10 Luxury Wristwatch Terms You Need to Know


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a wristwatch as a small watch that's attached to a bracelet or strap and worn around the wrist. With such a simple definition, not many people realize the sheer amount of effort and detail that goes into making wristwatches, especially the fine timepieces. In this latest installment of our Luxury Wristwatch series, we will break down 10 terms often associated with the world of luxury wristwatches.


Haute Horlogerie

Similar to what haute couture is to fashion, Haute Horlogerie represents the epitome of luxury watchmaking. Both are French terms. Haute means fashionable, high-class, while Horlogerie (horology in English) is the study of time/art of making watches.

Despite centuries of watchmaking traditions, this term has been around for only half a century. In the 1970s, Swiss watchmakers were deeply worried about the quartz watches that were flooding the market.

So they came up with the term Haute Horlogerie to differentiate their luxury wristwatches from cheaper quartz watches. 

But which timepieces qualify to be ranked a Haute Horlogerie watch?

Over the years, watchmakers realized that defining Haute Horlogerie wasn't that simple. To begin with, not all luxury watches are Haute Horlogerie watches, nor do watches have to be overly complicated to be considered Haute Horlogerie. 

To remedy this and prevent confusion or misuse of the term, the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) was founded in 2005 in Switzerland. The aim of this organization is to establish & maintain a set of rules that defines Haute Horlogerie and identify fine watchmaking brands that qualify for the distinction.

he Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH)

Source: hautehorlogerie.org

Enamel Dials

Have you ever seen watches with a brightly colored world map or an accurate grey-scale image of a lion and wondered how the hyper-realism was achieved.? One thing is common among such high-end timepieces—they all have enamel dials.

Most watch dials start as a metal disc which is then painted, machined and finished. However, a select few watches forego that finishing and painting, opting instead for a coating of enamel. 

The result is a stunningly beautiful watch dial! 

Enamel is soft glass composed mainly of silica. One of the attributes that make enamel popular in fine watchmaking is its ability to take on different colors when mixed with other elements.

For example, adding cobalt produces a blue color, chromium a green, iron a grey, and iodine a fiery red. 

The enamel is liquefied and bonded to the metal base to make a dial that maintains its radiance forever, with its vibrant hues promising not to fade with the passing of time.

But with the incredibly challenging and time-consuming manufacturing process, enamel dials also come with a hefty price tag.

In fact, it's such a complicated process that even high-end watchmakers like Patek Philippe rely on outside firms—like Donzé Cadrans—to make enamel dials for them. This is one of the reasons why luxury watches are so expensive.

 Donzé Cadrans make enamel dials

Complication

The term "complication" in the luxury watches industry is the technical term for a function in a watch that goes beyond basic time-telling. For many watch lovers and collectors, complications in bespoke wristwatches are the icing on the cake. They fuse everyday use with the complex art of watchmaking.

In the world of fine timepieces, there is a distinction made between small and large complications. Small complications are less complex and include features like date, day displays, power reserves, and time zone functionality. 

The more challenging and large complications are more complex and take countless hours of precise craftsmanship. Examples include most of the items you will find in the rest of this list.

luxury wrist watch

Perpetual Calendar

The varying number of days in different months (31, 30 or 28 days, and 29 days in February on Leap year) pose a significant challenge to watchmakers who must reproduce these variations in a mechanical movement. 

As a result, most calendar watches feature simple calendars that have to be manually corrected five times a year, after each month with fewer than 31 days. 

On the other hand, a Perpetual Calendar will continue to show the correct date by adjusting to the variable number of days in the month while also taking into account the occurrence of leap years. The movement draws on a "mechanical memory" of 1,461 days (four years). 

This is not an easy feat which explains why most perpetual calendars have an intricate design that uses a differential gear mechanism from the hour wheel and can comprise several hundred wheels, gears, levers and other parts.

*Patek Philippe is credited for creating the world's first perpetual calendar wristwatch in 1925

Automatic Movements

The "automatic" label, found on a watch, refers to the elaborate chain of gears, springs, and rotating weights that keep it going. 

Often referred to as "self-winding," automatic movements harness energy through the natural motion of the wearer's wrist. Initially, a wearer had to manually turn the crown daily to tighten the spring inside the watch that sent its hands circling. 

But with an automatic movement, as long as the watch is worn regularly, it will continue to operate without requiring winding.

An automatic movement works predominantly the same way as a manual movement, with the addition of a metal weight called a rotor. The rotor is connected to the movement and can rotate freely. With each movement of the wrist, the rotor spins, transferring energy and automatically winding the mainspring.

Almost all luxury wristwatches made today have automatic movements. One of the most amazing things about an automatic watch is its longevity. Unlike a battery-powered or quartz watch, a well-crafted automatic watch has an indefinite lifespan.

Tourbillon

Did you know that an "affordable" tourbillon watch will free you from at least $20,000! The natural question then is, what is a tourbillon, and why does it exponentially multiply the value of a watch?

In general, mechanical timepieces have an area in them that is called an escapement. It is made up of a hairspring and a balance wheel, and it makes the watch tick through rotating motion. The shortcoming of this design is that when gravity "pulls" on the sensitive balance spring, it throws off the timing regulator and the watch is less accurate.

