Category Archives: watches

The Odd Appeal of Stainless Steel

In the world of high end watches, precious metals rule.  That makes sense; if you’re buying a watch that costs $250,000, you want something that you can show off.

In recent years, that means that the watch is going to have a case made of gold, or platinum, or possibly machined sapphire crystal.

Patek Philippe reference 1518

Patek Philippe reference 1518

Gold and platinum are relatively rare precious metals.  Sapphire is a naturally occurring gemstone, but man-made sapphire can be machined into a watch case, making for a pretty amazing (and expensive) watch.

Stainless steel, on the other hand, isn’t a very sexy material.  Sure, it’s strong.  The “stainless” in the name suggests, correctly, that it isn’t going to rust if you get it wet.  Of course, gold and platinum won’t rust, either.

The combination of strength, rust-resistance and affordable pricing is what makes stainless steel a commodity in the watchmaking world, and the vast majority of watches in the $50-$5000 range have stainless steel cases.

Often, a watch will be made with a choice of case materials, and buyers may have the option of gold, platinum, or steel.  The steel model, of course, will make the watch the most affordable option, and buyers who are budget conscious will have the ability to get the same watch for a substantially lower price.

It’s interesting to note that the most expensive wristwatch ever sold, the Patek Philippe reference 1518, which was made in 1944 and which recently sold for more than $10 million, had a stainless steel case.

Why?  And why would someone pay that much money for a watch made from such a common material?

rolex 8171 steel

Rolex 8171 in steel – a $1 million watch.

The reference 1518 is an unusual watch in its own right, having been the first mass-produced (for Patek) watch to include a perpetual calendar.  That alone makes it collectible, but here’s where it gets interesting.

The “mass produced” 1518 was made in a production run of just 285 watches.  That’s not a lot by Swatch standards, but for Patek, especially during World War II, that was a big run.

Here’s the kicker – of the 285 watches made, 281 had cases that were made from either yellow gold or rose gold.  Exactly four watches were made with stainless steel cases, and they were probably special-order items that had been built to accommodate a customer request for a steel case.

As it happens, a number of older watches that have recently set records for high prices have steel cases, and the reason is simple – they’re a lot more rare than their gold or platinum counterparts.  Steel wasn’t used as a first choice by these companies; they were used only when materials were in short supply (as they were in World War II) or when someone specifically asked for a steel case.

That, paradoxically, is why such a common material is actually rare in some circumstances, and why collectors are today paying exorbitant sums of money for watches made from “common” material.

Keep in mind that most steel watches are indeed commodities.  Still, when a company such as Rolex offers a watch with steel or gold, the steel models sell briskly, usually because the buyers know it’s the same watch as the gold one but available at a much lower price.

At the end of the day, it’s still a Rolex.


How Complicated Do You Want?

When it comes to buying watches, there are all kinds of designs, and all manner of movements.  Most watches sold today have quartz movements, which are highly reliable and accurate, but which are frowned upon by purists who think that only mechanical watches matter.

That’s a debate for another day, but for many buyers, a more simple question pops up regarding what kind of watch to buy – how complicated do you want it to be?

“Complicated” can have different meanings when it comes to watches.  In watch terms, a “complication” isn’t a problem, but rather refers to an additional feature besides the basic telling of time that a watch might offer.

chronograph watch

A “complicated” watch face

Many watches only tell the time.  If your watch has a date feature, that is known as a date “complication.”  Other complications might include the day of the week, the phases of the moon, or dials for a chronograph, which allows your watch to act as a stopwatch or to record elapsed time.

Some people have a need for such features and others do not.  If you’re a pilot, race car driver,  or a diver, for instance, you may very well have a use for a chronograph.  If you’re just a businessman who wears the watch to the office where you sit behind a desk all day, you might find that you don’t need those features, and you’d rather just have a watch that tells the time, or perhaps, tells the time and offers the date.

