Luxury Watches: Our Guide to Fine Timepieces

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It's Complicated: The Henry Graves Supercomplication Reignites Ultra-Complicated Watches

Last month, the world’s most complicated timepiece made completely by hand, the Henry Graves Supercomplication by Patek Philippe, sold at auction by Sotheby’s, for $24 million (23.2 million CHF), eclipsing the record $11 million price it garnered back in 1999.

This pocket watch was the result of a competition between NYC banker Henry Graves, Jr. and James Ward Packard of automobile fame to see who could make the most complicated watch (Graves won). The Graves took eight years of development and production and featured 24 complications.

In 1989, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, Patek Philippe eclipsed the Graves with its Calibre 89, with 33 complications (though it was designed and produced with the help of modern technology—computers, machines, etc.).

In October of this year, Patek  Philippe celebrated its 175th anniversary and they introduced the most complicated wristwatch they have ever done, the Grandmaster Chime with 20 complications (the Graves and the Calibre 89 are pocket watches, remember). The price for the Grandmaster Chime? Two and a half million Swiss Francs (about $2.6 million).

Going along with all this activity, there has been a revival of interest in complications, from brands and customers alike.

What Is a Complication?

A complication is anything in a watch other than central hours, minutes and seconds. So, something as simple as a date display or a small seconds display is considered a complication. Complications are elements integrated into or modules placed on top of the watch’s base movement.

Must-Have Complications

Some collectors focus on a particular brand and collect all the meaningful pieces from that mark, while other collectors are more eclectic in what they collect.

There are five key complications worthy to have in your collection.

Chronograph: This is a watch that allows for the independent timing of an event. Usually, a chronograph has two pushers on the side of the case to activate, stop and return the chronograph hands (though there are monopusher chronographs as well). Most chronographs have subdials that measure the minutes and hours. Some variations of chronographs include the flyback (where you can skip the stop step and reset the chronograph immediately), the split second (which allows you to time two independent things) and the high frequency chronograph (allows timing to higher precision, like 1/100th of 1/1000th of a second).

Moon Phase: The moon phase is a romantic complication, but also quite practical, as the moon controls so much of our lives, from the tides to our moods. These watches feature a display that shows the phase of the moon (full, half, crescent, etc.). There has been a resurgence of interest in moon phase watches.

Perpetual Calendar: A perpetual is the ultimate calendar because it knows how long each month and year is, no matter if it is a leap year. Keep a quality perpetual calendar running and you won’t have to reset it until the year 2100.

Minute Repeater: This is a watch that chimes out the time (hours and minutes) when a lever is activated. The minute repeater is considered one of the most complicated watches to manufacture. Only a handful of manufacturers have the capability to produce this masterpiece.

Tourbillon: A device that is designed to counteract the effects of gravity on the movement’s balance, thereby increasing the movement’s accuracy. A tourbillon features a small cage that holds the balance and the escapement, and the cage turns independently of the watch, usually at a constant rate of once per minute. The tourbillon, which means “whirlwind” in French, is one of watchmaking’s most involved and elegant complications. Grand Complications:

The most complicated watches of all are the Grand Complications, watches where several complications are combined in one watch. Usually, a grand complication has a tourbillon, a perpetual calendar and another key complication (like a chronograph or a minute repeater).

Can't Stop, Won't Stop, Always Innovating: Watchmakers Never Rest When It Comes To Reinventing the Wheel

One of the more  interesting aspects of the the watch industry is the constant movement forward for innovation. Patek Philippe, Piaget or Jaeger-LeCoultre have enough brand awareness that they could continue to make their core watches and they’d keep selling watches for many years to come.

However, by continuously innovating, they are finding better solutions to precision, energy management, materials and more.

Power Management

Mechanical watches depend on mainsprings for the power to run, and the size and material of the mainspring has been the limiting factor when it comes to the hours of power reserve. Most automatic watches have a reserve of about 40 hours, not enough to get through the weekend.

Lately, power reserve has been an area of interest for many brands. Panerai has specialized in longer power reserves, like eight and 10 days, making mechanical watches that much more practical. Pictured here is the Panerai Luminor Marina 8 Days Hand Wound Mechanical 44 mm. Price upon request.

New Materials

Watchmakers all over the world are constantly searching for new materials, eager to find something more beautiful, different, lighter, more resistant or better performing.

Silver used to be a very popular material for pocket watches and wristwatches. Many watch companies, dissatisfied with the tarnishing, completely abandoned silver, preferring to use stainless steel, gold, platinum and other metals. Hermès, however, continued to use silver, one of its iconic metals, up until 1998. The general dissatisfaction of customers with the way the silver changed color led Hermès to discontinue silver in watches, though it has continued using silver in its jewelry collections.

