Watch Snob Explains Why You Need a Thick Stack to Buy a Thin Watch
Thin Isn’t In
I finally have a somewhat substantial budget for a watch purchase, and I am interested in spending that money on a dress watch. My research led me to what seems to be the single greatest dress watch within my budget ($10,000): The Jaeger LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin 34mm, featuring the JLC's caliber 849. Walt Odets, in his 2002 review of the watch, described it as possibly the finest ultra thin wristwatch ever made, and it is easy to see why.
RELATED: Watch Snob Last Week: New Stuff From LVMH Watch Week Dubai
Watches as thin as the JLC at 5.4mm typically have delicate, fussy movements that run with low amplitude and poor performance — yet the caliber 849 delivers the accuracy, durability and serviceability of a movement three times as thick. The design of the case is also ingenious, providing a water resistance of 3 atm. The watch is also correctly proportioned at 34mm across, perfect for my tiny wrists. It also seems to sell for well under my budget on used watch sites around the web.
Unfortunately, there is one little snag preventing me from purchasing, and that’s the dial. It just leaves me cold. I actually think the basic silver sunburst and simple handset fit the personality of the watch very well. It is almost as though it is trying to hide itself from the masses in plain clothes, so that only the enthusiasts who appreciate the genius of its construction and design will ever stop to pick one up. Even so, I can't help but wish the dial featured a more interesting texture, like that of the JLC geophysic true second, and a more striking handset, like the ones found on various Grand Seikos. At this budget, I would like to avoid buying a piece that I don't feel 100 percent in love with, and as much as I respect this watch, I don't think I would feel comfortable spending my money on it.
So, all that being said, my query to you is as follows: Can you recommend a dress watch of classic proportions (5-8mm thick, 33-36mm diameter) that can equal the caliber 839/849 equipped JLC Master Ultra Thin in sheer technical brilliance, while surpassing it in style, all for less than $10,000? I am open to new or used/vintage pieces, although a new watch would be preferred since at these prices, I would like to try on whatever I will buy before I pull the trigger.
Unfortunately true ultra-thin watch movements at anything resembling an affordable price, seem to be extremely thin on the ground these days. It’s a very sad situation. Jaeger-LeCoultre as you are obviously aware, has long since gotten out of the business of producing more affordable steel versions of the watch and now it is, at least new, only available in precious metals and at a price of tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the maker. Vacheron does beautiful things with it but they charge an upsetting amount of money, at least if you remember, as I do, how much a steel Master Ultra-Thin used to cost.
The issue with true ultra-thin watches is that you sacrifice certain things in order to shave off fractions of a millimeter. To understand why, in general, real ultra-thin watches tend to be sparse on the sort of details you mention, it is useful to understand how the makers who produce them have generally viewed them over the years. Making very thin watches was much more art than science for most of the history of watchmaking and sub-2mm hand wound pocket watches at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and heading into the Art Deco era, were extremely costly and rarely produced. The exercise of art in such cases, was to make a movement as slim as possible and a watch which overall was as slim as possible and anything that added unnecessary millimeters — including more ornate dials and more visually striking hands — would have been discarded. Often such watches would not even have seconds hands, as this would increase, however slightly, the amount of space needed between the underside of the crystal and the dial.
RELATED: The 7 Best Pre-Owned Rolex Watches You Can Buy At Walmart
True ultra-thin movements are still very rare, relatively speaking. However, one model you might wish to consider, though it is slightly over your budget, comes from a most unexpected quarter: Bulgari. The company makes a true, ultra-thin movement, with a platinum micro-rotor — in steel, the Bulgari Octo Finissimo is $12,000 and the only true ultra-thin watch I can think of at that price. The movement, caliber BVL 138, is actually the world’s second-thinnest automatic movement in current production at 2.23mm thick and it is surpassed only by another Bulgari watch, which is an automatic tourbillon. The design is not everyone’s cup of Darjeeling but I think all things considered, it would be well worth your time to look at one.
The Luxury “Pimp” Watch
I have enjoyed your column and advice since discovering it a year ago. You have helped advance my knowledge of horology and have also taught me to look at potential watch purchases more analytically than I might have otherwise. Instead of instantly pulling out my credit card when I see a watch that I’m interested in, I try to consider what its designer was trying to achieve, what they got right or wrong and whether or not it’s overly derivative of a watch I might enjoy more.
For these lessons I am grateful, and I must thank you for your guidance.
I have a small collection of watches (so far) but I’ve tried to buy things that I won’t regret in a year or two. These include a couple of Rolex Submariners (one in steel, and one two tone steel and gold) and an Audemars Piguet Millenary 4101.
My first question for you is what are your thoughts on this model of the Millenary? Most reviews I read seemed to regard it well, but more than a few of those reviews were from websites that sell watches.
