How Affordability Is Winning the Watch World

At SIHH, watchmakers embraced entry-level luxury with value-driven timepieces.

Henry Phillips

Above all else, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie is a celebration of the highest forms of watchmaking, where gold-cased tourbillons sit next to high-flying mechanical concepts at nearly every booth. Expense is inherent in the exhibition, but witnessing the highest echelon of watchmaking is just as exhausting as it is exciting. After a while, it’s difficult to get enthusiastic over watches that cost as much as a condo.

Fortunately this year, the other end of the spectrum — the entry-level timepieces for these high-end brands — were just as common at this SIHH. Lower-priced watches that offer great value for the money are not only exciting because they can be owned by a larger number of enthusiasts, but they could prove to be essential in reviving an ailing watch industry. As sales have dropped off in recent years for Swiss watchmakers, luring in a newer (generally younger) clientele with captivating products is more important than ever.

The Vacheron Constantin FiftySix is not cheap at $11,700 but it’s much more accessable than any Vacheron piece before it.

Perhaps no other watch was more emblematic of this than Vacheron Constantin’s new Self-Winding FiftySix in stainless steel. It’s the entry point not only into the brand’s new retro-inspired FiftySix collection, but it’s also now the cheapest watch in Vacheron’s stable, costing a cool $11,700. Make no mistake: that’s an incredibly large amount of money to spend on a watch. But it’s several thousand dollars less than the brand’s watches usually go for, and for one of the vaunted “Swiss Big Three” brands, it’s a relative bargain. For buyers that usually find themselves looking at Rolexes or Omegas, the next tier of high-end watchmaking all of a sudden seems much more attainable than before.

Part of what makes the Vacheron seem like such a screaming deal is the simple fact that it’s made from stainless steel, while the vast majority of the brand’s offerings are formed from gold or platinum. The practice of swapping precious metal timepieces for stainless steel watches seemed to be common with other brands this year, too. Most notably, Cartier — a brand that’s long associated with aristocratic wealth — debuted the Drive Extra Flat in steel, a $5,700 entry point into the brand’s mechanical pieces. It was a smart move, given that last year’s Drive Extra-Flat in gold caught on with young, stylish men. Its $15,400 price tag probably didn’t.

The Cartier Drive Extra Flat in stainless steel takes a beautifully refined silhouette and brings it to a far more affordable price.

This ethos through tool watches, too. Jaeger-LeCoultre released a new Polaris collection, and with it, a $6,600 automatic sports watch that slots in right at the brand’s entry-point. Meanwhile, Montblanc released the vintage-inspired 1858 Automatic, a beautiful 40mm three-hander with a bronze bezel that costs around $2,670.

Perhaps the most exciting addition in this segment, however, was Panerai’s new Luminor Logo. On the surface, it’s a classic Panerai diver and an homage to the first watch Panerai took to the public in 1993. But with a starting price of $4,750, it’s the brand’s newest entry-level timepiece. Other Logo models have come and gone in this price range, but this specific version the first to use an in-house movement: Panerai’s new P.3000, a hand-winder with a full three-day power reserve developed in the brand’s Nucahtel manufactory. It’s a hell of an upgrade, especially for would-be Paneristi who would balk at the earlier Logo models’ ETA-based calibers.

Montblanc’s 1858 Automatic ($2,670) was one of the most affordable watches at the show.

Of course, a watch doesn’t need an in-house developed movement to be considered a good value — in many cases, it’s a better value without one. Baume & Mercier’s new Clifton Baumatic Chronometer, for example, is $2,790 and boasts a movement with a silicon escapement and balance spring, giving it a five-day power reserve, a lengthened service life (more than the industry standard three to five years), a resistance to magnetic fields up to 1,500 Gauss and COSC-certified accuracy. Normally, to get this kind of horological power, you’d be looking at a watch from a brand that costs two or three times as much.

Baume & Mercier managed to pull off this feat by relying on outside suppliers and Richemont’s shared facilities at ValFleurier. Baume & Mercier is upfront about the movement not being manufactured by the brand itself (though it is exclusive to the Baume & Mercier), stating that the production arrangements best suited the brand’s mission to provide supreme value for money. “At this price, none of our competitors are combing these kinds of technologies,” says spokesperson Sandrine Donguy. “We are not a manufacturer but work with different suppliers who specialize in different components. We took the best form each supplier to create this caliber and kept in mind what is important to our clients.”

The Baume & Mercier Clifton is a huge value. Offering what was once a five-figure spec sheet in a $2,590 package.

The Baumatic is poised to play a vital role as a stepping stone in watch ownership. If a newbie mechanical watch owner likes what they see, it could spark a chain reaction: after spending $2,590 on a Baume & Mercier, a $4,750 Panerai could look like a score. A $6,600 Jaeger-LeCoultre would be the next stepping stone, and one day, he or she might be inclined to buy an $11,700 Vacheron Constantin. Then maybe — just maybe — one of those gold-cased tourbillons doesn’t seem like such a bad deal after all.

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