Fancy watches: They tell time, they have lots of mysterious little tiny moving shit going on under the dial, and well, that’s about it, really (besides their handy secondary function of immediately identifying their wearer as a terminally basic douchebag). So why on this godforsaken Earth do some of them cost so much when you can get a perfectly serviceable Casio for $21.95? What makes some wrist-based man-jewelry $8,800, $50,000 and $500,000? Let’s get this thing ticking over.
Does a fancy watch work differently than a regular watch?
Yep — and the cheaper ones are way more efficient. Most watches nowadays utilize quartz movement; in layperson’s terms, that means it’s battery powered, and the battery sends an electrical current through a small quartz crystal. This crystal then creates vibrations (exactly 32,768 per second) that are measured by the circuit inside and turned into a single pulse every second. Quartz movement was introduced by Seiko in the 1960s, and it’s both super precise and low maintenance — you don’t need to wind it and there are far fewer moving parts, which also means it’s cheaper to make.
Then there are mechanical watches, which most bling-y watches are — your typical Rolex, for example. The hardware inside and the precision involved in making it run (known as the escapement) is beyond intense: All those cute little wheels and springs everywhere, like a steampunk world in miniature! There’s obviously a lot more going on inside the case than in a quartz watch, and the degree of difficulty in build is much higher. The nicer ones are often totally handmade by some Swiss person (with presumably excellent eyesight). There’s no battery, and they require winding — what you’re really doing is winding a spring, the steady unwinding of which powers the watch’s movement.
Another type of mechanical watch is called an automatic watch, which does away with both batteries or winding — all you have to do is wear it regularly. They rely on rotors inside that spin when the wearer moves around. The energy created from this is what winds the spring. They’ve been around since the 18th century, but Rolex also popularized them in the 20th century with the Oyster Perpetual.
Huh. What’s the difference in performance?
Quartz watches are pretty damn accurate! Mechanical watches, meanwhile, need regular maintenance, and honestly, have varying accuracy. While quartz and mechanical watches are often thin, nice automatic watches are hefty from those extra rotors inside.
But one thing quartz watches generally don’t have? A second hand that sweeps instead of tick-tick-ticks! (This is also the quickest way to spot a fake Rolex — a very poorly made fake Rolex, probably worn by a guy called Jamie with zero personality and a middle-management career in finance.)
Whoop de fucking do?
Yeah, people pay often astronomical sums for a watch that can’t really tell time more accurately — it’s just complicated as hell inside (not to be confused, though, with “complications,” which is the name for all those other tiny dials inside a watch’s main dial: day and date, alarms, stopwatch, etc.). That’s what people are really paying for.
So telling time isn’t the main purpose of an expensive watch?
Hahahahaha, good Lord, no.
Then what is the main purpose?
Let’s leave aside the people who are pure and genuine fans of horology, who treat such watches as a (pricey) hobby. Luxury watches are pretty commonly described as a Veblen good — an item that inverts the laws of supply and demand. Lots of luxury items are Veblen goods (in fact, the term is named after the guy who coined the wonderful phrase “conspicuous consumption”). Veblen goods are more sought after as their prices increase, because the increased price itself enhances its appeal.
Plus, there’s the power of branding: It’s well-known that people lean on brands as a form of both self-expression (they identify with the attributes of a brand and want to associate themselves with these attributes) and as self-affirmation (in other words, if they have something nice, they feel better about themselves). We’ve come to associate luxury watches with success, right? So by wearing a luxury watch, you’re trying to convince the world that you’re successful (but probably mostly just trying to convince yourself).
Finally, according to this study, testosterone makes guys wanna buy luxury goods. So it’s also… hormonal?
Yikes. Basically, then, watches are expensive because very insecure people want to own an expensive watch?
Pretty much, but let’s go over some more reasons these watches get crazy expensive:
Nice Materials. If a watch is made with precious metals and gemstones, well, a high price is self-explanatory. Likewise, R&D investments into extreme materials (of dubious benefit), like this injection-molded black polymer that’s supposedly stronger than steel, is never cheap.
Labor. Look at a luxury watch. Much of that stuff is handmade and nearly all of it is hand-finished. Spare a thought for the Swiss guy who has to polish every fucking tooth of every wheel in this $160,000 Patek Philippe watch! Likewise, intricate engraving of expensive watches is often done by hand, pieces are connected by hand, tiny parts are precisely polished and finished, by hand, with maniacal precision. And let’s be clear: This is a skilled trade performed in Switzerland, of all places, the Mecca of watchmaking and a country that has among the highest standards of living in the world. It’s safe to say this isn’t sweatshop labor. This extreme attention to detail (for things that customers usually won’t even see) comes at a cost. Plus, there’s a high level of customer service post-sale: Skilled technicians for each brand know how to maintain that intricate watch for decades after you buy it.
Testing and Quality Control. Here’s a booth made specifically to test how a watch sounds. Here’s a robotic arm that emulates how a human arm moves. Here are machines that do… some kind of stress testing. Building out these bespoke robots and lab designs can’t be cheap.
What’s that super expensive type of watch called again?
You’re probably thinking of a tourbillon (French for “whirlwind”). That’s a whole other level of escapement insanity (which comes with its own stratospheric price point, starting in the $40,000 range), and is generally regarded as the pinnacle of watchmaking. Here’s a good explainer video that shows how it works and what it looks like (these watches are sometimes transparent just to show off the inner-workings — the tourbillon-ness — of them).
Could any of these insanely expensive watches possibly be worth the money?
Only you can answer that — I mean, you’ve got a clock on your phone, so it’s not a question of need. If you’re willing to pay lots and lots and lots of money to have a little handmade machine plastered in rare, exotic materials strapped to your wrist, well, you be you, guy. Remember, people buy luxury watches not to tell the time, but for what they tell the world about their wearer — it’s just unfortunate that there’s such a big discrepancy between what these wearers think they’re telling the world, and what they’re actually telling them.