Conservative Timekeeping

One of the problems of having a conservative outlook is that it permeates every part of your life. Just because something is called “new and improved” does not necessarily make it so — which is even more the case when it comes to societal conditions, of course, in that if one is aware of history, there isn’t much new, and even less is an improvement that hasn’t been tried before, mostly ending in failure.

One might think that this isn’t the case with technology, but even there I look at things with a jaundiced eye. Automotive technology is certainly better than it was a hundred years ago, but we’ve climbed that far up the quality/performance curve to where today’s model is enormously better than the Model T, but not that much better than last year’s model. (And I still prefer a stick shift to an automatic transmission, and a bolt-action rifle to a semi-auto one, to name but two of thousands of examples.)

All this came to mind when I was having a couple of welcome-home drinks with Doc Russia, and he mentioned the fact that he was looking at buying a decent “dress” wristwatch, but because his experience with watches has been limited to utility rather than appearance, he was somewhat at a loss as to what he should be looking at.

As it happens, watches and clocks are something of a passion of mine — if I ever won the lottery, I’d be in deep trouble — so I was happy to offer some words of advice. (I’ve owned several decent watches in the course of my life: Omega, Longines, Piguet and so on, which has made me keenly aware of the value of a good watch — and not just one which keeps perfect time.)

Buying a watch is about as personal a decision as one can find — hell, I’ve known men to spend more time on deciding which watch to buy than selecting a car or even a wife — so there are all sorts of combinations / permutations of features and characteristics which go into one’s final decision which are, to put it mildly, very much individualistic. I realize that in today’s world, such a discussion is akin to such old-fashioned purchase decisions as to the best buggy whip to buy, or even (gasp) the best bolt-action rifles for your needs and wallet, but nevertheless, here we go.

At the outset, I’m going to exclude from this post any discussion of being comfortable with a drugstore digital battery-powered cheapie which keeps perfect time and costs less than fifty bucks. I have absolutely no problem with this attitude — hell, I’ve owned more than one Timex or Casio in my time too — and I’m also not going to engage with people who’ve quit wearing wristwatches altogether, leaving the timekeeping function to their cell phone. It’s the modern thing, and of course it’s your choice. That’s all well and good, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Remember, we’re not talking utility as the primary driving factor in buying a new watch; we’re talking class, beauty, style and quality of workmanship. This is akin to the difference between buying a Toyota Corolla and, say, a Lexus. Both do the same job, both are of excellent quality, but each offers a different style of delivery. This is no less true of watches.

As with all things, you have to start with budget. (If you don’t, you’ll just get frustrated.) Doc’s budget is between $5,000 and $7,000, which offers a wide range of options, all good ones. (Much more than this, say $10,000 plus, and we’re looking at investment watches, which creates a set of completely different purchase criteria.)

Let’s also stipulate that we’re looking for a wristwatch and not a pocket- or “waistcoat” watch, just to keep things simpler.

We should start with what I think is the most important criterion, which is movement: automatic, or manual wind? (There are few battery-powered watches in this price range, which I think is good. My everyday watch is a cheap-ish Dooney & Burke which, while very pretty, needs a new battery every eighteen months, and it drives me scatty.) Automatic is the lazy man’s choice — it self-winds by the movement on one’s wrist but to be honest, unless you’re spending a lot of money (more than our budget), the timekeeping is not always perfect to the millisecond and the watch may need to be adjusted occasionally. A manual wind — generally more precise and therefore more expensive — is of the “eight-day” type: one full wind will last for about a week, and then the watch will need to be rewound. I have no preference, myself, although I lean towards the manual (see “stick shift” and “bolt-action rifle” above): it’s the first of many personal choices we’re going to encounter. Here are some examples of manual-wind watches in our price range:

The last, the IWC Pilot, is normally outside our price range, but I’ve seen it on sale recently, so if you love it (and I do), you may be in luck.

With automatic (a.k.a. self-wind), prices almost halve. All the above examples which have automatic variants cost less than $5,000 — and with that premium removed, we also have a few more brand options within the price range:


…and so on.