While these complications offer additional functionality to your watch, they also take up space.  In the case of a mechanical watch, they’re going to make the movement more internally complex and necessarily larger.  While it’s less of a burden to add such features to a quartz-powered watch, there is one place where all watches become more cluttered with the addition of more complications – the watch face.

movado watch

A simple watch face

The face is where you do business with the watch.  It’s where you’re going to obtain all of the information that a watch can provide you.  The more complications a watch has installed, the more of your watch face real estate that they’re going to take up.  Chronograph dials take up space.   A moon phase display takes up space.  The day of the week takes up space.  The date takes up space.

All of these things can likely be found on a single wristwatch if you really want to have them all at once, but that is going to leave you with a cluttered watch face.  That is where buyers differ.  Some people like all of these features and don’t mind a watch that has a busy appearance.  Others prefer a more simple approach, and prefer a clean,

Which you prefer is up to you.  You just need to be aware that complications, while interesting and useful, are also going to get in the way of the basic features that make a watch a watch – the ability to look at it quickly and see what time it happens to be.

If you’re a gadget freak who likes new toys and functions, there are plenty of timepieces that can accommodate you. If you prefer a simpler look, there are other makers of luxury watches that can provide a cleaner, simpler interface.

In the end, it’s all about personal preference.

Buying a Mechanical Watch

These days, most watches are powered by quartz movements, which are reliable and accurate and require relatively little maintenance.

Watch purists, however, still prefer watches with mechanical movements, which is the way that all watches worked until about 50 years ago.

Skeleton mechanical watchBuying a mechanical watch can make a statement and there are thousands of available models in all price ranges and styles.  If you decide that you’d like to own one, there are a few things you should ask yourself before you commit to buy:

  • New or vintage?  Vintage models have historical and collector appeal, but they may be somewhat less accurate than newer models.  They also may have been altered or modified, particularly in the case of famous brands, such as Rolex, where altered models are quite common.  On the other hand, buying a pre-owned watch can save you a lot of money when compared to buying a comparable model brand new.
  • What kind of strap?  Most watches have either a metal bracelet or a rubber or leather strap.  Most wearers prefer one or the other.  Leather seems preferential for workplace and formal settings, though that seems to be changing as time goes on.  Still, you need to decide which you’d rather have, as most watches come with one or the other, but not both.
  • Dial style.  Do you want a simple face that only tells the time?  Do you need additional features that will add functionality but will also clutter up the looks?  You first need to decide exactly what it is you want your watch to do.  After that, the decision as to what kind of look you want in your watch should become an easy one.
  • Automatic or manually wound?  Automatic, or self-winding models, are less trouble, but are mechanically more complicated and somewhat more expensive.
  • Steel? Gold? Platinum? Other?  The case material is part of how you want your watch to look.  Most watches have stainless steel cases, though many are tinted to look like gold.  You can also buy mechanical watches with cases made from precious metals, of which gold is the most popular.
  • Price.  The price is going to be the big factor in determining the quality of watch that you can buy.  You can purchase a Chinese-made mechanical watch for as little as $25 or so, but it won’t be very reliable, it likely won’t have any significant water resistance and it likely won’t last very long.  At the other end of the spectrum, you can spend $5000 or more on a handcrafted Swiss timepiece that will likely last for decades with proper care and maintenance.  In between, there are many options, though most buyers of mechanical watches still prefer to buy models that are Swiss-made, or at least those that have Swiss-made movements.  The Japanese also make some affordable, high quality mechanical watches, so if you have a mid-range budget, you may wish to consider models from a Japanese maker.

These are just a few of the things that you need to consider when buying a mechanical watch.  Keep in mind that unlike quartz models, mechanical watches will require occasional maintenance, so be sure to keep that in mind as part of your budget.

A nice mechanical watch looks good, runs well, and should last for years with proper care.  They make a good buy if you choose well.

Paul Newmans’ Rolex to Be Auctioned

There are a lot of famous watches out there, and even a lot of famous Rolex watches out there.  None seem to attract attention, however, quite like the Rolex with the name “Paul Newman” attached to it.

paul newman rolex cosmograph daytonaPaul Newman was a famous actor, and he also had some success as a race car driver.  In watch collecting circles, however, he’s best known for the watch that has come to bear his name – the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Paul Newman.

