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Luxury watches for dummies: Why are Swiss luxury watches so expensive, what does guilloche mean and what is a Tourbillon?

Have you ever wondered why luxury Swiss horology scores over every other, what a diving watch exactly is or why is in-house movement so important for brands? The answers you may be looking for.

September 26, 2020 / 07:44 AM IST
Rolex Sea Dweller from Rolesor series.

Rolex Sea Dweller from Rolesor series.

Note to readersDesire for Dummies is a new series that will guide readers who are looking to be lavish on luxury or big-ticket investments by answering all the key questions they may have.  

Some of the world’s best luxury watches, such as a Patek Philippe (a timepiece from this luxury watch brand can cost as much as $100,000), is worth nearly 20 times more than even the best-paid executive’s annual salary. We make attempt to answer the oft-asked questions about super-indulgent luxury watches.

desire-for-dummies2Why do luxury watches cost as much as they do? 

Answer: You are paying for expensive material, for one.

The luxury watch industry uses a plethora of materials depending on the specific look and advantages they want in a watch. Yellow gold, used in a quintessential gold watch, is among the most expensive. The Rolex Rolesor watch, a classic luxury watch is a combination of 18ct gold and steel. Rose gold is the contemporary version of the yellow gold watch.


Some brands increase the copper content in their watches to an extent that you get what is euphemistically known as ‘a red gold watch’. The Patek Philippe 5235 R Regulator is a beautiful example of how an expensive material such as rose gold can be paired with a subtle black dial even in a men’s watch.

Patek Philippe 5235R Regulator. Patek Philippe 5235R Regulator.

There is, of course, the use of white gold in a watch like Rolex Submariner Smurf. And the most expensive of all materials, platinum, that is naturally silver in colour and lustrous in a watch such as Rolex Lady Datejust. Then comes an innovative material like ceramic, as resilient as a sapphire crystal and very light, which makes it ideal for sports watches. Every luxury watch worth its salt boasts an expensive sapphire crystal, a material resistant to scratches, cracks and fractures.

Patek Philippe’s Grand Complications collection. Patek Philippe’s Grand Complications collection.

You also pay for the dosh that watch brands sink into R&D. Every facet of luxury watch production is detailed out and followed to the tee. Brands such as Rolex and Vacheron Constantin craft their stainless steel alloys. While many brands use a 316L steel, Rolex kicks up things a notch with a higher-grade 904L steel alloy. Omega has its version of rose gold called Sedna gold. Rolex’s proprietary alloy is called Everose.

Rolex Lady Datejust made using platinum. Rolex Lady Datejust made using platinum.

And finally, watch brands spend years of R&D into refining each step of the watchmaking process, including creating in-house movements, specialized dial mounting, long-power reserves and finishing techniques.

Rolex watch movements have been prized as being some of the most reliable, precise and robust calibers currently existing and have contributed immensely to the brand’s standing as the top three brands in luxury watches. Breitling’s B01 movement is manufactured in-house, giving the company complete control over the reliability and precision of its timepieces.

Breitling’s B01 movement. Breitling’s B01 movement.

Patek Philippe’s Grand Complications collection features magnificent finishes on all parts, split-seconds lever construction and a perpetual calendar feature. This highly coveted Patek Philippe watch movement, built in-house, is hand-wound and relatively small compared to some other top watch movements. It consists of 496 parts, is produced in limited quantities and is available only to a few fortunate buyers.

Omega Constellation made from proprietary Sedna gold. Omega Constellation made from proprietary Sedna gold.

Finally, some of the finest watches are made in limited numbers. Manufactured in a limited run of only 100 pieces, Montblanc 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter Limited Edition Watch costs £23,600. Its vintage-style bronze case boasts champagne dial with a sunray finish and eye-catching, historical ‘cathedral’ hands filled with Super-LumiNova® so that you can read the time even in extremely low light.

What exactly is a ‘handmade watch’?

Answer: In handmade luxury watches, unlike an assembly line watch, every single part has been precisely pieced together by artisans and watch engineers. It is a time-consuming process and yet, in the world of luxury that worships handcrafted, these handmade watches occupy an exalted position.

Besides, handmade watches are much rarer since a watchmaker can only output a certain number of watches per day.

The making of Les Cabinotiers Grisaille Rhinoceros. The making of Les Cabinotiers Grisaille Rhinoceros.

The Blancpain 1735 Grande Complication boasts 740 handmade parts. Germany’s A. Lange & Söhne has 70 employees in its finish department alone, where they handle more rudimentary aspects such as chamfering, graining, and polishing. Hublot Black Caviar Band is covered in 501 uniquely-cut black diamonds, which are set by artisans within 18-karat white gold frame. The surprisingly understated costs $1 million.

Sky Moon Tourbillon. Sky Moon Tourbillon.

At $1.3 million, the Sky Moon Tourbillon is the most complicated handmade wristwatch ever constructed by Patek Philippe. On one side of the watch is the night sky with its precision, while the front has the moon and date phases. It is considered a piece of modern art and design.

