Human beings always had a passion for measuring the passage of time. This was the case thousands of years ago and always will be. However, over time this passion become more than just about measuring the passage of time. Nowadays who still uses a watch, most of the time, does it also for other reasons. With the current mobile phone penetration there is really no need for a watch … so why people still use it? We could argue the many reasons but the reality is that a watch is a way to express oneself. Like with a piece of jewelry (the main one for a man!) the watch tend to indicate the social status or the character and kind of lifestyle of a person. It is an extension of self. Some choose watches to feel part of a specific group (e.g. Rolex owners) or elite (e.g. Patek Philippe owners). Others, instead, want to stand out and differentiate themselves from the crowd and expensive watches might help with that. This is not to say that everyone who wants to break through the clutter needs an expensive watch but some do. Among those last there are very few that love to spend a fortune on watches and the world’s most expensive ones are created for them (and sometimes for celebrations). So what are the ingredients to craft the world’s most expensive watches?
We have identified 17 luxury signs that set the world’s most expensive watches apart from the rest. The below sections underline those characteristics with a very brief description.
1. Movement. The movement is the heart of the watch! Depending on its typology, the number of jewels inside, the manufacturing location, whether it is handmade in house by the watch manufacturer or mass produced, there could be a big variance in cost. The most expensive movements are mechanical, however, there are some exceptions when a quartz movement of superb quality might be very costly (e.g. Patek Philippe Ellipse quartz or Breitling's thermoline quartz). Most watch companies source movements from various movement suppliers and use them as they are or modify them in order to create unique models. The best watch makers, instead, design and construct their own movements in-house (e.g. Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet). Luxury watches are generally handmade and assembled by master watch makers though there could be exceptions (e.g. Rolex semi-automated production). Switzerland is very well known for making high quality watch movements (e.g. ETA or Ronda) but also other countries are capable of delivering good quality (e.g. Japan - Seiko, Citizen/Miyota, and Casio). The most expensive watches tend to have a mechanical movement made in house and are generally “Swiss Made”. If new to this world you might want to read our article "watch movements - beginners guide".
2. Crystal. The crystal is the eye of the watch and through it you might see its soul! Crystals can be made of different materials, but only a few dominate the market today: plexi/acrylic glass, mineral glass and sapphire crystal. Sapphire crystal is the best and it pushes up the price of high end watches due to its intrinsic value and partly also to the manufacturing process. Not all sapphires are created equal and depending on whether natural or synthetic, the thickness, the shape (e.g. flat vs domed) and features (e.g. date magnify) the cost might be quite different. Also, the best crystals get an anti-reflective treatment to reduce glare when trying to read the time. The best watches get the treatment on both the front and the rear of the crystal (double AR coating). If you want to discover more feel free to read our article Sapphire Crystal and Glasses
3. Construction. The watch needs to feel solid and robust. The bracelet must fit perfectly the case lungs with no wiggle and same is valid for all other moving parts like the crown or the rotating bezel (if present). The watch must be made of solid and good quality metal (i.e. not folded metal or anything hollow) or high end materials. The most expensive watches have case made of very few elements and they are generally created from one single piece of metal. The watch weight is generally an indication of quality still it might be polarizing. Most of the people associate heavy watches to higher quality hence the trend for bulky and heavy construction watches. Other people, instead, might appreciate more light weight watches which are can be made of special and costly light weight materials (e.g. Titanium – grade 5 for luxury watches). Also, high-end luxury watches are generally assembled by hand by expert watchmakers capable of putting together hundreds of very tiny little elements.
4. Finish. The devil is in the details and the finish of a watch is the detail! There are different kinds of finish but one can generalize in polished vs brushed finish. The most expensive watches can have either but generally have a combination of the two. The finish has to be neat and even and should keep its look for a long time. Some watches also do get special treatments to preserve the finish like PVD (Physical Vapor Deposition) or DLC (Diamond Like Carbon) with this last being the best and most expensive one.
5. Bracelet/Strap. The bracelet or strap is the arms of the watch that embrace you! Because of that it needs to feel perfect, secure, comfortable, special and unique like when your partner embraces you. The most expensive watches have custom made elements designed specifically to fit the case and brand design. Material used and finish can vary dramatically - refer to other sections or check our post Watch Bands - Metals and Treatments
6. Clasp/Closure. The closure is instrumental to a wristwatch and it needs to secure the bracelet to the wrist no matter what. The best bracelets have either double or triple locking clasps. Most of the time there is a double locking system but it is not rare to see the triple lock (generally with an extra button to open).