This year, Hermès reintroduced a new silver alloy, specifically developed for watches. The result is the beauty of this precious metal in a package that won’t tarnish like silver did before. The new 970 Silver* models were introduced in the Capeland and Nantucket collections. $3,600 to $16,500, depending on diamond treatment. The oddly named U-Boat also debuted a limited edition  Classico CHrono in 925 Sterling Silver. $6,600, Also This year, Franck Muller introduced an innovative metal treatment that looks exactly like Crocodile. Featured here is the Gold Croco, $28,700.

Like conflict-free diamonds  in  the  jewelry  industry, Chopard has introduced Fairmined gold in the watch industry. “Fairmined” gold is a certification that guarantees the gold was mined in a responsible manner and miners receive fair payment and an overall premium, thereby demonstrating that gold can be sustainably mined. A great idea, and the first watch, the L.U.C Tourbillon QF Fairmined, is absolutely stunning. Limited edition of 25 pieces, $144,570.

Fighting Magnetism

Magnetism is the enemy of fine watches, wreaking havoc with precision. If you accidently magnetize your watch, and it’s so easy to do (expose it to a magnet, medical equipment, speakers, security systems, large monitors and more), timing performance goes out the window.

Recently, several watch companies have come out with special anti-magnetic watches, designed to block magnetism and ensure precision performance.

One great example is the new Engineer Master II Sportsman from Ball Watch, in partnership with Ducks Unlimited. This watch is limited to 1,937 pieces and is anti-magnetic to 4,800A/m, shock resistant to 5,000 gs and water resistant to 300m/1,000 feet. $1,999,

Thin Is In

For some years now, Piaget has been a leader in thin watches. An expert at designing the thinnest possible movements and cases, knowing exactly where watches can be thin without impacting performance, Piaget just recently set world records for the world’s thinnest automatic tourbillon, the world’s thinnest chronograph movement, the world’s thinnest chronograph case and the thinnest automatic minute repeater movement. Elegance means thin, and Piaget is at the height of elegance in the Piaget Emperador Coussin Ultra-Thin Minute Repeater. Price Upon Request.

Metiers D’art

The art of decorating watches with traditional handcrafts—enamel, miniature painting, marquetry, mosaic and more—has been enjoying a real renaissance. This year received a real boost in métiers d’art, as Patek Philippe introduced a number of new pieces in their Rare Handcrafts collection to celebrate the brand’s 175th anniversary. Price on demand.

Jaeger-LeCoultre also introduced a fantastic collection of incredible timepieces, called the Hybris Artistica, which is now touring the world to showcase Jaeger’s expertise in métiers d’art. Pictured is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Hybris Artistica Master Gyrotourbillon 1, featuring a stunning skeletonized aventurine plate. Price on demand.

Deep Divers and High Fliers

No one can dive as deep as some of the newest dive watches can go, but knowing that the case will not be compromised even down to incredible depths means that the watch is rugged enough and ready for just about anything.

Designed for the Special Operations Forces of the German Navy, the “Kampfschwimmer” from Mühle-Glashütte is a professional dive watch, water resistant to 300 meters/30 bar. $3,899,

The Rolex Deep  Sea-Dweller takes it deeper, down to 4,000 feet. Rolex introduced its first professional diving watch in 1967, with the Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller and today’s Sea-Dweller continues the brand’s legacy and legitimacy. $10,400,

Oris this year introduced a watch with a mechanical altimeter, the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter. $3,800 on a textile strap.

Single Handed

While many watches get more and more complicated, MeisterSinger has decided to go exactly the opposite way, simplifying things. The Circularis is a new family of watches featuring MeisterSinger’s own MSH01 movement and its signature display. The watch’s single hand will undoubtedly take a bit of getting used to, but when you do, you’ll wonder why you ever needed two. $5,695. 

Women's Mechanicals: Traditional Watchmaking for Women

The standard thinking in the watch industry has been that women prefer the convenience of quartz over wind-up movements. This is beginning to change as more women are becoming fascinated by the tick-tock turning of a mechanical movement.

Watch brands are responding by offering more interesting, and complicated watches. It helps that women’s watches have gotten bigger with fashions, allowing for more  variation in movements.

Patek Philippe reinforced this trend by introducing a woman’s minute repeater in 2011, and they have followed it up with a chronograph, a perpetual calendar and, this year, a combination world time and moon phase.

