Some men now spend as much on a watch as they would on a car. Are they getting value? Our undercover expert reports ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2010

There are few products guaranteed to raise the hackles of a sceptical shopper more than a watch. How can one stainless-steel model cost as much as a small car, while another that looks almost identical cost little more than a tank of petrol? Particularly when the cheaper one tells the time better.

The great price divide is down to the introduction of electronic quartz watches in the early 1970s. Quartz all but killed the traditional Swiss-watch industry, replacing the internal mechanical movements of a “real” watch—a painstakingly hand-built assembly of hundreds of miniature cogs, pinions, wheels and cams little changed since the 19th century—with compact, low-cost electronic circuits. Watch manufacturing was whisked out of the hands of elite artisans into automated Japanese workshops that pumped out cheap-as-chips, battery-powered wrist-candy.

Hurrah, you might say. Science had triumphed; quartz watches were more accurate time-tellers—to within one second a day, as opposed to a typical mechanical watch’s ten seconds—so they replaced old-fashioned mechanics as inevitably as Game Boys replaced spinning tops. Unwittingly, though, these same cheap quartz models were responsible for the peculiar metamorphosis of the watch from functional precision instrument to lifestyle product. As all quartz watches told the time equally accurately, watchmakers had to invent other marks of distinction. So began the practice of employing “brand ambassadors” (George Clooney, Tiger Woods), stumping up for high-profile event sponsorships (F1, the America’s Cup) and, at the retail coalface, indulging in what can only be called competitive blingmanship. How many diamonds, after all, does one watchface need?

As is its way, the pendulum eventually swung back. After a decade or so, the industry twigged that the old-fashioned craftsmanship of mechanical watches meant they could be sold to the consumer as more exclusive—and hence more expensive—than quartz. Money flowed back into the Swiss watch industry; high in the Jura mountains, watchmakers returned to their benches.

So which is better? As we’ve seen, quartz watches are more precise; plus they’re cheaper and don’t need winding. They often bristle with extra functions such as a countdown, world time, barometer and even a compass. How much you need these in the age of mobile internet access is a moot point. The battery will need replacing every two to five years, and if you give a quartz watch a big knock or let water in, it is rarely worth repairing, as the insides will have to be replaced wholesale. A mechanical watch, on the other hand, is one of the few surviving examples of highly skilled craftsmanship; they are almost always fixable whatever the fault and, if regularly serviced, will last decades—or in some cases, centuries.

For £100-odd you can pick up a perfectly decent, if unexciting, quartz watch. Several hundred pounds buys a better level of finish; around the £1,000 mark, Omega does quartz models with cases, straps and dials identical in quality to mechanical models around £2,000. But once you’re into the £1,000+ category, you could consider mechanical. Ball Watch Company, Tissot, Frédérique Constant, Longines, Oris, Victorinox and Glycine all strike a sensible balance between longevity and price.

Double that sum and you can afford mechanical watches with some components produced in-house—and, just as with buying a suit, the less outsourcing of manufacturing, the higher the quality. Consider TAG Heuer, Breitling, IWC, or even Rolex. Yes, it makes some flashy, all-gold watches-for-wide-boys—but its stainless-steel models offer some of the best quality for their price on the market. And few other houses match Rolex’s level of research and development, reliability and overall control of production—although Breitling comes a close second.

Climb a further rung up the ladder, and you find watches whose movements, the mechanical innards, are produced in-house, and in very small quantities. Just a few houses—including Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lange & Söhne, Glashütte and Vacheron Constantin—do this, producing watches finished to the highest standards and costing many thousands of pounds. Such watches often feature a “complication”—another example of early techno-babble, simply meaning an extra, often only historically useful function—a perpetual calendar, say, or a moon-phase indicator. The more elaborate the complication, the higher the price. A Patek Philippe Calatrava in yellow gold costs £13,580, but add an annual calendar and it’s £21,360—ie, an extra 20 quid every time you check what day it is.

If you want to get a particularly precise mechanical watch, look out for the word “chronometer” on the dial or case-back: this means it has been certified by the independent agency known as the COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Cronomètres), which measures and tests the precision of movements. Whether it’s mechanical or quartz, other signs of quality are the weight of the watch, a sapphire glass (which will be scratch-resistant, preferably with anti-reflective coating on both sides), and smooth finishes on the case and buckle that won’t catch on your cuff.