Seven Starter Watches That Will See You Right
Buying your first luxury watch can be a daunting prospect; the world of watches is rife with complicated language and technical details. But assuming you’ve done your homework (our attempt to bust some of the myths around watchmaking is a good place to start) and you’re ready to buy a so-called “proper” watch – something that can last a lifetime, but might also be the first step to building a collection – there is still a dazzling amount of choice. In many ways, there has never been a better time to take that first step into the world of watches. The quality and breadth of designs on offer from mainstream brands is at an all-time high and there are several thriving independent manufacturers to choose from.
We have put together a shortlist, whittled down from dozens of watches, that represents a few ways to start your watch journey. It’s not all about entry-level price points. If you are purchasing a luxury watch for the first time, it’s likely that value will be a consideration, but our list includes a couple of chronograph options from pedigree Swiss brands that serve as great introductory pieces for other reasons – they are world-renowned designs that offer a lot of watch for the money.
Others, such as our choices from Montblanc and Baume & Mercier, are bona fide value propositions in the truest sense of the phrase: ways to buy a luxury watch with impeccable mechanics without breaking the bank. The one thing all seven have in common is that once you’ve invested in this kind of watch, you’ll never look back. Nor, for that matter, be looked down on.
Inside this ultra-legible pilot’s chronograph ticks IWC SCHAFFHAUSEN’s calibre 79320, which is based on the self-winding Valjoux 7750 movement, but heavily modified by IWC. As for those bold vintage numerals and the fast-orientation triangle at 12 o’clock, both derive from IWC’s wartime history, not only supplying massive chronometers to the Luftwaffe’s bomber crews, which its navigators would strap around their thighs, but, Switzerland being neutral, also supplying the British with standard-issue infantry watches. The WWII-era styling is still sublimely on point, improved only by that metallic cobalt dial, a signature of IWC’s Le Petit Prince editions, which, since 2013, have paid tribute to the pioneering aviator and author Mr Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Baume & Mercier
Clean, classic and with a centuries-old pedigree of Swiss innovation at its heart, it’s hard to fathom how Baume & Mercier manages such a low price point here, especially given the same automatic movement that beats inside can be found powering watches three times the price. After a redesign in 2015, the Classima’s taut, starched lines, stately Roman numerals, plus that central guilloché motif pulling everything together, make this the ideal “transition” watch, effortlessly straddling office formality and weekend smart-casual.
It’s difficult to overstate the sheer cool of this particular cat, not to mention its almost baffling affordability. For a start, there’s the Metro’s delightfully eccentric dial, the Bauhaus minimalism typical of NOMOS, but it benefits here from its east Berlin design studio helicoptering in a fresh set of eyes – those of designer Mr Mark Braun. Venture beneath the dial and you find a beautifully hand-finished, hand-wound movement, which comes from NOMOS’s HQ and manufacturing centre in Glashütte, three hours’ drive south in the rural, spiritual home of fine German watchmaking. For less than £3,000, in-house-made mechanics of this quality are practically unheard of, let alone packaged so handsomely. But here they are.
You’re looking at a stone-cold, connoisseur classic of Swiss watchmaking that has barely changed in more than half a century. When Zenith unveiled its El Primero movement in 1969, it was revolutionary: a stopwatch chronograph combined with the easy usability of an automatic watch. It was an engineering challenge that had taken more than a decade to crack. But not only did Zenith’s boffins manage to integrate everything masterfully, they cranked things up to a ticking frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour, or, more simply, 5Hz instead of the usual 4Hz, which allowed more precise stopwatch measurement and better stability after a shock. Today the El Primero remains Zenith’s poster boy and one of the classiest routes into mechanical watchmaking.
Perched overlooking the chocolate-box valleys of Villeret, Switzerland’s Minerva facility crafted some of the finest hand-wound chronographs of the jazz age. Saved from obsolescence in the mid-2000s, its current custodian, the fine German pen maker turned Swiss watchmaker Montblanc, has not only brought back Minerva’s gorgeous chrono calibres, it has made them more affordable while channelling the brand’s rakish old styles via the entry point of its new Heritage collection (albeit sporting Montblanc’s outdoorsy logo). The clean white dial, with luminous rhodium-plated markers, conceals the toil of a rock-solid, automatic movement underneath. Flip it over and you’ll find a steel case back intricately engraved with a view of bucolic Villeret.
Bell & Ross
Here’s a particularly discerning first rung on the watch-collecting ladder, both in terms of looks and brand cachet. Bell & Ross was formed in the early 1990s – a veritable spring chicken compared with the 19th-century maisons that Swiss watchmaking tends to be known for – but strong investment from Chanel and chic designer nous that could only stem from a brand based in Paris means this military-inspired watchmaker has moved up the ranks fast. Its BR S range retains the square utility of Bell & Ross’ Instruments, drawing from the shape of a cockpit’s slot-in, screw-down read-outs. But by exchanging numerals for batons, and strapping on a 1940s-style vegetable-tanned leather strap, it has created a highly sartorial number, more suited to the officers’ mess than the cockpit.
Like Bell & Ross, Bremont is another spring chicken (even springier, in fact – it was founded in 2002). Its military-spec pilot watches are kitted out with predominantly Swiss tech, yet benefit from a non-Swiss outlook. Despite the francophone name, Bremont is British, based in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire (and run by Messrs Nick and Giles English). The Alt 1-C was the brand’s first chronograph in 2007 and its design has barely needed a tweak since. Powered by the rock-solid Valjoux 7750 movement, which Bremont fine-tunes to chronometer levels of precision, losing or gaining no more than four or five seconds a day, the biggest change has been to the steel case. It’s still toughened to 2,000 Vickers, but now engineered and finished in Henley, in a workshop packed with priceless machinery and, more valuably, a British workforce with the requisite skills. Thanks to Bremont, watchmaking is coming home.