Buyer's Guide to Fine Wristwatches (references to identify watches)
Get the most out of your purchase by understanding fine wristwatch value, resale, and buying from various sources
"Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so."
There has long been elegance and prestige associated with a fine watch made with precious metals and jewels. Originally, finely crafted, precision mechanical timepieces also served a serious need in accurate timekeeping needed to facilitate travel and communications across moderate to significant distances.
But now, technology has made it possible to have an accurate wristwatch as the free toy in a fast-food kid's meal. Yet the aspects of watches as fine functional jewellery with poetic and nostalgic ties to their origins remain. I'm sure others can better describe and explain the value people find in owning and wearing fine jewellery.
What it really boils down to is this: any wristwatch over US $200 is more jewellery than a timepiece. So forget about evaluating such items by adding up the cost of components, factoring in the value of precious metals or imagining some supreme value hidden in the mechanism inside. That takes you on a slippery slope to the insanity of people who argue over technical specifications they don't truly understand, trying to intellectually justify wristwatch values for technical and logical reasons that hold little, if any, tangible merit or benefit. The truth is that the value of jewellery is entirely emotional. Any penny spent over $200 on the price of a watch is buying you only more jewellery value and greater emotional satisfaction in having something more unique--nothing more. [top]
Simple. Quartz is clearly better on accuracy. But there are many other advantages and pleasures from wristwatch ownership beyond just measures of precision levels that are beyond the notice of many people.
Frankly, quartz watches and many other technologies don't really do anything significant to better people's lives. People with quartz watches are no more reliably on time than people with mechanical ones. People driving cars with manual or automatic transmissions still get where they are going equally well. People still enjoy music about as much as they used to, even though CDs play it more clearly that tape or LPs did. You are not likely to have any smarter thoughts simply because you wrote them down with a computer than with an ink pen. You can easily spend as much time playing golf or football on an accurate computer simulation game as on a real playing field, but the experience is not any more fulfilling at the end of the day. And you can certainly do a lap around the lake faster in a speedboat than in a rowboat, but what have you really accomplished?
The newer technologies often gain a level of efficiency that makes them... uninteresting. In many cases, the older ways and technologies were more than sufficient, and it is their minor failings that give variety and character to doing things that way. With the older ways, you usually have to be more aware of details, understand more of what you are doing, and take more time being involved in the process. That greater interaction makes the process more personal and enjoyable for some people.
With the newer ways, you can be pretty assured your quartz watch is on the right time, your car's automatic transmission won't miss downshift on the way home, your CD will play exactly the same as it did yesterday, your computer will catch and correct your typos and misspellings, your video game won't stop in the middle because of rain or a player injured in a tackle, and you certainly won't be bothered seeing much of the detail and wildlife on the lake at high speed from your motorboat. How boring.
Mechanical watch enthusiasts often compare the movements, the finishing, the level of adjustment, types of certifications, performance under different circumstances and other esoteric measures of mechanical timepieces.
Quartz watch enthusiasts compare... mostly accuracy measures.
So if efficiency is your main desire, then quartz is for you. If you are tired of efficiency and want something interesting instead, try a mechanical watch.[top]
You will often find mechanical and automatic watches at a significantly higher price than a comparable quartz model. In some cases, a manufacturer will even offer the identical watch with your choice of a mechanical or quartz movement. The mechanical watch will be more expensive. Some people will tell you it is because the mechancial movements are highly refined, others that mechanical movements are very expensive and quartz very inexpensive. Most of that is baloney or exaggerations. Here are the real reasons why.
The whole concept of specific watches--or anything else--being "collectible" is a falsehood. People become mindless lemmings because of some mystic significance to items being called "collectible." They hear things called that and go out and spend money because they blindly think it is a good thing to buy them. There is a broad public perception that things that are labelled "collectible" are good investments--when in most cases, they are far from it.
Beanie babies are a good example. Trivial little toys that ought to cost well under $1, yet people pay outrageous prices in the tens to hundreds of dollars to get them to complete the collections they feel compelled to build. If you ever wish to get your money back out of this 'investment,' you have to find someone even more driven by the collectibility craze than you to sell it to.