Next, we come to appearance: white face, or black/colored? Myself, I prefer a white face, but some of the grays are quite gorgeous. Ditto the hands of the watch: simple, straight, ornate? And the numbers: regular, Roman, dashes, or Art Deco (to name but some). Other functions (date, day, month, stopwatch, moon phase etc.)? Leather strap, plastic strap or metal expandable strap? Once again, all this is a matter of personal choice. If you want or need a watch that does everything except make you coffee in the mornings, go for it.

Honestly, the choices are dizzying (in almost any price bracket), and there are hardly any bad choices once one gets over a thousand dollars. (Poor taste choices, however, are another story — but one man’s bad taste is another’s gotta-have, so I stay away from value judgments of that nature.) For myself, the plainer the better, and I don’t need a date because I hardly ever write checks anymore. I prefer the look of stainless steel over gold; although a decent gold watch always looks classy, the price premium is just more than I want to spend. I prefer a leather strap; I can’t wear the expandable metal straps because I have hairy arms and wrists, and the damn things pinch.

So here’s my shortlist of watches (in addition to all the above) which are more or less in Doc’s price range.

IWC (probably my favorite brand in this price range):

Longines:

Maurice Lacroix and Glasshutte:

And finally, no piece like this would be complete without showing the watch I’d want to get as soon as the Powerball guys got their ducks in a row and finally gave me the winning ticket:

If you wanna know how much it costs, you can’t afford it. Note the Art Nouveau numbering, the faded and understated gold… yowzah.


If you want to play like I did, and see just what’s out there, go to Prestige Time and browse. I don’t think their prices are realistic, by the way: I haven’t found them to be anywhere near those quoted by reputable retail outlets. But they have a bunch of watches showcased, so enjoy.

28 comments

  1. I wish I could afford a really elegant quality watch, but alas I have other priorities. I do have a Rolex in stainless. Got it from my Dad. He paid $2000 for it in the early 80’s. It’s never kept good time and to my mind looks gauche. I hardly ever wear it and as an auto winder it needs to be reset weekly. I have a Zodiac Aviator, manual wind, given to me as a graduation present in 1971. It loses 1 second every week or so. It was about $200 at the Camp Legune PX, my brother bought it for my Dad to give to me. It’s still​ a prized possession. My everyday watch is a Casio World Ceptor, in analog. It syncs daily and is solar powered, with unbelievable accuracy, $60.
    I am really hard on watches and regularly smash crystals and get the watches wet, so cheap is better.

    1. I had the same issue with my old Omega Geneve… lost nearly two minutes a week. The newer automatics (since about 2004) keep much better time, lose about half a minute a month.

  2. Very interesting….. I retired from the Montblanc division of Richemont, the parent company of several of the brands you mentioned above and I worked in the repair facility on the south side of DFW airport in Dallas-Fort Worth, my area worked on the fountain pens, warranties, estimates and repairs. All repair work and most of the administration was in a clean building where shoes had to be changed, lab coats worn and then passage through security and double doors with positive air pressure to keep dust our. The watch repair area with over 70 watchmakers is a giant room with curved floor to ceiling over 20 ft. high windows, entry through another set of double doors with more positive pressure and state of of art work benches and equipment. The brands include IWC, Vacheron Constantine, Piaget, Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Panerai, and Van Cleef & Arpels and I missed some.

    We were told the largest concentration of watch makers in the Western Hemisphere are from all over the world and mostly glad to live in Texas now where the cost of living is reasonable, etc. Working everyday with these watch makers and their administration support people it was fun to hear the stories about customers who were unhappy because their very spendy, multiple complication, often times jeweled up, mechanical watches could not keep time as well as a Timex from the drug store. Those new to the luxury watch world were also upset to find that their watches required maintenance, cleaning, lubrication and adjusting from time to time and they had to pay for the bench time of an experienced watch maker. The avid collectors understood that buying a fine European watch is in some ways like owning a fine European performance car, don’t buy it if you have to worry about the upkeep.

    One of my lunch friends was a lovely woman who was skillful in handling phone calls from the owners of Vacheron and Van Cleef and one of my favorite stories was her spending over an hour calming down a woman who owned a Van Cleef, over $100K because of the jewels, etc., and telling her how a self winding movement works and no they can’t just put a battery movement in it for her convince and owning a watch winder might be a good idea.

