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The Essential Watches Every Collector Needs: A Guide for Beginners

So you have cash to burn and want to break into watch collecting? Here’s how to get started for less than $55,000.

Photo courtesy of Grand Seiko

Many people are collector-curious; you could be one of them. Maybe you inherited a watch from a loved one. Perhaps you were gifted a watch to commemorate an occasion or milestone. It could be that you’ve noticed your favorite athlete or celebrity sporting a particular watch brand, and your interest was piqued. However, building a full-blown collection can feel overwhelming with the increasing number of incredible, beautiful, technically mind-blowing options out there. Here, we’ll explore how to lay the foundation for a collection you can continue to grow over time with seven core watches, and you can get them all for under $55,000.

The Chronograph

Retail Price: $8,400

Photo courtesy of IWC

A chronograph is a staple of every collection. It’s a perfect everyday watch that looks just as handsome with jeans and a tee shirt as it does with a casual blazer. As an added bonus, the chronograph function can actually come in handy if you find yourself in need of a timer. This particular chronograph from IWC is a great choice for a budding watch collection for a few reasons. While IWC is known for its more traditional approach to watchmaking, the brand has rendered this Portuguese Chronograph with a particularly balanced design. Here, you have a classic panda dial with dark registers contrasted against a sleek glossy white lacquered dial. However, instead of the conventional black and white color scheme, you get a rich, deep blue. While most chronographs have subdials that are arranged horizontally between nine and three o’clock, IWC’s Portuguese Chronograph features a vertical configuration for added interest. In addition, you get the contemporary touch of a rubber strap that while sporty is elegantly executed by IWC with a refined texture that doesn’t quite appear like rubber at first glance. All in all, this chronograph beautifully tows the line between timeless and modern and is sure to age gracefully as a pillar of any collection.

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The Vintage Reissue

Retail Price: $6,900

Photo courtesy of Zenith

Vintage reissues have become increasingly popular in the watch world in recent years. It makes sense; models from the past have withstood the test of time for a reason, offering design language that transcends trends but feels relevant in today’s landscape. That said, every collection needs a well-executed vintage reissue. However, not all heritage models are created equal. Some are exact replicas of the original, while others take liberties with modern upgrades. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which style you prefer. This vintage re-issue from Zenith is an example of the former: a vintage reissue that’s a near match to the original design. The Defy A3691 Revival draws from an important reference from 1971 that took the audacious design of the original Defy a step further with the addition of bold color. To create this modern edition, Zenith used the historical production plans of the original model to ensure it was reproduced with stunningly accurate detail, which extends from the faceted octagonal case to the fourteen-sided bezel, the deep glossy red dial with a prominent vignette effect that darkens towards the edges, the unusual applied square hour markers with horizontal grooves, and the now-iconic Gay Frères steel “ladder” bracelet. The only cosmetic differences between the Revival and its predecessor are the sapphire crystal, the display case back, the type of luminescent pigments used, and, of course, the movement.

The Gold Watch

Retail Price: $16,300

Photo courtesy of Cartier

Every collection deserves one special piece that’s worth the splurge, and every collection needs a warm yellow or rose gold model as an elevated option to its more common stainless steel counterparts. While many gold watches would eat up our entire budget of $55,000 or even tread into six-figure territory, Cartier is one brand who makes some relatively affordable precious metal timepieces. The Santos de Cartier is not just a stunning gold timepiece; it’s a timepiece with a great deal of history. The Santos was one of the first wristwatches made for men when it debuted in 1904. Over its expansive history, it’s seen many iterations, namely an addition in 1978 when the model was updated with a bracelet in place of the original strap. The model was such a success, it continued to propel Cartier into prominence over the past several decades. This iteration of the Santos de Cartier debuted in 2018, notably offering the luxury of a quick-change strap system so you can seamlessly switch between a strap, like the original, or bracelet, like the popular 1970s model. In addition, the model is offered in rose gold, which provides a unique twist compared to more traditional yellow gold.