The latest form of this collectibility craze began back in the 1970's or so when people started discovering that some items they or their relatives had gathered over the years were suddenly in demand by buyers of memorabilia. This created a 'gold-rush' mentality as everyone started hoping that some of the old items in their basements or attics would be worth huge sums of money. The $1 million find: a first edition comic book, a one of a kind early work of a later famous artist, or some other rare, special or in-demand item from the past.
Once people rummaged through all their current family possessions looking for hidden treasure, they were still unsatisfied--because most of it really was worthless junk. So to continue the gold-rush of trying to get rich off items that collectors desired, people then started buying up things they hoped would magically become valuable. This has led to a society of people who spend tremendous amounts of money buying items old and new, hoping some of it will become like a lottery ticket, magically paying off in the future.
You should NEVER buy something just because anyone tells you it is collectible. Instead, buy what really appeals to you without regard to whether anyone else is collecting them. The term "collectible" has become a cheap label that sellers will slap onto anything--knowing that it causes people to mindlessly associate greater value--usually without even questioning the validity of the claim.
However, keep in mind that "rare" and "hard to find" are positive attributes that make things interesting additions to your collection. But anything being automatically or inherently "collectible" itself is a completely meaningless concept. You should be listening only to your own counsel on what is meaningful or interesting to you to own.
The truth is that anything is collectible if someone wants to collect it. Some of the most valuable collections were items that people had no idea would be valuable in the future. And if your objective really is to try to make money, you would likely be much more successful putting your money in traditional financial investments rather than betting on 'rare finds.'
Often, you will find yourself choosing between two or more intriguing NEW watch purchase options. So how do you determine what factors you should most and least consider?
BRAND REPUTATION is IMPORTANT-- Learn about the reputation of the watch manufacturer. Don't ask watch-store sales people, they often are staggeringly ignorant on watches and often speak a lot of authoritative sounding nonsense, half-facts and downright wrong information. Instead, ask people who already own the types and brands of watches you are considering. Post questions on Internet forums dedicated to watches. And certainly, read all you can here on the Chronocentric site.
RESALE VALUE is IMPORTANT, but ONLY IF YOU UNDERSTAND IT CORRECTLY-- Many buyers have lost lots of their money on poor watch purchase decisions made based on poorly understood measures of "high resale" value. People usually incorrectly focus on how much of their investment they will get back if they resell a watch. But you should instead be focusing on how much you gain or lose in the transaction.
TYPE OF DEALER you shop at is IMPORTANT-- Look at what types of stores are the authorized dealers for the brands you are considering. If you are spending a lot of money on a watch, do not just shop at general department stores or stores that sell mainly low to mid price jewellery. Look at what choices are only available at the much better jewellery stores to get a fuller understanding of the whole spectrum of watches available. The "best" brand at a department store is not necessarily your best choice or best value for your money. Also, make sure you understand whether the dealer you are considering buying a watch from is an authorized dealer for that specific brand. If they are not, then you need to understand the issues involved in buying from unauthorized dealers.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR WANTS AND NEEDS is IMPORTANT-- You will make the best choice in your purchase if you understand what you want and what is really important to you in owning a fine watch. Many people get caught up in excessive details that end up impairing, rather than increasing, their enjoyment. Consider what you want: a watch to impress other people, one to impress you, something stylish, something that makes a statement, one that only you know it is special, with unusual functions, of specific metals, for dress/casual/recreational/active/sports wear, so accurate that you never need to think of resetting it between time changes, or any of dozens of other attributes. Once you have a good handle on these aspects, it will be much easier to select a watch.
KNOWING WHAT YOU BUY is MORE IMPORTANT than BUYING WHAT YOU KNOW-- Often, the best brands of luxury products in terms of quality and value are ones the 'average Joe' may seldom if ever hear of. Rolex and Tag Heuer are the two premium watch brands that are best known to the general public. But simply being popular is not a guarantee that those brands are your best choice or the only high quality, high value products the market has to offer. It is far more beneficial for you to research all your options instead of blindly selecting among the few brands that are 'household names.' You may still end up choosing one of their watches--but do so out of knowledge of your choices, not ignorance of them.