    I also notice there is only one chronograph and not many complications in your choices and the hand winders which keep the prices reasonable, there is a lot to be said for simplicity and not many of us need to know the phases of the moon on a watch.

    Thank you Kim, I do enjoy your various subjects of interest. I might also mention that Vacheron is the oldest of the Richemont brands, founded in 1755.

  3. I used to fancy watches. I have an old tuning fork Omega (clear face, guts visible) I treated myself to after boot camp. State of the art at the time, it would sing you to sleep and keep the world from spinning when drunk trying to sleep. Always favored crono’s after, liked the functionality. Ended with Casio multitool everything watches with all the fancy tech, but it was like having a brick on your wrist. Quit wearing them when I stopped caring what time it was, and a cellphone was always within reach.

    I will say, I cant fathom paying thousands on a watch, and for $5k it would have to get me off and make me breakfast in the morning.

  4. I feel about expensive watches the way a great many people feel when they see me pull yet another expensive folding knife out of my pocket.

    “Geez, dude! What kind of nut spends that kind of money on a knife when the company supplies box cutters for free?”

    Right. For that matter, why wear a watch when you own a smartphone? Heh. And yet I have recently taken to wearing a watch again (primarily to keep my hands off that damned handbrain while I’m at work), a $30 Timex which is as simple and clean a design as I could find with a white dial, black numbers and date. No other watch I’ve ever seen has appealed to me so much, with the possible exception of Shinola, and even they aren’t making exactly the right combination of features.

  5. Well, Kim, I can’t fault your taste in watches…not when my own watch for many years was an IWC Fliegerchronograph. Which I still wear occasionally. The current daily watch is a Bremont ALT-1Z…with squadron markings for the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. I like them both. The IWC is more elegant and compact, but the Bremont incorporates shock absorption that I like.

    Note: If getting a unit-marked watch, a white face is a must.

    Second note: Shop around on Ebay. Watches are like furniture, the “retail” price is artificially jacked up so that they can put it on “sale”.

    1. Considering the plethora of counterfeit watches out there, anyone buying a watch in eBay deserves everything they get, I think.

      1. One must be careful, of course. On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of high end watches on “sale” often enough to catch on.

  6. I expected your lottery choice to be much less reasonable, price-wise. If my numbers come up, I’ll send you one. Unannounced. I suspect you’re the type to open a ticking package (since real bombs don’t actually tick.)

    Nah, as hilarious as it would be to have it delivered, I’ll bring it around.

    I’m also not going to engage with people who’ve quit wearing wristwatches altogether, leaving the timekeeping function to their cell phone.

    Why would you? Who would want to see them smearing their mascara and stomping their pink sneakers in all their fury?

  7. I’m not a watch person myself- a holdover from my mechanicing days I guess.
    Then again, I’ve never really liked wearing things like necklaces or rings, nor loading my pockets with stuff either.

    I can appreciate the workmanship, the same way I can appreciate a nice Martin D-45, but they’re just not for me.

  8. The irony is that I wear a watch…but avoid carrying a cell phone. And yes, it’s a bare-bones cell phone. The only good point is that it’s issued to me. I’m a cheap SOB in some areas.

  9. A Rolex Datejust in steel is $7250, a Rolex Air King is $6200.
    The best Rolex to own is the Submariner. Due to its popularity and reputation, it keeps its value, so you can wear it as long as you like and sell it for your purchase price. $7500 for the no-date, $7850 with date. An archetype wristwatch.

  10. There’s several different blogs I read that have now discussed fancy watches. Maybe someone can enlighten me as to why all modern watches are so big? I’ve seen 45 mm, 48 mm, and even 50+ mm. I’m currently wearing the smallest Victorinox I could find, I think a 39 mm size. To my eye that looks normal on my wrist. Anything larger just looks awkward. Does anyone else think these are too big?

    1. Agreed. 41mm is about as big as I want to go. Otherwise it’s just dick size stuff, unless you’re Ahnuld or Lou Ferrigno..

    2. Many reasons. It’s a style trend like many things– bigger leaves more room for design goodies, complications, etc. Personally, I like a big watch (45mm and up) as I have big wrists/hands and smaller than 45mm looks tiny on my paw.