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The Non-Swiss Made Model

Retail Price: $6,200

Photo courtesy of Grand Seiko

While Switzerland is undeniably the heart of watchmaking, it’s nice to branch out and have diversity in your collection. When it comes to watches that aren’t Swiss-made, there’s really one name who rises above the rest: Grand Seiko. The Seiko brand first laid roots for watchmaking in the east in 1881. By the mid-1950s, the brand was creating models that would pave the way for the first Grand Seiko watch in 1960. Marked by a blend of style and technical achievements from the start, Grand Seiko timepieces combine the brand’s signature “grammar of design”—a set of three guiding principles for the aesthetic of every Grand Seiko watch—and high precision movements, culminating in the development of Spring Drive in 2004. Spring Drive is a one-of-a-kind mechanical movement that delivers the precision of quartz using an electro-magnetic regulator that controls the mechanical movement. The result is a mesmerizing sweeping seconds hand that glides continuously and silently across the dial. Here, we have a striking example of the Spring Drive technology powering a GMT complication. With the SBGE257, you get the perfect marriage of form and function with a rich green color palette whose intensity echoes the 2,000 types of moss found throughout Japan and the Spring Drive technology with the added bonus of a golden yellow GMT hand, allowing you to track a second time zone.  

The Microbrand

Retail Price: $1,400

Photo courtesy of Aera

Although terms like “microbrand” bring up a bit of a gray area in the watch industry, there are a few key elements a majority of collectors can agree upon. It’s independently owned, sometimes by a single person or, more typically, by a small team. It’s limited production, making watches only in small batches and often specializing in a particular style or type of watch. Lastly, because of these factors, microbrands have limited resources to produce their own proprietary parts or in-house calibers and therefore outsource them. This last element marks a key difference between microbrands and independent watchmakers, who often have a master watchmaker and therefore higher levels of watchmaking. It’s also worth noting that many microbrands tend to sell exclusively online, direct to consumers, cutting out the middleman and in turn, costs. That said, microbrands make excellent entry-level watches when first building a collection. The Aera D-1 diver is a prime example. First, no collection is complete without a dive watch; even if scuba isn’t your thing, it’s a classic, sporty aesthetic that’s ideal for any adventure. Aera chose the diver as one of its two inaugural models for this reason, drawing on the great archetypes of functional and purposeful watches: durability, functionality, and legibility. For Aera, creating such an enduring product means doing so without compromising sustainability, which is why all its watches are made in a certified CO neutral factory in Switzerland.

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The Icon

Retail Price: $7,750

Photo via Jaeger-LeCoultre

When you think of some of the most instantly recognizable watch designs ever made, there are a few that come to mind. One of them is the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso. The Reverso is a one-of-a-kind design that has been unmatched since its inception in 1931. Originally created with polo players in mind, the unique swiveling mechanism allowed the functional face of the watch to be protected by a reversible case. Over the years, this once highly functional object has evolved into an aesthetic one where the protective case has become a blank canvas for personalization, making every aspect of the watch a thing of beauty. An icon of watchmaking, like the Reverso, is an incredible statement piece for any collection. This particular example represents the Reverso in pure form with a sleek silvered satin dial with a sunburst guilloche center, blue steel hands, and a classic stainless steel construction. Seamlessly reverse the watch to reveal the protective cover, and you have a clean surface to engrave with something as simple as your monogram or something more sentimental to commemorate a special person or occasion. When you inevitably pass the watch down, this gives it a highly personalized quality for the next wearer to cherish.  

The Dress Watch

Retail Price: $6,400

Photo via Hermès

We’ve discussed a few key models in the casual or sport categories. In today’s world, people largely gravitate toward these styles thanks to more laidback fashion trends and the widespread trend of business casual in most workplaces. However, no collection is complete without a proper dress watch, even if it’s a model you only bring out for special occasions, like weddings or black tie affairs. This particular dress watch from Hermès has the additional charm of showcasing a high complication. With the Arceau Grande Lune, you have the elegance that’s distinct to Hermès in every aspect of the dial from the typeface of the Breguet-style Arabic numerals to the deep blue hue. Of course, the model wouldn’t be complete without a handsome strap rendered in alligator leather. In addition, you get a triple calendar function featuring a combination of date, day, and month indicators as well as a moonphase complication. Along with its functionality, the moonphase is among the most visually striking complications. With the Arceau Grande Lune watch, Hermès has chosen to render the moonphase with very classic style cues, including simple stars and moon reminiscent of the night sky in complementary silver. With its large proportions, it remains the focal point of the dial and makes this watch an instant conversation piece. 

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