Where to buy a great watch for less than £5,000
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I hate the term disruptor – it is too often a cliché – but it is an apt description of a new generation of watch microbrands putting vintage styling within reach of an audience for whom owning a timepiece from a blue-chip brand is about as realistic and affordable as owning a flat in central London.
The joy of these watches is that they do not patronise the younger buyer. Take Furlan Marri, named after Swiss designer Andrea Furlan and Middle Eastern collector Hamad Al Marri. It dubbed one of its models Tasti Tondi after the nickname for the sought-after Patek Philippe Ref 1463. Prices are kept insanely low (think £396 for a two-subdial chronograph), by using a meca-quartz movement, an electro-mechanical hybrid introduced in the 1980s; but vintage cues are everywhere, from the perlage inside the caseback to the serial numbers engraved between the lugs. Unless the caseback is opened and the strap removed, the wearer will never see the perlage, and that is exactly the point: just knowing it is there contributes to the satisfaction of ownership.
But even though they may be influenced by the past, microbrands use the tools of the modern world to reinforce the sense of involvement and connection between brand and buyer. Jacques Bianchi from Marseille is a maker of diving watches used by the French navy during the 1980s: a Bianchi Kickstarter campaign raised more than five times the initial goal of €150,000 where a minimum pledge of €594 secured a JB 200 dive watch, a discount on the already attractive price of €990.
Baltic is another low-price, high-style, retro-look brand causing a stir, especially since it was invited to be part of the prestigious Only Watch charity auction.
Low price and high design aside, the charm of these watches is that they are not the product of focus groups. When I ask George Bamford of Bamford London who his watches appeal to, his answer is not couched in the demographic speak of the professional marketing department. “I am appealing to myself,” he says, “I’ve done a mono pusher chronograph for £2,500 with a forged carbon case because it’s a watch I want, and I haven’t seen it in the market.” A few years ago, the words forged carbon and single push-piece chronograph could have justified a high five-figure price tag from one of the high-end brands. Bamford freely admits that he uses widely available Sellita movements. As his is a newly established brand, he describes the £2,500 as “an understandable price point for Bamford London”, explaining that this is the high end of a price range that starts at £400. “I am really excited about that price point.”
Increasingly this excitement is being felt across the entire industry. With its redesigned and relaunched Aquaracer and the three-hand Carrera worn by Ryan Gosling, TAG Heuer is reasserting itself in what used to be its heartland of £2,000-£3,000. Furthermore CEO Frédéric Arnault believes that there is scope for the brand to expand its offer at around £1,000: “I think it was a big part of the brand and the business, and we were probably not focusing enough on it in the past, when that’s what we’re known for and where our customers want to see us.”
Arnault has noticed that the brand’s entry-level Formula One line has been popular since its design refresh. “We animated it this year, we had an orange dial, and it did super-well. We have really cool ones coming up in the next year that I believe will talk strongly to the young generation.”
Cartier, which is on an upward trajectory, has also been able to offer watchmaking as desirable as it is affordable in the shape of its revived Must watches. Echoes of the original Must watches of the 1970s and their distinctive colourful dial designs have struck the right note with collectors who are happy to have something new and cheerful on the wrist without having to think too hard about the price. “A Cartier for just over £2,000 is amazing,” enthuses Mark Toulson, head of watch buying at The Watches of Switzerland Group.
Toulson also identifies Oris’s Aquis 300m dive watch with fashionable green dial at £1,600 as a bestseller: “It’s a lot of watch for the money. It’s not got an in-house movement but you get its Calibre 400 movement with five days’ power reserve.” The brand has also just launched a handsome bronze ProPilot Big Date for the same price.
That sort of money will also get you into the entry-level pieces of the brand that arguably kicked off the current boom in affordable collectors’ watches: Tudor. Tudor is of course the sibling brand of Rolex and was conceived as a less costly “blue collar” alternative to the brand with the crown, with early advertising suggesting it as the watch to wear if you were a pneumatic-drill operator or motorcycle rider. But recent years have seen it emerge as a maker of detail-rich, historically informed, accessibly priced tool watches. I cannot say enough good things about the Black Bay Fifty-Eight with its riveted bracelet, and vintage-inspired 39mm case diameter. I am not alone: I have heard it described as too cheap and anecdotally I know of collectors with the means to wear any watch on the market who wear a Tudor on a regular basis.
But perhaps the biggest stir this year at the affordable end of the market has come from Rolex, which has transformed its entry-level time-only Oyster Perpetual by issuing it with a range of brightly coloured dials. At a stroke, Rolex has in effect become the year’s biggest disruptor in that it has completely changed perceptions of its simplest watch. Priced at about £4,425, the most accessibly priced Rolex has become one of the most desirable. It is a gorgeous watch. There is just one difficulty: with waiting lists lengthening as authorised retailers currently wait for more stock and secondary market dealers asking anything up to three-and-a-half times retail, the problem is finding one. But more will be made.
Models, Aradj Sissoko at IMG Models, Braien Vaiksaar, David Ge and Theodor Pal at Success Models. Casting, Plus Three Two. Grooming, Christos Vourlis. Set design, Enzo Selvatici. Photographer’s assistant, Lucas Mathon. Digital operator, Joanna Huttner Lemoine. Stylist’s assistant, Thalia Duran. Production, Town Productions. Special thanks to Café Les Deux Gares and Home Agency