The Watch Brand Hierarchy
I would like to know more about the historical evolution of the watch brand “hierarchy.” I mean, today we take it for granted that the best there is is the “Holy Trinity” for the connoisseurs and Rolex for the masses, while something like Longines is very entry level, yet this has not been the case always. For example, I have read somewhere on the Internet that 50-60 years ago Vacheron was the undisputed king, not Patek. Also, I have heard that Longines and Hamilton were as prestigious as Patek in the 1930s, and that Omega was perceived as of higher class than Rolex as recently as the 1960s. Could you, the expert, please share your view on this matter and tell me which brands have “always” been the cream of the cream, and which are the newcomers faking the heritage?
This is an extremely interesting question. The whole notion of the so-called Holy Trinity is a somewhat antiquated one; for readers who may not be familiar with the term, it refers to three haute de gamme watch companies: Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Audemars Piguet. Traditionally these were considered the top three fine watchmakers in Switzerland — “fine” in the sense that they adhered to very high standards in the making of well-finished wristwatches that represented traditional fine watchmaking values. Chief among these was fineness of finish — black polished steel work, hand applied anglange and Geneva stripes, and so on and so forth. These three companies also made use of, or made, extremely high quality movements. Rolex, by contrast, was seen as a maker of good, sturdy wristwatches, but their stock-in-trade was never “fineness” per se, nor is it today.
This relatively stable hierarchy was upended by the Quartz Crisis. Longines became a remora on the swollen corpus of Swatch Group; Omega abandoned many of its own best movements and became reliant on ETA; Lange & Sohne was relaunched and its immediate creation of very high grade movements meant that, in terms of haute de gamme watchmaking, there were suddenly a Big Four.
In terms of faking the right to claim that one makes haute de gamme watches, this is a difficult question. To a certain extent, that whole realm of thought and classification is dead — we are in an age of industrialised luxury, not hand-production of small numbers of fine watches. To illustrate, one only has to look at Patek’s limited edition watches for the 40th anniversary of the Nautilus — certainly well-made, but made in very large numbers and representing an easy quarter of a billion’s worth (more or less) additional gross revenue, and requiring absolutely nothing from Patek in terms of effort in either design or execution.
To some degree, all of the luxury watch brands are “faking it,” as you put it. There is too much pressure to hold down production costs, and increase volume and profits, for this not to happen. It’s my impression right now that Lange is faking it the least, but we are at a time when, alas, low expectations of fineness, consistently through a company’s product range, are often justified. It is at least possible to still find very honest tool watches, and Grand Seiko remains a rare oasis of relative value in luxury watchmaking. But now more than ever one must trust one’s own eyes and buy the watch, not the brand (or at least, not entirely the brand).
Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso
Dear Watch Snob®,
The Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso is an incredibly classic watch with a great pedigree. However, looking at all of the versions that are being made or have been made (and are now discontinued) makes me feel it’s a lot like Omega and the Speedmaster. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but when it comes to the Reverso, is there one that should be revered above all others? If not, are there any distinctive features that a first Reverso owner should have in their first Reverso with regards to case size, dial design, reverse dial/clear caseback/solid caseback, complications, etc? Additionally, is there a Reverso that the Watch Snob prefers above all others?
At the moment, by far the most attractive Reverso is the Ultra Thin Tribute To 1931. There is certainly something to be said for any number of the other Reverso models, by the way. However, in my view, it is the Tribute model that most closely captures what made the original Reverso such a charming, interesting, and original design in the first place. The Reverso Classic, Medium, for instance: quite a good watch, and if the Tribute did not exist it would be something of an obvious choice. However, it is fitted with an automatic movement, which in the context of the Reverso’s history seems a concession to modern preferences and modern market pressures, rather than a result of fidelity to the inspiration of the original.
There are some quite nice Reverso Duo models, as well, but I think the purity of the original design is somewhat diluted by using the verso face as a place for additional complications. Again, fidelity to the inspiration of the original, it seems to me, demands a solid case-back. A hand-wound, thin, solid case-back version of the Reverso, without the distraction of a sub-seconds hand or centre seconds hand, is not only a form of horological purism, it is also by far the most elegant form the Reverso can take, and if one is to have only one of the many models, why not have the one that is most beautiful? Besides, if you want something to look at when the carrier is reversed, what could be better than an engraving of your own choosing?
Dear Watch Snob,
I am an avid reader of your column which has guided my misguided 18-year-old thoughts and choices back onto the right path. I shall get right to the point in this one. I need your advice on my next purchase, I don’t possess a large sum of money so I am limited to the grey market. I was eying a Glashutte Original Panoinverse XL until I came across a H.Moser & Cie in White gold and a vintage two-tone Patek Philippe Nautilus 3700. I now face a dilemma: I would rather have something a bit off the beaten path and something to remember for the years to come. The reason is not wanting to follow the same old well-trodden path as most people.
Thank you for your time.
In general, it’s my inclination, if you can afford it, to warn folks off buying from grey market dealers. This is partly because you are not given the protection (such as it is) of a manufacturer’s warranty. Then, too, while I understand the attraction of lower pricing of course (after all there is no reason to throw money away if you can possibly avoid it) I admit I have always felt there is something a little shabby about the grey market. Irrational and elitist that may be, but then I am not yclept the “Watch Snob” for nothing. However, this is not an issue for the 3700, which is, of the watches you name, by far the most obvious choice. In stainless steel, the Nautilus is of course a classic of modern watchmaking, although I do feel that the 3700, in that metal, to this day remains just a tiny bit dishonorable, insofar as at the time it was launched, it was something of — well, not a direct copy, but certainly a commercially motivated response to the Royal Oak.
The two-tone models, however, have an undeniable allure all their own. For all that, the combination of gold and steel is seen by some as an admission of (relative) poverty — to me, at its best it is nothing of the kind. The two metals —in the right watch, and with the right design, needless to say — combine beautifully. I do not, I ought to add, feel the same way about the Royal Oak in this combination; the Royal Oak was conceived of as a steel watch and it is in steel that the design expresses its intentions most clearly. In the Nautilus, however, the combination gives it an originality, and personality, that the watch does not have in steel. In any case it is far more interesting than either the Moser, or the Glashutte Original; both companies make some good, and even interesting, wristwatches but the 3700 is in an entirely different league.