Nardin are among the houses with meteorite dials. Hublot’s Classic Fusion Tourbillon Firmament features a dial made of osmium, billed as the rarest metal on earth.
DeWitt’s Academia Grande Date Napoleon watch contains a teeny bit of Napoleon’s hair (yes, you read that right). And Louis Moinet’s Jurassic Tourbillon reaches further back in time to prehistory, with a dial made from 150-million-year-old dinosaur bones.
Photo: Romain Jerome Steampunk Auto Urban Safari
The first thing on a watch that catches people’s attention is the dial. It’s the most obvious place for watchmakers to showcase their artistry, and many high-end brands pull out all the stops to embellish and enhance them.
Many of the techniques used are age-old crafts carried out by highly specialised artists, such as Grand Feu and Cloisonne enamelling, guilloche (where intricate, repetitive patterns are chiselled out), lacquering, marquetry and plumasserie or feather art.
Then there’s the use of precious materials such as mother-of-pearl, lapis lazuli, onyx and malachite, as well as gemstones like diamonds, sapphires and emeralds.
You’re not just buying a watch, you’re buying a piece of art on a 37mm canvas.
Photo: Hublot Big Bang One Click Italia Independent in purple velvet
All that time and handwork by skilled craftsmen needed to make a luxury watch means the brands can only produce that many at any given time.
The high cost of the parts also makes it unfeasible to have excess watches sitting around unsold, which is why the quantities made are kept low.
The rarity factor goes up if the wrist candy you’re eyeing is a limited edition piece. For some collectors, what elevates a watch to the realm of true luxury is not so much the actual numbers on its price tag but the fact that so few other people possess it.
Typically, limited edition timepieces come in special designs or one-off themes, make use of materials or colours not found in their regular brethren, and have added complications.
Photo: Piaget Altiplano 60th Anniversary Altiplano Diamond-set 38mm
Unlike other luxury items like, say, cars or LED TVs, high-end mechanical watches do not lose as much of their value the moment you take it out of the store.
They don’t have technological expiry dates that make them obsolete in five or 10 years. In some cases, their age or the specific period in which they were made may even add to their value.
Having said that, not every luxury watch can be resold a few years down the road for a profit. There are many factors that come into play, such as the track record of the brand on the resale market, whether the model is a limited edition, whether it has been discontinued and hence has a finite quantity, market interest and trends, and even pop culture influences like films and what the A-listers favour.
In general, Rolex and Patek Philippe are the two brands viewed as the safest bets to retain or appreciate in value.
Photo: Rolex Oyster Perpetual Pearlmaster 39
Yes, call it superficial. But if you’ve worked your butt off to get to that comfy position, it’s understandable to want a badge of honour to show for it.
Everyone know that certain watches cost an arm and a leg, so to sport one on your wrist is seen as a sign that you’ve “arrived”.
Fine watches also imply good taste and savvy, being the preferred brands of the well-to-do and the experts.
The presumption is that if people with the means and the know-how to pick the best tickers available have opted for these ones, then they must be the crème de la crème.
Photo: Girard-Perregaux Laureato 34mm