Watch Buying 101

Time is our most precious commodity. So it stands that we ought to manage that commodity as effectively as possible. The watch is one of the oldest tools known to man and while it helps us manage our time, it can also be an important fashion accessory.

I was fortunate to attend BaselWorld 2011 in Basel, Switzerland. This is the premier watch and jewelry event in the world. As I met with watch manufacturers and designers, I was struck at how much information there is to absorb. As a result, I thought it might be useful to provide a watch-buying guide for my physician readers. My objective is to provide some useful tips as a starting point should you be interested in buying a new sport watch or even if you are thinking of investing in high-end collectible watches.

In order to provide this overview, I turned to Donnie Pacheco, the buying manager for the Amazon.com watch business and an industry veteran. The following material is extracted largely from my discussion with Donnie.

FUNCTIONS

When purchasing a new watch, the first thing to consider is the purpose for the watch. These days there is a wide range of watches designed for exercise, aviation, yachting, diving, cycling, climbing, fashion, dress and so forth.

One consideration beyond immediate use is how long you intend for the watch to last. While many $500 watches can last decades, high-end watch brands like Patek Phillip pride themselves on being an heirloom. In fact, they are known for their statement: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”

PRICE

Depending on what you expect from your new watch, you can plan to spend anywhere from $100 on up. You can certainly get a quality and nice looking dress watch for $250 to $1,000 and many of the premium casual watches will run from $750 to a few thousands dollars. Watches that are considered “high-end” collectable watches start around $3,000 and can easily get into the hundreds of thousands for all hand-made very limited edition pieces.

MOVEMENT

Watches generally come with one of three basic types of movement: Automatic self-wind, Mechanical Hand-wind or Quartz.

The majority of watches made today utilize the vibrations of a tiny quartz crystal to maintain timing, with the power coming from a battery that needs to be replaced every 2 to 3 years. Watches with quartz movements are more accurate, losing about a minute of accuracy over a year, and they can have either analog or digital displays, or both.

Automatic watches are made up of about 130 or more parts that work together to tell time. Automatic movements mark the passage of time by a series of gear mechanisms, and are wound by the movement of your wrist as you wear it. The gear train then transmits the power to the escapement, which distributes the impulses, turning the balance wheel. The balance wheel is the time regulating organ of a mechanical watch, which vibrates on a spiral hairspring. Lengthening or shortening the balance spring makes the balance wheel go faster or slower to advance or retard the watch. The travel of the balance wheel from one extreme to the other and back again is called oscillation. Lastly, automatic movements come in different types, including movements that are Swiss-made, Japanese-made, and more.

Also referred to as self-winding, watches with automatic movements utilize kinetic energy, the swinging of your arm, to provide energy to an oscillating rotor to keep the watch ticking. They’re considered more satisfying to watch collectors (horologists) because of the engineering artistry that goes into the hundreds of parts that make up the movement. If you do not wear an automatic watch consistently (for about 8 to 12 hours a day), you can keep the watch powered with a watch winder (a great gift for collectors).

There are also some one-off variants that are kind of interesting including:

Eco-drive was created by Citizen and has earned recognition in the watch industry as a leader in ecologically-friendly timekeeping. Citizen Eco-Drive runs continuously in any kind of light (natural or artificial) for a lifetime of use without a battery. The Eco-Drive movement absorbs light through the crystal and dial. Inside the watch, a solar cell converts the light to the energy required to make the watch run.

Referring to the Seiko line of Kinetic watches, this innovative technology has a quartz movement that doesn’t use a battery. Movement of the wearer’s wrist charges a very efficient capacitor that powers the quartz movement. Once the capacitor is fully charged, men’s models will store energy for 7-14 days without being worn and ladies’ models will store energy for 3-7 days. The watch alerts the wearer to a low capacitor charge when the second hand starts to move in two-second intervals. It’s also worth noting the Bulova Precisionist watch. It is the most accurate quartz watch available and it has the same sweeping hand of an automatic watch….very innovative.

SWISS INFLUENCE

While the Swiss have historically been considered the premier watch-makers, there are increasingly quality brands from Japan, Germany and elsewhere. Many of the high-end watch brands promote the fact that they a true “watch manufacture” meaning that they control all stages in the making of their watches, from design to production, from assembly and finish to distribution. They will insist the comprehensive approach to production has many important benefits. Certain traditional skills and tools, which have not changed for hundreds of years, can still be used on a daily basis. The experience and know-how of the master watchmakers is passed on to new generations. However in order for a watch to be able to label itself “Swiss-made”, it must meet specific criteria governed by the Swiss authorities. You can find those criteria HERE.

TRENDS

The watch industry saw a significant downturn in 2009 as a result of the worldwide economic recession. However, 2010 saw the industry bounce back aggressively, heavily driven by Asian demand. Despite the increasing growth of Asian demand, the United States remains the largest export audience for the various Swiss brands.

One of the prominent trends coming out of Basel this year was the return to slimmer case sizes (width) and overall sleekness. (ex. Women’s watches are getting back to a 32mm casing….now called “mini.” ) This trend counters the run for years towards larger watches calling for more attention. A return to modesty and subtlety is evident on lots of new introductions.

