Posted on September 08 2017
Buying a watch should be easy. You like a watch so you buy it. Simple.
However, as soon as you begin searching for a watch you'll be drawn into a world of luxury brands, nerdy watch jargon, specialist websites and bricks and mortar businesses. All competing for your attention. Finding the right watch for you is a task in itself. But actually knowing you're getting your monies worth? Then things really get complicated. Here we take you through the basics of navigating the watch world and point you in the right direction if bang for your buck is a major concern.
Let's start at the beginning.
You'd like a Rolex?
So would we all. The problem for many of us is that a Rolex Submariner, their iconic divers watch, costs more than £5k. The Daytona, as worn by Paul Newman, will cost you significantly more. In part this is because Rolex are one of the worlds premier luxury brands and we all recognize their status. But what are you actually paying for?
Firstly, you're paying for that brand. It was said that Special Forces soldiers would wear a Rolex on the off chance that they got stranded abroad. A Rolex on your wrist was the equivalent of carrying a wad of cash. It didn't matter where you were in the world if you were in a tight squeeze your watch could be turned into instant cash. The brand is that strong. It also helped that Rolex has been an official supplier to the British Army at times too.
So you're paying for the brand and it's resale value. The resale value is important as Rolex produce watches in limited numbers so that there's never a Rolex sale. If you don't want to pay full retail then a used watch is your main option meaning there's a lively market in used Rolex's. Constant price increases on the new watches also ensure that your used watch always holds it's value.
Sticking with Rolex as an example. What else are you paying for? There's two big points to consider regarding Rolex. They're Swiss and they make mechanical 'in-house' movements. Note that the watches are mechanical and not 'quartz' or battery operated. Watch buyers quite rightly value mechanical movements over their cheaper battery powered competitors.
In the hierarchy of watch manufacturers the Swiss are at the top. Most of the luxury brands that are found on the high street are Swiss. Think Omega, TAG Heuer, Patek Phillipe, Hublot, IWC, Longines, Oris and others. Swiss watch manufacturers charge a premium for their products based on their well earned reputation as the world leaders in the industry.
So what exactly is inside that Rolex you covet?
It's the 'In-house' movement. The mechanical clock work innards that drive the watch. You may be surprised that most watch companies don't make their own movements – they buy them from a watch movement manufacturer. ETA is Switzerland's biggest movement producer and supplies a large proportion of the Swiss watch trade.
Rolex and Patek Phillipe make their own and there's a price to be paid for the R&D and the associated development costs. TAG and Longines use ETA movements and that is reflected in their cheaper price. From 'in-house' Swiss movements at the top there tends to be a price reduction until at the bottom are found plastic Chinese 'quartz' movements that power the junk watches in pound shops.
The points to take away from above are fairly simple. Swiss Manufacturers charge a premium based on their reputation as world leaders. On the whole companies that produce their own movements charge more than those that buy in ready made movements. Manufacturers with good reputations often produce watches that hold their value well.
How can you use this knowledge to your advantage?
We've looked at what makes Swiss watches desirable and therefore highly priced, now let's have a look at what isn't different about Swiss luxury brands.
- Stainless steel is stainless steel. Around 95% of steel watches use 316L grade. The majority of decent watches will be cased in the same metal regardless of price.
- There's different types of illumination used but on the whole you will find that a £400 watch will use the same Super Luminova as a £2000 Omega Seamaster.
- A good watch will normally have 'glass' made of mineral or sapphire crystal. Although there can be a big jump in the quality of the glass in lower priced watches – once you're using sapphire crystal the watch has the best glass it's possible to get.
- Water rating is also fixed. A watch twice the price doesn't normally have twice the water resistance. A £200 watch may be rated to 200M but a £2k watch isn't rated to 2000M. The watch is either water resistant or it's not. A 200M water resistant German watch is the same as a 200M water resistant Swiss watch.
