Defining High End Watches

IWC Scafusia

"Dear Spazz,

I've read a lot from a lot of different sources what a high end watch is. What's you're take? What constitutes a truly high end watch? 


Thanks for the question, one that identifies the starting point for all of us before shopping for a high end watch.  

The main issue, in general, when it comes to the watch industry today is that many brands that once were relevant, no longer are. And it's become increasingly difficult to decipher between the true horologically relevant watch brands and the pretenders.

Whats worse, many pretenders were once at the pinnacle of haute horology, so it can get tricky. 

So, here's a list of criteria that all truly high-end brand/watch will meet. If a brand or watch does not meet all of the criteria, regardless of how much it costs, I'm here to tell you to walk away. You have better options. 

1. Pedegree - there are some very talented and worthy companies that are young. But because it's a really big challenge for a watch company to even stay in business, it's a gamble. Because if the brand bankrupts in a decade or two, so did your investment. Plus, with so many wonderful options that do have pedigree, i.e. that have survived generational turnovers, depressions, change in ownership, etc., why bother with young independents?

So, when it comes to pedigree, a truly high end brand will have opened it's doors prior to 1900. As a bonus, there'd even be some current involvement from the decedents of the original founding family. 

2. Mechanical Movement - Arguably, there are *some* quartz watches that qualify as high-end, especially in the world of women's watches. But, as a general rule, and not to confuse things too much, if you want something high end, stick to some kind of mechanical movement. Period.  

3. Manufacture (in-house) Movement - This is huge, but there are also some small grey areas. 

Anyone can buy a $300 ETA off-the-shelf movement, slap their logo on the rotor and call it a day. But only the truly high end brands have the capabilities to design and build their own in-house mechanical movements.  

As mentioned; however, there are some grey areas:

Some companies will buy base movements from companies like ETA and then strip them, modify them and decorate them to suit their needs. The end result will be a very unique movement and much improved and will resemble nothing of the original base movement. 

If done right, a company can make a serious horological contribution, such as the IWC Doppelchronograph who's movement is a base Valjoux 7750, but transformed by Richard Habring into the first under-$20k split chronograph and won IWC a multi-year patent.

Another grey area is when a company chooses a movement from a giant like Jaeger LeCoultre as Audemars Piguet did with their Royal Oak (and others too).  

Audemars Piguet still did their own decorating, but the key here is that the movement was essentially made from a true high end manufacturer.  

Its the equivalent of a car company that commissions Ferrari to build them an engine vs. installing a generic Yamaha engine out of a catalog. 

The last grey area is when a company works with a movement manufacturer.  An example of this is when Omega released their famous 321 which was built in partnership with Lemania under Omega's roof (more or less). 

This is very different to what Omega does today, which is get ETA to modify one of ETAs generic movements, and then market it as "made exclusively for". 

That is not in-house, not high-end, and certainly not based on any standards Omega *used* to follow pre 1970's.  

4. Stainless Steel case - precious metals are nice, of course, but inflate the price. Therefore, it's not necessary. High end requires nothing more than stainless steel.  

Some will even refer to steel as the "new gold". 

5. 40mm case MAX - there are some individual exceptions to this rule (Speedmaster, Royal Oak 15400, etc), but as a general rule a truly high end watch will not exceed 40mm.  

It is absolutely false that bigger looks better, even if you're "big boned", in fact I'd say the opposite is more true.  

Plus, if you take a look at any of the great auction houses you will see the watches that really sell high are always smaller, not bigger watches.

6. A "Vintage" - Meaning a model that has some lasting heritage or longevity. A classic example is a Calatrava style watch, which all high end manufacturers offer. 

Important to note is that price is not a determining factor. In fact, most Seiko's will meet these criteria whereas not a single Hublot will.

So, before buying your watch, regardless of budget, follow these criteria and I guarantee you can't go wrong.