From Swatch
to Rolex :
An Introduction to
the world of Timepieces

Emmanuel LAURENT

From Swatch to Rolex : An Introduction to the world of Timepieces

I used to refuse to wear a watch. I considered my refusal as a badge of honor and as a way to elevate myself above the base contingency of the material world. I was a free spirit and I left the act of wearing watches to the anxious and the overly-industrious – after all, knowing the time is easy enough with a little creativity.

Then, I saw a Swatch I liked.

The case and strap were made of basic steel and the dial had pleasant iridescent reflections : a little slice of sunshine that I bought on impulse. I was still a free spirit, absolutely, but a free spirit with a watch— such a distinction is irrelevant however.

Swatch

A quartz mechanism, such as the one in my Swatch, is known to be accurate – barely veering from the exact time by a mere single second per day.

As a bonus, a quartz watch is battery-powered so doesn’t require human intervention to tick-tick-tick the hours away – a point many horlogerie enthusiasts view with scorn.

Seiko launched the first-ever quartz watch in 1969, and the entrance of quartz technology on the market fired a strong warning-shot throughout the industry—sending ripples of concern throughout traditional Swiss timepiece houses.

Seiko_Quartz_Astron_1969

Those aware of watchmaking history know competitors quickly scrambled to respond to Seiko’s debut of the quartz by making their own quartz versions, merging the new technology with the extensive experience and savoir-faire that had made each prestigious house renowned.

Who could have known back then that early quartz watches like the Rolex Oysterquartz (launched in 1977), that was almost blasphemy at the time, would later become a highly sought-after historical piece for hardcore collectors?

Rolex Oysterquartz

THE FUNDAMENTALS

My Swatch barely missed a beat, performing with reliable efficiency…but I confess that something felt wrong, as if my watch lacked an ingredient I found myself longing for—the quality of panache.

Thus, I discovered a different spectrum, a world filled with a complex network of spiraling springs and moveable pieces whose intricate workings allowed various hands to move with elegant accuracy. The mechanical timepiece appeared to do essentially the same job as the quartz watch, but there was something extra…an added emotion that I can only describe as noblesse.

It’s at this point that a semantic shift occurred – like when the French use “souliers” instead of “chaussures” or when pens become “writing instruments” instead of just pens. I suddenly realized that past a certain threshold, watches become “timepieces”.

I learned that some timepieces have intricate rotor mechanisms which work together with the earth’s gravitational pull during wrist movement, compressing the internal spring and creating a mechanic-calibre that causes the automatic winding mechanism to function. Many such timepieces also have a sapphire glass backing which opens the theatre curtain for a full view of the fascinating minute-by-minute mechanical ballet.

Omega_Speedmaster_Credit_forums.watchuseek.com

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak & back

Mechanic watches are typically more delicate in shape, while rotor-laden automatic models are usually thicker. And while the latter requires no rewinding, many consider manual rewinding of a simple mechanic wristwatch to be a strongly desirable ritual.

Learning about these fundamentals triggered something within me, an imperious urge to get an automatic watch—a real timepiece—and I would suffer no delays.

I was stepping foot into a new world, a universe where I would be required to walk a tightrope between the sublime and the vulgar, and a place where prices can reach the distant edges of the farthest stars.

A TRUE PIECE OF HORLOGERIE

For the newcomer, buying a serious timepiece can feel daunting, not unlike searching for one’s true love in a dense and diverse jungle (especially when two seemingly identical models can differ in cost by a few zeroes on the final tab).

During such an endeavor, please take the following principle to heart: always try on any desired timepiece before making a final buying decision, since reality can often fail to meet expectations.

Secondly, keep an open mind because that one model you never see coming…the one the lovely saleswoman presents to you with a knowing smile, could become self-evident once it is placed on your wrist. This experience is not uncommon in a dedicated store, or even during a gathering of passionate connoisseurs who know their subject well.

Try out many models and don’t be hesitant to stand in front of the mirror. Sit. Stand up. Cross your arms. Put your hands in your pockets. Steer an imaginary wheel – act as if you already own the timepiece, and allow your imagination do the rest.