So that's our first possible strategy. We're looking at the watch specs rather than the brand. Once we do that a whole world of interesting watches opens up to us.
Lets stick with our Rolex example.
The current Submariner model has the following specs:
- Automatic Movement
- Steel Case and Bracelet
- Sapphire Crystal
- 40MM Diameter
- Chromalight Lume
- 300M Water Resistance
German manufacturer Steinhart produce a series of Submariner style watches with Swiss ETA movements, Stainless Steel cases, Sapphire Crystal and 300M water resistance. Their watches come in sizes of 39MM and 42MM diameters and have Super Luminova illumination that is equally as good as Rolex's Chromalight. A Steinhart Submariner will cost you less than £400.
Glycine's Combat Sub is more, MWC's Submariner is less. Japanese manufacturer Orient produce the Mako – a 200M rated automatic divers watch similar to a Submariner that is priced at less than £200.
What this example illustrates is that you can get the specifications that you want in a watch for significantly less by searching for lesser known companies – companies that don't sponsor F1 events or use Hollywood stars as ambassadors. Importantly, the savvy buyer can also take advantage of differences between watch producing nations – of which there aren't that many.
We've established that as a rule of thumb Swiss watches are the most desirable.
Following that the hierarchy is:
As expected Germany is home to many desirable watch manufacturers and on the whole they're cheaper than the Swiss despite often using the same Swiss ETA movements. You can start researching the better known brands like Sinn, Junghans and Nomos then compare them to more affordable watches produced by Marc & Sons, Stowa and Steinhart.
It's arguable whether Japan or Russia should come next, but in terms of numbers Japanese giants like Seiko and Citizen produce many of the most sought after watches.
What's really important here is that the Japanese supply many of the worlds smaller manufacturers with watch movements. If you delve into the world of niche and microbrand watches one of the first noticeable points is that most of them are powered by the same small group of movements. Often Seiko's NH35A automatic movement or a Miyota Automatic movement produced by Citizen. Although Seiko does produce it's premium Grand Seiko range most of their watches will be less than a tenth of the price of their Swiss equivalents.
Russian watches are a true enigma. The prices are so low when judged against their quality that some watch enthusiasts hoard hundreds of them. Just one example illustrates the bang for buck that a Russian watch provides.
Russian manufacturer Vostok (Rocket) was tasked by the Soviet Government with producing a divers watch for the Navy that would be powered by an automatic movement, was water resistant and only needed a service every decade. The finished watch, the Amphibia, is a marvel. The watch has an 'in-house' Russian made movement and is water resistant to 200M – all for around £60.
Moscow based Sturmanskie produced timepieces for the Russian space program and have had their watchmaking skills tested at the highest level - fired into orbit. The watch Yuri Gagarin wore in space? The upgraded titanium version will cost you less than a Rolex watchstrap.
China is the whipping boy of the watch world. If a watch is cheap junk with a completely unreliable movement you can actually hear rattling, then it's probably Chinese. But that's far from the end of the story. Many of the smaller brands you're familiar with are also produced in China, often with those Japanese Seiko and Miyota movements having been shipped there.
Armed with a little knowledge there's some great affordable watches to be had from China. Sea-Gull have perhaps the best reputation of Chinese watch producers. Indeed, their 1963 Air Force watch is considered a classic. Also keep an eye out for Beijing and Shanghai watches as well as Fiyta and Alpha.
Many of the Chinese brands produce homage watches – almost identical to another model you're already familiar with. What they also do is produce watch movements based on Swiss equivalents – maybe not particularly ethical but meaning you often get a lot of mechanical watch for your money.
To recap. There's more than just Swiss luxury out there. There's German precision, Japanese efficiency, Russian ingenuity and Chinese imitation. By learning about what features you desire in a watch and making the odd compromise you can have your grail watch at a greatly reduced price. With specialist UK retailers on hand to assist your search the resources are there for you to discover a whole new world of watches.