Watch Buyers’ Guide – How to choose the right luxury watch for you (Part 1)

My guide to the principles that should be applied in choosing your first (or your next) luxury watch.

Every collector has made at least one (usually, several) watch purchases that they later come to regret.  By way of example, in the first installment of Hodinkee’s Talking Watches, when asked by Ben Clymer whether there were any purchases he regretted, John Mayer replied “Yeah. The first 12 watches.

As a foundling watch collector, I had a habit of impulsively buying whatever happened to pique my interest at a particular moment, with inevitable consequences for the quality of my collection.  The main purpose of this first post of my Buyers’ Guide is to give the reader the benefit of my own mistakes, by outlining a set of six principles that I have found useful in guiding my own watch buying.  A secondary purpose is self-help – if I put these principles in print, then perhaps I’ll be able to follow them better myself!

Before setting out the principles in detail, it is important to clarify the scope of this guide.  First, it only applies to ‘modern watches’, i.e., watches produced from about the mid-1990s to now.  Navigating the vintage watch market introduces a number of issues that the modern watch buyer largely doesn’t need to worry about, or at least not to the same extent (‘frankenwatches’, availability of parts for service, overall fragility, etc).

Second, this guide is intended to help guide you towards the best luxury watch you can (and, importantly, should) buy at a particular time – it is not a guide to buying a ‘collection piece’ or a ‘beater’.  Provided that an addiction to buying cheap watches is not keeping true luxury watches out of reach for you, buying a watch like a G-Shock DW-5600 (which every collector should own, in my opinion) is low-risk and doesn’t require a set of guiding principles!

This first post in the series covers the general principles, only, and leaves it to the reader to apply them to the watch hunt.  Subsequent posts will set out, for the reader’s consideration, my specific recommendations in each of 10 different price brackets (in USD).

Watch Buyers' Guide
Principles (Part 1)
Recommendations - $1,000 to $3,000 (Part 2)
Recommendations - $3,000 to $6,000 (Part 3)
Recommendations - $6,000 to $9,000 (Part 4)
Recommendations - $9,000 to $12,000 (Part 5)
Recommendations - $12,000 to $15,000 (Part 6)
Recommendations - $15,000 to $18,000 (Part 7)
Recommendations - $18,000 to $21,000 (Part 8)
Recommendations - $21,000 to $24,000 (Part 9)
Recommendations - $24,000 to $27,000 (Part 10)
Recommendations - $27,000 to $30,000 (Part 11)

The links will go live as I publish each of the posts, so check back often.  Alternatively, please subscribe for an email alert (via the convenient form on the right, or scroll to the bottom, depending on if reading on your computer or phone/tablet) so you won’t miss any of them!  Please also let me know in the comments what watches I should add to the lists (with the caveat that I can only recommend watches I have actually experienced ‘in the metal’).

Principle 1 – set the right budget

Luxury watches are expensive and absolutely inessential and therefore should never cost the owner more than they can afford.  What is ‘affordable’ is a slippery concept and depends not just on the obvious metrics of assets, income and expenses but also on priorities and financial values.  As an incorrigible watch fanatic, I have more of my net worth embodied in watches (an unproductive and depreciating ‘asset class’, if you want to apply that label) than is perhaps financially prudent, however, I am also married with two children and would never allow my watch collecting to materially affect the overall financial health of my family.  If I was a single man, with low overheads, I’m sure I would have already pulled the trigger on the platinum/black dial A. Lange & Sohne Datograph which haunts my imagination!

I’m also an advocate of not spending less than one can afford, as this all too often represents a false economy.  Let’s say you have set a budget at $6000 and really want a Rolex, however, you do some research and convince yourself that a watch selling for $3000 is really just as good yet is half the cost.  You buy the cheaper watch.  When you (inevitably) grow disappointed with the compromise you have made, you don’t have the pleasure that you were seeking to obtain through your watch purchase, but you are still $3000 out of pocket and can no longer afford the Rolex.  This is a lesson I (and scores of other ‘bargain hunting’ collectors) have learned the hard way.