BRAND HISTORY is of SOME IMPORTANCE-- While many brands trace their heritage back 100 years or more, you need to consider how informative this is based on whether the watch you are about to purchase is better because of the experience this history implies, or is merely riding on the coat-tails of ancient successes or bought out fine names of long ago. A number of modern brands bearing fine names are mere shells of what their companies meant decades ago. Look at their new models and compare them to the older models for sale on used watch dealer sites and Internet auctions. Are 5 year old models of this brand worth anything? Are the much older models worth more than more recent ones? These can be signs of dramatic changes in the quality of watches from a manufacturer.
WATCH MOVEMENT DETAILS are usually of LITTLE IMPORTANCE-- Unless you are an expert, connoisseur or collector, do not worry to much about the details of the movement inside a watch beyond whether it is a) quartz, b) certified mechanical (Chronometer), or c) non-certified mechanical. Frankly, most watches from any premium brand are sufficiently fine devices for keeping time that will give you several decades of use if properly maintained. Technical details of the mechanical "movement" (the actual mechanism inside the watch) are seldom particularly important unless the watch you are buying is over $10,000 or has some unique functions. Over 98% of mechanical watches made mainly tell the time, date, and maybe include chronograph functions. All mechanical watches with just these basic features use technology invented over 75 years ago, and nobody has really improved it since then. So do not waste time fooling yourself into believing one standard mechanical watch mechanism is perceptibly different from another--especially to the extent of paying more for one watch over another based on that attribute alone.
ROMANTIC NOTIONS OF WATCH MAKING are MOSTLY UNIMPORTANT and OFTEN FALSE OR MISLEADING-- Many fine watchmakers try to give the feel that their expensive products are finely hand crafted. They do this by creating an image of your watch being made by generation old families of dedicated watch craftsmen, in a quaint village in the Swiss Alps, with movements made by the same people who make the rest of the watch, each crafted over long periods of time. But all of that is nothing more than romantic baloney designed to make you feel better about spending so much money on a watch. The truth is that very few watches under US $20,000 are hand crafted. Most are mass produced by machines in large quantities. Even the highly reputed Rolex is mass produced--they make over a million watches a year! Notions of the movement of the watch being better if made 'in-house' than if made by a separate company (even if owned by the same parent organization) are antiquated concepts that have little to no meaning in the modern age of large corporations and mass production. In fact, it is the modern techniques of mass production that ensure the higher level of consistency and quality that we enjoy of modern watches.
PRICE is NOT IMPORTANT -- "What?" you say? Price not important? That's right--it is not!! Price is only one measure of the value and deal you are getting. What good is a low price alone when the dealer is unable or unwilling to resolve a problem and you have no recourse with the manufacturer because you bought through an unauthorized cut-price dealer? What good is saving an extra few percent on a very expensive purchase if the product never arrives, lacks good warranty coverage, or otherwise will disappoint you or cost you more money in the long run? So always choose your watch over the value you will receive for your money, not simply the lowest price for something that looks like what you wanted.
NUMBER OF JEWELS INSIDE THE WATCH is NOT IMPORTANT -- The number of jewels in the watch movement are normally prominently mentioned as if they really meant something. But in fact they are a just a red herring. These are not jewels of value. They are small synthetic ruby elements used as extremely low friction pivots for a few critical parts of a watch mechanism. They are worth only a few pennies and do not add value to a watch. The exact number that is appropriate for any watch movement depends on the exact design and functions of the movement. It is perfectly normal for two watch movements with identical performance and functions to use a different number of jewels. A standard mechanical movement usually requires a minimum of 17 jewels--but beyond that, more is not better in any way that you could interpret. [top]
While authorized dealers are normally the safest choice for buying an expensive watch, there are many other options. Making the most informed decision is always the best choice.
Authorized dealers normally offer these advantages over unauthorized (grey market) dealers:
But authorized dealers are far from consistent or perfect. In addition to usually offering only modest discounts off of the manufacturer's retail price, authorized dealers sometimes come with these disadvantages:
While highly touted, a COSC certification or Chronometer rating on a mechanical (manual wind or automatic) watch really doesn't mean all that much anymore. Most any modern mechanical watch from a luxury watch brand is capable of operating at the performance level tested to receive these certifications.
