£250 vs £250,000 Watch
What is a watch? It’s a timekeeping device, primarily. Perhaps this statement is obvious to you, perhaps you think it’s something that doesn’t need clarifying—but yet when a watch can cost £250 or a quarter of a million, the obvious no longer seems quite so obvious. How can two watches that both quite simply tell the time have such a disparity in their prices?
Seiko Presage SRPA25K1
In a world of ever-increasing prices, £250 doesn’t seem to buy very much anymore. It won’t get you an Apple Watch for a start, and if you’re thinking about a watch with an in-house movement, you can pretty much forget about it.
Although, not quite. The Japanese watch was once the target of derision—I expect that may have been more propaganda-related than anything else—but here’s the truth of it: £250 will buy you something rather special from the house of Seiko.
Beautiful sunburst dial with precision-finished hands and markers? Check. One hundred metres of water resistance from the stainless-steel case? Definitely. An actually mechanical movement with gears and wheels, automatic no less? You’d better believe it. You have to understand that, although Seiko still feels like the new kid on the block, the company has actually been making watches since 1881; its flagship Grand Seiko watches have been keeping the Swiss anxious for over half a century.
What this means is that Seiko has the capability to produce absolutely everything it needs to build a watch movement from the ground up. This beating heart isn’t bought in, tweaked slightly, and rebadged—this is as in-house as in-house gets. And when I say Seiko makes its movements in-house, I mean the company even grows the jewels in its own lab from scratch.
The calibre 4R35 is a wonder of modern production methods, which is kind of ironic given that it’s ultimately a technology that’s long since outdated. Precision machines make light work of crafting the seventy-odd parts that make up the 4R35, giving it 40 hours of power reserve at six beats per second. It’s far from the best specification in the world, but for £250 it’s practically a modern miracle.
So how, if this Seiko can do so much for so little, can a watch possibly cost one thousand times more?
Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Tourbillon 89000/000R-9655
For those of you thinking that this quarter-million-pound Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle should be practically made of magic, that for the price of a house it should be able to pick the winning lottery numbers and make the perfect boiled egg, you’re going to be disappointed. All this watch does is tell the time.
‘Ah,’ you might think, ‘but there’s another display at the top of the dial; that must at least do something cool like measure how fast the Earth is spinning or tell me how close I am to undiscovered fossils or something like that?’ Nope. That dial just reminds you how much time you have left until the watch won’t be able to tell the time at all.
It’s a fuel gauge, which you need for this watch because even for £250,000, it doesn’t wind itself. You have to do it manually. And manually soon becomes manual labour, because with two whole weeks of power reserve spread across four barrels, there’s a whole lot of winding to do.
But of course I am being deliberately obtuse, because unless you’ve been watching this video with your eyes shut, you will have noticed the whacking great hole right through the bottom half of the dial. That’s not termites, that’s the tourbillon. What’s a tourbillon? At first glance it might seem simply like an animated version of Vacheron Constantin’s Maltese cross logo, which would be pretty useless—but thankfully there’s more to it than that.
A tourbillon, as inventor Abraham-Louis Breguet intended it, is a mechanism that allows a watch’s balance to rotate freely in order to negate the effects of gravity by applying them evenly over the course of time. Think of it a bit like rolling something in glitter rather than patting it; the coverage is going to be more evenly applied across the whole circumference.
But this invention was intended for a pocket watch, which hangs its balance against gravity in one stationary position for extended periods of time; a wristwatch on the other hand, is almost constantly moving, making the tourbillon pretty much as useless as a spinning logo.
This doesn’t bode well for the Traditionnelle, but perhaps we’re looking at this in all the wrong ways. A person doesn’t buy a Ferrari for the commute, a photography print to cover a hole in a wall. These are objects that transcend practicality, that connect on a level far more delicate and mushy than the simple function of existing. It’s that feeling you get when you stand in front of a painting at a gallery and get lost in it, the tingle in your spine when you hear a V12 at 8,000rpm, that weakness in your knees when a brace of Spitfires fly overhead.
Vacheron Constantin built this watch not to fulfil any kind of useful purpose, but to burrow deep into the primal parts of our brains and tickle them in just the right way. From the engineering headache of designing a tourbillon that runs off of four barrels, to the decades of mastery required for watchmakers to be able to shape and finish every one of the calibre 2260’s 231 parts by hand to a level unsurpassed, the Traditionnelle demonstrates a pursuit far more holistic than simply telling the time—even if it does cost as much as a house.
The Traditionnelle may seem like it accomplishes the same job as the Seiko, and ostensibly it does, but the truth is that these are two very things. If the Seiko is a value-conscious and extremely well executed entry into the world of mechanical timekeeping, the Vacheron Constantin is an all-inclusive backstage pass to the very essence of what makes this old-fashioned technology appealing in the first place. It stops you in your tracks, makes you take a breath and hold it, if only to experience it for just one of the many seconds it will beat for the rest of its existence.
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