One further important consideration is that you have to be comfortable exposing your newly acquired watch to the perils of actually wearing it.  If you’ve really stretched yourself financially to purchase a luxury watch, the tendency is for the fear of its loss or damage to torment you and limit your enjoyment.  You also need to be socially comfortable wearing the watch.  A holy trinity watch on the wrist of an intern suggests trust fund brat rather than refined connoisseur, even if the intern has in fact paid for it themselves by years of miserly living.  Even for the keenest watch obsessive, there can easily be such a thing as ‘too much watch’ for you.  The really special watches should not be rushed into hastily (even if you can pull together the cash) but rather be reserved for a stage in your life when you’ve really ‘earned it’.

In terms of actually generating a number, a useful approach is to base your budget on a set fraction of your annual salary.  German Youtuber Tim from Caseback Watches, whose channel I like, recommends that a watch should cost no more than 10% of annual salary (net after tax).  For my part, I think anywhere from 5% to 15% might be appropriate, depending on priorities and a person’s (or family’s) overall financial position.

Salary5% Budget10% Budget15% Budget
$20,000$1,000$2,000$3,000
$40,000$2,000$4,000$6,000
$60,000$3,000$6,000$9,000
$80,000$4,000$8,000$12,000
$100,000 $5,000$10,000$15,000
$120,000$6,000$12,000$18,000
$140,000$7,000$14,000$21,000
$160,000$8,000$16,000$24,000
$180,000$9,000$18,000$27,000
$200,000$10,000$20,000$30,000

There is only one rule that I would recommend be strictly followed – never use consumer finance to pay for a watch (or any other luxury product for that matter).  Really, unless financial suicide appeals to you, just say no to paying interest rates of 15% to 30% (which, depending on the term, will often double the purchase price of the watch) for a luxury item.  Having said that, I would never criticise online dealers for offering third party finance – their business is selling watches (however they are paid for), not saving their customers from themselves.  And, occasionally, there may be a low-rate promotion that makes paying in installments more attractive than paying upfront, but make sure that you scrutinise the fine print exceptionally closely!

Principle 2 – decide whether to buy new (from an AD), new (from the grey market) or used (from a dealer or private seller)

Once your budget has been set, the next step is to work out how far you can make it go.  This largely depends on how you want to buy your watch, which like almost everything else in this hobby, is a matter of personal preference based on values and priorities.

First, you could elect to buy your watch from an AD (authorised dealer).  This is the most obvious way to buy and, typically, offers the best experience, particularly at the higher end (where little perks like a ‘free’ glass of champagne are common).  The warranty will also be iron-clad and, hopefully, you will experience good after-sale service, at least for the duration of the warranty period!  The downside is, obviously, that you will likely be paying at or near the manufacturer’s RRP.  With very few exceptions (Rolex and Patek steel sports watches and some FP Journe models spring to mind, albeit that they are almost impossible to buy from an AD without a multi month or even year wait, in any case), the inevitable consequence is that you will only be able to recover a fraction (probably in the range of 30% to 60%, depending on the used market for the particular watch) of what you paid, should you choose to resell the watch.  For that reason, I would only buy from an AD if (i) I am fairly sure I won’t later sell the watch and (ii) the RRP price is not too far above what the watch goes for on the grey market or used market.  That said, for some people, there is an irreplaceable satisfaction that comes with buying a watch through the ‘proper’ channels and, for such people, buying through an AD will be the only option they would consider.

Second, you could wade into the ‘grey’ market, via an online store like Jomashop (for example).  While the term ‘grey’ carries with it connotations of shady dealing, implying that the ‘grey’ market is on a continuum that leads to the ‘black’ (or illegal) market, in reality the grey market is an inevitable (and, of course, perfectly legal) consequence of the way the watch market is structured.  Watch manufacturers and ADs need to shift watches that aren’t selling for RRP, but also need to limit the loss of brand equity caused by ADs giving steep discounts.  The grey market fills that niche.  Youtuber Federico from Federico Talks Watches, has an excellent insider’s explanation of how the grey market functions here.  For my part, I have had good experiences buying on the grey market, but I have never had to address any issues with a watch I have purchased that way so I can’t comment on the quality of after-sales service.  Of course, the manufacturer’s warranty may not be recognised on grey market watches and you may be forced to rely upon the dealer’s (inevitably worse and more difficult to access) warranty instead.  Personally, I think that the prices on offer on the grey market often outweigh the risks, but each buyer needs to make an informed assessment before they go down this route.

