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The World of Watches

Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
cigar case, Summer 93

Under the impatient eye of our fathers, we learned to tie four-in-hand knots. Much later, there were long sessions with the salesman for that electronic video camera with automatic focusing and exposure controls. But if you thought you'd learned everything there was to know about telling time on a watch by the age of five, guess again. With the purchase of one of the new collectible men's wristwatches, which cost up to $350,000, many stores are offering training sessions and on-call advice services to help guide buyers through the intricacies of these exotic timepieces. "We have specialists who offer customer training," says vintage watch expert Alexander Vileshin of Tourneau. "For a $70,000 Patek Philippe, we offer a mini seminar. We have on-staff support. People still call after two or three years because they've forgotten how to do something. We have customers who don't know that a perpetual calendar changes automatically."

These hand-holding services reflect a major change in wristwatches, as they have become more and more complicated and more and more extravagant. While many men shudder at the thought of wearing elaborate jewelry, the same strait-laced gentlemen will cheerfully spend $8,000 on a wristwatch-- if it's the right one. It may have everything from a solid gold case to a diamond-studded, exotic leather band. And it won't matter if it looks like a fancy bracelet.

The familiar brands are almost house-hold words: Rolex, Patek Philippe, Cartier, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin. But there are a number of lesser-known names on the market, too: Breguet, Breitling, International Watch Company (IWC), Kriëger, Jaeger, Le Coultre and Ulysse Nardin. Even a ubiquitous brand-name like Swatch has spawned a high-priced collectible market--would you believe $25,000 for a plastic watch? There are, of course, vintage American watches, too, such as Hamilton and Gruen. They are more modestly priced, but with their eccentrically shaped cases and uncomplicated styles, they are attractive buys from as little as $500.

Where did the idea of collecting watches begin? In a sense, it got started because watches became virtual dime-store commodities. During the 1970s, accuracy was the "watch-word," and newest was the best. Manufacturers vied to create watches that kept precise time. The quartz movement made this accuracy possible; the new technology could be had at remarkably low prices. Today, if all you're looking for is the right time, about $20 for a watch bought in a drugstore will do the job.

Quartz technology nearly put an end to quality Swiss watch making. Reliability, once associated with fine Swiss watches, moved to Japan, where the quartz movements were manufactured. With no demand on the horizon, few young Swiss embarked on the long process of becoming highly skilled watchmakers-literally people who could make a watch by hand. But in the cold, modern efficiency of the quartz watch, the fine watch was reborn. Turned off by mass-produced watches and their often ugly styling, watch buyers once again looked to Swiss watchmakers for the quality only they could create--the warm touch of a fine, handmade mechanical watch.

Now, traditional watchmakers are racing to make increasingly complicated watches. While the quartz watch has virtually no moving parts--other than its hand--the new mechanicals boast more parts than ever before, hundreds of them in fact, with prices to match. For instance, IWC's Grande Complication Perpetual Calendar Chronograph, in pure platinum, costs $350,000. Even the more modestly priced complicated watches such as Ulysse Nardin's Astrolabium can run $56,000--with a simple leather band. For the price, you don't just get the time. An Astrolabium Galileo Galilei indicates the height and direction of the sun, moon and fixed stars, the sunrise and sunset, dawn and dusk, the phases of the moon and eclipses of the sun and moon. The Grande Complication will chime on the hour, the quarter hour and every minute if you wish, with different tones for each. Or with the Patek Philippe, you get the moon phases and windows for the day and month, and the perpetual calendar automatically shifts without error, including leap years, for 100 years.

With an intentionally complicated watch, one that takes two months of a watchmaker's time to create, production is necessarily limited. Peter Bigler, President of Ulysse Nardin U.S.A., says since work began in 1985, the firm has produced only 200 of the Astrolabium, a handsome watch which appeals to the man who appreciates the wizardry of miniaturization it contains. It was followed by two other series, the Planetarium and, most recently, the Tellurium. Of the latter, only 30 pieces have been completed. But most men aren't looking for that kind of extravagance, and that's just as well, given the extremely limited supply of such watches.

Regardless of the bells and whistles, the engine that still drives a buyer today is style, a quality that is spelled out in subtleties and nuances, details rather than extreme technical advancements. Anthony D'Ambrosio, Executive Director of Tourneau, says, "People today are much more interested in quality than they were in the '80s. In the '80s, they were looking for more trendy, flashy status items. Today, it's a Patek Philippe on a strap, not easily identified as being an expensive status watch. It's quite expensive, one of the finest quality watches, but understated. In the '80s, the same money would go for a bold bracelet watch with diamonds, more identifiable."

For collecting, the names that count the most are the familiar ones, principally Rolex and Patek Philippe. Others--equally fine products--are beginning to appeal to collectors who appreciate that quality doesn't always generate headlines at auctions. But recognition counts for something. The most desired watch is the Rolex Oyster, introduced in 1927 and still being made today. It certainly is not a subtle watch: It's big and round, thick in its dimension from back to front, but it's as hot as a watch can get without being stolen. A new 18k gold Oyster costs $13,150 at Tourneau in New York City; the stainless-steel and gold model runs $4,500. The Oyster is a lovely name for a watch that's as tightly sealed as its namesake. Even quite old Oysters will retain their water resistance, although, D'Ambrosio says, "Don't expect to take a watch out of the drawer after ten or twenty years and jump into a swimming pool."

Despite its popularity, the Oyster takes second place to the Oyster with the racy "Daytona" dial. While the Oyster is hot, the Daytona is even hotter, with its contrasting color band around the outer edge of the dial. This simple stylistic difference results in a dial known among collectors as the "Paul Newman" and generally adds $2,500 to the price over a comparable Daytona model. And bear in mind that this is a stainless-steel watch. Why Paul Newman? Because he probably wore this watch in the movie Winning, made in the 1960s.

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