Retrospective III: A Watch Collector's #WIStory
I’ve learned a lot since I first started collecting watches. I have flipped, traded, modded, and impulse-bought more watches than I can remember, and the hobby had consumed me to the point where I decided to make a career out of it (with Nodus, of course). As a microbrand owner, I am always thinking about the market and consumer behavior, and the more I observe the buying habits of consumers, the more I see both my current and past self in their shoes. We as watch enthusiasts have all started from somewhere in this hobby, and only by going through multiple watches do we begin to learn what we truly like and where our tastes lie. In this post, I will discuss the important lessons I have learned when it comes to buying and owning watches, as well as how my taste and criteria for watches has shifted over the years.
Buy the brand first, then buy the watch
It may seem obvious, but it’s always wise to buy from a brand that will have your back in case anything goes awry. This rationale is especially relevant for microbrands, as the quality of after-sales service from microbrands can oftentimes be very poor.
I once bought a watch from a German microbrand. I saw some horror stories about the brand’s customer service on a few watch forums, but I really wanted one of their watches, so we all know how it goes...I pulled the trigger. After a year of wearing the watch, the bezel click spring broke, so I sent the watch back to Germany for repair, and get this - almost a year passed of me not knowing where the watch was, if it was being repaired, or if the brand-owner was even still alive. None of my emails were being responded to and at around the half-year mark, I finally accepted the bitter truth that my watch had probably been taken by the brand-owner and that he was wearing it on some beach in Northern Germany while sipping on some kind of bock or weissbier. After my millionth email and about a year’s time, I finally got my watch back, and it felt like I had won the lottery when he responded to me. Long story short, I never want to experience something like that again and therefore will never again buy from brands that don’t have anything but a stellar reputation for customer service.
Sometimes, however, there is no way to avoid poor service. One time, I decided to do my first microbrand pre-order. I was hesitant about putting money down so far in advance (I waited about five months, while others actually put money down several months before I did), but the brand had a solid reputation and if anything went wrong, I was sure the brand would be supportive, so we all know how it goes...I pulled the trigger. Communication was spotty during the whole pre-order process, but the real killer was when customers started receiving their watches. Misalignment issues of the chapter ring and dial were rampant, all caused by the ridiculous decision to not install a movement holder in the case. Luckily, my watch was okay, but the many customers who had issues were essentially ignored by the brand, and the brand did absolutely nothing to stand behind their product. I can only imagine the sheer frustration and disappointment I would have experienced if I had waited 5+ months only to receive a faulty watch. I dodged a bullet but ended up selling the watch not much later after receiving it, and one thing’s for sure: I will never buy from or support that brand again. There’s a huge thread on Watchuseek about this fiasco and it will probably go down in microbrand history as one of the bigger f**k-ups made.
On a positive note, I once bought a very popular Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms homage from an incumbent microbrand that many consumers can and have vouched for. The watch came to me with a glaring misalignment issue, but after a few back-and-forths with their customer service, the watch was on its way back to them with a prepaid return label, and a new watch was sent to me quickly after. I really appreciated their service and I can see why they’ve been in business for so long. If it were any other microbrand, I might have been out of luck and stuck with an unacceptable product.
In summary, a microbrand’s customer service is just as important as their product, though it may take a bad experience or two for a consumer to realize it. I, for one, did not think much of customer service in the past, hoping that any problems would happen to “the other guy” and not myself. However, the more watches you buy, the more likely you’ll encounter issues, and when that happens (and it will), it’s always nice to know that the problem will be taken care of.
Save up for what you really want
I know, I know, we’ve all heard it before: “Just save up for the real thing instead of getting an homage” and all that stuff. Although I used to think that was a cop-out response to people’s questions, I now believe it. In the case of the Rolex 5517, no, it does not make sense to just save up for a watch like that, but for something like a Seiko MM300 which can be had for $1500 used, I believe that rationale really holds some truth. The MM300 was my grail watch ever since I got into watches, and I did things like modding SKXs and buying homages to replicate the look of the Marinemaster. But no matter what I did, I was never fully-satisfied with what I had and nothing kept me from ogling over MM300 pictures day-in and day-out. I pre-ordered a Marinemaster homage (see above) that had cost me around $650, and an SKX with modded parts can easily run over $500, which equates to $1150, or roughly three-quarters of the cost of a MM300. If I had just saved up a bit more, I could have attained my grail watch much faster. But I then had to deal with the depreciation horrors of selling modded SKXs and an undesirable microbrand watch. The depreciation alone was worth the remaining quarter of what was needed to obtain my grail.
My point is this: there are no substitutes for what you really want (within reason, of course) - saving up pays off in the long run, and you’ll be happy you did it.
Made in Switzer-what now?
The watch industry is unequivocally filled with smoke and mirrors; how else would companies get consumers to pay thousands of dollars for an anachronistic hunk of metal? Before Wes and I started Nodus and saw “Swiss Made” and “Made in Germany” watches being made in China, I really valued and believed in those labels. Back then, I couldn’t believe brands could offer Swiss-made watches for under $1000. Having the Swiss-made label alone seemed to be a feature in itself, especially considering my naivety and misinterpretation of Swiss Made laws at the time. I was fully sucked-in by the allure of country-of-origin labeling and did not know I was being duped the entire time.