Third, you could buy on the used/pre-owned market, either from an online or bricks-and-mortar dealer (like the Watch Box or Watchfinder, or any of my numerous suggestions in my guide to used watch shopping in Tokyo), or privately from another collector (via a watch forum or online auction site like eBay).  Given the bargains on offer, the used market can be exhilarating but it is also perilous.  I have been scammed in the past on a used watch deal, and I still bear the scars.

In my case, all of my major pre-owned watch purchases have taken place at physical stores in Tokyo, after I have had the chance to try the watch on and view the paperwork.  That being said, I have often turned to eBay for sub-$10k used watches, particularly where a watch is being sold via a true no-reserve auction or the seller is open to ‘buy it now’ offers.  If you are going to seek out the bargains on a site like eBay, and not go with a reputable dealer, my advice would be to assume that the watch will need an immediate service and factor that in to your bid/offer (as well as close forensic examination of the photographs posted by the seller to ascertain the cosmetic condition).  Of course, for a luxury Swiss watch, this may amount to thousands of dollars, so be realistic about the cost of a service.

Principle 3 – choose a style, taking into account your lifestyle

I don’t get into the taxonomic weeds when it comes to watch styles.  To me, the sports watch niche in my collection could be filled by a diver or a field watch and the dress watch niche could be filled by a dress chronograph or a three hander in a precious metal.  Essentially, I break down my collecting into three categories.  First, dress watches, usually in precious metal (classic examples = Patek Calatrava, JLC Reverso).  Second, casual watches, usually in base metal, which can lean towards either dress or sport (Rolex Datejust, an IWC ‘Mark’ watch, Breguet Type XX, any of the Genta designed or influenced watches, such as the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak).  Third, sports watches (Omega Speedmaster, any diver).

In addition to the obvious advice that you should buy what you like, your lifestyle should be a key consideration in deciding which type of watch is right for you.  One of the things that makes luxury watches so powerful is the role they often play in communicating (and developing) the wearer’s sense of style and identity.  Each successful brand works at building dreams into its watches, often based on an archetypal man or woman who is supposed to be the ideal wearer.  For example, in my mind at least, a Patek Phillipe Calatrava remains the most powerful aspiration to respectable gentility available in the watch world, whereas a classic sports Rolex (such as a Submariner) embodies nostalgia for a certain effortless mid-century masculine elegance that has not survived into the era of Facebook and Twitter.

However, for a watch to really add value to your life, the dream cannot stray too far from the reality.  For example, while a programmer may think a gold Cartier Tank is the right watch to play at being a Cary Grant/Grace Kelly-type figure (if they are an old soul), it is very unlikely to be a good fit for his or her lifestyle.  Such a watch requires formal attire to look its best (for men, at least a button-up shirt and, preferably, a sport coat) and in workplaces where casual dress codes rule, opportunities to dress up appropriately are likely to be rare (at least, if one prudently avoids being an eccentric over-dresser).  A good casual watch, that can be dressed up or down, will likely serve its owner much better in those circumstances.  Conversely, for a lawyer who wears suits to work five days a week, a hulking 45mm Panerai sports watch might be far too prominent on the wrist and fail to slide under a dress-cuff.  Of course, one way to avoid these dilemmas is to have a collection of watches for every occasion, but this is not always a viable solution!

Another factor to take into account is whether the watch is robust enough for your lifestyle.  A fragile Piaget ultra-thin dress watch is unlikely to be the right watch for someone with an active job, even if the style beguiles you.  A steel sports or casual watch is much more likely to be a good fit.

If in doubt, my advice (particularly for anyone under 30 years of age) is always to buy a casual or sports watch as a first luxury watch, depending on lifestyle (casual watch if you dress formally for work, and need a watch that can be dressed up or down).

Principle 4 – choose the right size for you

No topic has produced more spurious verbiage in the online watch community than watch case sizes.  The common narrative is that there is a ‘proper’ size for a watch, based upon the circumference of the wearer’s wrist, and that once the proper size has been calculated (based on case diameter and/or lug-to-lug measurement), ideal proportionality can be achieved.  Watches smaller than that proper size are ‘too small’ and watches larger than that proper size are ‘too big’.

