PhilipThe Three S’s of Fine Watches
There are three S’s that determine the cost of a high-end watch: skill, service and scale.
The first one, the appreciation of skill, has a steep learning curve. One needs a certain level of appreciation to understand the amount of watchmaking skill that goes into manufacturing a Timex Marlin or a Philippe Dufour Simplicity.
It’s the same difference between a casual music listener and an audiophile, a casual movie watcher and a cinephile. Appreciating is essentially a hobby, and watch enthusiasts enjoy to learn about the Art and to broaden their knowledge about the subject.
The one thing that a lot of people get wrong about watches is the service that they offer. If it was only about delivering time, customers would have abandoned the ship a long time ago.
“Faith without works is dead” and theory is nothing without practice. So ownership of fine watches is the means for the skill appreciators to literally get their hands on the subject of their hobby. There is a particular form of pleasure that is gained from hunting for the next watch, the purchase experience, adding it to a collection and maybe trading it some day to upgrade to another one.
I like to outline the fact that most wrist watches produced from 1940 to this day have been designed to be taken apart, cleaned up and put back together. It is not uncommon for a collector to own a watch that was designed an manufactured before their birth, and that still work as initially designed. So this form of sustainability or planned endurance has its merits.
Business and culture reporter David Sax published the best selling book about a current surge in interest for old fashioned analogue technology: The Revenge of Analog: David Sax makes the case for real things that still matter | CBC Radio. Traditional watches, and by extension high end watches are the perfect recipient of this fondness for non-electronic devices that harvest natural energy.
We have discussed the skills that go into making watches, the learning curve of discerning and appreciating them, the service that fine watches offer to consumers through ownership of sustainable and repairable energy harvesting works of Art; and we must now talk about scale, which is the main factor behind price.
If we go back to the example of the Timex Marlin and a Simplicity by Philippe Dufour, the priority of the Timex is to be accessible, almost as much as a commodity. Retailing between USD 200 and 250, the Marlin is one’s ticket to the world of mechanical watchmaking.
In order to deliver on that promise, Timex has to cut to the chase on several aspects:
- Using a two-piece case construction (frame + case back). Skipping the standard three-piece construction (bezel + frame + case) allows to reduce manufacturing, milling and polishing operations.
- Benefiting from economies of scale by sourcing Miyota 8000 movement series, which are mass-produced in millions with a blank utilitarian finishing.
- Producing this collection in thousands, if not tens of thousands, to amortise all development and tooling costs.
In comparison, the priority of the Simplicity is craftsmanship. Philippe Dufour wants to deliver to his customers a product that is made by the book, with every component refinished according to the highest skill standard of the industry. That involves having Mr. Dufour design and produce the majority of components himself.
As a consequence:
- The process of producing each component, refinishing it by hand and fitting it with the others can take up to a full month. As a consequence, Mr. Dufour barely produces more than a dozen watches per year.
- Each watch is practically a unique piece, since details are made based on customer’s request. There is of course a waiting list for those who would like to have a new watch made by the Master.
- The Simplicity pictured below originally sold for “less” than USD 90,000. That would be considered a “bargain” by cognoscenti, considering that watches like these now fetch above USD 250,000 on auction.
So in essence, the Marlin and the Simplicity both deliver an experience, but they do however radically differ in how they deliver it, by the level of skill involved and the scale at which they are produced. This is in essence why a high end watch can have such a high price compared to a commodity.