People frequently mistake a chronometer rating as an absolute guarantee of performance to a particular specification--usually the often quoted -4 to +6 seconds per day which is actually only one of the seven performance measurements used in the test. In fact, the certification testing is nothing more than an additional quality control test that the movement in the watch passed at some time in the past, long before it was even assembled into your watch. It is not a guarantee that the watch will never deviate outside a particular range. In fact, mechanical watches are normal to deviate--that's why the chronometer rating exists in the first place. The range of these tests were established decades ago, when the average mechanical watch was nowhere near as accurate as they are today.
Imagine getting an A+ in math in high school and then being expected to never ever make a mathematical mistake the rest of your life. That's not how performance tests work. They only certify that you have proven once to have achieved a specific measure of performance under reasonable conditions. They neither mandate that you can never vary below that level in the future, nor do they prove that someone else who did not take that same test can never meet or exceed your level of performance. But having once established that you can achieve that level, the certification gives greater public confidence that you can perform similarly well in the future.
Same with your mechanical watch. It may have passed a test in the past, showing it was capable of getting an A+ in performance. But the actual day-to day performance of any mechanical watch--certified or not--can change a lot based on how well the watch is wound, what position it is left in overnight on your dresser, whether it takes a significant bump during the day and other factors. So do not give tremendous amount of weight to the significance of these certifications. In particular, do not assume that a specific watch is inferior because it lacks a certification--it did not take the test and fail, it simply never took this optional extra test.
The reason that some watches are still submitted for these certifications is more as a marketing and sales tool among competing brands. The presence of a certification can give you a small measure of additional confidence in the selection of your watch, but nothing more than that. Most any mechanical watch from a premium brand, when adjusted properly, will perform to within the certification ratings. [top]
I am worried after reading on the Internet about some people having a problem with the watch I'm thinking about buying.
Virtually none of any of the 'problems' you might hear about are more than isolated cases. Expensive watches are not different from any other elaborate mechanical item, whether it is Rolex, Omega, BMW, Mercedes, or other such items that are simultaneously high-end and large production volume products. Despite superior quality control procedures, all are subject to minor manufacturing inconsistencies and technical glitches. It is virtually impossible to find any luxury brand of technical product that at least a few people have not had a problem with.
In addition, many first-time owners of luxury and mechanical watches have misunderstandings and unreasonable expectations of the operation, accuracy, durability and limits of these fine timepieces. So often, complaints or criticisms come from concerns not actually related to any real defect or problem with the watch itself.
To give some perspective to the issue, consider the largest of the luxury watch manufacturers, Rolex, who manufactures over 1,000,000 watches a year. Even if they have an astronomically high 99.995% perfection rate (they do not publish their actual rate, so this number is purely an example of an extremely high perfection rate), that means that over the past ten years, 50,000 watches may have been sold with imperfections that might need to be addressed.
Most of the people you see posting on Internet watch forums have bought at least one and frequently three to five new expensive watches in the past 10 years. When these people mention any bugs they experienced, you are seeing a sampling of problems across a huge number of watches and a large number of years. Certainly any brand will have some reported problems. But given the relatively small number of problems mentioned of Omega, Rolex and most other premium watches in the online forums, that sampling rate proves that these watch manufacturers have an excellent success rate. The unfortunate but inevitable imperfections appear to be at an extreme minimum and are normally addressed within the warranty period.
Occasionally an unhappy customer of a product will post an anti-company propaganda web site to harass the company--often out of vengeance or a 'pay me off to shut me up' motive. Despite a lot of emotional wording, these crusades attempting to scare customers away from the company's products are seldom based on anything more than an isolated case of customer confusion or mishandled customer service. Some continue to post disparaging information long after the issue was amicably resolved with the dealer or manufacturer.
So do not let any isolated complaints or problem reports scare you off any of these fine brands. For every isolated problem report for a top brand luxury watch, there are thousands of satisfied owners who never experience any difficulties.[top]
Watches can be a good investment--but not for everybody. One really important thing to remember, watches, like automobiles, normally lose value over time and are not good investments unless you really know a lot about the market and specific items you are investing in. Anytime you buy a watch or car new, the value immediately drops. For fine wristwatches, many can be resold for only 40% to 80% of what you will pay for them from a new watch dealer.
For the average watch enthusiast, buying and selling of watches is usually at a loss. Maybe a break even at best. Most consider this simply the cost of owning the watch for the months or years they enjoy it.
