Retrospective: A Week With a Luxury Watch
“Prestige” is a concept often associated with certain luxury brands as a result of massive marketing budgets, a long heritage, or a combination of the two. Whether the product in question is a watch, a car, a wallet, or even a scotch, I’ve always wondered what compels certain consumers to gravitate towards some brands and away from others. Is it the quality? Design? Story? Some other intangible? This is a challenge against incumbents that microbrands, newcomers and independents in every vertical face, and while it is an uphill battle, it is also a rather fun one.
As a microbrand owner, it is a topic that I frequently wrestle with in my head, as I wonder where on the luxury spectrum could a microbrand possibly fall? Would the same people who buy a Rolex also buy a Nodus? What happens in the consumer’s head when they look down at their wrist and see a luxury watch versus if/when they see a microbrand? Ultimately, is the “prestige” of luxury brands justified by the overall quality of the product, design, and service?
Last week, I tried to demystify the driving force behind luxury goods by wearing an “expensive” watch for a week, and this is what I found:
This past holiday season, my father gifted me an Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean GMT Goodplanet Edition. Seeing as how I was about to commence a week-long watch fast, I figured I might as well make it easier by choosing a watch that I was still in a honeymoon period with. Omega happens to be one of the most recognized brands in the world and consequently, one of the most homaged. I have gotten my hands on my fair share of Omega homages from microbrands, so I thought the Planet Ocean would be a good contender to give me a comparative view.
For many Swiss watch brands, much of the raw material used for watch cases (and many other products) come out of China or other places with cheaper industrial metals . With the playing ground more or less even in regards to raw materials, the only variable to indicate quality is in how well the case is finished and is therefore the first thing I always look at when assessing a watch. I look for how even the brushing is, how fine it is, how it reflects light, how sharp the transitions are between surfaces, etc. One thing is very apparent on the Omega: the transitions between polished and brushed surfaces are extremely clean and sharp.
The Planet Ocean has what some manufacturers call "Grade-A" finishing, which is of a higher grade than the majority of microbrands. While I have in fact seen microbrands that have comparable finishing quality, even under a loupe, I have also seen microbrands that have extremely poor finishing.
The grading process should take into account every step of the manufacturing and assembly process, not just the case finishing. While it is possible for microbrands to achieve Grade-A quality, it is not guaranteed when you make your purchase. I have personally handled microbrand watches that I would deem Grade-A, but have also handled watches from the same brand with barely Grade-B finishing. Here is the reason why: Unless an extensive QA process is put in place, the Grade-Bs will be sent out to customers along with all the Grade-As.
I’m happy to report that my Planet Ocean is well into the Grade-A territory of finishing, but it is not that far ahead of the likes of the Halios Tropik and Aevig Balaur–and I am not surprised.
Attention to Detail:
In the past, I have seen and worn luxury watches with glaring misalignment issues and dust under the crystal/on the dial. While this can be expected from a sub-$1000 watch, seeing some of my favorite big-brand releases from the past few years suffer from those same issues begs the question: What are you really paying for? This issue compounds on itself when you start handling microbrand after microbrand with cleaner dials than that of large corporate brands.
Omega is one of the luxury brands that I have never seen quality issues with in either the manufacturing or in the assembly, and after last week, it continues to hold that reputation in my mind. There is not a single speck of dust under the crystal and the hand/bezel/dial alignment is perfect. There are no scratches on the dial or indices either, which is a rather common issue with microbrands, albeit most of them are just hairline scratches and are not visible to the naked eye.
It goes without saying that Omega is one of the most innovative watch companies in the world, and probably one of the few that can stand toe-to-toe with the Goliath of the watch industry: Rolex. Omega has come to be known for their innovation in automatic movements, which, in my opinion, is more than enough to justify the price tag on an Omega.
The Co-Axial movement is synonymous with and has been tied to the Omega brand since 1999. The late George Daniels, frequently heralded as the best horologist in the world during his life, unveiled the Co-Axial movement in 1976 to skepticism and disinterest. In the 80s, Swatch Group Chairman, Nicolas Hayek agreed to adopt the technology, using it in the higher-end brand in the Swatch Group, Omega.
