This is a basic overview of how to buy a luxury watch including the different types of movements, the basic brands and price ranges, different styles, and options of where to buy.
I have a friend named Bhavik who is about my age, we have similar interests, we’re studying the same thing in school. When I mentioned I was writing a post on getting into watch collecting, he told me “I like watches; I’d like to get into watches; I have no idea where to even start though.” He’s not the only one that I have heard say this. I actually hear it quite often. After all, watches are attractive, they are “art for the wrist”, they signal a personal brand, especially for men. There are blog readers from across the world. They all have the same interest; watches transcend cultural boundaries. There are people all over the world who ask the same question: “how do I get into watches without making a mistake or buying the wrong one?”
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Barriers to Entry
In marketing, there are a series of events that must happen before someone buys. The overall stages are: THINK (the customer must become aware of the product), FEEL (they decide they like a product and have some connection to it), ACT (they put money down). The people we’re talking about today are those who are fully aware of watches and fall somewhere on the FEEL to ACT spectrum. However, there is a reason why they have never reached the point where they buy their first watch. First, I am going to discuss these barriers to entry, then I am going to layout how to overcome them. Here are the barriers; maybe you can relate?
Don’t know what to buy. The sheer number of options available for watches can make this intimidating if you are like Bhavik. You can afford a watch; money isn’t the issue. But first you have to decide how much you are willing to spend, then you have to decide what style of watch or maybe you don’t know which brand or what style within a brand? Should you buy a dive watch? A pilot watch? A dress watch? An automatic, manual wind, or quartz? Or maybe you aren’t sure if different watches are known for different qualities or have stereotypes? If you aren’t sure how to approach these questions, not buying at all becomes an easier option. When you’re about to spend this much money on something new, it is intimidating when you are worried about buyers regret.
Don’t know where to buy. This is also a harder problem than most of us give it credit. After you’ve bought a few watches, this becomes easier. You have your favorite places to buy, but when you’ve never done it before, how do you balance getting the most for your money while also not getting ripped off? Is it safe to buy on eBay? If you go down to your local watch store, will they rip you off? Should you buy new or save a little money and buy used?
Don’t want to spend too little. Yeah, I mean spend too little. There is nothing worse than buying the $300 model only to find out after a little more research that you wish you would have spent another $200 to get a much better $500 model. But at the time you also…
Don’t want to spend too much. How much is too much for a first watch? Should you buy an entry level watch or should you go big and get the watch for a lifetime?
Don’t want to get ripped off. This is also a huge barrier for new entrants to the watch collecting world because it is a common problem. People get ripped off all the time when they buy something they don’t know about. There is nothing worse than buying something new only to find out you could have bought it 30% cheaper, or have your buddy tell you that you got ripped off. People don’t want to be the”next sucker” so the easiest option becomes not buying at all.
Overcoming the barriers to entry
While these barriers to entry are legitimate, they shouldn’t stop someone from venturing into a new hobby, especially one of watches. I think watches are a legitimate hobby or interest, and the great thing about watch collecting is that other watch collectors are passionate about it and love to talk about it. Here are pieces of advice to overcome the barriers to entry and enter the world that is watch collecting.
The very first thing you have to decide is if you want a luxury watch?
If you are into smartwatches or a GPS watch, those are a completely different category than what I am going to discuss below. If you are into those watches, find someone who knows about those and go over this same information with them.
Then Check out the basic styles of watches
There are essentially 4 main categories of watch styles out there: pilot watches, diver watches, dress watches with leather straps, and dress watches with metal bands. This is a very oversimplified way to categorize watches, but enough to push you in a direction. Don’t get hung up on the term “pilot” or “diver”; these only mark styles and have nothing to do with the people that wear them. Most people wearing a dive watch have never dived except off a diving board at the swimming pool. I’ll do my best to give you a brief description of each:
The watch that sets the standard for dive watches is the Rolex Submariner that has an iconic bezel that only rotates in one direction and is numbered 0-60. These watches tend to have very simple looks to them but are classy and can be worn casually or with a tux. Sometimes they come with a chronograph feature (the stopwatch function with smaller sub-dials), but generally not. They usually have metal bracelets in stainless steel, but can come in many varieties. The dive watches have waterproof ratings for 300 – 12,000 feet (yes, 12,000’, a pressure-depth you would die at if you ever decided to try and test this rating in the ocean — though James Cameron has actually dived beyond this depth in a submersible. The depth rating of these watches acts more as a badge of honor rather than any practical purpose). Dive watches can be found in any price range, and popular companies for dive watches are: Rolex, Seiko, Omega, Tudor, Breitling, Jaeger LeCoultre, and Luminox.
I’ve written pretty extensively on pilot watches before, so if you would like a more in-depth read, check out this previous articles: Article. Pilot watches get their name because they tend to be large watches with very large numbers on the dial for easy readability, and usually have a chronograph function smaller sub-dials on the watch face. Sometimes they have a slide rule on the bezel, or a tachymeter scale which 99% of the population knows how to use neither (most pilots don’t even remember how to use one). Pilot watches tend to come on leather straps, but sometimes on metal bands. They also have minimal waterproof ratings, but with a leather strap, exposure to water is also minimal. The most popular companies for pilot watches are: Breitling, Bremont, Bell & Ross, Omega, Citizen, and IWC.