Jaeger-LeCoultre-New-York-Boutique-flagship-21

I set out on such a quest to find a three-handed model that showed the hours, minutes and seconds, but also displayed the date. I wanted the timepiece to have a transparent back casing so I could lose myself in silence and awe, in contemplation of a life that ticks away under the small sky of sapphire crystal.

With a budget of just 400€ (which seemed appropriate at the time for a watch, or so I thought), it was time for a reality check…I could never own an Omega / Zenith / Jaeger-Lecoultre / Panerai / IWC / Breguet or some similar brand in the watchmaking galaxy for such a paltry sum.

However, my budget was a perfect fit for Seiko’s extensive offer…

AN AUTHENTIC MANUFACTURE

The Japanese brand Seiko has an impressive number of models and ranges, with prices starting from a few hundred euros and climbing to tens of thousands of euros !

Using the same approach as when learning about the art of shaving (see article here), I began my education by browsing a few forums. This introduced me to the market and showed me how to define the criterion I would follow in order to find my first real watch.

Seiko is a celebrated manufacturer, founded in Tokyo in 1881 by Kintaro Hattori, and is still owned by its founding family. An artisan watchmaker oversees each of the brand’s factories, and both creative and technical production are done on-site at Seiko facilities.

Seiko stands as an equal too many established Swiss names when it comes to quality-of-make…if this assertion offends a few fundamentalists, visit a Seiko reseller to see for yourself. Even if the Seiko name doesn’t deliver a knock-out in terms of perceived prestige, the name has earned its rightful place as a respected and established brand.

I decided against pumping up my ego — and at the flick of the wrist I became the proud owner of a brand new Seiko watch, my second watch of the year.

To word it better, I became the proud owner of a genuine timepiece for the first time in my life. A mechanical timepiece – an automatic watch with a see-though back casing : a glorious Seiko SRP025 Neon. I spent an indecent amount of time watching the hands race at the front – followed by watching the behind-the-scene action by flipping the piece around. Reading time became an afterthought.

Seiko SRP025_2_Credit_Chronomania_SDE

THE RISE AND THE FALL

I quickly learned that I was practically alone in my staunch enthusiasm about owning a “mere” Seiko – with the exception of a few specialized online fora members that understood my delight.

The overall quality of my Seiko watch ? Proven time and time again. The quality-price ratio ? Rare indeed. The look of the watch on my wrist ? Dashing, without a shadow of a doubt. So what felt…off ?

There’s a camp of conservative minds who consider a watch and a wedding ring to be the only pieces of jewelry that a man should wear. More than a man’s car, more than a man’s clothes, more than a man’s shoes, a man’s watch, or lack thereof – is considered by some to be the true worthy measurement of a man’s social standing. And my Seiko, despite the joy it brought me and despite bearing a hefty enough price tag, simply wasn’t a “luxury watch”.

These were puzzling thoughts – wasn’t I above such trivial matters ? Surely, the pleasure of wearing my beloved Seiko watch trumped anyone’s opinions on the subject. Am I right ?

THE COUNTERFEITER’S CALL

At this stage of the process, wearing a quartz was not even a consideration. I became a ‘regular’ at many fora and shops. I went from being ignorant about timepieces to becoming an educated amateur. I knew a thing or two. There was only one path to take at this point, and every watch aficionado knows what I’m talking about—transversing the slow, inexorable path with the endpoint of…owning a luxury watch.

The quest became my obsession. However, my bank account held a firm opinion on the matter : not happening.

So what to do ?

On a steel model with just a simple complication (i.e., any feature beyond hours, minutes and seconds), like the display of the date, what could justify the price gap between the 8000€ original and the 300€ “replica” ?

I decided to cross the line and ordered a model ‘inspired’ by a famous brand starting with an “H”, from a range named after the founding event of the known universe. For the third time in one year, I became the owner of a new watch. This particular purchase was delivered directly to my doorstep, in a box directly from China. Upon delivery, I tore into the packaging only to discover a plastic rabbit.