Improvements on the lever escapement are where the advantages start with the Co-Axial movement. The Co-Axial escapement allows for more durability and longer service intervals. It is also more mechanically efficient, which improves timekeeping. Watchmakers traditionally prefer to service movements that they are familiar with such as the ETA 2824. With the recent surge in interest in in-house movements, the Co-Axial movement has a clear advantage over most other in-house movements. It is coupled with a free sprung-balance, which makes the movement easier to adjust and also improves the watch’s shock-resistance. For the most part, you would be hard-pressed to find a watchmaker that properly services certain in-house movements, but Omega tends to be an exception to that pattern.
In terms of lume, it is not blindingly bright, but it is extremely evenly applied. Rolex/Tudor and Seiko still remain the kings of lume. In the realm of microbrands, brands such as NTH, Borealis, and Halios have comparable lume. The only part of the Omega I am disappointed about is the lack of a decoupling crown mechanism, a feature I see in many higher-end veteran microbrands.
Two years ago, I was at a restaurant with one of the restaurant’s owners. Naturally, the conversation progressed to watches and while on the topic, he asked if the watch I was wearing was a Rolex, when in actuality, it was my beloved $120 Orient Ray. His question illustrates a very important point about the watch you wear: the general public has no idea what the watch on your wrist is until they get a closer look at the logo on the dial. If I were a rich and famous celebrity, the story might be a bit different, but given my current circumstances and lack of fame, I feel that there is a certain charm about wearing brands that are under-the-radar (i.e. not Rolex, Omega, Tudor, Seiko) to those not in the know.
Funnily enough, out in the wild, I’ve gotten more questions about our own Nodus watches and other microbrands in my collection than I have about my Omega, which leads me to believe that people like to see something different. While big-brands may convey status and prestige, they may also seem too common and rather boring. From Halios to Squale to Borealis, the conversations I have had about these brands have far outweighed the conversations I have had about Omega, Rolex, and IWC, in terms of both depth and length.
In a previous blog post, I discussed the topic of homage watches and what their place is in the watch world. While I do appreciate homages, especially if they are done right, wearing the actual watch from the brand that originally designed it is something very special.
I absolutely love every aspect of my Planet Ocean's design and I don't necessarily pay attention to what other people think of it, but design-taste is subjective by nature. One man's trash is another man's treasure.
It goes without saying that the Omega is a great watch, but is it worth that much more than a microbrand watch? Yes and no. There are certain intangibles that go along with a watch like this. It will forever be “the watch my father gave me” and that gives it a sentimentality that cannot be replicated in any other watch, no matter how much higher its specifications may be. It does not matter if the watch is $20 or $20,000.
To many people, things like brand name, history, and price are very important factors in the decision making process. These factors do contribute to the monetary value of a watch and sometimes to the sentimental value as well. But, for a watch to become "priceless," it has to carry a story that is more important than the logo printed on the dial.
Brand resonance is often times mistakenly translated as quality. While the Omega is a high-quality product, the truth is that it is disproportionately more expensive than many microbrand watches, if you ignore the intangibles and only look at the product itself. Fortunately, the decision-making process in buying a watch is not one that follows logic and reason but rather emotion and impulse.
The romance that comes with a watch oftentimes means more than the specifications of the watch. The memories you make with the watch and stories you can tell about it cannot be overshadowed by a technically-superior movement, while a cheap quartz watch from Disneyland may still carry some of the best memories and most sentimental attachment.
Ultimately, there is only one question that you have to answer to determine whether or not a watch is "worth it": who are you really buying it for?
In part 2, I will dissect what the grading process entails and how a microbrand's quality control procedure may compare/compete with larger corporations.
Wesley Kwok is the co-founder of Nodus Watches. He is an entrepreneur by day, watch-geek by night, and a musician in the spaces in between. When he is not working or playing guitar, he can be found seeking out the best craft beer in California, perfecting his brioche bun recipe, or keeping up to date on the latest tech trends.