Dress Watches with Leather Straps:
Theoretically, almost any watch can take a metal band or a leather strap, so I use this term to describe a category of watches, not necessarily the band on a watch. Most watches that come in this category are pretty dressy looking, but can also be worn casually. Many of the expensive luxury watches fall within this category. These watches tend to be mid-size in the 37mm – 41mm range (diameter of the face without the crown) and are much smaller physically and in their feel than a pilot watch. They usually have very simple and crisp looks, from the hands to the hour markers. They almost never have anything on the bezel of the watch. They start with simple faces, but many add in complications to the watch face including the date, day, moon phase, etc. The waterproofing is also minimal on these watches (30’-100’ — basically enough to survive the shower or rain). This category tends to be pricier and almost exclusively automatic or manual wind movements. The main brands for these watches are: Jaeger LeCoultre, Panerai, Longines, Baume & Mercier, Patek Philippe, A Lange & Sohne, and Vacheron Constantin.
Dress Watches with Metal Bands:
Again, using this description of a category of style rather than the band itself. These watches tend to combine the dressy look of a dress watch with leather strap, but are a little heavier and can be a little more versatile with a waterproof strap. As such, these watches tend to have a little better waterproof rating (usually 100’-300’). Many dive watches actually fall within this overarching category as well. You can get watches in this category in almost any metal from stainless steel to gold. You can find more options for these watches in a variety of price ranges, as well as both quartz, automatic, or manual wind movements. The main brands in this category are: Rolex, Seiko, Citizen, Omega, Audemars Piguet, Breitling, and many more.
Decide which kind of movement you want
There are three types of movements out there. I will describe them briefly. While quartz is the most accurate, it is the least collectible, so read through these before going with the cheapest or easiest:
Quartz aka battery operated
These watches have a circuit board inside. They are inherently very accurate. They are also usually cheaper to buy, but are also less collectible and most collectors don’t tend to buy very many quartz watches. However, they do have their advantages in some circumstances, and as such, both Breitling and Omega make a few battery operated models for their accuracy in their professional watch lines. Batteries usually need to be replaced every 2-4 years. Most Citizen, G-Shock, and Seiko watches and some Tag Heuer watches are quartz. Very few luxury companies make battery watches anymore.
These watches have a mechanism inside that has a little-weighted disk that rotates whenever your arm swings and the movement of this disk winds the power reserve mechanism, which is a spring. The entire inside of the watch is made up of tiny little pieces that make up the mechanism. The term “jewels” that you sometimes see refers to how many bearing screws are used in the mechanism (the reddish colored tips in the photo above). Theoretically, this watch will never stop ticking as long as you wear it or keep it on a watch winder. If you stop wearing it, most automatic watches will stop ticking after 40 hours. You should also get your watch serviced every 3-5 years, which will cost you $100-$500+ depending on the brand (the more expensive the watch, the more costly the servicing). Most luxury watches are automatic, and some have “exposition backs” that allow you to see the movement through a window in the back of the watch.
This is a watch that you have to wind with your fingers via the crown. Usually, it takes about 30-40 turns of the crown to wind it. A full wind will last about 40-80 hours. These movements otherwise have the same information as automatic watches (above).
Do your homework on ones you like the look of
Ultimately, you have to like the watch you buy. Only buy one that you like the look of, not based on brand or style of watch. You can be a pilot and still wear a dive watch or dress watch. It is surprising how many people buy a watch they don’t even like to impress people they don’t even care about. Don’t do this. Buy what you like, not what you think other people like.
Decide how much you are willing to spend
I am not an advocate of going into to debt for almost anything, especially not a watch. Set a budget and shop within this budget. It is easy to tempt yourself to spend more if you let yourself wander. Set your budget and maintain it. To give you points of reference, these are how much major watch brands cost for their lower and middle-end watches if you BUY NEW (the sky’s the limit for the special models). Keep in mind if you buy used, you can usually find these watches anywhere from 20-60% cheaper depending on brand and resale value.
Citizen & Seiko ($300-1K)
Tag Heuer ($800 – 3K)
Baume & Mercier ($800 – 3K)
Jaeger LeCoultre ($9K-14K)
Audemars Piguet ($15K-24K)
A Lange & Sohne ($16K-24K)
Patek Philippe ($16K-24K)
Talk to a friend who has bought a luxury watch, preferably a few
They will be able to help you decide as they have likely done a fair amount of research themselves, and watch collectors like to read about watches. They will be able to point you in the direction of a few places to buy, or talk to you about the tradeoffs of different watches.
If you don’t have a friend who can help you buy, going to an authorized dealer is the safest way to avoid getting ripped off or buying a fake. Many dealers also have a good selection of used watches too that they guarantee to be authentic. You will pay the most for new (obviously) but sometimes you can get a good deal. Most dealers are willing to negotiate on the price, so don’t pay sticker. The only brand I’ve bought that people won’t negotiate on is Rolex. The MSRP is the price.
I wrote a post on buying used, so I won’t exhaust the topic. Generally speaking, you can save a lot of money buying used, but you incur risks of getting a fake. If you are new to watch buying, either have a friend help you who knows the market well, or buy from a reputable watch shop that sells used watches. Also consider buying a vintage watch. You can save a lot of money and find some very unique pieces out there.
There are many places you can go to learn more both before and after you buy. There is a whole community of watch lovers on instagram that are very involved and like to show their watches in different places. There are also local clubs in many cities around the world called Red Bar, where other watch enthusiasts get together and talk about watches. Watch collectors love their hobby and 95% of watch collectors love the art that watches are and care less about brands and more about their passion. There are a few watch snobs out there, but for the most part, collectors are serious about all watches, not just their own watches. Even if you just want one watch and have no intent to be a collector, you’re still a watch guy or girl; you start to identify watches and soon find yourself learning more about them, reading about them, talking to someone in the airport about their watch. Before you know it, you are looking into the next watch you want to buy. Good luck shopping Bhavik and happy to help! For everyone else, feel free to send me an email if you have any questions — happy to try to help.