Category Archives: Fine Watches

Simplicity is Back

For years, watch manufacturers have been trying to out do themselves when it comes to technical innovation.  It’s not enough to have a watch that tells the time; you also have to provide multiple time zones, the tidal schedules, the phases of the moon, the barometric pressure, and whatever else a company’s engineers can dream up to stick inside a watch case.

simple watchThen you end up with something like the Patek Philippe Grand Complication, which is lovely, but so hard to make that there’s only one, and it wouldn’t matter, anyway, because if there were more than one, you still couldn’t afford it.

Watch fans love these kinds of timepieces, though they don’t necessarily want to wear them or carry them around.  They want to own them, and talk about them, and they’re great for a company’s public relations department.

At the end of the day, however, watch companies are in the business of selling watches, and ideally, selling a lot of them.  Elaborate timepieces with other-worldly complications are great for publicity, but you couldn’t sell a thousand of them if you wanted to.

People want watches they can wear every day.  They want watches that are practical for use at work, or at the store, or on a night out on the town.

They don’t want watches that have to spend time in the shop every six months for elaborate (and expensive!) maintenance.

That’s why few people were truly surprised at this year’s Baselworld convention in Switzerland to see that the sort of watch that a lot of major manufacturers were showing off had a feature that has seemingly disappeared in recent years.

Three hands only.

The industry seems to have scaled back a bit in the last year or two, partly due to a slump in the sales of high end watches and partly due to a perceived glut in the market.  In times of turmoil, it’s best to go back to what you know best, and that’s your basic, time-only watch with hands for the hour, the minute and the second.

Such watches will never go out of style; they evoke the basic necessity of a timepiece – they tell the time.  They don’t tell other stories, or draw attention to themselves for additional faces, hands, buttons, lights, wheels, tourbillons or any other gadget.

They just tell the time.

That said, they’re not necessarily simple watches.  Movements are constantly being refined and there’s a new trend in recent years to make watches as thin as possible.  People are looking for simple looks with oversized faces and thin cases.

Companies are complying and the result at Baselworld was a showing of tasteful and attractive, yet simple-looking timepieces that will look good today and will likely look terrific and continue to run well thirty or forty years from now.

Such watches may resemble the sorts of timepieces your grandfather bought back in the day, but rest assured they’re more accurate, built quite a bit better, and are far less likely to give you trouble of any kind than those timepieces of a generation or two ago.

Simple is back.

Want to Play Poker?

Every time we think we’ve seen the limits of what a designer can do in the way of mechanical watch complications, someone comes up with something radically new.  Granted, these new complications aren’t always necessary; in fact, they rarely are.

One doesn’t really need to know the phases of the moon, or the tide schedule, but watchmakers enjoy figuring out ways to put these things into their timepieces and collectors love them.

christophe claret blackjack watch

This watch can play Blackjack

That’s why there’s a bit of excitement over the new casino series of watches from Christophe Claret.  These three timepieces are fully functional mechanical watches in gold cases, so from the word go, they’re going to be exceptionally nice wristwatches.

But the models in this series also have unique complications, and we mean unique as in the literal “no other watches do this.”

The three watches in the Christophe Claret casino series allow you to play casino games, as each one features a unique, fully functional game on its face, along with a fully functional roulette wheel on the back.

The three games are Baccara (Baccarat,) Blackjack (21,) and Poker (Texas Hold ‘Em.)

The Baccara watch has three small windows near 12 o’clock that show the banker’s cards and three small windows near 6 o’clock that show the player’s cards.  A button at the 9 o’clock position shuffles the cards and a button at 8 o’clock distributes cards to the players while a third button at 10 o’clock organizes distribution to the bank.

christophe claret poker watch

The Poker Watch plays Texas Hold ‘Em

The Blackjack watch has three windows at the top of the face that display the dealer’s cards and six windows at the bottom of the fact that display the player’s cards.  In addition, this watch (as do the other two) has a fully functional roulette wheel on the back.