7. Materials. Watches can be made or contain many different materials from plastic to gold, platinum, ceramic and other precious or exotic materials (e.g. carbon fibers or even moon fragments). No matter which material is used, the most expensive watches should always be constructed with the highest quality of that specific material (e.g. grade 5 for Titanium). The Roger Dubuis Excalibur Quatuor finds its way to the most expensive watches thanks to its case, which is made entirely of silicon, a material with half the weight of titanium and four times the hardness. Another great example is the The Richard Mille RM 56-01with an all-sapphire glass case.
8. Decoration. The most expensive watches have some sort of decoration sometimes hidden (e.g. in the movement) other times quite overtly present. It can be as simple as a special finish or a textured dial, a flamboyant bracelet or applied stones. Those elements make people perceive the watch as special and unique hence worth more than the “standard” ones.
9. Brand Signature. The high end watches are generally made of custom elements and part of the customization relates also to the addition of a brand signature. The brand logo is generally displayed in four places: face of the watch (dial), the caseback, the crown, and on the bracelet closure. The way the logo is displayed might change but generally the most expensive watches have logos and graphics done in relief.
10. Jewels. The most expensive watches are more a piece of jewelry rather than a watch. Those watches are adorned with jewels or stones (natural, synthetic or manufactured). The most popular jewels in watches are sapphires, diamonds as well as pearls but the choice is incredible. Quality, size and quantity of stones might make price swing a lot. One of the most recent and expensive examples is the Fascination by Graff revealed at Basel World 2015 (in addition to their Hallucination!).
11. Illuminant. The most expensive watches tend to be more classic or formal watches and those generally don’t have dials or hands that illuminate in the dark. However, almost all sport and causal watches have some kind of illuminant system either on the dial or hands. If they do then one of the best compounds used is the SuperLumiNova (followed by LumiNova). An alternative to those are watches that use tritium gas tubes made by one company in Switzerland.
12. Complications. One key characteristic of the most expensive watches is that they tend to have the so called “complications” or "grand complications" when several features are combined together. Some complications improve watch accuracy is or make the movement more interesting while in operation (e.g. tourbillon escapements - refer also to our post: tourbillon - king of watch "complications"). Other common complications are perpetual calendars, rattrapante chronographs, sonneries, moon phases, 24 hour dials and multiple time zones. One example often cited in this context is the Breguet Grande Complication Marie-Antoinette or the Vacheron Constantin 57260 with 57 complications developed for the 260 years of the house.
13. Special Features. Few of the most expensive watches have features that are not really needed but that set them apart from the rest. For example the Rolex Milgauss and Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra has been designed to remain reliable and precise in environments with extremely high magnetic fields (i.e. only certain scientists would need it) or the Sinn UX which has a case that can withstand dives down to 12,000 meters and temperatures between -45°c and +80°c.
14. Design. Like for every piece of jewelry, the watch design and the artist behind the design are instrumental for defining the ultimate value. The design needs to be both functional and artistic. A great example is the Grisogono Crazy Skull watch that combined the functionality of a dual zone watch with an originally beautiful design. Also worth mentioning the Greubel Forsey Art Piece 1 with a nanosculpture by artist Willard Wigan in the crown.
15. Certification. There are different types of certifications for watches but two worth mentioning are the Chronometer COSC and Geneva Certifications. The Geneva seal is a certification of quality and origin. It is placed on the movement of watches that are mostly created and assembled within the canton of Geneva in Switzerland and meet very strict specific criteria (Patek Philippe is among the few having it). Chronometer Certification is achieved by having COSC testing the movement over a period of days in various conditions. For a watch to be Chronometer certified, it must be accurate within -4/+6 seconds per day on average between all conditions. For more info on watch certification please refer to our post Chronographs, Chronometers and Certifications
16. Limited Production. Like pieces of art the most expensive watches tend to be crafted in limited quantities by expert and professional hands. The more limited a watch is, the more exclusive it is, the more expensive it is. Some of those are carefully numbered in order to underline the limited production and few are piece unique. For example Patek Philippe unique piece 5004T (made specifically for an auction in Titanium).
17. Brand Pedigree. It is not a secret that people are ready to pay more for well known brands. There are different reasons why people do that but the key point is that the same exact watch execution might have two totally different price points depending on the brand name on it. The value of the brand might relate to its history, to its positioning or storytelling, to its endorsers and many other factors. The brand value perception might change depending on the geography though watch brands have more or less same value perception across the globe. Ultimately the name helps establishing trust … trust that justifies the high bill to pay for.
Those are the 17 luxury signs that make the world’s most expensive watches! Important to note is that the different watch artists do not necessarily play with all of them but they might focus on some rather than others. Each watchmaker has his own signature and expertise area and to stay true to their heritage they will keep playing consistently.
There is also a #18 luxury sign not mentioned above and it is the ultimate “attention to details” that is needed across all the 17 luxury signs in order to develop the world’s most expensive watches. This should be all … but please let me know whether I missed any important characteristic and I will update this post. Thanks for your attention.