Sandrine Stern, Patek Philippe’s director of design, knows that more and more women are interested in complications. “We made these pieces because of requests from the markets,” she says. “My husband [Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe] travels a lot and he speaks with the retailers and the customers, and they want more complicated women’s pieces. From my side, I push for women’s complications because these pieces are very interesting to produce and design—it’s a challenge because we have to design a feminine case for a masculine movement. We will continue to create products for women, as there is strong demand in the market for more complicated pieces.”

This year, Patek Philippe introduced the World Time Moon Ref. 7175, limited to 450 watches. $60,900.

Ratings table


Quartz watches use a movement that is powered by a battery and is largely assembled on automatic assembly lines. Mechanical movements are powered by a mainspring and the gears manage and control the energy release, and the hands display the time. High watchmaking movements are assembled by hand.

Chopard, who for years has been succeeding with the quartz Happy Sport, which features jewels turning and spinning on the dial, recently introduced an automatic movement version, designed just for women. Chopard Happy Sport Medium Automatic Two Tone, $20,010.

Last year, Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced a brand new mechanical collection for women, the Rendez-Vous, with great success. “Today we are seeing a trend for women who are looking for watches with substance whether in terms of movements (self-winding) and complications (moon phase, perpetual calendar and tourbillon),” says Philippe Bonay, president, Jaeger-LeCoultre NA. A great example of this is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Rendez-Vous Date, $20,400.

Baume & Mercier  introduced the Promesse collection this year, powered primarily by mechanical movements.

“The Promesse Collection is our first new ladies collection in nearly a decade,” says Rudy Chavez, president. “Taking inspiration from one of our historical  ladies timepieces from the 1970s, the Promesse Collection features a very unique oval bezel inside a round case. Understanding and addressing an increasing desire by women to wear mechanical timepieces, many of the Promesse styles are also available with automatic movements.” The Promesse collection is priced from $1,950-$6,950.

Master watchmaker François-Paul Journe unveiled his first women’s piece this year, a fusing of watchmaking with electronics, the Élégante. “I created this watch because for 20 years, women have been asking me to design a watch for them; a watch that was different and comfortable to wear, and that suited their needs and desires,” Mr. Journe says. “I therefore created this long-lasting watch especially for them. Today the Élégante features the only electromechanical movement conceived and created for the luxury market and offering a true vision of luxury.” $16,100,

Franck Muller, who uses the tagline Master of Complications, is coming on board with women’s mechanicals as well. “Women’s watchmaking appreciation has changed extensively in the past few years,” acknowledges Nicholas Rudaz, director, Franck Muller Group. “We have moved from into a market where  women are now knowledgeable players. Nowadays, ladies are looking for watches that combine aesthetic and technical features.” Franck Muller has increased its offer for women of in-house mechanical watches focusing on poetic complications such as The Crazy Hours, the Double Mystery and the Tourbillon Lady. The new challenge for the Master of Complications is to craft even more complicated watches for this new customer who is keen on horlogical complications.” Pictured here is the Franck Muller Tourbillon Lady, $94,400.

Seeing Red: Gold By Any Other Name

Yellow gold used to be the gold of choice, but for many years, white gold supplanted this metal, as people didn’t want to “show off” with big, yellow gold watches. Now, the pendulum has swung toward reddish-hued gold.

Pure gold is yellow in color, but colored gold is possible by mixing other materials with gold. Copper in the alloy is what gives the gold a reddish hue, and the more copper, the redder the gold will be. Rolex may have kick-started the trend of reddish gold with its proprietary alloy, Everose, in 2008. In 2013, Omega introduced Sedna gold, another new red gold alloy that resists fading, something that naturally happens to reddish gold (the copper molecules oxidize off the surface of the metal). Don’t worry, a quick polish will rejuvenate the red hue.

Today, red, rose and pink golds are everywhere, more popular than ever before. Reddish gold is subtler, more elegant and less ostentatious. Red gold by itself, or combining it with brown hues, makes the watch warm and stylish, while watchmakers are starting to use red gold combined with steel in two-tone watches. And, when red gold is paired with black, it looks sporty, technical yet still really classy.

Reddish gold is here to stay, something to consider when purchasing your next fine timepiece.


Choosing the Ultimate Holiday Gift

Buying a luxury watch or piece of jewelry can be very intimidating. First off, there are a lot of different brands to choose from, with almost unpronounceable names and terms, and features that can be difficult to understand. On top of this, luxury timepieces and jewelry are very personal, as they sit next to the skin, so choose wisely and your gift will be a part of your giftee’s life virtually forever.

