What makes a modern watch “luxury” — a term often used as a synonym for Haute Horlogerie? And what is actually the difference between high-end and luxury watchmaking? Millions of words have been spent trying to establish boundaries that could define the different categories of watchmaking, mainly as a matter of systematic convenience. Still, we continue to witness, especially among enthusiasts, a diversity of views regarding this topic, especially as the boundaries between “tool” and “fancy” timepieces become increasingly blurred.
So, let us examine together what are the main characteristics that lead us to define a watch as “luxury” rather than “high-end,” always starting from the assumption that, from a strictly philological point of view, every single modern watch represents an expression of luxury (from the Latin term “luxus,” meaning superabundance). Thus, this would seem to indicate that any watch that displays an overabundance of indications beyond the strictly canonical ones, i.e., the time, should be counted within the luxury watch category.
But we prefer to stick to a more generic meaning: the luxury watch expresses a better user experience with the same function. For example, when we take the same flight to a destination, we can choose to travel in economy, business, or first class. Different services and conditions correspond to each chosen solution, although the purchased good — traveling to a destination — is always the same.
This leads us to believe that in a watch, this diversity of treatment can be identified in different elements that ensure a more fulfilling user experience.
- Treatments and finishes
- Technique and complications
Traditionally, the elegant watch (which in the pre-1900s was a pocket watch) featured a case made of precious materials such as gold and silver or that looked precious, such as semiprecious alloys like Argentan that mimicked the appearance of other, nobler materials. One such treatment was provided by plating, done in gold or chrome, to give a more precious appearance to watches that were not.
The same can be said for the dials, made from rare and precious materials, sometimes with indexes and markers in which diamonds were set, or even covered with a surface studded with precious stones such as pave-set diamonds. Of course, all this makes a watch a luxury item, regardless of its functions and the quality of its mechanism. The proof is that the most expensive watch of the world — if you can call that — is the 55-million USD Graff Hallucination: a bracelet studded with huge colored diamonds, inside of which is a tiny watch face with a quartz mechanism lies.
If we consider the watch as an object of distinction as well as a simple measuring instrument, we agree that actually, a timepiece becomes a kind of more or less precious bracelet with an “extra” function. Precisely as it has always been the case since its inception as a hybrid object worn on the wrist by the noblewomen of international high society: we recall that Countess Koskowski’s famous Patek Philippe wristwatch was, to all intents and purposes, a bracelet-jewel with a central part that could slide to reveal a small dial.
Today, the materials that make up the watch have also changed, with the entry of some that are derived from advanced applications, and we are talking about, among others, ceramic, carbon, titanium, and sapphire crystal, as well as the array of hybrid materials created by the possibilities offered by modern technologies. In short, materials can and have changed over the centuries, but what characterizes luxury watchmaking is the use of increasingly unique and precious materials, often made to meet more demanding technical specifications and, in other cases, for the sake of experimenting with innovative solutions not accessible to other Maisons.
Treatments and finishes
Even a simple watch made of traditional — or, tendentially, less noble — materials can be made luxurious by adopting finishing techniques for the materials themselves. These finishing activities can be evident when practiced on the case and bracelet or invisible when dealing with the decoration of bridges and plates of a movement housed inside a closed case back.
Specifically, a polishing or satin-finishing treatment, often contrasting, on case and bracelet surfaces make one watch more luxurious than another. Similarly, mechanical processes applied on the movement such as anglage or surface treatments such as Cotes de Geneve or Perlage give exclusivity to the watch and elevate it within the luxury bracket. Also, remember that the more unique and challenging these treatments are, in terms of time use and manual workmanship, the more the quality of the object increases. For example, black polish, that special metal surface finishing treatment that gives a surface that precisely resembles a black mirror, can only be performed by hand and requires several days’ processing for each individual piece (including screw heads). And while it brings no technical improvement to a movement’s precision or functionality, it undeniably makes it much more valuable.
The same can be said about the dial: finishes and workings such as guilloche, cloisonné, and the like allow for stunning graphic patterns, which, while adding nothing to the technical functionality of a watch, have an aesthetic impact of excellent refinement and dramatic effect.
Technique and complications
Of course, our list could not be complete without what makes a watch a true object of desire: the complications that enhance its functionality. Again, the interpretation of complications is not strictly univocal: for example, some consider the presence of a tourbillon a complication, while others do not. In our view, any technical element that complicates the basic functionality of a watch should be considered a complication — and complications are, by definition, a luxury that is not present in all watches.
Thus, a watch with a movement that has sophisticated technical features belongs to the luxury watchmaking segment. While not presenting particularly sophisticated technical features, an ultra-flat watch is undoubtedly an Haute Horlogerie watch, as would be a watch with a tiny caliber, such as the minute Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 101. All these features make a watch enter this elusive and indefinable category.
Our reasoning asks questions about what Haute Horlogerie is versus high-end watchmaking. There is no doubt that the human factor plays an essential part in this aspect since, beyond simple definitions, the care and attention in making a timepiece is the ultimate discriminator of manufacturing techniques. Although modern industrial machines can do almost anything, there are still areas where more than simply using an automated machine is needed — there is always a need for human intervention.
As long as this human touch exists, it still makes sense to speak of Haute Horlogerie.
Should this discriminating factor be lacking, talking of a high or very high range will be enough. Still, tapping into that field of high craftsmanship that represents the bridge between simple technique and art will be virtually impossible. That field is precisely where the brands that create true luxury in watchmaking move for a clientele that can perceive and understand the difference.