Your first luxury-level watch purchase should be exciting and meaningful. But, we get it — it can also be a daunting proposition for newbies. Everyone has different needs, tastes, means and understanding of "luxury," so no one can say what's the right watch for you. A little guidance, however, can help you ask the right questions and make an informed choice for yourself.
First, why do you want a luxury watch?
There are different reasons to want a "nice watch." Identifying your situation and motivation will help you focus your search right away.
Do you simply want an elegant everyday watch that's built to last? The good news is you've got a lot of great options, and you're not limited to prestigious brand names and hefty price tags. The bad news is that you still haven't narrowed down your choices much, as many watches offer this level of quality. You'll want to look at other factors like price, style and features, and consider if one of the below situations also applies to you.
Do you want a watch to enhance your personal style? Visual elements and brand names might factor more heavily in your decision — but you'll want to consider the aesthetic basics such as dress or sport and modern or retro. Sport watches are popular and offer a range of styles originating in specific uses, like diving, flying, racing and the military. If you can identify a genre you're particularly interested in, you're well on your way.
Do you need a watch to enhance your professional presentation? This is a common reason for people to get their first luxury watch: Some people feel a good watch can help them be taken more seriously by bosses or even impress potential clients. For these purposes, recognizable brands and models are safe and will serve you well — think names like Rolex, Panerai, Omega, IWC and Zenith. These are all brands whose pricing starts firmly in the mid to upper luxury range, but sometimes a simple and solid mechanical watch can be a great option for those on a tighter budget, as well as express one's own taste and individuality.
Will your watch serve as a status symbol? This is an extension of the previous consideration: You're doing well financially, and want to make it known. (Like, really known.) Sure, this can be accomplished simply with bling, like gold and diamonds, but sometimes just the name on an otherwise simple-looking watch does the job — think Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet. Watchmakers also signal prestige with complicated features such as skeletonization, avant-garde designs and tourbillons.
Are you interested in a luxury watch simply for experiencing its quality, engineering, details and history? You're well on your way to being a #watchnerd, and even if you get a watch for other reasons, you might even come to appreciate it in this way. This is a great reason to want a watch, but because it's what most luxury watches would claim to offer, you'll want to narrow down your choices further and look to other factors discussed below.
What makes a "luxury watch?" And what qualities should you expect for your budget?
Budget is the basic starting place for any watch purchase. All watches are more or less luxuries today since they're not necessary in modern life. For some people, $100 sounds like a lot to spend on something they don't need, while others might feel that "luxury" begins at well into the thousands of dollars.
Thanks to the combination of improving production technology, the internet and globalization, features once out of reach for many have become more accessible than ever. With small microbrands leading the way and bigger brands responding with more focus on entry-level value, you can now get watches with elements like sapphire crystal, ceramic bezels, Swiss automatic movements and refined details for a just few hundred bucks — these are luxury features, and why we'll begin talking about "luxury watches" at $500.
In order to identify the types of features you can expect at different price levels, we'll broadly consider watches broken into entry-level, mid-range and high-end. These are imperfect categories that will in actuality bleed into one another — and there will always be exceptions — but the following generalizations are meant to help guide first-time buyers in what to look for.
What factors like style, size and technology should you consider?
Style. Watches can fall into many categories and genres, most broadly broken into dress and sport. Types of watches can be based on traditional purposes (dive watches, pilot watches, field watches, etc.), more vague designations (tactical watches, minimalist watches, etc.) or functionality (chronographs, GMTs, even alarm watches, etc.). There's a lot to explore, but it helps to be aware of the purpose behind a watch design or features and the range of options available.
Size. The right watch size largely depends on the combination of your wrist size and how bold a look you prefer. Watch sizes are traditionally measured horizontally in millimeters and exclude the crown. However, other factors affect how big the watch will look and feel. They include the case thickness, its length lug-t0-lug as well as even its color and the size of the dial. Even the climate where you live (short-sleeve weather is better for bigger watches) and the type of clothing you normally wear is relevant. It's recommended that you try on a watch before buying whenever possible, rather than relying on measurements alone to determine its fit. In addition to looking down at it on your wrist, also see how it fits in a mirror.
Technology. The movement is what's powering the watch inside. What kind it is can make a big difference in price, so you should have a basic understanding of what you're paying for — i.e., the difference between traditional mechanical movements (which include automatic watches) and battery-powered quartz movements. Quartz tends to be less expensive and more accurate, but it's often considered less interesting.
Mechanical movements are valued precisely because they are more complicated, difficult and expensive to make — and it's nice not to worry about changing a battery, as these are powered by an unwinding spring. Automatic movements are mechanical as well, and they use a rotor than spins when you move your wrist to keep the spring wound.
Watches in this price range are mostly mass produced by big brands or made in batches by smaller brands relying on third-party suppliers. You can still get excellent materials and movements at the entry-level, and that's what you should expect. Here are some things to look for:
Sapphire crystal. Sapphire crystal is what you'll find used even on watches costing six figures. Although acrylic isn't necessarily used for cost-cutting (and is preferred by some collectors), mineral crystal belongs only on less expensive watches.
Steel case. Watches at at this price level and even below should usually be made of solid 316L stainless steel. Aside from some serious G-Shock watches, avoid plastic components no matter what they call it (resin, polymer, etc.).
