Logic, Emotion & True Value...The Weird World of High End Watches.

Patek Philippe Grand Complications 5013 - doesn't 
stand up well against London traffic light poles...
We all have our little passions, things that take us to a happy place - or at least make us forget the hellhole that is our working life.

For me, it's travel to weird places...and watches. Electronics are usually confined to the latest mobiles and whilst I am a huge fan of all types of cars, planes and firearms, these are not easily enjoyed on my schedule - though a nice firearm at some meetings would certainly make things more enjoyab...ahh, better not go any further :-)!

In terms of how far one can push the boundaries of innovation, style, engineering excellence and market positioning, I really like to see what is on the near horizon that may soon grace my wrist...and slaughter my credit card.

And that credit card will take a beating: one of the best aspects about my work is visiting diverse places around the world: I often get lucky and see interesting cars...but frustratingly, I don't get much - if any - free time at most locations, so actually going for a test drive is largely out of the question. However, at airports - where I often get to spend more time than I'd like - you get to play with watches of all kinds, and visiting some cities, you do get to spend time in fine watch stores.

Whilst I am nowhere near the level of true expertise as are some of the watch bloggers out there are, my friends do often come to me for advice on a major purchase. And now, my middle aged compatriots who have done very well are looking to drop upwards of $50,000 on that special watch.

The Harley and the 23 year old mistress just aren't cutting it, I guess...

So, just to make things a bit easier, I'll give some of my thoughts to everyone out there...but please allow me to state two things very clearly before you read any further.

Firstly...I am writing this for guys. Sorry, I just don't know any female watch aficionados, so I do not know if they have different values and perspectives.

And secondly...in the world of truly high end watches, Rolex is a marginal player. Surprise, surprise! Not that it's a bad watch - far from it - but the reality is a Rolex can be looked upon as a BMW in a world of Rolls Royces, Aston Martins and Lamborghinis: it's an excellent watch intrinsically, but just a bit too common. Still, that doesn't stop people...including yours truly.

But before you reward yourself with that Swiss or German masterpiece, please have an understanding as to what your expectations are for a watch...and then read my thoughts about durability, accuracy, functionality and ongoing costs.

Think those tens of thousands will buy you something bullet proof? You can buy a $120 Casio G-shock watch that will be a lot more durable than a $46,000 Blancpain when the going gets tough. The truth is that quite a few of the higher end watches would be hard pressed to survive more than a quick shower - water resistance for some models that cost more than a reasonable London apartment is non-existent.

In fact, many of the more advanced mechanical complications are very delicate instruments that would not take kindly to the kind of knock that even a $30 Pulsar would shrug off. Case in point: around mid 2003 in London I was running for a taxi with an investment banker friend, and as he extended his arm to signal, he managed to smash his Patek Philippe Grand Complication 5013 against a traffic light pole. The impact was really nasty - the watch stopped, the crystal had shattered and the watch face and hands had been dented. I remember the look on his face in the taxi...and the chat I had a few weeks later with him as he pondered the CHF 26,500 repair bill.

One not that costly exception to the rule is the "20,000 feet" CX Swiss Military Watch, which is a fine example of ridiculous - and ridiculously desirable - over-engineering. You can wear the watch (getting a good workout at the same time) and be confident that if you were to descend to 20,000 ft in the ocean, or someone were to blast it with a 12 gauge shotgun, run it over with a tank or blow up a stick of dynamite next to it, the watch would still be working fine.

Just like you will be...

This is the one that surprises many: paying big money doesn't guarantee you amazing accuracy.

A $190 Seiko (in fact any Seiko using the 8F56 quartz movement, and even more so a 9F series) will keep time (to +/- 20 seconds a year, with sub +/- 10 seconds for the 9F) far better than a $56,000 Blancpain (around +/-30 seconds a month if you're very lucky, and that depends on many factors). Fact is, just about any cheap quartz watch bought at the mall will keep time to within around +/-20 seconds per month. With the exception of smaller ladies watches made from precious metals and bejewelled, the vast majority of high end watches sport mechanical movements. Before you lay down your hard earned, please be aware that very few mechanical watches are able to remotely approach the accuracy of a cheap quartz watch, even with the vaunted Chronometer moniker (which in reality is more marketing spiel than true engineering brilliance).

If outstanding accuracy is your thing, you can opt for around $350 to upwards for some of the radio controlled watches from Citizen or Seiko, which synchronize time externally via a radio signal and are consistently and persistently accurate to within a fraction of a second (the radio signal is not transmitted in all countries, though). Lately, both Citizen and Seiko are rumoured to be working on GPS synchronized watches, which are still a few years away (I am hearing the power draw issue is still a huge challenge for a device in such a tiny package), but they should be perfectly accurate at just about all times. Some of the Breitling Superquartz watches have advanced thermometer adjusted quartz movements which can be accurate to +/- 5 seconds a year or less without external synchronization and are available now for around the $4,000 level. Furthermore, there are some Citizen and Grand Seiko watches that provide similar or superior accuracy for a little less.

