Before electronics burst onto the scene and threatened to derail the watch industry altogether, the choice of quality watches available to the average consumer was vast. In the early 20th century there were countless independent brands, many movement manufacturers and a level of diversity that proved unsustainable during the quartz revolution of the 1970s. We all know the story: most companies were forced to scale back production, to lay off staff, to hide in the shadows praying for a miracle. Many went bust altogether, their names consumed by the time they once helped record. But times have changed; light has spread to the darkest corners of horology, posing a new and blessedly optimistic question: is this the best time in history to be a watch enthusiast?
Although the well established old guard (the Pateks, the Vacherons, the Audemars Piguets etcetera) continue to grow and prosper, the brands that populate the entry-level luxury bracket are becoming more accessible and desirable thanks to a perfect storm of conditions that ultimately benefits the consumer. Never before has stylistic and material quality been so affordable.
The value of upper-echelon timepieces is rooted in their heritage. Centuries of reverence and the ability to call the horological hotbed of Jura home affords the wearer a certain degree of status. Because heritage inflates the value of a watch but cannot be bought, new companies – those energised by young and imaginative designers – are offering sublimely crafted products for a fraction of the cost of their revered forebears’ wares.
Entry-level luxury is a particularly competitive bracket, because it focuses on consumers that can just about afford to buy one of their products. The super-rich, from whose wrists the glimmer of Graff diamonds dazzle and distract, can generally afford a collection of classics. The limitations of the entry-level consumer means the companies trying to stand out from their peers need to offer a lot of bang for their impoverished client’s buck.
Obviously the movements in the entry-level luxury brands owned by the major companies are not handmade masterpieces. They are generally poorly finished examples of standard ETA movements. They may not be the best or most beautiful example of that calibre, but they do offer relatively good functionality for the price. The independents, who are more concerned with gaining a foothold than jacking up their profit margins, offer the best return on your investment. Stylistically unbound by youth, they challenge the customer to trade reputation for revolution. Those bold enough to take the plunge are often rewarded with an eye-catching piece that could, in years to come, look like the best penny stock pick-up you ever made.
We are blessed to live in such competitive times. We may not be able to afford a weekend Jaeger or a Royal Oak Offshore with matching yacht, but for the true fan, for the true lover of variety and diversity, of ingenuity and novelty, there has never been a better time to collect, share and enjoy wristwatches. And long may it continue.