The quality curve in watchmaking

The author is trained in luxury metalware polishing and has been working in the development of watches since 2003. After working within various watchmaking groups and touring workshops across Switzerland and China, the was able to formulate how an increase in cosmetic quality is significant in the bottom half of the price points, but the higher a brand goes, the less it becomes significant.

the quality curve in watchmaking

One of the best examples of this is probably Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, which was designed by the late Gérald Genta.

Genta was trained as a goldsmith, so he was familiar with the constraints of metal polishing. He designed the Royal Oak to use limitations as advantages, and to capitalise on the computer controlled machining that started to appear in the 1970s to create a stunning work of flat and faceted surfaces.

The Royak Oal by Gérald Genta

In order to manufacture a Royal Oak the way Gérald Genta envisioned it, the one needs to take additional steps during the process to guarantee the utmost level of quality all the way through.

That goes down to how the metal rods are packed, stored and handled, and to how trained the operators are. As a consequence, event the areas between the bracelet lugs for example, are refinished to the same standard.

Exhibit A: everyday luxury segment

The example below is a Chinese Royal Oak bracelet copy that sells for $27. This is a photograph of the finished product. One would likely find this bracelet on a $500 watch.

  • The shapes of the links are not identical from one to the next
  • The gaps between links are uneven
  • The chamfer on the side of the links is not straight and has poor finishing
  • As mentioned by the author, the surfaces between the lugs have a lower grade of finishing, because the process skipped the pre-polishing step before machining.

Basically, the links have been polished on 4 sides (top, bottom, left and right). This essentially fails because, as explained above, Gérald Genta created this design to be manufactured with an attention to detail. If one tries to manufacture it in a wonky metalware workshop, one will get a wonky result.

Chinese replica of the Royal Oak bracelet

Exhibit B: accessible core segment

Recently, Swiss brand Tissot re-issued one of their model from 1978, and it has been all the rage!

The first thing that Tissot got right is by using a much simpler design to execute than the Royal Oak. Instead of three links, there are single, C-shaped ones. Chamfers are applied sparingly, which means that a decent level of quality can reasonably be achieved.

PRX by Tissot

Exhibit C: premium core segment

Under the helm of CEO Séphane Waser, Swiss brand Maurice Lacroix reinterpreted one of their models from the 1990s and went for an integrated bracelet like the Royal Oak.

The design brings more complexity than the Tissot. In the below photograph from Professional Watches’ (2018) review, you can clearly see that the link at 12 o’clock and the case are not 100% straight. However, the surfaces between the links are nicely polished, so the links are very likely been polished on 6 sides instead of 4.

Aikon by Maurice Lacroix

Exhibit D: superpremium segment

Then, playing in the Royal Oak’s league, we have watches like the Patek Philippe Nautilus (also designed by Genta), that does everything by the book. The links fit with each other as good as Mayan masonry, and the finishing is impeccable.

Nautilus by Patek Philippe

So the author hopes that these examples help you to understand why certain brands command high prices, and how the quality drastically increases as soon as you move up the price points, but becomes less perceptible the higher you go.

Basically, you get what you pay for.

The only workaround is to buy from brands that use a more direct distribution model.

So while the traditional retail of watches goes from the factory through a distributor or an agent before the store, there are a few brands that sell “direct to consumer”.

Iron Walker by Wempe

Examples are: Christopher Ward, Damasko, Formex, Guinand, Sinn, Steinhart, Wempe (Shanks, 2020).

Their pricing structure means that you get the same grade at a slightly lower price, like -20% to -30%. But if someone is claiming to deliver the same quality for a fraction of the price, they are taking you for a ride.

Someone might mention microbrands, but the author would add a pinch of salt by pointing out that microbrands almost always never keep an inventory of spare parts for at least 15 years, like a traditional brand. It might sound fine and dandy at first, but you might want to make sure that they keep an inventory of spare parts, so you don’t find yourself with a watch that is impossible to repair 3 years down the road.