My own impression is that it’s well made and beautiful. I don’t ordinarily find myself drawn to larger watches with skeletonized or exposed parts, but the 4101 immediately drew my attention, and the longer it’s been on my wrist, the more I’ve come to appreciate its design. I realize that the Millenary line seems to fall in the shadow of the company’s Royal Oaks, but I find most of those to be well designed, and also kinda boring.
The 4101 is definitely something I think people will either love or hate, but to my eye, it’s design is balanced and aesthetically pleasing. I also like the fact that it’s large without being ridiculous, as I’m a tall and athletic person, and it fits my wrist perfectly without overwhelming it.
Secondly, I am curious what your opinion is on the way some people seem to look down on Rolexes as being déclassé. I have seen numerous people refer to them as being watches that “used car salesmen” or “pimps” wear.
It might be funny to ask an avowed Snob about snobbery, but what’s at work here? Is it because Rolex has been successful at marketing itself as an aspirational luxury item to the average person, whereas a company like Patek Phillipe has not?
I realize that Rolexes are largely fancy, very well made “tool watches,” but surely they seem to draw fire from certain folks as being fit only for criminals or hillbillies who’ve come into a lot of money suddenly. What are your thoughts on this?
RELATED: 14 Statement Watches That Really Stand Out
I have to be honest, I like the Millenary 4101 and for a lot of the same reasons you do. It is absolutely a refreshing change from the absolute deluge of Royal Oak watches to which we have been increasingly subjected since 1972. I do not blame AP for following the money and there is an excellent chance that without the success of the Royal Oak they would either be out of business, or no more than a shadow of their former self under the umbrella of one of the menacing Groups.
But the Millenary is always a pleasant refuge. It has an unusual and interesting design and has over the years, been the recipient of some truly wonderful, if terrifyingly expensive, complications and there is really nothing like it available from anywhere else. You are quite right that it tends to produce divided opinion but to my mind this simply means that it is a design that actually stakes out a position. It is at its best when it is more assertive, in my view, and the 4101 is everything worth liking about the Millenary.
On Rolex, the company has accumulated so much cultural and historical baggage over the years that it is virtually impossible to see the watches as watches any more. Certainly a Rolex thanks to their conservative design language and combination of wide visibility, and fairly high cost, is a time-honored way for a certain sort of nouveau-riche individual to advertise their newly acquired status. However, it is also true that Rolex today is making some of the most technically superb wristwatches anyone has ever made — their quality of construction and precision in timekeeping takes a back seat to no one. I generally advise folks who are interested in Rolex, to simply buy one if they think they would enjoy it, and buy it for their own reasons, and to please not give a damn what other people think.
Thank you for your column, which has been a wonderful source of education and entertainment for me over the years.
As a person who was born and raised in the heat of the Caribbean but later moved to Canada, I learned very quickly to account for the cold weather for any outdoor activities I was planning to do, which brings me to my question: is there a known (cold) temperature at which a mechanical-movement watch would stop working? Also, is there claim to "first watch to Arctic/Antarctica," the same way the Omega Speedmaster is the "first to the moon"?
The primary concern with a mechanical watch in an extremely cold environment tends to be the lubricants. Oils tend to be at their optimum viscosity within a given temperature range and as the temperature drops, they tend to become more and more viscous. With modern artificial lubricants, this seems to be less of a problem although there have been some cases in the past of watches being especially prepared for cold-weather expeditions, that were produced without the usual lubricants in order to circumvent this problem (not a long term solution, obviously, but better than having a watch stop during an especially cold sojourn).
As to firsts, this is a somewhat obscure subject however Roald Amundsen is known to have used a Glashuette-made deck chronometer (made by the unfortunately named Julius Assman, a brilliant maker but one whose brand has not yet been resurrected, for obvious reasons). Explorer Matthew Henson, who is often credited to be the first to reach the geographic North Pole in 1909, on an expedition led by Robert Peary, apparently carried a watch made by the American Waltham Watch Company (a pocket watch, obviously).
Hamilton watches were used by Admiral Byrd, during both his Antarctic and Arctic expeditions and Hamilton made sure to mention this extensively in their advertising in the 1930s. They also noted in their ads that the watches operated in temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit, which provides a partial lower bound to your question — modern watches from makers specializing in durable chronometer grade movements, such as Rolex and Omega, would probably fare even better.
Modern explorers often partner with watch brands for sponsorship and promotional reasons — Mike Horn is a Panerai ambassador but is as determined, energetic and tough an explorer as anyone could wish. I generally deplore brand ambassadorships as the vacuous exercises in celebrity promotions which they usually are but every once in a while, someone comes along who it really reflects credit on a brand for sponsoring — even Panerai.
Send the Watch Snob your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask him a question on the @AskMen Instagram with the #AskMenWatchSnob hashtag.
You Might Also Dig:
Best Watches Under $1,000
Best Watches Under $300
Best Watches Under $100