Choosing the Right Retailer

You have to trust the store you buy from, so make sure you ask your friends about the jewelers they like and trust. Visit these stores, ask about watches and jewelry and make sure they listen to what you are saying. A top retailer won’t try to push you in any particular direction, but will listen to what you want and make the appropriate recommendations.

“A watch is a very personal gift and getting it just right may seem very difficult, but a trained sales professional should be able to help in the process by asking a few pointed question that will ultimately lead to just the right timepiece,” says Ruediger Albers, president, Wempe NY.

Understanding the People You Buy For

Everyone has different style and taste, so it’s important to understand the person you are buying for. “Lifestyle is important when buying a gift for someone; consider how they wear their watches and jewelry along with the occasion,” Greg Kwiat, CEO of Fred Leighton, says. “You can tell a lot about a person from their jewelry habits. Whether it’s the type of metal they wear, a love for diamonds or an attraction to colored gemstones—these are all things to consider when looking for the perfect gift.

“Trust your instincts about what that person will like,” he continues. “At Fred Leighton, there are many beautiful options at different price points that reflect more than 100 years of design. With vintage jewelry and watches the possibilities are endless to find a unique gift.”

Knowing the person you’re buying for is one of the most important considerations when choosing a gift, according to Steven Fina, head merchant, Michael C. Fina. “Cufflinks are my go-to gift,” he says. “There are so many options that are unique and appropriate: if you’re a Knicks fan, I’ve got cufflinks for you; if you’re a plumber, I’ve got wrench cufflinks for you, and so on. Guys change their cufflinks every day and they always remember who bought which pair for them, if they were meaningful and thoughtful.

“For a guy, his watch, cufflinks and pen say everything,” he continues. “They are what people see across the table in a meeting—they reflect our personalities. For a woman, it’s her nails, her hair and her jewelry. This is how we differentiate ourselves and show people how we care about presenting ourselves. When choosing a gift, pay attention. Make it memorable. Make a statement.”

Buying for the Guy or Girl With Everything

If you are choosing for someone who already owns fine jewelry or a great watch, it’s good to know what is in their collection. “What you choose depends on how well you know the person, the style and what other watches the person may already own so the gift will compliment an existing collection,” adds Wempe’s Mr. Albers. “A watch is a form of self-expression, a style element that completes a look and can be cherished for decades.”

Fred Leighton’s Mr. Kwiat suggests vintage watches and jewelry as gifts for the holidays. “There is a timeless quality to vintage jewelry and watches,” he says. “They have a storied past and are continuing to evolve their story when given as a gift. A vintage watch is something that can be worn everyday—the classics of gifts—and is a daily keepsake of the occasion. Along with their usefulness, vintage watches have become increasingly desirable for their collectability and investment. Whether jewelry or watches, one of the best attributes of buying vintage is the heirloom quality and that the pieces and their stories can be passed down for generations.”

Buy With Confidence But Keep the Receipt

Once you have made a decision, buy confidently. Giving a fine watch or a beautiful piece of a jewelry is a great gift for the holidays. At the same time, however, because they are so personal, make sure the retailer will allow returns or exchanges. “Buying from a reputable store with a customer-friendly exchange policy will give you added peace of mind just in case you missed the mark,” advises Wempe’s Mr. Albers.

Companies to Watch

105 Years Young: To celebrate its 105th anniversary, the iconic men’s clothing brand Haspel decided to do its first timepiece, partnering with Brooklyn Watches. The resulting timepiece, the Haspel x Brooklyn watch, is very classic and elegant, using a vintage movement that has been restored and set in a new case. The manual wind watch is limited to 10 pieces and retails for $1,499.

“This was Haspel’s first foray into luxury accessories, so we wanted to create something classic and timeless; something that the Haspel guy will be able to wear for another 105 years,” says Laurie Haspel Aronson, Haspel’s President & CEO.

Reinventing an Icon—Waltham: Along with Hamilton, Elgin and Ball, Waltham was a pioneer of American watchmaking. This year, the brand, which was founded in 1850, has been reinvented and relaunched. Shown here is the Waltham ETC Pure to Black Matter. $9,400,

Shinola’s Newest—the Brakeman Chrono: Shinola is one of the hottest brands in the watch industry and it continues to turn heads with its great introductions, all “built in Detroit.” Just recently, Shinola introduced the new 46mm Brakeman Chrono. $775,

We hope you enjoy the Observer guide to shopping for the ultimate in luxury watches. We have sourced not only the finest pieces on the market but also the hottest trends and most recent innovations in watch making.



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