There is no doubt about it: Luxury watches are impressive for a number of reasons. However, similar to sports fans, watch enthusiasts tend to divide themselves into camps. Most often the dividing lines are drawn by brand name, but there are other important aspects that also divide luxury watch fans. Some buy timepieces for their mechanical technology, others are drawn to the watch’s design. If you’ve been involved with the industry for a while now, chances are you’ll have some preconceived notions about brands and their reputations. For instance, what comes to mind when you hear “Rolex” or “Seiko?”
Our magazine contributors are also divided on this front. Thus, we’ve decided to include both perspectives in a single article. You’ll have to decide for yourself which aspect is more important to you when it comes to purchasing a luxury watch.
Pascal Gehrlein: Form Trumps Function
The tension between form and function isn’t unique to the watch industry. We often associate design with superficiality and a lack of depth, but that is nonsense in my opinion. Of course, I appreciate that a watch wouldn’t work without its movement – technology is important. That said, one could argue that it’s secondary today considering it’s been a while since we’ve really relied on mechanical timepieces to keep track of the time.
I believe that design is what saved the watch industry during the quartz crisis. Technology alone hasn’t been able to secure the future of the mechanical watch industry since the 1970s and 80s. Major developments like the first automatic watch or the first date display were already 20 years old at the time. I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but many people consider the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak the timepiece that saved the luxury watch industry. The first-ever luxury sports watch, with its unusual octagonal design and sharp lines, caught the world’s attention. Are those aspects superficial? Yes. But truth be told, you can’t even see the technology at work in non-skeletonized watches. The look of the Royal Oak sent a message: Yes, quartz watches may outperform mechanical watches in terms of accuracy, but the appeal of a luxury watch lies elsewhere – namely, in its design. The Royal Oak set the tone for what luxury watches should be going forward. It’s a similar story with the Patek Philippe Nautilus and Rolex Submariner.
I also think these brands’ consistent designs play a decisive role in terms of recognition, popularity, and value retention. A watch needs to be recognizable to be coveted by the masses – and to maintain its value over time. The exception proves the rule. What’s more, design always goes hand-in-hand with technology. I think it’s very impressive, for example, that manufacturers like AP and Bvlgari manage to squeeze their movements into millimeter-thin cases despite their many components. However, that is not enough to be a deciding factor for me when selecting a watch; nor is a Rolex Parachrom hairspring or a silicon hairspring and Co-Axial escapement from Omega, for that matter.
Things are a bit different when you’re talking about watches in five-figure price ranges, such as the Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk or the Ressence models. Buyers looking to purchase in this price range are typically searching for that perfect combination of complexity and uniqueness. Most have probably already owned a Submariner or Royal Oak at some point and are looking for something a bit more exciting. For me, however, it is rare that a watch wins me over purely with its technology; two examples are the Zenith El Primero Defy Inventor and the Grand Seiko Spring Drive. My colleague will likely mention both technologies, but for me, a watch is a luxury item that is there for enjoyment. It needs to represent something. I admit I may be a more emotionally-driven buyer, but luxury goods are rarely rational purchases, which makes my perspective all the more reasonable.
Tim Breining: Form Follows Function – Even for a Modern Luxury Watch?
Be honest: Can you think of any timepiece on the spot that doesn’t have a reasonable amount of both form and function to offer? All of us have probably heard sayings like “form follows function,” which suggest the two aspects are inseparably linked. That said, the brand name on the dial is usually what determines the popularity of a given timepiece. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that some brands try to win consumers over with arguably questionable creative tactics. In theory, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Richard Mille Bonbon collection comes to mind, which features the finest in watchmaking technology hidden beneath an absurd exterior. Despite the odd exterior, the brand’s tradition of technical brilliance was not sacrificed. In cases such as these, I can make peace with my lack of understanding for stylistic choices.
What I can’t accept is a watch that is lacking in technical sophistication, particularly when it comes to high price ranges. It’s natural for more affordable timepieces to rely on proven, economical technologies. However, I cannot understand the enthusiasm for watches in the five-figure price range that rest on their laurels – whether it be their icon status or a wave of hype – and offer little by way of technical innovation. It is too often the case that certain models are rereleased again and again with subtle color changes or a new case size. So what are reasonable expectations? For one, the technical complexity should be aligned with the price range. Small modifications to ébauche movements can be interesting on watches in the three-figure price range, but I expect an exclusive movement with a certain amount of hand finishing in an expensive luxury timepiece.
Watchmaking Technology at Its Finest
Price aside, technical innovation in watchmaking usually proves that the watch isn’t just for show. Timepieces should be for the enjoyment of their owner. I appreciate that most technical innovations are associated with complications that add additional functions to the watch. But are they really all that important? After all, we can check the date on our smartphones and we don’t really need to know the current moon phase. I think what’s valuable about complications is that they function on a purely mechanical basis and fit into a tiny watch case. To fully appreciate this, I think wearers need to familiarize themselves with the mechanics a bit. What’s nice is that the more you know about the technical background of a timepiece, the more your appreciation for technical details grows. Such is the case when someone first learns that an automatic watch winds itself using the wearer’s arm movements. When you really start to look at the construction, specifications, and detailed functioning of certain models, a whole new level of appreciation for mechanical timepieces is available to you.
Whenever a manufacturer finds a new or alternative solution to a problem, I can hardly wait to learn about the finer details and what barriers were overcome during the development process. Several decades ago, developments were inspired by concrete market needs. Thus, slim, low-maintenance timepieces with longer power reserves were born. In the niche market that the luxury watch industry occupies today, there are hardly any such performance demands left. Nowadays, manufacturers and watchmakers have to find problems themselves and impress tech-savvy customers with their solutions.
If you’re reading this, you may think it’s nonsense. But, in my opinion, if you are passionate about mechanical watches (like I am), you’re already dealing with superfluous objects. That said, are the mechanics any less fascinating just because the cheapest smartphone can outperform even the most complicated chronograph from a functional point of view?
Why You Should Look Beyond the Dial
Bvlgari is one good example of a brand that combines enticing, innovative technology with appealing design. In the race for ever-thinner timepieces, the brand introduced an impressive chronograph with a fascinating movement: the Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT. Bvlgari seems to have a clear goal in mind: continue to produce watches that warrant the use of superlatives. Another example is Audemars Piguet’s controversial CODE 11.59 collection. The watch community pooh-poohed the unspectacular dial, so the abundance of brand new, celebration-worthy in-house calibers powering the timepieces went down with the ship.
I hope I’ve been able to sufficiently communicate my enthusiasm for the functional side of mechanical timepieces. If you’ve previously just been interested in the look of your watches, try giving the mechanics behind the dial a chance. Appreciating a watch in this way is a subtler and more personal experience than just liking the design – and a much more fulfilling one, in my opinion.