Do not be confused or misled by statements that certain watches have a 'higher resale value' than others. Since almost all watches (except the truly rare and special collectibles) lose value over time, you have to judge the resale value of a watch by what you lose, not what you get back.
For example, say you have a choice between a $3500 watch that has an 80% resale value versus a $1750 watch with only a 60% resale value. The more expensive watch sounds like the better investment. But when you look at how much you will lose, the result may be surprising.
$3500 new, resell for $2800 (80%), net loss $700
While these numbers are only examples, they show that you need to specifically evaluate your choices rather than simply relying on generalizations about 'better resale.' For investing and resale, used watches are often a better financial deal because they are already depreciated to the resale value--so you are much more likely to be able to resell them at close to what you paid for them.[top]
Sure, there are many stories of watches that are worth much more than was paid for them years ago. But as described above, do not let general statements and shallow analyses mislead you on what truly is or is not a good investment. Again, watches are seldom a good financial investment--and then only for the people who are truly lucky, truly knowledgeable or are dealing with one of a few very high-demand watch models.
For example, someone asked about a Omega Speedmaster Professional bought in 1969 for $300 which today sells in good condition for a minim un of $1000. Sounds like the watch has more than tripled in value by looking at just the raw numbers. But has it really? Let's look at the same scenario converted to "real dollars."
Based on the Consumer Price Index in the USA, $300 in 1969 translates to about 4.7 times as many dollars in 2000. So spending $300 on a watch back then is equal to buying a $1400 watch today. If that watch is now worth at least $1000, then it has retained over 70% of its real value. In "real" terms, that watch has only cost 400 modern dollars (plus maintenance) for 31 years of enjoyment. Quite respectable, but certainly not the astounding "tripled in value" story that it initially appeared.
In another example, a basic Rolex DateJust bought in 1981 for $900 would equal $1700 spent in 2000. This watch is now worth at least $1400, so has also retained over 80% of its "real" value. That translates to a cost of 300 modern dollars (plus maintenance) for 20 years of enjoyment of this watch.
So while almost all watches are depreciating investments--meaning they will lose, not gain, value over time--many if cared for well maintain enough value that their cost of ownership is not only very affordable, but potentially less than many lower priced watches.[top]
Firstly, there is no magic formula for making money off of watches with high resale values. As described above, watches are generally quite poor as financial investments. The best you should expect is to buy a watch that you will enjoy. If you think yourself likely to ever resell your watch--something only a small percentage of luxury watch owners ever actually do--then the tips below should help you choose with a clearer understanding of what does and does not contribute to resale value.
The primary factors in why resale values vary among brands, models and individual pieces are:
To understand what makes a watch have a good or bad resale value, you really need to look at it from the perspective of what makes a buyer more or less willing to pay for a particular used watch?
Aspects that have a very positive influence on resale value:
Aspects that may have only a small influence the resale price:
Aspects that lose the most value on resale:
And finally, aspects that notably hurt resale values:
Watch manufacturers typically offer limited--often only 1-year-- factory warranties on their products. But in this modern world, that is a pretty nominal warranty period for such an expensive purchase. To give customers a greater feeling of confidence (and combat the tactics of unauthorized dealers), many authorized dealers offer to extend the warranty out an additional one or two years.
What is important for you to know is that--in most cases--this additional warranty coverage is not through the manufacturer or their official and international service networks. The watch manufacturer's warranty obligation to you ends under the terms of the original factory warranty, which usually covers just the first year. After that time, the manufacturer's service centre any other authorized dealers will not be able to provide free service under the "extended" portion of the warranty. Those additional year(s) of coverage are between you and the specific dealer who sold you the watch. So should you need service during the "extended" period, you must take the watch back to that specific dealer.
Unauthorized (grey market) dealers, who cannot include even the initial factory warranty with watches they sell, have been trying to gain a competitive advantage by offering their own warranties of longer durations. But again, any such warranty is through that specific dealer and will not be recognized or honoured by the manufacturer or any other watch dealer.[top]
The phrases "open warranty" and "open papers" create an impression in the novice watch buyer's mind that the warranty is transferable and opened ended--so it can be activated whenever they want to start the (usually one year) warranty period. But beware, this is often far from the truth!
