When it comes to the world of horology, there are many factors one must reference before declaring a certain watch or brand high end. Unless you are part of the elite wristwatch club, chances are you would struggle to identify the markers of a high end mechanical wristwatch. There has always been a layer of luxury within the world of wristwatches and after the introduction of the electronic watch (or what the Swiss would refer as the Quartz crisis) in the 1970’s and 1980’s, boasting more precision and accuracy for a much leaner price tag, the mechanical wristwatch industry fell back on its reputation as a luxury item.
While there is much debate about what defines a high end mechanical wristwatch, there are a few different components to consider. In addition to the brand, there is the design, the intricate complications (features such as a calendar, chronograph, time-zone display), the production process, and finally – the ravishing jewelry. These are a few of the things to look out for in high end timepiece.
It goes without saying, Rolex dominates the high end watch market in terms of publicity, however there are numerous lesser known brands that compare just as well such as Cartier, Ebel, Omega and TAG Heuer and while these brands are considered high end by most watch enthusiasts, they’re certainly not top of the line, at least when it comes to the price. Mechanical wristwatches from watch makers like Alain Silberstein, Audemars Piguet, Franck Muller or Patek Philippe can be priced anywhere from $5,000 to over a million dollars. These luxury watches are known for their hand craftsmanship and very limited production numbers, giving their timepieces an added exclusivity value. While it’s easy to look at a brand and say a wristwatch is high end, there is much more to luxury wristwatches than just the name.
Complications is the term used for all the bells and whistles of the high end wristwatch market. There are traditional complications like date display, calendars, time zone display, and chronographs (similar to a stop watch). There are also more specialized complications such as solar time display, star charts and moon phases. The more sophisticated the feature, the more complicated the timepiece is. Complications can result in a timepiece having over a thousand parts. When a timepiece is produced with multiple complications, it is referred to as a Grand Complication. Grand Complications are considered to be the most intricate achievement in the world of haute horology. Pieces like these usually boast at least three complications. The common standard for a Grand Complication is that it boasts of at least one timing complication such as a simple chronograph, one astronomical complication such as moon phase display, and one striking complication such as an alarm.
The Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4 is considered to be the worlds most complicated wristwatch and boasts of 36 complications (25 of them visible), 1,483 parts and a not so humble price tag of $2.7 million. While complications are certainly an aspect luxury watch collectors are going to be looking for, there is also the production method of the watch maker.
One of the number one factors that can put a watch into the high end category is whether or not it is sporting an in-house movement. Typically, cheaper to mid-range watches are equipped with stock mass produced movements. One of the alluring factors behind big names like Audemars Piguet, Jaegur-Lecoultre, A. Lange & Sohne and Patek Philippe is that they offer watches with either partial or full in-house movements, giving them an upper hand in terms of speciality. While it is arguable whether an in-house movement is any better than the standard ETA manufactured movements, when it really comes down to it, having a custom in-house movement is just another sign of luxury and distinctiveness.
Just as luxury items like high end cars are often built in limited numbers to increase a particular model’s inherent value, the luxury watch industry follows the same practice. For instance, in September of last year basketball star Lebron James, in conjunction with Audemars Piguet, launched a $51,500 watch that he helped them design. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore LeBron James is a limited edition with only 600 pieces produced. Lebron James is not alone in working with high end timepiece companies. Hublot worked with Jay Z to launch The Shawn Carter. With a price tag of $33,900, the Shawn Carter 18k gold edition was launched last November and only 100 pieces were produced.
Although limited production is a desirable feature, another detail of production that high end watch enthusiasts pay close attention to is whether a watch has a handcrafted element (handcrafted exterior or hand finished mechanical movements). There are machines that can provide a quality finish, but typically the top of the line watch makers employ century old methods by hand, adding a touch of what some would argue is authenticity. The main goal behind finishing a watch is to essentially clean and smooth out components of the watch. Using tiny tools and a magnifying glass, a specialist cleans and polishes one piece at a time. This process known as chamfering or beveling, gives the components of a piece a finish not possible by machine.
COSC: Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres
The Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute tests Swiss wristwatches for accuracy and precision. The institute tests a single piece for over two weeks, subjecting the piece to various conditions in multiple positions. Once a piece has met the COSC’s standard, it is awarded with an official chronometer certificate. While having near perfect precision and accuracy isn’t a necessity, watches that do pass the chronometer standard pick up a feature only three per cent of the Swiss watches receive. For the real watch-lovers out there, the COSC certificate (and the serial number that comes with it) can be the difference between a real high end Swiss watch and a low quality watch. Others would say a COSC certificate is irrelevant in terms of determining whether a piece is high end or not.
It wouldn’t be as luxurious if it weren’t for the natural gems placed in your timepiece. Gems like sapphire and diamonds are commonly used to dress up a luxury watch to give it a distinct look. The last thing a true luxury watch lover wants to have is an authentic watch, with artificial gems. Evidently, not all high end watches are equipped with decorative gems, but for some watch enthusiasts real jewels are a must when selecting a luxury watch. Evidently adding more gems equates to a bigger price tag, which is all it takes for some consumers to dub a certain piece high end or at least luxurious.
Determining what is and isn’t a high end luxury watch is kind of like asking someone to give their definition of high end cuisine and as is the case here, everybody is going to have their own tastes. You can bicker about whether an in-house movement is a must have or whether a grand complication is necessary, but for most people just mentioning a brand is enough for them to make up their own mind.
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