Lapin

The impervious rabbit was a bear to open, but with the help of my trusty hammer, and with a precise surgical blow to the neck, I found my watch in the plastic stomach of the rabbit, taped up in bubble-wrap.

Prize in hand, I was pleased with the quality of my new “timepiece”. The steel case was heavy and shiny, the various hands were nicely faceted and reflected light in a satisfying fashion. The rubber straps were flexible too. Overall, I was stunned at how similar it looked to the real deal – for only a fraction of the price !

Who’s the smart one ? I was ready to fool the world. Who would notice that the date wheel wasn’t aligned with the aperture ? And that the “12” hour marker was slightly off the axis ?

As for the case back ? A wonderful imitation, in every way ! The sapphire glass backing allowed for close observation of an intricate-looking rotor, which ingeniously covered from view the otherwise mediocre mechanism beneath. There were no obvious cues to arouse suspicion – unless I stumbled upon a true connoisseur.

Long story short – despite a few details that felt a bit off, I just struck the deal of the century ! At long last. I was one of them. And my wrist and I, we felt like we could take on the world.

To convince myself, I decided to tour the greatest boutiques d’horlogerie with the easy-going swagger of those who can afford it – and I asked to try the most expensive pieces on display. Could I fool even the professionals?

I quickly understood two things : First, the professional is happy to discuss with the amateur and the professional doesn’t care what the amateur is wearing as much as he or she cares about what the amateur wants to buy. Second, I could fool anyone, at least at first glance.

The only problem was that I couldn’t fool myself.

What I wore around my wrist was nothing more than a painful (and tacky) reminder that I was still far from owning a real luxury timepiece.

As I would not discover until my 40th birthday, owning the watch of my dreams proved to be priceless.

THE CORONATION

What do Pope Jean-Paul II, Elvis Presley, Walt Disney, Ernesto Che Guevara, Paul Newman, the Dalaï Lama, Fidel Castro, Tiger Woods, Ernest Hemingway, Mike Tyson, Serge Gainsbourg, Martin Luther King, Chuck Yeager and Pablo Picasso all have in common ?

Answer : a Rolex wristwatch.

MLKjr-rolex

I chose Rolex for my first authentic luxury timepiece, and I also chose to ignore all the fluff around the brand. If you ignore all the preconceptions surrounding Rolex, what do you discover ?

– An independent business whose only activity is to produce accurate timepieces.

– A manufacture that produces its own cases, straps, dials, bezels and jewels, and assembles all watches by hand – switching to machines only for a few operations where human accuracy doesn’t suffice.

– A manufacture that owns its own gold and platinum smelting plants, and works with superior-grade stainless steel (the 904L, where the rest of the industry typically uses 316L), requiring expensive dedicated tools and a savoir-faire specific to Rolex. Such high-quality steel offers a truly durable, and some believe unmatched sheen.

– A manufacture that dedicates one full year to the production of each of its watches, so as to perform extensive quality assurance operations for each step of the production line.

– A manufacture that created the first “waterproof” watch, as well as the first watch to display the date.

– A company that perfected the use of the rotor, and commercialized the very first automatic watch.

Rolex Datejust_Credit_DavidSW

Rolex Datejust 2_Credit_DavidSW

I’ve been wearing the Oyster Perpertual Datejust for more than a year now. But I fell for its elegant simplicity years ago, the perfection of its proportions, its robust build, its versatility, its superb markers (like 10 ingots under the sapphire), its timelessness, its accuracy, the ingenuity and comfort of its bracelet. It felt like the closest to my own idea of timepiece-perfection.

I feel gratitude towards those who helped me find my path in the very specific world of timepiece artisans. A quick glance at my wrist never fails to make me feel happy.

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– Opening picture @ Malmaison in Singapour.

– Omega Speedmaster © Forums.watchuseek.com

– Seiko SRP025 © Chronomania-SDE

– Rolex Datejust : © DavidSW