      My own tastes run towards ‘wrists instruments’ from Breitling, et al, but those are some solid choices for a dress watch. I’d also suggest a nice Panerai– you can find some super deals on the lightly used market, and the simple Luminor is a rather elegant piece.

  11. I work around very large magnets – MRI machines to be exact – so the choice of a watch that I can wear at work is limited.

    I found rather quickly that any and all analog watches with a mechanical movement will be stopped in the presence of that high strength field – sometimes never to run again. (Many a physician with his expensive Rolex has found to his chagrin that this is true no matter the cost of the watch.)

    The smart thing, of course, is to remove your watch before going into that room, but sometimes you forget. And all it takes is once.

    So what works? A cheap Timex digital, of course. They seem to be impervious to high strength magnets.

    After I retire, one of the first orders of business will be to shop for a much nicer watch.

  12. I used to be a watch hound but the older I get… I dunno what it is. Material things are just so much ‘stuff’ for me. Spending that kind of money on a timepiece would make feel like a fop with his bling!

    But if I had your money, Kim, and rubbed shoulders with celebs like Doc Russia – I would probably pick out a good Breitling. An understated Super Ocean or maybe a Navitimer.

    I’d prolly buy a jet too😆👍

  13. Fascinating. I was aware of some of the high end brands, to the point of when someone refers to the default Rolex I knew they were somewhat limited – but had no idea just how many of them there were, and the range of types and features. Thanks for the education.

    As for me, when I was working, an atomic clock was a barely adequate resource; in retirement I now use a piece of paper upon which I write in pencil “2017.” (The pencil is equipped with the optional and extra-cost accessory, an eraser, so that I may continue to use the same piece of paper which has served me so well during my retirement).

  14. (OK, now that I THINK I have the word press comment ID figured out).

    Curious as to why Rolex does not show on your list. Question based on pure ignorance, I’ve used sub $100 digital watches since I entered active duty and am not familiar with this tier. I have relatives that consider the Rolex the a symbol of class, refinement and a sign that you have “arrived”. I’ve never understood the facscination as to me a watch is a tool and I don’t do jewelry, so interested to hear your perspective.

    1. Not Kim, but….Rolex, and now Breitling, are marketing status as well as the watch. The watches themselves are OK, but there are other makes that offer either better performance or a better price. IWC uses the same movements as most of the high end makers, but rebuilds them for accuracy and stuffs them in a particularly nice case.

  15. I don’t trust a man who doesn’t wear a wristwatch. Or carry a knife. I had to give a young man a CRKT knife when I was training him to take over for me as a trailer park maintenance man. He didn’t carry a pocket knife. I have had a knife on me continuously since I was 8 years old. I am now 56. I just can’t imagine not carrying a knife. I have 4 in and about myself now, plus a leatherman, and my carry gun. My grandfather couldn’t wear a watch. His body had some kind of electromagnetic field in it that would kill every one. Weird, I know, but that is the story my dad told me, my grandpa died when I was five.

    1. I’ve heard of other folks with a similar problem wearing watches. Don’t know about EM field, but they killed every watch they wore.

  16. I’ve always liked watches, but not so much that I want a unique or particularly expensive one. I’ve been wearing Casios for decades now (G-Shock now, and a Marlin before). I’ve looked longingly at a couple of Citizens and Seikos but the ~$300 price tag was too much. Ditto with a couple of Casio “Sky Cockpit” type watches ($500-1200).

    I tried to like the Rolex, Omega, Longines, etc enough to want to spend the money on one, but I guess the good quality lower end is just more than good enough for me.

    I’m saving up for one really good rifle scope; between that and an equivalently priced watch, the scope wins.

  17. It’s not whether you kill the watch, it is whether the watch kills you.
    Too many gory snagging accidents happen for me to wear a watch or a ring.
    And to the commenter above WRT a fine watch and a D-45 Martin- I agree- beyond a certain point, actual improvement in the object, whether it be accuracy or tone, maxes out, and the way the manufacturers attract sales is with more bling. It is pervasive in every consumer item today.

Comments are closed.