Color definitely continues to be a trend. Rose gold is still hot especially when paired with black. Materials like rubber and plastic are finding their way to fashion watches while dress watches are generally returning to more classic designs.

CARE

The most frequent care requirement for battery-operated watches is the changing of the battery. Donnie suggests taking the watch to a department store or jeweler that carries watches and spend roughly relatively little to get the watch changed. ($8 at Nordstrom for a basic battery chance. Costs increase as the complexity of the procedure climbs.) The small expense avoids a possible scratch or problem returning the casing pressure/water resistance back to normal (where applicable).

Automatic watches require a bit more care than those with battery-powered quartz movements, as the self-winding mechanism is more complex. For one thing, an automatic watch is powered by the kinetic movement of your arm, and it will require winding if not worn for several days. Automatic watch mechanisms also benefit from continued movement to keep it calibrated and prevent lubricants from congealing. If you have more than one automatic watch that you switch between, you should consider a watch winder, a device that holds one or several timepieces and moves it in a circular fashion to emulate the human motion that keeps it ticking. They’re also a great way to display your watch collection. When choosing a watch winder, look for devices that have a “turn-and-rest” program, which stops the motor after a specified cycle of spins to more accurately emulate daily activity.

Sizing a watch is generally pretty simple and you can buy any of the simple resizing kits needed from Amazon.com or have it done at most jewelers.

Just as with a car, you can check with the maker of a watch to locate authorized sellers and repair shops for a particular brand.

AMAZON.COM

I generally find that my personal buying habits mirror the average physician from this standpoint….I go to brick and mortar shopping stores less and less. I don’t have time to waste at brick and mortar retailers, I don’t like to navigate parking and crowds and most importantly, I like the research I can do online. Moreover, I do not generally visit brand web sites. I visit sites like Amazon because they are familiar, I can trust them, my experience with them is consistent and I can get more done with less effort. If this style of shopping sounds like your cup of tea, then Amazon.com has a lot to offer in your quest for a new watch. I asked Donnie to tell me more specifically about the Amazon.com watch business and whether my preferences are consistent with trends he sees.

Data shows that more and more people are converting their buying habits to the web…even for very high-end purchases like cars, expensive jewelry and so forth. Brands that refuse to be online will eventually find themselves irrelevant. Second,  Amazon’s priorities are price, selection and convenience and it is very difficult for a particular brand to match the Amazon.com experience. Amazon.com knows online retail inside and out. Specific brands do not; and they usually learn the hard way that it’s best to focus on their core business and partner with Amazon.com to handle at least some of their online activity.

While there is a wide range of watch selection available directly on Amazon.com, they also have watches available on Endless.com, a site built and owned by Amazon.com. Endless.com not only carries some additional brands, but it offers some features unique to fashion and apparel that some consumers will find appealing. (ex. 24 hour delivery on newly released products and a 365 day return policy)

 

SAMPLING OF BRANDS W/COMMENTS

Rolex: This brand is the gold standard and considered the biggest brand in the industry. 

Tag-Heuer: Just introduced the first mechanical watch to use a center second hand to show 1/100 second indications.

Bulova: A wholly owned subsidiary of Citizen, this company has a wide range of moderately priced dress watches.

Tissot: Around since 1853, this company was the first to introduce watches made of wood, rock, plastic and mother of pearl.

Casio: The G-Shock line is a workhorse with a number of clever features including a self-charging solar powered edition and an atomic timekeeper edition that automatically adjusts for leap-year and Daylight Savings.

Citizen: Aside from the Eco-drive, Citizen boasts the slimmest LCD watch, the first voice recognition watch and the world’s first professional dive watch with an electronic depth sensor.

Cartier: One of the biggest targets for copy-cats, Cartier entered the market in 1904 as an aviator’s wrist watch.

Speedo: Watches made for swimming where you can actually push the buttons under water without letting water into the case.

Baum & Mercier: It’s Capeland sports watch collection has been revamped to appear less rugged and more refined. Depending on finishes, this line ranges from $7,000 to $20,000.

Patek Phillip: Considered by many to be the premier maker of wristwatches in the world and the prices reflect their position.

Ulysses-Ardin: With a rich history of marine wristwatches many describe these timepieces as truly fluid in look and design and captured by their anchor logo.

Oakley: Swiss made timepieces with very bold looks.

Michael Kors: The fashion standard. Their runway shows helped revive fashion watches.

Marc Jacobs: Great fashion watches and doing interesting things with aluminum to achieve antique finishes.

Bell & Ross: A new company (1992) they were created to operate in extreme conditions experienced by pilots, divers and astronauts.

IWC: Classic, thin and elegant dress watches are what you get with he Portofino Automatic and Portofino Chronograph lines ranging from $4,200 to $10,800.

Ademars Piguet: The Millenary 4101 provides an interesting look into the watches inner-workings. The oval case watch comes in steel ($20,600) or rose gold ($33,900)

A. Lange & Sohne: This 21 year old company has watches that exceed $100,000 but it also has the Saxonia Thin line that measures just 5.9mm thick and the rose gold version is $19,700.

U-Boat: Watches made for the Italian Army with very bold looks. 

Movado: Known for their museum dial and introducing lots of new looks in recent years.

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