The Texas Hold ‘Em Poker watch allows three players to play Texas Hold ‘Em, ad the watch includes a full 52 card deck and all 98,304 possible card combinations for a truly randomb game.

These watches are attractive and astonishingly complicated, and it took the company three years to bring them to market after introducing the prototypes due to additional problems in fine tuning the complications.

Each watch is available in four slightly different configurations and all are limited in production to 20 pieces per case style.  As you might expect, pricing is not modest; these watches are all priced at close to $200,000 each.

On the other hand, if you happen to own one, you’re unlikely to ever encounter another owner.  They’re rare and exotic and truly amazing pieces of art.

 

Unusual Watch Case Materials Emerge

Sapphire watch case from HublotAside from appearance, most people don’t give a lot of thought to watch cases.  If you asked the average watch buyer what the case is about, they’d likely tell you that it’s to hold the movement.

In a practical sense, that’s pretty much all a case does, but that doesn’t mean that manufacturers aren’t spending a lot of time deciding what kind of materials to use in their cases.

Sapphire watch caseFor most watches, the material used for the case is stainless steel.  It’s relatively easy to work with, it’s a common material, it isn’t going to rust, and it doesn’t cost a lot of money.

You can coat it to give it a bit of color, but most of the coating processes will wear off with time and use.  If you want to keep the color and you don’t want a watch that just looks like it’s made from steel, then you’re going to need to find another material.

For high end watches, gold has long been the go-to material for offering a bit of luxury and a different look.  Gold (and platinum, as well) has a few drawbacks.  It’s expensive, of course, though that’s part of the appeal to luxury watch buyers.

Gold is also quite soft, and that can be a problem, as it scratches easily.  Gold has to be combined with other materials to make it more durable, but it’s still going to be quite a bit softer than steel.

With improvements in technology, a few manufacturers have taken to using other high-tech materials to make their watch cases, with varying degrees of success.

Here are a few materials that we’ve seen in recent high end luxury wristwatch cases:

Ceramic – This isn’t the stuff you work with to make pottery, but is instead a lightweight, durable material that can also hold color for life.  That makes it an ideal material for someone who wants a strong watch that can be offered in a wide variety of colors.

Carbon fiber – Carbon can be quite strong, (diamonds are made from it) and astonishingly lightweight, which makes for a great combination of properties to put in a wristwatch case.  On the downside, there’s nothing particularly luxurious about carbon, though it can appeal to people who are interested in rugged sports models and chronographs.

Damascus steel is a material we’ve seen offered from a couple of makers recently, and that’s rather interesting, as the process for making Damascus steel was reportedly lost sometime in the 19th century.  Damascus steel was used long ago in swords, and the process of repeatedly folding the material to get the impurities out leaves unusual striations in the material that make it quite unique and attractive.

Of course, calling it Damascus steel doesn’t make it so, but it’s a better name than “steel with lines in it.”

Damascus steel

Damascus steel

Bronze is a material we’ve seen in a few watches, and that’s kind of surprising, as bronze has a few qualities about it that make it not all that desirable to have in a watch case.  It’s rather soft and it’s also rather heavy and neither of those are endearing qualities.  On the other hand, bronze takes on a patina as it ages, and that patina can give the watch a unique look.  One can’t help but wonder if we’ll soon see copper watch cases for the same reason.

Sapphire – Yes, sapphire.  It’s expensive.  It’s difficult to work with.  It’s a material that can often look like plastic, which rather takes away from the fact that it’s a very, very expensive material.  How expensive?  Hublot makes a watch with a sapphire case, and it retails for roughly $60,000.

That’s a lot of money for a watch that looks like it might be made from plastic, but sapphire is attractive and does wear well.

All of these materials are interesting and if you have the money, they’re likely a good investment, too.  For most of us, we’ll just have to stick with stainless steel, and that’s fine.  Steel works well, and is cost effective.