by Frank Edwards
Since the prime function of a watch is to tell the time, the first test of a good watch is its accuracy, and the length of time it can maintain that. In this regard, quartz watches are paramount, with an accuracy that is never less than a few seconds a month and an ability to maintain that almost indefinitely. The solar-powered models take their energy from the sun and do not even need their batteries replaced.
Mechanical watches, even the very best hand-built models, rarely achieve an accuracy to rival the performance of quartz. But a good mechanical automatic with tourbillon, which compensates for the effect of gravity, will give a precision adequate for the average owner, and some with perpetual calendar are programmed as far ahead as the year 2000. Most, too, have a power reserve of more than 40 hours, which means that, over 24 hours, the rate of going of the watch will be absolutely constant.
The next factor is appearance. Much attention is paid to the design and finish of dials, which in a good watch are often gold or silver, delicately engraved, and with appliqué numbers or batons in 18-karat gold and hands made of matching material. The dial should blend harmoniously with the case.
Cases maybe of precious metal - gold in various colors, pink, rose, yellow, or white, usually 18-karat, which is harder than the best quality of 24-karat. Platinum is popular; silver is occasionally used. Employing precious metal considerably affects the price of the watch; the case and bracelet, if that too is in precious metal, usually cost far more than even the most intricate handmade movements.
Stainless steel is becoming more popular now that case makers are learning to apply different finishes such as brushed, or satin finish, often alternating this with a high polish.
Bicolor cases - those using steel and gold in combination - are proving attractive, especially in ladies' models. It should be noted that in Britain it is illegal to describe a bicolor watch as "gold" and steel; it has to be called "yellow metal" unless it is gold, when it will be hallmarked and the jeweler may describe it verbally as gold.
Finally, the most reliable hallmark of a good watch is the name. The best watches are known the world over. They are guaranteed, sometimes up to five years, and often provide an international list of service agents. And they will be sold in a reputable jeweler's shop or the jewelry department of a reputable store.
Counterfeiting of watches is big business worldwide. To make sure you buy a good watch, follow three simple rules. Go to a reliable jeweler or store, pick a well-known brand, and insist on a guarantee and a receipt that clearly states the quality of the precious metal (18-karat gold, or gold plate), the brand name, and any special features.
Don't forget, good watches are never sold in bars, in garage sales, in flea markets, or from "friends of friends" in the trade.
What Makes a Good Watch Expensive?
In a cheap and cheerful plastic quartz watch that just tells the time, there are anything from 50 to 100 parts, produced automatically and assembled robotically. It is rugged and dependable, and will give good service. But every additional feature adds to the cost. A date? A day date? The movement requires more parts, and the assembly takes a little longer. A water-protected case, a glare-proof sapphire crystal - they all add up.
Then there are the mechanical watches, the ones usually collected by connoisseurs. Remember, Swatch is one of the few quartz watches that are collectors' pieces and then only special editions. There are more parts to start with in a mechanical watch and they are rather more delicate. Things like a balance wheel have to be poised, the balance spring adjusted, the torque of the mainspring checked. Add a rotor to make it automatic, a train of gears for the calendar work, and you are starting to get quite a collection of tiny bits and pieces which have to be assembled mainly by hand, even with the aid of jigs and other mechanical devices. Now look at what are known as Complications. A Patek Philippe model can consist of over 1000 parts. It takes a skilled watchmaker anything from nine months to two years to assemble; it undergoes innumerable tests of each subassembly along the way, long before the movement is complete and ready to be put in its case.
If, for instance, the case is an 18-karat gold Rolex Oyster (or platinum or stainless steel), it requires over 100 operations to turn from a solid block of gold into a perfectly finished case. It then takes a further 35 operations to make and fit the famous Oyster waterproof crown.
After the movement is put into the case, further tests have to be carried out to make sure it is protected from dust and water and shocks. That can take a week. In the case of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master series, it takes 1000 hours - roughly three weeks. And if it is a chronometer, it has to be sent to the official Swiss testing authority (COSC) for a further 15 days of tests before it can obtain its certificate, just a piece of paper to the new owner, but a guarantee of performance that had to be earned.
Add up all those hours of skilled work, the cost of the raw ingredients - the ingot of gold, the block of steel to make the case - and you can see why good watches are expensive. And we haven't even looked at the diamond-studded ones!