This is, in my opinion, the wrong way to approach the issue.  In reality, the range of wrist sizes is actually fairly narrow, and the ‘right size’ is largely an aesthetic choice.  My personal preference is generally for a smaller watch (33 to 39mm, if the watch is round) because I don’t like a watch to dominate my 6.75 inch wrist.  While large watches have something of a ‘macho’ image (for which we can blame, among other things, Stallone’s Panerais), in my view smaller watches often look more masculine because they make your wrist look proportionally larger!  However, exceptions prove that my approach is not scientific.  I do own some 40mm plus watches that I think look ‘right’ and fit for purpose at their size, and I have had to let go of some 38mm watches that I thought were a little bit too big.  And, lest I be misunderstood, I have nothing against larger watches.  They simply offer a different aesthetic, albeit one that is not to my taste.

I intend to write further on this topic, but for now, my advice is to try on watches across a range of sizes and try and work out what you like.  Trust your own sense of what works for you and don’t be influenced by some watch ‘expert’ telling you what to do.  If you’re unsure, then buy something within the 38mm to 42mm bracket – you’ll be at the peak of the bell curve of watch sizes and safe from concerns that you’ve gone ‘too small’ or ‘too large’.

Principle 5 – decide whether the movement matters to you

Triple_Split_Caliber

At the risk of gross oversimplification (and omission of interesting technologies such as Seiko’s Spring Drive), there are really only three options available to drive the hands (and, if applicable, complications) of a watch – manual wind (mechanical), automatic (mechanical) and quartz (electronic).  Of course, within each category there is extreme variation.  For example, while they are both ‘manual wind’, the movement in a Breguet La Tradition ref. 7027 could never be confused with the movement in a Timex Marlin.  Likewise, Seiko’s utilitarian 7s26 automatic movement (the engine of the famous SKX line of divers, among other watches) has little in common with Patek Phillipe’s stunning caliber 240 micro-rotor (the star of several wonderful perpetual calendar models, such as the 3940, and the world time), apart from the fact that neither ‘hacks’!  While quartz movements are often considered to be an undifferentiated mass of unrefined mediocrity, in reality, there is all the difference in the world between the one-dollar movements destined to do service in an MVMT or Daniel Wellington and a decorated and highly regulated Seiko 9F (for example).

I am definitely a movement-driven collector.  To me, a beautiful dial and case are necessary but not sufficient conditions for me to be interested in a watch.  It must also have a good movement.  What is ‘good’ depends on the role the watch serves.  For a dress watch, I generally want refinement and beautiful decoration, such as the magnificent caliber L921.2 in my A. Lange & Söhne 308.031 ‘Langematik’.  For a sports or casual watch, I want a robust movement, such as the co-axial caliber 2500 in my Omega Seamaster Professional.  In all cases, while it is entirely irrational following the advent of quartz wristwatches, I also want accuracy from my mechanical movements.  To me, the quest for chronometric precision from the oscillations of a hairspring adds an element of integrity and fitness for purpose that elevates even the most beautifully decorated movement.

One bugbear of mine is display casebacks on watches with undecorated or minimally decorated movements.  Frankly, in my view, while it is a proven and honest movement, we really don’t need to see another ETA 2824 with a brand’s logo engraved into the rotor!  Watches at that level are much better served with a nice metal caseback, perhaps with some engraving or a relief.  In this regard, Rolex does it right, putting its robust and highly accurate, but aesthetically pedestrian, movements behind solid casebacks.  Having said that, I don’t wish to be a snob and for a person in the early stages of watch collecting, seeing the movement (even if it literally has rough edges) is part of the charm.  While my views have evolved, I have to confess that I used to love looking at the movement in my first mechanical watch, the Orient Star Classic!  That caseback is positively Soviet compared to the baroque perfection of my Lange.

Many (perhaps most) collectors will not countenance going quartz and, for anyone seeking their first (or perhaps even second or third) luxury watch, I would always recommend a mechanical watch (with the choice between manual and automatic really being driven by the particular watch you are interested in).  Particularly for people whose watch experience has been with mass-market quartz ‘tickers’, entering the ‘sweeping’ world of springs and gear trains is a core part of the luxury experience.

However, I think that high-end quartz definitely has a place for the right collector.  Quite apart from its practical advantages (high accuracy, power reserve measured in years rather than hours, lack of servicing costs, etc), I find quartz to be a fascinating technology whose image has been tarnished by its own success and ubiquity.  I think that the efforts of companies like Seiko, Citizen and (latterly) F.P. Journe to progress and refine the technology should be applauded.  Until it was stolen, I owned a beautiful Grand Seiko with a 9F movement and will certainly acquire another high-end quartz piece in the future.

