Feature: 3 Incredible Watches That Are Cheaper Than You Think
The search for the perfect watch is an endless one. It needs to be historically important, it needs to be aesthetically unique, it needs to demonstrate watchmaking excellence—and importantly it needs to offer good value as well. Some say the perfect watch doesn’t actually exist; here are three examples that get incredibly close.
Jaquet Droz Grand Seconde Email Ivoire J003033204
If you’re looking for watchmaking heritage, look no further than Jaquet Droz. Who, you’re probably asking yourself? Well, I’ll tell you. This is a watchmaker that’s older than Vacheron Constantin, Breguet, Patek Philippe—you name a watchmaker, Jacquet Droz is older. The only company to have pipped it to the post is Blancpain, and only by three measly years. Compared to its near-three century existence, that’s … well, it’s quite literally a one percent difference.
And Jaquet Droz hasn’t spent the last three hundred years moping about making watches that are just about passable; the man himself, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, devoted his life, even from an early age, to learning how to build precision mechanics. And he was good at it. What started as a way to while away his existence growing up on a farm in La Chaux-de-Fonds grew into a very promising career.
But tragedy struck; the death of Jaquet-Droz’s wife and daughter focussed his attention entirely on his work, and he became even more obsessed with it than ever. Needing money, he took his creations to Spain, to the courts of King Ferdinand VI. The King was impressed; so much so that he purchased everything the thirty-seven-year-old watchmaker had brought with him. He was now a wealthy man.
Still wracked with grief over the death of his family, Jaquet-Droz immersed himself into a project so overwhelmingly incredible that its release drew the attention of the entire world. Three automata, three animated, mechanical humanoids, went on a tour of the courts of Europe—and its audiences were astounded. This was Chuck E. Cheese animatronics but two centuries earlier—and just as creepy.
From there on in, the name Jaquet Droz become synonymous with incredible mechanical achievement and continues, with the help of the Swatch Group, to do so today. The Grand Seconde Email Ivoire reflects the original Jaquet Droz pocket watch design, with the large sub-seconds dominating a dial that is really rather special.
At first glance it appears just to be a plain, off-white dial, but what we’re seeing here is enamel. Enamel has an unmatched sheen that can only be achieved through the Grand Feu process, which sees a fine enamel powder dusted onto a copper blank and baked at almost one thousand degrees Celsius. Each layer is hand sanded, with up to eight layers applied. Every single application carries a strong chance of cracking the delicate enamel; the process renders a very high yield of failures. An alcohol spray is used to adhere each layer to the last, which burns up quickly, producing an alarming flame—hence the name, Grand Feu, or ‘great fire’.
All this history, all this craftsmanship, backed by a world-class Frederic Piguet calibre 1150, as used by both Breguet and Blancpain, should cost the Earth. Its price should sit alongside the Patek Philippe’s and Vacheron Constantin’s of the world, but it doesn’t, and that brings us to the cherry on this already delicious cake: you can have one of these in your collection for less than the RRP of a Rolex Daytona.
Girard-Perregaux Sea-Hawk 49960-11-131-FK6A
We’ve spoken about the provenance of Girard-Perregaux before, but it bears repeating. Like the Jaquet Droz, this Girard-Perregaux shares a legacy in the 18th century, a historical brand that was already in its twenties when Antoni Patek and Adrien Philippe were still in nappies. Also like Jaquet Droz, Girard-Perregaux counted royalty in its esteemed customer base, including the venerable and somewhat demure Queen Victoria. It’s one of the most impressive brands nobody has ever heard of, and it’s made a dive watch—a serious dive watch.
This is a fairly recent sector of the market—defined by the moment when the Sea-Dweller went from being too thick to wear to not thick enough—and it is currently occupied by the likes of Rolex’s Deepsea and Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore Diver. Of those two, the Rolex is utilitarian, the Audemars Piguet more high-end in its execution, a slick air of luxury about its otherwise practical offering.
If you lean more towards the Royal Oak Offshore end of the spectrum for your list of dream watches, then these are the things you probably like about it: the engraved méga tapisserie dial, the mix of exquisite finishes, the precision of the details, and that in-house calibre 3120 movement. Less appealing is the £16,900 price; it’s not out of character for the brand, but it certainly doesn’t fall in line with the typical budget either.
Ordinarily, the solution would be that there is no solution. You want Audemars Piguet quality, you pay Audemars Piguet prices. But there’s a loophole here, and it’s the Sea Hawk. You get the beautifully engraved honeycomb dial, you get precise finishes like the engraving on the back of the 1,000m water-resistant case and you get fine details like the curved crystal that blends into the bezel. You even get an in-house movement, the Girard-Perregaux calibre GP3300, and despite being hidden, it’s a gem to rival Audemars Piguet’s calibre 3120.
The path to disappointment feels like it is drawing nearer to its inevitable conclusion. There must be a fly in the ointment, a floater in the swimming pool with the Sea Hawk. If it’s not the heritage, or the quality, or the movement, what could it be? Well, if there is one, it’s not the price: you can pick up a Girard-Perregaux Sea Hawk like this for around £5,000. That’s Submariner money for a class above.
Eterna Royal KonTiki 77184.108.40.2069
£9,000, £5,000—the two previous watches may be exceptionally well-priced for their specifications, but we can do even better than that. We can even do it by fulfilling all the criteria, and then some. And the watch we’re going to do it with is this, the Royal KonTiki from watchmaker Eterna.
If you’ve never heard of Eterna before, that’s okay. The company hasn’t been making waves for a long, long time—but that might be about to change. A little background before we explore that further, however, for context: Eterna started life in 1856—that’s pretty much two decades before Audemars Piguet—but not to make watches, but movements. Contrary to popular belief, many watchmakers at the time used supplied movements rather than in-house ones, and Eterna was one of those suppliers.
But times changed and fashions shifted, with wristwatches starting to become popular in the early 1900s, and Eterna decided to get in on the action. With the might of movement manufacturing behind it, the company was able to come in hot with the world’s smallest wristwatch, and continued to innovate with the development of the eight-day alarm.
Movements, however, always stayed at the forefront of the brand. In fact, Eterna introduced a feature to the automatic winding mechanism that has become standard fare today: the Eterna-Matic. The name may have been of the era, but the invention is enduring, comprising of five equally spaced ball-bearings in the rotor axle to reduce friction and increase longevity. This development was important enough to become the brand’s calling card, and even found its way into its logo, which is still in use today. Five spheres, equally spaced, a legacy in watchmaking.
This may all be news to you, but there’s a little element left out from this story that will complete the picture. Eterna made movements, until it started making wristwatches, and when those wristwatches started becoming popular, the company decided to make the movement manufacturing part of the business a subsidiary—and they called it ETA. That’s the same ETA that’s now part of the Swatch Group, that supplied movements to virtually every watchmaker of the last century, the same ETA that’s restricting that supply and forcing brands to seek out alternatives from companies like Sellita.
Here’s where things get really interesting, because Eterna is starting again, building a movement manufacturer from scratch to supply other watch brands once again. A modular system called the calibre 39, this foundation serves as the basis for over eighty-eight different specifications, including the 3916a in this Royal KonTiki. And it’s properly spec’d up, boasting a column wheel chronograph with sixty hours of power reserve, a double-stacked hour and minute counter and even a flyback. Guess the price? As low as £2,000.
Watchmaking is such a big space, with so many interesting and exciting brands outside of the norm—and the best thing is that they’re often very reasonably priced. Okay, so the perfect watch is probably a myth—or at least an A. Lange & Söhne—but the dream can get very close to reality, regardless of budget, thanks to these three watches and many others like them—if you’re willing to look.
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