Solid steel bracelet. Straps are fine, but a bracelet can add value since it often has to be designed to fit on its specific watch. Look for solid links and clasps rather than ones that appear hollow or stamped.
Swiss or Japanese automatic movements. If you're spending luxury watch money, you're probably mostly looking at automatic mechanical watches rather than less expensive, battery-powered quartz. At this price level, avoid older, lower-end Japanese automatic movements that don't feature hand-winding or hacking capabilities. Some watches have manually wound mechanical movements, but automatic is more convenient and recommended for first-time buyers.
Applied dial elements and three-dimensional dials. You can find nicely executed dials that are flat with printed indices even on some higher-end watches, but dials with multiple components are more complicated and expensive to produce and assemble, and can therefore indicate value. They also offer more dynamic visual interest, a higher-end feel and signal thoughtfulness on the watchmaker's part.
Strong lume on sport watches. You can absolutely get solid lume at this price level. Weak lume is a weakness in a sport watch. Also take note of uneven application of lume with, for example, the hands glowing more strongly than the indices. Evenly applied lume suggests the watchmaker went to the extra trouble of assuring a cohesive look and functional result, even if the parts are sourced from different suppliers.
Solid construction. This is hard to quantify and is often something you can only sense by handling a watch in person. It's worth operating the crown and bezel (if applicable) or any other components to see how solid and smooth they feel. Consider the watch's ergonomics and note if any components feel too loose, too tight or make noise.
Good fit and finish. You can't expect amazing, high-level finishing at this price level, but look for any sign of crude finishing or construction as a red flag. Look closely at the dial for mistakes like sloppy paint or misaligned elements. A mix of contrasting finishes (e.g., brushed and polished) can add value because they take more work and can lend a higher-end, more deliberate feel to a watch.
This is where you'll find many of the best-made watches in the world that remain perfectly appropriate for daily wear. You'll want many of the same elements noted for entry-level luxury above, but you should expect them to be executed to a higher degree of refinement and quality. In addition, you'll find prestigious names, history, complications and premium features — as well as aggressive marketing. Bypass the smoke and mirrors and look for these qualities.
In-house movements. Though a contentious term, this is taken to mean that the company has produced its own original movement rather than using one from one of the common, third-party sources. This requires significant resources and investment, reflects a watchmaker's pride, and makes the end product more cohesive, genuine and interesting. These movements will often boast superior qualities than off-the-shelf versions and sometimes will even be nicely decorated or have interesting designs. Many watchmakers will offer transparent case back windows for viewing the movement, which can be considered another point of value.
Chronometer or other certification. Some brands send their watches to a third party to test and certify their reliability, accuracy and other features. Switzerland's COSC chronometer certification is the best known (and sometimes found on watches in the entry-level range), but there are others, such as METAS. These certifications cost the watchmakers — and thus, the buyer — money, but they serve to further guarantee a certain level of quality.
Exotic materials. You see solid precious metals (as opposed to coated steel) like gold in this range, but also look for interesting materials such as bronze, titanium, carbon fiber, and ceramic. For dials, you might find the likes of enamel and porcelain. Some of these materials are used in entry-level luxury watches as well, but at this range you can often expect more refinement as well as in-house components.
Fit and finish. The build and finish of watches in this range should scream quality. Edges should be sharp, finishing of any surface should be perfectly even, and articulation of parts should be smooth and solid.
This is the realm of serious collectors and millionaire playboys — so if your first luxury watch is in this range, you're probably the latter. (Or, maybe you just know what you want and saved up.) Even if this isn't your budget, however, understanding what five figures or more gets you can also help give you a sense of what kind of features are valuable, and how less expensive watches differ. For this kind of dough, you should be getting something that's exotic and special — even within the world of luxury watches.
Refined and original design. Beauty is subjective, but you should at least get the sense that as much time and thought was put into designing and refining a high-end watch as went into producing it. This can apply to classical as well as unconventional, avant-garde styles.
Exotic materials. Solid gold, platinum and the like will be common at this price level, but you can also find also proprietary alloys and sometimes strange and innovative materials. Stainless steel watches are less common as you get into five figures unless they bear specific prestige value (like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak) or are considered rarities from brands that typically only use precious metals, like Patek Philippe and A. Lange & Söhne.
Handcrafted and hand-finished. The higher you climb in price, the more likely a good deal of a watch's components have been individually produced and finished by hand. This can extend from the case and dial elements to the sometimes hundreds of tiny movement parts inside the watch (yes — often to ones you can't even see). This needs to be performed by skilled and experienced workers, can often take many hours and days, and naturally limits production volume.
Exotic crafts and techniques. This can range from engraved movements and guilloché dials to rare techniques you never heard of that watchmakers have borrowed from other industries, cultures or centuries. Watch brands will be keen to tell you all about these techniques in their marketing materials.
Complicated movements. You can often expect not only high-quality movements with beautiful finishing, but also more features than simple time telling — and combinations of features. Some watchmaker favorites are perpetual calendars and tourbillons, and when you get into the really fancy stuff, you'll see these together on the same watch.
Prestigious certifications. Even movement finishing must meet a certain standard (among other criteria) for ultra high-end watches that receive special certifications, such as the prestigious Geneva Seal.