Principle 6 – research and take your time

Once you have the general parameters in place, the next step is to use the most powerful information tool ever devised (the internet) to do your research and work out what interests you.  A good jumping-off point is the watch blogs.  My personal favourites are (i) Hodinkee, obviously, in particular anything written by Jack Forster, with whose tastes I tend to be simpatico as a collector, (ii) Quill & Pad, (iii) Ariel Adams’ A Blog to Watch, (iv) Monochrome Watches and (v) Australia’s own Time & Tide.  While all of those blogs might be a little too corporate and close to the brands for some people’s taste (they have to make a living, after all), there is a wealth of excellent content there ready to be consumed as part of your watch education.  Most also have a YouTube presence, if you want to access their content in that way.  In terms of YouTube-only content, you really can’t go past The Watch Box’s two channels – WatchBox Studios and WatchBox Reviews.  In particular, Tim Mosso’s work on the WatchBox Reviews channel is perhaps the best single watch resource online, period.  Its unique archive (almost 2,500 videos at the time of posting this article) often provides a better insight into how a watch presents ‘in the metal’ and wears on the wrist than any number of photos, particularly the glossy promo photos.

My advice is to make notes as you refine your thinking, because an undirected mind is like a sieve when it comes to retaining information.  I have a word document that is my ‘watch thoughts’ journal and, once I have focused in on a particular reference, I start to record the fine-grained details (dial and case variants, movement, prices, etc). I usually have 5-10 watches on the hit list at any particular time, which I will look to try on if I get the chance (usually on one of my sweeps through the Tokyo dealers).  My list is always in flux, as tastes and finances change, but at the moment, that list includes the Breguet La Tradition Ref 7027, the Bulgari Octo Finissimo, the Vacheron Les Historiques Chronograph and the F.P. Journe Elegante 48.

While everyone’s style of research will be different, the one rule is that the process should not be rushed.  A luxury watch purchase is, for most of us, a significant outlay which should be treated with the respect it deserves.  If you are not 100% ready to buy, don’t allow a smooth/pushy salesperson or a seemingly unrepeatable deal sway you – equally good buying opportunities will almost always present themselves to you in the future.  You should read as much as you possibly can about the watch that has captured your heart, watch every YouTube video and, most importantly of all, make every effort to try the watch on and inspect it in person.  You should also consider all the possible alternatives and challenge the narrative you have constructed to justify why the watch is right for you.  Time spent in the hunt makes the final purchase that much more special.

Summary

Hopefully, this article has equipped you with at least a few points that you can apply to your first/next watch purchase.  The table below summarises the key takeaway messages underlying each of the 6 principles.

PrincipleKey Message
1 - BudgetAs a rule of thumb, no more than 5 - 15% of annual income
2 - How to buy the watchWhether to go down the AD, grey market or used route is down to personal preference and risk appetite.
3 - Choose a styleStyle should match lifestyle. Dress = suit and tie; Casual = versatile; Sports = casual clothes.
4 - SizeNo fixed rule - try on as many watches as possible and go with personal preference.
5 - MovementChoose between Manual, Automatic and Quartz and decide whether movement decoration and refinement matters to you.
6 - ResearchRead/watch everything and take your time. There is no rush.

Please check back often as I post my specific recommendations in each price bracket.  As noted above, the links will go live as I post, but please consider subscribing if you want instant notifications.

Watch Buyers' Guide
Principles (Part 1)
Recommendations - $1,000 to $3,000 (Part 2)
Recommendations - $3,000 to $6,000 (Part 3)
Recommendations - $6,000 to $9,000 (Part 4)
Recommendations - $9,000 to $12,000 (Part 5)
Recommendations - $12,000 to $15,000 (Part 6)
Recommendations - $15,000 to $18,000 (Part 7)
Recommendations - $18,000 to $21,000 (Part 8)
Recommendations - $21,000 to $24,000 (Part 9)
Recommendations - $24,000 to $27,000 (Part 10)
Recommendations - $27,000 to $30,000 (Part 11)

One thought on “Watch Buyers’ Guide – How to choose the right luxury watch for you (Part 1)”

  1. It’s good to know that you need to know the circumference of your wrist when buying a watch. My dad’s 60th birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks, and I want to get him a watch that he can add to his collection. I’ll make sure to keep these tips in mind as I search for one to get for his birthday!

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