Some of the best handmade watches boast great craftsmanship. Did you know that Vacheron Constantin’s exceptional watch series, Les Cabinotiers, can only be made by artisans, or ‘cabinetries’ as they were once known, seated in workshops that revive the spirit of 18th-century Geneva?

These workshops, often within enclosed spaces, are directly located under roofs and illuminated by numerous windows to allow natural light in as long as possible. The brand’s guilloche experts, enamellers, engraves and jewellery setters continue age-old traditions of enamelling and hand-engraving watches.

Les Cabinotiers workshop. Les Cabinotiers workshop.

A couple of years ago, Chanel approached master enamellist and a respected artisan in watchmaking to recreate its founder, Coco Chanel’s Chinese Coromandel screens on to its Mademoiselle Privé watches. After studying her 32 Coromandel screens—that are now lodged in her private apartment above the flagship boutique and workshop in Paris’s 31 Rue Cambon—Porchet translated the engraved scenes of birds, mythical creatures and fauna on an ornate black enamelled panel with grand feu enamelling.

Why are Swiss watches considered gold standard?

Answer: By legal definition, a watch earns the coveted 'Swiss Made' mark if its movement is assembled, encased, and inspected in Switzerland, and represents 60% of the watch's production cost. But what makes Swiss watches top dogs in the world of luxury watches is its long horology history—spanning some 500-plus years —which they have effectively preserved and managed.

Time-keeping devices have transformed from large clocks into pocket watches to the current wristwatch, and the Swiss have survived all these transformations because they innovated quality materials. The sapphire crystal watch face, now a gold standard in durability, was pioneered by Swiss watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre nearly 100 years ago.

Swiss watchmakers are often credited with the popularisation of the wristwatch in general. By 1930, wristwatches outnumbered pocket watches 50 to 1 by 1930 and most of these wristwatches were produced by Swiss companies like Rolex and Omega. By the end of World War II, a wristwatch was an essential accessory and Swiss watchmakers had 50% of the growing global market.

For a while, the Swiss slipped when the Japanese watchmaker, Seiko, introduced the battery-powered quartz oscillator. But the Swiss clambered back to the top in the 1980s with the creation of the Swatch watch in direct response to the "quartz crisis" and have stayed there since.

What are the different kinds of luxury watches?

Answer: A few well-known ones:

Dress watches: The best dress watches are handcrafted, often in 18ct yellow or rose gold, sometimes enamelled or guilloched, and slim enough to be hidden under the sleeve of a shirt or suit. In the case of women’s watches, they may be embedded with diamonds or other precious stones such as rubies and emeralds. Most dress watches often just have the hour and minute hands.

Breguet Guillochage watch. Breguet Guillochage watch.

Chronometers: Made of high-quality materials that do not expand or contract easily with the change of temperature, a Chronometer’s movement is more advanced and far more accurate. Technically, the name chronometer can only be obtained by those who were tested and passed the 16-day test of Controle Officiel Suisse des Chronometers (COSC), a testing institute in Switzerland.

Moon Phase watches: The moon phase watches indicate the phase of the moon based on the calendar of the watch. They also indicate if it’s a day or a night by showing a picture of a sun or moon.

Dive watches: These are designed to withstand water. Their crowns are often screw-down, meaning they need to be screwed (using your fingers) to lock/unlock, and they have thicker rubber gasket for better protection against water. Dive watches sport a rotating bezel that also serves as a timer to help drivers control how long they’ve been under the surface.

Chanel dress watch. Chanel dress watch.

Racing watches: A racing watch is a step up from a regular chronometer and usually includes a tachymeter to measure distance displaced within a time frame. They sport rather busy dials, meant to somewhat replicate the instruments present on a racing car.

Breguet Classique Moon Phase. Breguet Classique Moon Phase.

What do the different watch terms mean?

Answer: Here are some oft-used terms.

Bezel: The ring that surrounds the watch dial or face.

Caliber: The term is used to indicate the movement's shape. layout or size.

Complication: Any function on a watch beyond displaying hours, minutes and seconds. These can include unseen things such as an automatic winding function or a Tourbillon.

Crown: A button on the side of the case that pulls or screws out, allowing the wearer to adjust the time and date or synchronize the seconds. Screw-in or screw-down crowns seal the watch to keep out water at extreme depths.

Enamelling: Most watch dials start as a disc of raw metal, which is painted and finished using a myriad of techniques. but in select few watches finishing and painting are abandoned for a coating of enamel. The enamel dial watches are not just stunning but cost as much as a luxury car.

Jaeger-LeCoultre sapphire crystal watchface. Jaeger-LeCoultre sapphire crystal watchface.

Enamelled dials: Created by fusing a soft glass made from silica onto a metal substrate into really hot oven—are difficult to make. There are more specific techniques, such as grand feu enamelling, a process repeated in layers; cloisonné enamel which is essentially painted metal inlays made out of wire; and Champlevé , where the enamel is painted into engraved spaces in the metal.

Guilloché: This very precise engraving technique is designed to produce intricate, repetitive designs on material, including those used on dials.

Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.
Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.
first published: Sep 26, 2020 07:44 am
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