Keep this in mind: virtually all mechanical movements will cost a lot compared to almost all quartz watches, and be far less accurate. But that doesn't bother many people in this game...

After all, many people pay many thousands to have a portrait painted, even though it cannot be anywhere near as accurate as a studio photo using a high end medium format camera.

A $400 Casio Protrek - and I am a proud owner of a few of these - will do a hell of a lot more in terms of functionality than a $740,000 Vacheron Constantin complication. You get the local time...and time in around 35+ other time zones. Perpetual Calendar. Stopwatch. Countdown timer. Alarms. Compass. Barometer. Thermometer. Tides, Sunrise/Sunset and Moonphases with some models. Real water resistance of 100m or 200m. And real toughness that makes them the choice (along with the G-shock series) of most active duty warfighters.

Sure, digital watches are so geeky - unlike when they first came out en masse in the 1970s - but if you want bang for your buck, you don't have to spend the earth.

Ongoing costs
This one hurts and surprises people: a fine mechanical is not a one off investment. You will need servicing every few years. Of course, the idea is that the watch should be handed down the generations - longevity is likely if the watch is taken care of. Needs vary, but servicing is usually required between every 3 to 7 years for most watches, with costs ranging from around $500 to well upwards of $5,000 for the rare grand complications. And any damage, as shown above, will prove agonizing to rectify.

It is also important to remember that after a service, the accuracy of your mechanical watch will likely change, usually (but not always) for the better.

Why bother?
So, with all of the above, why would you bother buying a high end watch?

I'll say it outright.

Objectively, virtually all high end watches make no sense (especially to someone who comes from a Lean intense background!).

You can always get something "better" much, much cheaper...if by better you mean the ability to tell the time accurately, consistently and under all conditions and maybe offer some additional features. In fact, there's a fair case for saying that the more money you spend, the less effective many watches are at these KPIs. A paradox like few others.

Sure, a Ferrari F430 can cost 10 times more than a Ford Focus, but it gives you a new level of performance: faster, better handling, more acceleration, grip etc - all quantifiable measures that people are willing to pay a premium for. Sure, it may not be 10 times better in all measures, but that's not the way it works in the car game...

But a Breguet can easily cost 100 times more than a Casio. Yet it does far less in terms of functionality, is almost always much less accurate...and yet it remains a much more desirable object...


Clearly, there's something else going on here. People who buy high end watches are wealthy enough not to be fools, so why do they do this? Why do people shelve out insane amounts of money on these things?

Here's my take on it.

There are some people for whom money has lost much meaning compared to most of the world (no, I'm not one of them!): they make so much, that paying a few hundred thousand for a watch is no financial burden to them - it will not stop them enjoying other pleasures. So...why not do it? Why worry about a few hundred thousand when your annual income is in the many millions and you already have so much?

But for the less well off (it's all relative here, kids!) for whom such a watch is a major gift to themselves, I offer the following.

What you are doing is buying the time and skill of a designer and/or craftsman (most high end watches are carefully hand made) in the art-form of miniature mechanical engineering. These people are working in a delicate medium of great demands, one that you appreciate as worthy of respect, admiration and desire. You are acknowledging the value of those skills when you say goodbye to that huge sum of money.

You are buying a heritage spanning hundreds of years with some brands...or one perhaps of only a few years, but offering an innovative take on time that is highly desirable.

And in many cases, you are buying ridiculous over-engineering and over-imagination. Some of the smaller, newer brands such as Urwerk, MB&F & Richard Mille offer wild approaches to movements and materials that may (or may not) offer marginal performance benefits over other mechanical watch types...often at prices that far surpass that of luxury cars or even luxury apartments in first world cities. They exist simply to say..."Just because."

But most of all with these watches, what you are buying is a piece of fine jewelry (which may or may not be made of precious metals / stones) that successful individuals in many walks of life appreciate. It's a status symbol, as much as your car, your house or your clothes. And realistically, unless you work in entertainment or sports, a watch is really the only piece of jewelry most guys can get away with.

You are buying it for the statement it makes to those in the know - and you will often be judged by it.

And a fine watch is indeed a statement: it is one that speaks as loudly as any Harvard MBA in the right company. A fine watch is a powerful word, sentence or indeed story in a silent, global language that is understood by the most elite leaders in business, politics, science and the arts. It means you have made it. You have style. Taste. And yes...power. You join others like you in a very select club.

And that is the true value of a high end watch. It buys you a level of respect and acknowledgement among those who, like you, appreciate the value of something that is hard to define.

But very easy to spend on.