When you want a watch that does more than tell time

If you think a wrist watch is merely to tell the time, you are likely not the nice gentleman from Montreal who recently paid North American Watch of Canada $2.5-million for a diamond-encrusted Piaget.

You’ve probably never seen the Swiss watch-maker’s brooch-watch in the form of a bee, circa 1900, in which the silver wings of the insect are studded with diamonds and the yellow-striped jacket of the body is rendered in gold.

Watches defined by emeralds, watches with white gold bezels, watches in the shape of diamond tears, watches that are ultra-thin and feature an 18-jewel movement, these have been some of the inspirations over the years of Piaget, hand-made marvels that have been to horology what the Rolls-Royce has been to the automotive realm.

“Mankind loves watches for the dreams time evokes,” said Yves Piaget on the occasion of an exhibition called Montres et Merveilles several years ago in Milan. “Created by master watchmakers, adorned by the most prestigious jewellers or signed by renowned fashion houses, fine watches have altered [our] perception of time by adding a new dimension of fantasy.”

A watch, Piaget believes, “proclaims the art of living, where elegance and the subtleties of mastering time assume their true value.”

On that ethereal note, let’s hasten to add that some people want and will pay for a Piaget and others will be even happier with a Truck Driver, one of this season’s new offerings from Swatch. The Truck Driver is a burly, rugged chronograph in black with yellow on the face. Then there’s the Swatch Caution, which features that word in large black letters across a yellow band and dial, or the Web Site, which is stamped WWW on the band and appears to be crisscrossed with optical fibres.

The elegance of the Piaget has in a sense remained along an unbroken continuum for decades. As the wild Swatch offerings suggest, however, much else in the field has gone through a lot of turbulence, in some cases finally returning to such earlier graces as manual winding and fine mechanisms.

“The ultra high end like Piaget did not really change,” remarks Noel McDonagh, product and distribution manager at North American Watch of Canada in Toronto. “It’s the middle of the road, the last five years, that really changed when the economy got tight.”

One shift has been toward the white metals, steel along with white gold. The Philippe Charriol line ofwatches this year, for example, features steel in many of its lines, sometimes with just a dramatic outline of gold surrounding the dial. Coiled strands of metal, a conscious harking back to the geometrical play of such coils in Celtic art, are used to form the bands on a number of the Charriolwatches, as well as being echoed in the designer’s bracelets, cuff links, key chains and even belt buckles.

“White metal is cleaner looking,” McDonagh says. “A lot of people want to be able to spend their money and have beautiful things, but they don’t want to stand out as much.”

That’s still the psychological bite of the recession being felt, an early nineties period in which not only many jewelry businesses had to cut back or went under but the population at large shrank from spending on luxury. To this day, many people indeed “don’t want to stand out as much,” particularly if friends or associates continue to feel an economic pinch.

Yet McDonagh also believes that at the same time, “the world in general is becoming more comfortable with luxury goods. The whole image out there is that people want to have these status items.”

Ironically, the flamboyant, vivacious and affordable Swatch line helped pave the return to international popularity for the Swiss product, which was certainly eclipsed for a number of years by Japan’s excellent use of quartz technology.

Zinnia Crawford, the marketing manager who works with McDonagh says that, “in the Canadian market what we’ve noticed is that the Swiss line of watches have become very big items. People do not want to pay too much but they want the Swiss label.”

At a time when the Swiss industry was in trouble, the Swatch, which North American Watch does not carry, “brought a new light into Swiss watch making,” Crawford says.

Of course, competitive juices are at work here, but even McDonagh concedes that in the more accessible range up to $400, “the Japanese make a very good, very affordable, very acceptable product.” And if the Swiss passed over on quartz initially, the stunning successes of Japanese lines with that technology has decidedly influenced the European industry; indeed, half of the Piaget line today is quartz movement.

Whether from Seiko or Bulova or Malvado, you’ll see plenty of fashionable looks this season, but over at Rolex, not surprisingly, you’ll also find another time-honoured firm that also prides itself in continuity with a celebrated tradition.

“Basically, Rolex tends to be very consistent,” says Victor Royce, vice-president of marketing for the Rolex Watch Company of Canada in Toronto. “People who buy Rolex watches are not necessarily people who buy fashion pieces.”

One of the things buyers of a Rolex are seeking is a lifetime purchase, given some servicing every five years or so to change the oil in the case. You can also have a Rolex customize with anything from diamonds on the dial to the bezel.

“You can take a basic Rolex gold watch and you can get it in umpteen different ways,” Royce says. “There are dozens of different combinations you can acquire based on availability from Geneva.”

Founded in 1905, the Rolex is perhaps most famed for its creation in 1926 of the Oyster, the world’s first truly waterproof and dustproof case. Following from that history, Rolex in 1953 launched the Submariner, guaranteed to 100 metres underwater (today to a depth of 300 metres); and the GMT-Master the next year, the first waterproof, self-winding wristwatch to simultaneously show the exact time in two time zones.

Initially, the GMT-Master was for international airline pilots. But it’s “as popular today among Rolex wearers who have no particular need for that feature but who specifically enjoy having that aspect on their watch,” Royce says.

Women sometimes enjoy such features as well, but, as with most things in the world of jewelry, the men’s and women’s markets are generally quite different.

“Women look at watches as pieces of jewelry that happen to tell them the time,” McDonagh says. “Men like to tinker. And some watches do take a lot of care, like buying a high-end car.”

Even if it isn’t so high end, such as an Esquire chronograph that retails for around $200, “most people who have these never use it for what it’s made for,” McDonagh says. “It’s busy looking, it has a very sporty look to it.”

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