“I’m thinking of spending some money on a ‘proper watch’, what should I go for?” I’ve been asked this question many times over the last few years, by many different characters on many different budgets. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question but the following questions should help you find the right one for you and will help you avoid falling into some common and disappointing traps.
1. Is it authentically you?
Don’t buy a name just because it’s a name. If the rivets of a Hublot float your boat then go for it but don’t buy one just because of the price tag or because everyone will recognise it; chances are if you’re not in love with it now then you never will be and it will never look right to you or anyone else. Maybe spending big money is important to you, maybe it’s not, it doesn’t matter. Some of the best watch choices I’ve seen didn’t cost a lot but they just make sense. That shows class. Take your time, look around and most definitely try on as many as you can. You’ll know.
2. Do you want something ‘of its time’ or ‘timeless’?
Big watches are so NOW. And digital watches were so NOW about 30 years ago, and the hybrid ‘smart’ watches will be NOW over the next few years. But remember, fashion is fleeting, style is eternal. If you’re looking for something that represents the perfect snapshot of the world as it stands today - maybe as part of a collection - then cough up and buy the latest flagship model of your favourite brand. But if you’re looking for something that is relevant now and will still be relevant in 50 years I would strongly recommend you look to a mid-sized* model by a well-known brand that’s been around a few decades.
*For reference: the term ‘mid-size’ in the watch world usually refers to 34-36mm because it’s a term that was coined in the mid-20th century when wristwatches were typically closer to 30mm, however with watches now coming in at anything from 24-46mm a mid-sized watch might look more like 36-40mm (the Rolex Submariner for example is usually 39-40mm).
3. When and where will you wear it?
If you’re not someone who follows a sartorial ‘code’ then you can skip this one - anything goes, right? - but for everyone else, pay some thought to the arena: is this for business? leisure? special occasions? sports? I’m not a huge believer in ‘rules’ but if you’re buying a watch specifically to go out to high society dinners then look for some classic, leather-banded dress watches and by contrast if you’re buying something to accompany you up Ben Nevis then you’ll want a steel or rubbery number that can take a bruising.
4. And do you want to fit in? or to stand out?
Personally I’m more about this item than the previous one. There are times when actually I quite like to fit in - there is something pleasant about rising to the occasion respectfully from time to time and my 50s Omega dress watch is the right choice for dinner at The Ritz - but most of the time my conformity needle swings to the other end of the meter. I love to talk watches and I’m not afraid of my timepiece being seen so it’s not unusual for me to pair a rugged dive watch with a wedding suit (or even to wear a dress watch when I’m hanging out in my PJs. True story.)
5. Should I change the strap?
I have friends who fear shelling out for an expensive steel/precious metal watch in case it gets scratched while they’re tapping away at their keyboard. Two things: firstly, if you’re going to be too scared to take your watch out of the house then don’t buy one, and secondly it is not unheard of to buy a watch and immediately swap the metal bracelet out for something more practical (and comfortable). You can buy fantastic straps from Hodinkee, Theo & Harris or as I do for my own range you can try out some incredible cork straps from Martu Leather (they look as classy as aged leather and they’re fantastic for the environment). Get yourself a pin removal tool for a fiver on Amazon and swap to your heart’s content.
6. What do you know about the brand and what do they know about watches?
A friend in the video game industry told me once “Don’t ever buy a game based on a hit movie - the makers know the game will sell already so they’re not going to waste any money actually making the game any good.” The same can be said of watches. If you’re looking through a jeweller’s shop window at a watch that shares its brand with underpants and aftershave, don’t buy it. There’s probably nothing really wrong with it but it’s essentially just a shiny, mass-produced case with a cheap, non-proprietary movement. It’s a £15 watch with a hefty premium added for the privilege of bearing a recognisable name. Buy from a brand that’s famous for making really good watches.
7. Old or new?
Do you want to wait a year for your watch and then have it arrive so pristine that you’re too terrified to wear it outside the house? If you answered ‘Yes’ to this question, the answer is: buy a brand new Rolex. If you answered ‘No’, give some serious consideration to used watches. I’ve owned new watches and I’ve owned pre-loved watches and if anything I’m more drawn to the latter. For me, it’s about the added character that time brings. To others, it’s about not wanting to be the one that puts that first scratch on the bezel. And by way of stark contrast it’s perfectly understandable that some people would want to be the first to 'apply the scars of daily use. If you can spot a trend early you may be able to take advantage of older styles and beat the rush to grab one (I’m totally convinced small watches will become hugely popular again for example, and right now you can pick up small, vintage Rolexes, Omegas, Tudors and plenty of others for under £1,000).
8. Does the watch need a story? Would you like to begin your own…?
Here, we delve a little deeper into some of the points in question 7. Watches are a comparatively sentimental luxury item, that is to say that they don’t just look nice and they’re not just an investment, you will also come to think of them as a friend and a trusted companion (and if not, it’s possible you have no soul). So, do you want to be the first to open the box and take the watch with you through your own life and gaining character at the same rate as you? Or do you feel comfortable taking on a timepiece that has already been on adventures? Some buyers go out of their way to find pieces with exciting back stories (has it been to the moon? or up a mountain? or to the bottom of the sea?). As with all of these questions there’s no right or wrong answer but do give this some thought, it’s important and will make the difference between your new companion becoming a friend or remaining an expensive bracelet.
9. Would you be happy with a ‘stepping stone’ watch?
I know the feeling. You want that Daytona soooo bad but you’ve checked all your pockets and can’t find the spare £11k right now. But you NEED something beautiful on your arm right away. Or do you? I know many people who compromise and fork out a few hundred quid on something nice, telling themselves it’s the one that will keep them happy for now, until it’s time to flip it and upgrade. For some, this works fine, but more often than not people make poor choices, can’t sell watch no.1, buy another cheap one and before they know it they have a collection of watches that - while perfectly nice - don’t add up to that dream watch. And that Daytona will never be theirs. Unless you’re buying with some knowledge and confidence (eg you have reasonable certainty that watch no.1 will hold or increase in value) you may be better creating a savings plan and just being patient. Ok, it may take a while but think how good it will feel being able to empty that piggy bank and hand those pennies straight over the jeweller’s counter in exchange for your horological soulmate.
10. If you love it, buy it
Ok, this last one isn’t a question but it’s a beautifully simple rule that perhaps trumps all others. Sometimes you can’t put your finger on what you love about a watch but something just speaks to you. It might not be expensive, it might not be a brand you know…don’t let those things put you off - you will regret it one day. Some of my favourite watches are in my collection just because they’re a bit, well, different. And different is GOOD.