Not literally half price, but Tim Barber discovers the sort of high end watchmaking that would normally command investment of twice, thrice or even ten times more from the likes of Patek Philippe, Richard Mille or Audemars Piguet.
The idea of value in watchmaking is, increasingly, in flux. On the one hand, you’ve the watches considered entry level for particular brands (you know the ones) soaring to ever more absurd prices in a bubbling and voracious pre-owned marketplace.
At the other end of the scale, brands like Tissot, Longines, Tudor and Oris are in a race to offer ever more value in terms of technical performance in a ways that is applying fundamental pressure to their less innovative competitors.
And then you have the brands on this page: the growing number of innovators and free-thinkers finding ways to offer high-level horological content, handcraft and rarity at the unlikeliest of price points.
To get something unique, complicated and crafted in the watch world does not necessarily require the kind of bank balance that would buy you a superyacht; you just have to know where to look. And increasingly, you need to be patient – price is also no longer a barrier to a lengthy waiting list. Quite the opposite, it turns out.
Chapter 4.1 T.V.D.
The mystique surrounding the tourbillon, the Breguet-invented anti-gravity device that’s been more or less an avatar for high-watchmaking’s 21st century reinvention, comes crashing down with the BA111OD Chapter 4, a watch intended to embody an entirely new approach to the business of making and selling watches.
Its creator, Thomas Baillod, is an executive bent on dragging the watch industry into the future (or at least the present), with an innovative business model that involves turning buyers into ‘afluendors’ – incentivised onward sellers of further watches – that strips out huge chunks of the sales and distribution costs of luxury goods.
The Chapter 4 is the watch designed to prove Mr Baillod’s point – its full title, Chapter 4.1 The Veblen Dilemma, is a reference to his determination to turn the Veblen paradox, in which price and demand for premium goods go up in tandem, on its head.
The point being that its seriously low price is anything but a sign of an inferior product, this watch is premium all the way. It offers not just a large and dramatic tourbillon (Swiss-made, importantly) spinning away, but plenty of horological value besides: chronometer accuracy (and COSC certification for customers who request it), high shock resistance, 2,000 gauss magnetic resistance and a power reserve of 100 hours.
Cased up in a 44mm titanium case with a grey DLC treatment, it’s a punchy, hot-to-trot gauntlet thrown down to an industry in which a tourbillon for less than £40,000 was once unimaginable. The only catch? To own one, you must accept the title of afluendor. I’m really not so sure.
HAND-FINISHING AT MACHINE PRICES
Given the range and volume of watches Christopher Ward has been putting out in recent years, it’s easy to forget what was always meant to be its ace in the pack: the SH21 movement it developed, via its Swiss-based watchmaking division, in 2014.
With dual barrels, five days’ power reserve and chronometer rating, it’s quite the workhorse as it is; but with the C60 concept, the brand exploited the calibre’s somewhat muscular architecture with some dexterous skeletonisation and true haute-horlogerie hand-finishing.
For that, it worked with some of the best in the business, calling on the machining skills of high-end, high-tech indie brand Armin Strom, and the finishing expertise of Chronode, a horological hothouse known for its work with the likes of MB&F, Czapek & Cie and Hermes.
The gleaming bevelling alone is said to take 8 hours per watch – something you’d normally expect to result in a watch costing well over $10,000 and probably considerably more. Packed into a 42mm dive watch format it’s a gloriously rum concoction and great fun to wear – and one of very few dive watches that benefits from close scrutiny under a loupe.
METIERS d’ART FOR THE MASSES
The democratization of metiers d’art – the handful of ancestral craft techniques used to decorate watch dials – is an area popping with energy and new developments just now, from Louis Erard offering stone-cut and guilloche-decorated dials for around £3,500/$5,000 to the adventures in color and texture at bespoke studios like Sartory Billard and Kurono Tokyo.
But none has been as surprising, perhaps, as the arrival on the scene of anOrdain, the Glasgow-based outfit whose vibrant and innovative dials in grand feu enamel have won them fans around the world and saw them shortlisted last year for a GPHG award.
AnOrdain’s team taught themselves the technique that involves building up delicate layers of kiln-fired vitreous enamel, creating dials of translucent vibrancy paired with a cool, modern typographical aesthetic. To this they’ve added in-house flame-blueing of hands, and their own technique for creating fume dials over a curving, textured dial base.
Just good luck getting hold of one: such is the popularity of anOrdain’s watches, that buyers are now directed to apply to a waiting list as the tiny Glasgow team works its way through the order book. For a small British firm making sub-$3,000 watches, that’s a remarkable situation.
Five Minute Repeater
Any list of serious watchmaking offered at serious value has to include the work of Richard and Maria Habring and their small German studio, whose no nonsense work has brought a bevy of GPHG awards and nominations over the years.
Richard Habring made his name as the inventor of the rattrapante system used in IWC’s legenedary Doppelchronograph Pilot’s Watch in the early 1990s, and which he continues to employ in his own watchmaking, most recently mixing it with a perpetual calendar in the Habring2 Perpetual Doppel, a watch that could easily have made this list.
But its Habring’s chiming watch, launched in 2017, that stands out as the most unusual and phenomenal piece of horological blue sky thinking. It chimes out the hour (up to a maximum of 11 chimes) and subsequent 5-minute intervals – for £17,500, chimed accuracy to within five minutes really should be enough.
What’s more, unlike almost every minute repeater or chiming watch out there – most of which cost £100,000 or considerably more – it’s waterproof. The look is distinctly industrial, but it reflects Habring’s singularly unadorned, unfancy and yet imaginatively unfettered approach.
Highlife Perpetual Calendar Tourbillon
£20,995 in steel
Even given Frederique Constant’s long-term mission to deliver what the company terms accessible luxury via affordably-priced in-house watchmaking, its 2018 revelation of a £20,000 perpetual calendar tourbillon watch (in steel) was audacious to say the least.
It’s a rare combination even among watchmaking’s top tier (Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet don’t offer it, for instance); for the brands that do make a version, like Breguet and Vacheron Constantin, you’re in pinnacle Grand Complication territory, with six-figure prices-on-application to match.
Admittedly, Frederique Constant’s execution, newly available in its sports-luxe Highlife format, makes no pretences at entering such spheres of artistry. Even with its open-worked dial design, displaying the day, month, leap year and date across three subdials with the tourbillon rotating below, the feel is somewhat industrial: it’s a watch that’s far more about coldly efficient function than the beauty and craft of complex watchmaking.
Nevertheless, by any yardstick it’s a remarkable technical achievement, and the Highlife case makes for a rather more dynamic setting than the traditional round version unveiled in 2018. Frederique Constant is making 88 versions in steel and 30 in rose gold.