It’s no secret that the world of watches has experienced more than its fair share of turmoil recently. The major luxury groups continue to struggle to turn around the decline in watch sales in recent years, and watch enthusiasts sometimes wonder whether or not the people in charge of making new watches are so worried about balance sheets that it’s distracting them from watchmaking. Many enthusiasts take refuge in (or increasingly these days, start out in) vintage watch collecting; this has many charms, but also many caveats, including hidden service costs, fragility, and the vintage market’s nerve wracking habit of sometimes validating doubtful provenance with such high auction prices no one wants to call foul.
And yet, despite the abundant opportunities to spend a lot of money on something that, old or new, can easily become a source of regret, there are still a number a surprising number of watches that for one reason or another are very compelling andthat can be had for an extremely attractive price. Here are just five out of many possible examples that prove that despite all the storm clouds, there are still opportunities out there to find watches that punch way above their weight in terms of interest and quality.
Omega: An Advanced Mechanical Movement In An Everyday Package
The new Omega Railmaster collection represents some of the most technically interesting mechanical watchmaking anyone’s doing at any price. These watches at 40mm are a highly versatile size and have attractive vintage inspired styling, while coming in several different variations, so it won’t be a struggle to find one that is appealing from an aesthetic standpoint.
However, perhaps the most astonishing thing is what’s under the hood for the price asked. The movement is Omega’s in-house caliber8806 and it’s Master Chronometer certified: that means it can withstand magnetic fields of up to 15,000 gauss (and probably greater, assuming you can find one outside a physics lab or a neutron star) with a co-axial escapement and a 55-hour power reserve. It also means that in addition to being certified as a chronometer by the COSC, the entire watch is also tested by the Swiss Institute of Metrology (METAS) for water resistance, rate stability under different temperatures, isochronism, and more.
These watches have solid casebacks, which is a bit of a shame, but knowing that you have one of the most technically advanced watches in the world on your wrist, with an escapement designed by one of the most important horologists of the 20th century, is a major consolation for not being able to see it in action. And the prices for these watches are quite breathtaking: just$4,900 on a strap and $5,100 on a bracelet. They’re not in stores yet, but they’re expected to be available sometime this fall.
Tudor: A Column Wheel, Vertical Clutch Chronograph
The styling for the Black Bay Chronograph may or may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but nobody’s arguing about the quality of the movement. Caliber MT5813, which is derived from the Breitling B01 caliber, is a vertical clutch, column wheel movement with several attributes that historically have been associated with much more expensive watchmaking, including a free-sprung, adjustable mass balance. Tudor also throws in a silicon balance spring and escape wheel, giving the watch excellent long term rate stability and resistance to magnetic fields (not to the same degree as the Railmaster, with its extensive use of paramagnetic materials, but still a big improvement over a steel escape wheel and Nivarox balance spring).
The caliber MT5813 has been deployed in the Black Bay Chronograph for now but obviously, it could be used in different variants across a far wider range of watches (now that Georges Kern will be taking over as CEO at Breitling it will be interesting to see whether the relationship will be enhanced over the next few years). In any case, an automatic chronograph movement with so many interesting features, in a watch that retails for $5,050, is in the current climate for watches something of a miracle.
Jaeger-LeCoultre: A Watch That Shows Someone Still Makes ‘Em Like They Used To
This version of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Control Date debuted at the SIHH this year, with a sector dial and syringe hands. HODINKEE’s Managing Editor Stephen Pulvirent liked it a lot, covering it in A Week On The Wrist, and writing, “This watch looks great in a case or on a table, but it’s when you put the thing on that it really starts to sing. The case size is just fantastic, and you really start to appreciate that 8.5mm height after wearing it for a bit. The watch almost seems to disappear on the wrist when you’re typing at your desk or just walking around the city. Comfort is something that doesn’t get talked about enough when evaluating watches, and this is one seriously comfortable watch.”
The movement is the Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 899/1; this is a movement with a fair bit of history to it. It’s an upgraded version of JLC’s caliber 889, which is a flat, high-grade movement that was first introduced in the 1980s and which has in various forms and finishes, been used by a number of haute horlogerie manufacturers. The 899/1 has a freesprung adjustable mass balance, ceramic ball bearings, unidirectional winding, and in general is a great example of the sort of well made, well finished, reliable workhorse movement that for many years was an essential part of the fine watchmaking landscape, and which have become something of an endangered species. Where such movements are still used, it’s generally at a much higher price than formerly, and for me a big part of the appeal of this $5700 watch is that it represents not just the pricing of yesteryear, but the value offering of yesteryear too.
Grand Seiko: Something Interesting and Innovative
Spring Drive is the misunderstood genius of modern watchmaking a mechanical watch, driven by a mainspring rather than a battery, with no energy storage system, that uses a quartz feedback-loop control system to produce a watch with a signature gliding seconds hand. A technology unique to Seiko (with the exception of a single limited edition produced by Piaget, no analogous mechanism exists anywhere in Swiss watchmaking) Spring Drive offers one of the few genuinely and significantly different solutions to portable mechanical horology currently on the market.
This particular incarnation is model SBGA211, using the Grand Seiko Spring Drive caliber 9R65, with a seventy hour power reserve and accuracy of better than a second a day. The case and bracelet are Seiko’s “high intensity” hardened titanium. It’s as technically interesting a watch as any that exists but of course, you buy a watch with your heart, not your head. SBGA211 is therefore, and understandably, better known as the “Snowflake” Grand Seiko Spring Drive, and it gets the name from its delicately textured dial, with the appearance of new-fallen snow. It’s in this watch that you see the aesthetic potential of Spring Drive: the smoothly gliding, silent seconds hand floats above the dial like a single cloud drifting unhurriedly above a snow field (aptly, the Snowflake dial is Spring Drive only; $5800 for this model, on a matching titanium bracelet).
Rolex: The First And Last Watch You’ll Ever Need
The Rolex Oyster Perpetual is a great entry-level Rolex, but it’s good enough that it could be your exit Rolex too. It’s a 39mm in diameter, stainless steel sports watch that offers absolutely nothing extraneous and lacks many of the elements that are considered signature ones for Rolex: no date cyclops, no fluted bezel; just the hands, dial, and the Crown. And yet it’s the irreproachable high quality of each individual element that makes this $5,800 watch, not an exercise in minimalism, but an exercise in essentialism.
If the yellow gold Day-Date 36mm is Rolex’s most representative luxury watch, and the Submariner the ur-tool watch that has become the reference point for all others, the Oyster Perpetual 39mm is the most purely Rolex of Rolex watches. The movement, caliber 3132, is in its own way a classic; it’s not an haute horlogerie product per se but it is a movement with all the very high build quality you expect from Rolex, as well as a number of unique-to-Rolex technical features including the amagnetic Parachrom balance spring, Paraflex shock absorbers, and a free-sprung balance with Microstella fine adjustment screws. A straight shot of undiluted Rolex, no mixer, no chaser.