What it actually means is the warranty paperwork was inadequately completed. Incomplete paperwork can cause your warranty to be effectively null and void. In some cases, the warranty is validated by a dealer stamp, but the date is left blank. In other cases, it may mean the warranty card is totally blank. In either case, the warranty is likely useless.
A warranty card is not a pass to free service all by itself. A dealer or manufacturer's service centre may well request further documentation beyond just the card to establish the date of purchase or authorized dealer status of the point of initial sale. This is not unusual as many warranty cards are lost, unreadable or incomplete--even coming from many of the authorized dealers.
So no matter what the warranty card says, it is not by itself a guarantee of service. If it cannot be backed up with the owner providing a sales receipt from an authorized dealer that matches the date of sale, then the warranty card will likely NOT be honoured. People have tried playing games with warranty cards for decades and the manufacturers' service centres know what to look for to spot bogus warranty claims. [top]
Grey market watches are genuine watches from the original manufacturer. They are not fakes or factory seconds. The only thing that makes them different is that they passed through an unauthorized dealer or reseller on the way to you. Where this becomes an issue is that the manufacturer's warranties are not valid on these watches.[top]
Most popular makes of fine watches are prone to having their designs copied by manufacturers of replica watches. These watches sell from as little as $10 to several hundred dollars--but $100-150 appears to be the most common range. They vary from generic look-alike to exacting reproductions of the exteriors of the genuine watch. Often, even details such as the manufacturers logo, serial numbers, and other markings are reproduced.
Also, some of the department store brands of watches including Peugeot, ESQ, Fossil, Citizen, Wilson, Timex, and even Seiko will make watches that look suspiciously similar (but not quite close enough to get them in trouble) to the popular models of the high end brands like Omega, Rolex, and Breitling.[top]
Omega and many other fine watch makers' official positions are that you should not purchase new watches from dealers who sell over the Internet. They say you should visit an authorized reseller of their products to make your purchase. Almost none of the fine watch manufacturers have allowed authorized dealers to sell over the Internet, but I am happy to report that there are an increasing number of exceptions.
Ironically, many of these manufacturers who object to the mass of unauthorized dealers on the Internet offer only very limited information on their watches on their official web sites. So they essentially force people who have no easy access to an authorized dealer--or have an unknowledgeable authorized dealer--to seek out the unauthorized Internet vendors to get adequate information on the majority those products.
Buying through an authorized dealer is the safest way to acquire any fine watch. You should have no problems obtaining warranty service directly from the manufacturer or any of their authorized retailers or repair centres. You should have no risk of receiving a fake, grey market, or serial-number-less watch. While many will initially quote you retail price, in many areas, you should be able to negotiate 10-20% off that price. Increasingly, even authorized dealers are including an extra year or two on top of the manufacturer's warranty.
You do have alternatives, but each entails some risk in return for saving more money on your watch purchase. A number of the risks are described in the sections above on Grey Market and Fake/Replica watches.
Since most fine watch makers do not permit authorized dealers to sell over the Internet, then it is likely that any watch purchased over the Internet would be a grey market item at best. Many people have had excellent experiences buying from reputable grey market dealers who are honest and stand behind their products. There are also reports of people who have had very unsatisfying experiences buying from authorized dealers. As with any expensive purchase, ask a lot of questions and learn as much as you can about the product and the seller before making any purchase.
Also, do not confuse authorized dealers that communicate over the Internet with unauthorized dealers that sell directly on the Internet. Most fine watchmakers use the Internet to display their products and communicate to their customers. An increasing number of reputable, authorized dealers can be reached through the Internet for information and will accept telephone or fax orders and ship the product to you.[top]
The increasing popularity of online auctions and for sale forums opens a larger number of watch buying opportunities along with a chance to deal with hundreds of different and potentially completely unknown sellers. Beyond the common risks of dealing with dishonourable sellers, the biggest thing you need to protect yourself from are sellers that prey on people in individual or private sales over the Internet. Use appropriate cautions buying watches off of online auction houses, such as eBay.
Here is the list of warning signs to watch out for:
For sale forums on watch collector oriented sites may be safer. Since they are public forums frequented by watch experts, you are more likely to see knowledgeable people jump in to comment on suspicious-looking watch descriptions, photos, or other claims by sellers. You'll also have easy access to experts that enjoy answering questions on their favourite subject--watches! [top]