To remedy this, the tourbillon movement was designed to offset gravity's effect on a watch's accuracy by rotating all of the time-keeping components a full 360 degrees over a set period of time. 

Unlike a traditional balance spring that only moves in a back-and-forth motion, the full range of the tourbillon means a watch will pass through both positions when gravity slows down or speeds up time. In theory, they will effectively cancel each out, ensuring gravity has little to no effect on time.

So is better time accuracy enough to justify a $20,000+ price tag? Well, it's more than that. Tourbillons can be incredibly hard to create, and there is nothing Haute Horlogerie enthusiasts love more than having a complex piece of machinery on their wrists.

The greater the craftsmanship involved in making a luxury wristwatch, the greater the price tag stamped on it.

automatic wrist watch

Chronograph

Chronograph watches are intricate pieces of human ingenuity that can be used for a lot more than telling you the time. At its most basic, "chronograph" is just another word for a stopwatch. However, many other features are built into modern chronographs that make them more valuable than stopwatches. 

Most chronographs feature at least a few dials within the watch face and three buttons on the right-hand side of the face.

Some can measure your heart rate, calculate your average speed, or keep track of two events simultaneously. There are also chronographs that have telemetry functions.

But beyond their functionalities, chronographs are synonymous with adventure. It's hard not to think about a racing car's dashboard or jet plane's cockpit when you're gazing at those subdials.

The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona worn by legendary actor and racing enthusiast Paul Newman was sold in an auction for a whopping $17.75 million in 2017. 

In 1965, NASA chose the Omega Speedmaster to become their chronograph instrument for astronauts during their extravehicular activities (such as spacewalks). 

Simply put, chronographs have a rich history which explains their continued popularity in the luxury wristwatch market.

omega speedmaster

Marquetry

Marquetry is an art form that predates horology itself. In fact, marquetry was already well advanced around 2500 BC, during the times of ancient Egypt.

In 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the Pharaoh King Tutankhamun filled with furniture decorated in marquetry work with all sorts of materials, from precious stones and gold to wood and ivory. 

Marquetry is the technique of using different shades of a natural material that is cut into tiny pieces, which are then fit precisely together to form a pattern or design. This is different from inlay work that uses a base with pre-cut depressions.

In the past two decades, fine watchmakers have been developing marquetry techniques specifically for embellishing watch dials. An example is La Montre Hermès, who in 2018 released leather marquetry watch dials where pieces of leather are thinned, cut and glued onto a metal base to form an animal motif.

La Montre Hermès released leather marquetry watch dial

Minute Repeater

Patek Philippe states that the earliest minute repeaters were in fact, used to "discreetly check the time...during tedious levees and royal councils without offending the monarch." They produced a muffled sound that could only be detected if the watch was held in hand. 

At the end of the 18th century, legendary watchmaker A.L. Breguet designed a complication that produces chimes to signal the hour, the quarter-hour, then, finally, the minutes when the wearer activated a push-piece or a slide.

The chimes were represented by different sounds—typically, hours were lower tones and minutes reached into the high octave. For example, if the time is 03:51, the minute repeater will sound 3 low tones representing 3 hours, 3 sequence tones representing 45 minutes and 6 high tones representing 6 minutes. 

This came to be known as the minute repeater watch. It was very popular before the widespread use of electricity and was used to tell time in the dark.

Today, the minute repeater is largely not in use and is only treasured among collectors who are willing to pay hundreds of thousands to own these masterpieces of precision watch craftsmanship. 

Diver's Watch

Dive watches are made for use in harsh environments that include regular shocks, challenging terrain, dirt, corrosive environments and high-pressure levels.  World-renowned deep-sea diver Jacques Cousteau wore the Omega Seamaster Diver 300 in multiple successful dives. 

ISO 6425 certification lays out stringent rules for what qualifies as a diver's watch. These include:

  • Reliability underwater is tested using water temperatures between 18 to 25 °C for 50 hours with a condensation test at the end.
  • The quoted water resistance is tested with an overpressure of 125% for 10 minutes (e.g., a watch with 200 meters water resistance is tested to a pressure of 250 meters).
  • Resistance to thermal shock is tested using a 30 cm immersion into the water followed by a temperature change from 40 °C, 5 °C and 40 °C with 10 minutes intervals. 

It's important to note that participation in ISO standard testing for divers' watches is voluntary and not all luxury brands submit their watches to it. 

Rolex conducts its own stringent certification tests in-house. 

That said, anyone can dive with or without a watch as a tool because, in most deep-diving explorations, divers use dive computers to aid them underwater instead of the expensive diver's watches.

In fact, some of the most popular diver's watches like the Rolex Submariner or Omega Seamaster are worn by people who might never professionally dive in their lives. 

The use of dive watches in big blockbusters such as James Bond has made the high-end dive timepieces appeal to a broad audience. Also, due to the rigorous testing, diver's watches are more durable than other types of watches.

You can do more or less what you want with them and they will still function well.

Rolex Submariner

Final Thoughts

Branding, marketing, and the hype that accompanies luxury wristwatches, there's a lot of hard work, ingenuity and craftsmanship that goes into making these timepieces.

Every watch lover values different things when selecting a luxury watch and this list is by no way exhaustive. That said, it should act as an excellent guide to anyone getting started in the world of luxury watches.


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