With the electric and digital breakthroughs of the 1970s and 1980s, many heralded the death of classic mechanical watches. Yet the legendary watchmakers, almost all of whom reside in Switzerland and not too far from Lake Geneva, have turned their products into sought-after luxury products that people use today to display their social status. There are not too many other accessories that can so discreetly yet reliably indicate both a man’s and a woman’s status, wealth, and success as a carefully chosen and exclusive watch brand.
Above left: Audemars Piguet
Most of us who went through the education system in the afore-mentioned ’70s and ’80s remember that if you did not have a digital watch, then your pecking order on the school playground could have been severely compromised; it was probably better to have no watch at all rather than one with a big hand and a little hand showing the time.
Very little has changed since then: the kids from those playgrounds have grown up, many of them sit around today’s circular boardroom tables, and they still look at each others’ wrists to judge whether they are a worthy adversary or not. Except today a Casio, Seiko, or a Pulsar will not bring them quite the same respect it did some 30 years ago. Today it’s more about Breitling, Omega, Chopard, or Rolex. Of course, if you sit at the head of that boardroom table then you are most likely to have walked straight past the jewelry shop cabinets bearing those brands and you did not stop until you reached the likes of Patek Phillipe, Vacheron Constantine, Jaeger-Le Coultre, or Audemars Piguet, amongst others.
There are two distinctive segments in luxury watches; retailers refer to these as the middle class and the true luxury class. The main difference between these classes, apart from the prices tags, are the number of watches being produced. A limited edition in the true luxury market can mean as few as 10 pieces; Patek Phillipe, in its more than 150 year old history, has created some 600,000 watches, which is less than Rolex’s annual output. Work might not begin on a luxury class watch until an order has been submitted. Delivery of such a watch may take not only weeks or months, but in some cases, even years.
What also separates the watches from the middle class are not only materials used, such as gold (all three varieties), platinum and an array of gemstones, but the biggest differences: craftsmanship, exclusivity, and what in the industry they call “complexity”. Complexity refers to how many functions it has on top of its main function of showing time and date. Some of the more popular complications include a chronograph which allows the watch movement to function as a stopwatch, a moonphase which displays the lunar phases, a perpetual calendar and many others. These watches are purchased not only to be worn but also to be handed down through generations as family heirlooms.
Obviously, when making such a purchase, careful consideration must be given before parting with enough money to purchase an apartment in the centre of the city. Marcela Hřusková of Carollinum says, “Purchasing a luxury watch is not about spur of the moment buying. Most customers will visit us a number of times, trying different models before making a final selection.”
When you flip through book-styled catalogues of Patek Phillipe, Jaeger-Le Coultre, or Audemars Piguet the first thing you notice is that they exude class, exclusivity and pure indulgence. There are no sports or movie stars commissioned to sell these products; one gets the feeling that they would have to line up with all the other mere mortals and pull out the chequebook just like everyone else if they wanted one of these masterpieces to adorn their wrists. The superstars here are the watches and the watchmakers themselves.
The watches in the middle class, however, are the ones that you usually see sports and movies stars promoting. That is not to say that they are not very desirable watches. Their price tags often reach past the EURO 10,000.00 mark and usually come with many bragging rights. If you decide to part with your money and take home an Omega, then you are in the same company as Neil Armstrong when he landed on the moon, Michael Schumacher when he raced to his 7 world F1 championship titles, and … Nicole Kidman. If you fancy yourself more of a Brad Pitt or Tiger Woods type, then you are sure to head the Tag Heur display. If the world of espionage, fast cars and exotic women is more your scene, then you might have to dig a little deep into your pocket because it would seem that James Bond is quite fickle when it comes to his choice of timekeeping pieces. The man with a “licence to kill” has been seen sporting Rolex, Breitling, Seiko, Pulsar, and Omega watches (but not simultaneously).
Watch out for bad watches
Most buyers educate themselves over a period of time, to appreciate these watches in a similar way as with wine. Only an experienced wine connoisseur can really enjoy the most sophisticated wines, and its very much alike with watches, as Milan Valníček of La Boutique Suisse confirms. “Customers are continually becoming more aware of the different types of manufacturers and types of watches out on the market,” he explains.
“They come into the shop and ask us if we have specific limited editions or if they will be available. They know what is out there and what is sought after.”
As with anything of great value, fakes are a real problem. One of the most respected watchmakers in the Czech Republic, Richard Méstka, who works in the service department at Carollinum and is certified to repair Rolex, Cartier, Breitling, Raymond Weil, and other brands says, “Fakes are becoming more flawless. There are times that the only way that I am able to tell that it’s a fake is if I take the watch apart. There have been times where I have had to send it to the factory for the authenticity to be confirmed. And the owner was not happy with the news he received.”
Hrušková also remembers a situation where a customer brought in an exclusive watch that was received as a gift from a business partner, noting that the business relationship was most likely cozy after the evaluation on the genuineness of the watch.
So if you are looking to make an investment that is not only beautiful but functional, an investment that you can enjoy and flirt with now and one that your children will appreciate not only for its beauty but also for its appreciation potential, then a luxury watch might just be the investment that satisfies all the above parameters.