The World’s Best Watches
In an age when the current time–or something close to it–blinks on every cell phone, laptop, microwave and dashboard, wristwatches are still vital. We are obsessed with time, paradoxically pursued by it and never having enough. Whether we are running late for a plane, dashing to a meeting or waiting for a friend on a street corner, we all share a universal mannerism: the reflexive wristwatch check. And seeing as how we spend so much of our lives rotating our wrists and checking the time, we may as well have something beautiful or cool or interesting to look at.
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The appeal of a fine wristwatch goes well beyond mere time telling. Strapped snugly on the left or the right, watches speak of class, taste, functionality and, of course, punctuality. With incredibly sophisticated movements, mechanical watches are like high-performance automobiles–though without all the maintenance or parking hassles. Beside neckties, they’re one of the few fashion accessories that reveal a man’s personal style. And a quality wristwatch can be passed down for generations, replete with all the heart-tugging “I was wearing this when I first laid eyes on your mother…saw your first Little League at bat…proved Goldbach’s Conjecture…on 9/11” you can muster.
Perhaps most conveniently, the watch market is full of affordable product. While even the most uncomplicated wristwatches from legendary manufacturers such as Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe may run you as much as a midsize car, there are plenty of quality watches available for a whole lot less. “It used to be that $1,000 was the cutoff for a really great watch, but nowadays the threshold is much lower,” says Keith Strandberg, watch editor of InSync, a consumer and trade publication. He notes that Hamilton–a classic American design now owned by the Swatch Group and manufactured in Switzerland–has a great selection of mechanical watches for as little as $300.
If you haven’t come across the wristwatch of your dreams just yet, you must not be looking hard enough. Or perhaps you’re looking too hard, as the volume of watches available at retail is nothing short of daunting. Low-end quartz-movement brands such as Fossil introduce hundreds of models each year. Meanwhile, makers of fine watches typically maintain multiple collections–such as sports watches, dress watches and Grand Complications–multiple models within those collections–such as chronographs, pilot watches and day & dates–as well as numerous versions of each model. Want it in stainless steel with a black dial? Rose gold with a white dial? A platinum pavé speckled with diamonds? Chances are it’s in the collection–and let’s not even get started on all the possible bracelet and strap combinations.
Add to all of this the many fashion designers, sports franchises, entertainment conglomerates and consumer goods manufacturers that routinely pump out watches for sale or giveaway. From the plastic freebie your kid digs out of a cereal box, to stylish line extensions from Tommy Hilfiger (nyse: TOM – news – people ) or Calvin Klein, to calculated collectibles such as Casio‘s limited-edition “G-Shock” Jeremy Shockey signature watch promoting the New York Giants’ hobbled tight end, there are almost too many watches to contemplate.
“It’s relatively easy to get started in the watch business,” notes Strandberg. “Simply contract a movement from an established watchmaker and put your name on it. You might not be selling timeless creations, but if you catch a trend they’ll sell.”
Though clocks have been around since the 13th century, the history of the wristwatch is barely 13 decades old. Queen Elizabeth I is known to have received a gift of a small timepiece fastened to a bracelet as far back as 1571, yet it wasn’t until 1880 that true wristwatches were produced in any quantity, notably for the German navy by the Swiss firm Girard-Perregaux. Watches gradually caught on with military types during the Boer War (1899-1902) and with pioneering pilots soon after that. Still, if not for their popularity as jewelry for women, wristwatches might never have survived the turn of the 20th century. As noted in Wristwatches, a collectors’ guide by Gisbert Brunner and Christian Pfeiffer-Belli: “[Men’s] tendency to accept the known and reject the new can be seen in retrospect as a hindrance for the earlier acceptance of the wristwatch.” Once wristwatches did catch on, however, there seemed no stopping them or their technological advances. The first chronographs appeared in 1909, the first date watches in 1912, and waterproof watches surfaced in 1915, encouraged by the military necessities of World War I. Indeed, the Allied armored combat vehicles that defended France during the Great War inspired Louis Cartier‘s famous Tank Watch, the first examples of which were presented to American Gen. John J. Pershing. Rolex patented its first “Oyster” watch with a waterproof case and screw-in crown in 1926, and garnered exceptional publicity the following year when a long-distance swimmer wore one, without damage, while stroking across the English Channel.
Self-winding watches began relieving the burden of winding in 1932, and the world’s first electric watch–a Hamilton Ventura–became an instant hit in 1957. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969 with an Omega Speedmaster-Chronograph on his wrist, there were some 1,600 watchmakers in Switzerland, the Detroit of the industry. Yet time stopped shortly thereafter with the appearance of cheap quartz technology. In the upheaval that followed throughout the 1970s, many classic old-line watchmakers went bankrupt and shut down, while the Swiss government rushed in to save what it could. In the end, employment in the Swiss watch industry dropped from 90,000 in 1970 to just over 30,000 in 1984. These days there are around 650 watchmakers in Switzerland, with some 40,000 employees between them.
Though close to 90% of all watches manufactured worldwide have quartz movements, a quality mechanical watch is the way to go. That’s something that has only recently begun to dawn on many Americans. “In Europe you’ll see street sweepers with $5,000 watches, whereas CEOs in the U.S. will be happy with $20 quartzes,” says InSync‘s Strandberg. “We just don’t have the same tradition of fine watches here.”
When the wonder of fine watches finally dawns upon you, what will you find? One of the current consumer trends is big watches, and the bigger the better: from 45 millimeters to 51 millimeters in diameter (a half-dollar is a mere 38 millimeters across), depending on the material. The weight of these watches varies according to the metal used; a stainless steel watch would feel comparatively heavy, while a titanium watch would feel like nothing at all. While “watch wardrobing” has been around for years–i.e., a sports watch to go with your jogging outfit; something slim and elegant for the office–lately watch wearers have adopted a crossover approach. Today it’s a Breitling dive watch to go with an Ermenegildo Zegna suit, or an aforementioned big and clunky timepiece for a lady’s slender wrist.
Speaking of ladies’ watches, they’re still around and as svelte and elegant as ever, though these days many women are choosing sports watches that better reflect their contemporary lifestyles. At the same time, minute and gem-encrusted “jewel” watches from the likes of Piaget and Van Cleef & Arpels are as much jewelry as they are wristwatches. And lately fashion watches have been bursting with flashy colors, both on dials and straps. Indeed, watch firms such as Cartier and Michele have recently introduced in their fashion lines easily interchangeable straps in a rainbow of colors, so you no longer have to go back to the retailer in order to change them.
Then there are the timeless classics, those complex wristwatches that do everything from follow moon phases to calculate how much you owe the IRS. Referred to as “complicated watches,” they cost as much as a good-size house and dazzle the eye with extras. Be forewarned, some complicated watches are as hard to pin down as psychological baggage. For instance, the fabulous Opera Three from Girard-Perraguax, which plucks Tchaikovsky and Mozart tunes on a miniature interior music box, is an amazing timepiece at $475,000 but virtually unavailable. (“We’ll get one in sometime next year,” says Ronald Jackson, president of Girard-Perraguax USA.) Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Patek Philippe notes that a number of the company’s Grand Complications have buyers long before they’re finished, often at a rate of just a few per year.
For your watch-buying pleasure, we’ve compiled a selection of 18 fine watches that’ll stop time. They range in price from under $2,000 to $2,000-$5,000 to $5,000 and up, as well as a few that are “sky’s the limit.” We’ve found them in a range of styles, including sports, fashion, dress, cool complications, ladies’ and over the top. And they’re all available right now.