This was never an official marketing name; the official name for the watch is the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.  Named for the Florida speedway, the watch was introduced in 1963 to relatively little fanfare and actually sold quite poorly in its day.

A styling change in 1967 made the watch a bit more popular, though the model was sold with perhaps 20 different dials.

As it happens, Paul Newman’s wife, actress Joanne Woodward, gave him a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona in 1972 when he started racing automobiles.  It also happens that Paul Newman liked this watch very much, and reportedly wore it every day between 1972 and his death in 2008.

It also happens that the dial on the watch that Newman personally owned was one of the more unusual and poor selling variations on the model.  Despite this, the watch with that particular dial became the one that was associated with the actor’s name.

The differences between the dial on a “Paul Newman” Cosmograph and one that isn’t are relatively minor, and most people giving the watch a casual look would scarcely noticing anything unusual about it.

An inscription from Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward

Collectors know, however, and models that match the description of the one that Newman personally owned sell for substantially more than similar, but not-quite-the-same models.  That has led to a proliferation of fake “Paul Newman” dials, where people put reproduction dials on otherwise legitimate Rolex watches.

All of this is coming to a head in a few months, as the Philips auction house has announced that they have Paul Newman’s personal Rolex Cosmograph Daytona and that they will auction it off for public sale this fall.

Watches with celebrity ownership and good provenance will often sell for a lot of money, but in this case, the actor, the watch, and the combination of the two are iconic.  As a result, the current estimate on the sale of the watch is that it will sell for $1 million minimum, though some are speculating that the watch may sell for as much as $5 million before the auction is over.

The funds from the sale will reportedly be donated to a charitable foundation named after Newman’s daughter, Nell.

Not a bad return for a watch that sold for roughly $200 when new.

How Automatic Watches Work

If you’re a fan or collector of vintage clocks, you’ll likely have to spend some time winding them, unless, of course, you own electric models.

Winding a clock has been part of the process of owning one for centuries.  They’re driven by springs, and those springs have to have tension in order for the mechanism to keep time.  As the clock runs, the tension decreases and unless you rest it, the timepiece will eventually stop running.

With mechanical clocks, you wind them with a key or by resetting a weight.  With mechanical watches, you wind them by twisting the small knob on the crown that’s usually found at the 3 o’clock position….

…unless, that is, you own an automatic watch.

oris automatic watch

Back side of Oris automatic watch with visible rotor

Automatic watches aren’t new; they’ve been in mass production since the 1930s.  The method used for most automatic watches was patented by Rolex and is still in use, with some modifications, today.

These timepieces are mechanically wound; there is no magic mechanism that avoids that.  What makes them “automatic” is that there is a small weighted rotor inside the case.  This rotor moves as the person wearing the watch moves their arm during the normal course of the day.  As they move, the rotor moves, and this adds tension to the spring, thus winding the watch.

You don’t have to continuously wear an automatic watch to keep them running, as they have what is known as a “power reserve.”  This represents the amount of time, usually expressed in hours, that a watch will continue to run without being manually wound.  The power reserve of most watches is somewhere between 12 and 72 hours, which means that you likely won’t have to wear your watch every day in order to keep it running.

Even if you do fail to wear your watch for a long enough period of time that it stops, you can get it running again by winding it manually.  Automatic watches can be wound just as any other mechanical watch might be.

Vintage Rolex automatic watch

Vintage Rolex automatic watch

If you don’t want to manually wind your automatic watch but you want to keep it running while it’s not being worn, you can buy a device known as a watch winder.  These are storage boxes that move the watch while it’s being stored in order to wind it for you.  That way, it will always be ready to wear and have the correct time waiting for you.

Automatic watches come in a wide variety of price ranges.  While many high end watches ($10,000 and up) are automatic, self-winding models, we have also seen budget self-winding watches priced at under $30.

That makes them affordable for just about everyone.

Automatic watches are convenient affordable and accurate.  Unfortunately, no one has yet to invent a self-winding mechanical clock.  For that, we’re just going to have to wait a bit longer.