The whole “Swiss Made” controversies are for another blog post, but to put things short, the labels “Swiss Made” and “Made in Germany” don’t really mean much in the sub-$1000 watch world (you can even argue the same for the sub-$2000 range). If you think your affordable Swiss Made watch is made entirely of Swiss parts, you can continue to fool yourself, or you can accept the fact that globalization is an integral part of the watch industry (and all industries) and that many components of your Swiss Made watch (and quite often all of them) are made in China. Despite what “experts” might tell you, even the assembly of the watches may take place in China, so long as enough out of a given batch are assembled in Switzerland to fulfill the legal “Swiss value” requirements. I always tell Wes, “Man, Nodus could easily have the Swiss Made label if we just lived and assembled in Switzerland.” Not a single manufacturing change would need to happen for us - we’d just have to learn a new language.
Consumers should buy and appreciate watches for what they are, regardless of their country-of-origin label. Marketing in the watch industry has brainwashed us into thinking that “Swiss Made” equates to quality, which is true for many cases, but a watch without such a label can be just as good, if not better. I currently own one Swiss-made watch, which is a Doxa Sub 300. Is it better quality than a similarly-priced Seiko or an established microbrand watch? The answer is a firm no, and I don’t care because I appreciate the Doxa for everything that it is besides its Swiss-made label.
Bargain hunting...proceed with caution
Bargain hunting is a bit of a controversial subject because everyone has different budgets and priorities, which I fully respect. However, with the recent increase in overall quality (and consequently, prices) from microbrands during the past few years, it makes sense to discuss the bang-for-buck ratio of microbrand watches in 2018 (or the lack thereof, according to some).
During my first couple years as a watch enthusiast, I was still a college student and naturally had less money to spend. I always looked for the best bang-for-buck watch, which meant looking purely at the spec-sheet and the price, seeing if the two met my value-proposition criteria. Those criteria were essentially as follows, especially regarding microbrand watches:
First, the watch must have a sapphire crystal with a ceramic/sapphire/steel bezel, then:
- If the watch has a Miyota 82xx movement, the price cannot exceed $100
- If the watch has a Seiko NH35A movement, the price cannot exceed $300.
- If the watch has a Miyota 9015 movement, the price cannot exceed $500.
- If the watch has a Swiss movement and is priced under $500, it is a no-brainer
I did not weigh things like design, customer support, originality, assembly, and quality as heavily, even though these are all things that add cost and quite frankly, are worth paying for. I’ve noticed similar trains-of-thought among people in different watch communities, and there really is no right or wrong to it. However, as I fell deeper into the world of watches and figured out what I truly liked and disliked, I began to stray outside of those criteria and subsequently place more value on things the spec-sheet cannot convey, such as quality of design, after-sales service, and brand identity. Yes, there are brands that offer rebranded replica watches with sapphire crystals, ceramic inserts, and Miyota 9015s for under $300, but in the end you’re buying just that: rebranded replica watches from companies that lack identity and have questionable customer support. Again, there is no right or wrong to this, I am merely stating a fact. I remember a few years back, I immensely enjoyed my Parnis, Tisell, and Tiger Subs, but nowadays they just don’t do it for me because I desire and can now afford a higher-quality watch in terms of design, assembly, finishing, and branding.
Looking at microbrands in 2018, we can see that the established brands price their watches above the threshold from my criteria above. I have noticed a countless number of people in the watch community wonder why brand X prices their Miyota 9015 watch for $700 when brand Y’s Miyota 9015 watch can be had for $300. 99% of the time, those comparisons are illogical simply because in today’s microbrand market, specs are only one part of the picture. Any microbrand can sell a high-spec watch for $300, but not all microbrands can sell a well-designed and well-finished product with great customer service to boot, and that is where the price premium comes in.
How my tastes have changed
At this point in my watch-collecting career, I’ve never been so fussy as well as unfussy with what I look for in a watch. I remember my first three years or so of collecting watches, I was very hung up about a watch’s movement, accuracy, and lume. At one point, I couldn’t make do without a watch that had a least a 28,800 bph movement, kept time within 5 seconds a day, and had scorching lume. Nowadays, those criteria don’t matter to me much anymore, but what matters more now is the overall way a watch makes me a feel, an X-factor so to speak. If I had to define this X-factor, I would say it encompasses a unique and tasteful design, high build-quality, historical significance of some sort, and good resale value. I think my Seiko MM300 is a perfect example of what this X-factor, which is why it’s a keeper and the oldest watch in my collection.
My most recent acquisitions include a Doxa Sub 300 50th Anniversary and the 2018 Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical. The lume is not scorching on either watch, and both keep around +18 seconds a day (the Doxa was COSC-certified too, which is strange), but interestingly, none of that bothers me anymore. I just love the way the watches look on my wrist and how they make me feel overall, and that is ultimately what this hobby is about. Has my taste in watches “matured”? Will I be valuing different things in a few years? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
The beauty of collecting watches is that everyone’s journey is both personal and unique. One of the reasons why I wanted to share my story is so that I can hear about yours. What was your journey like? What lessons have you learned? Feel free to leave a comment below or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cullen Chen is the co-founder/operator at Nodus Watches. He is a self-professed Seiko-holic and watch freak as well as an avid DIYer. When he is not assembling watches, he is grilling up meat, obsessing over cars, playing guitar, and enjoying fine beverages.