Luxury Watches vs. Consumer Watches: 3 Big Differences

We have asked a jewelry store Orlando owner who carries luxury watches to explain our readers why luxury brands like Piaget, Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Jeeger Lecoultre, Cartier and others are so much more expensive than consumer-type brands.

Are price differences justified quality differences, the depth of the luxury matchmakers’ know-how, the type of materials used… or is it mostly savvy marketing that makes these brands “special”?

We could not cover here all the differentials highlighted by Luis A., the owner of the jewelry store who responded so thoughtfully to our request, but we will highlight a few of the more important here and we’ll publish a second installment on the topic.

Without further ado, let’s leave the floor to Luis.

Luis A., Orlando Jewelers: There are very significant differences between high-end luxury watch brands and more typical consumer-level watches. These differences would absolutely prevent any of the very big names to sell their watches at price levels comparable to those of typical consumer watches… even if they wanted to out of the goodness of their hearts.

Here are important points highlighting these differences:

1.       Materials used in luxury watches

Luxury watch brands like Piaget, Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Omega, and Cartier use high-quality, durable materials such as stainless steel, gold, platinum, or titanium, and precious gemstones for their creations. Consumer-type watches just don’t.

Let's discuss what difference it makes using these materials vs. aluminum or plastic or the cheaper grades of stainless steel.

Stainless Steel: High-end watchmakers typically use a higher grade of stainless steel known as 316L for its superior resistance to corrosion, rust, and discoloration. Some even opt for 904L, a superalloy used by Rolex that offers even better resistance and finish.

Gold: Luxury brands also use various types of gold in their watches: yellow, white, or rose. Some brands, like Rolex, have their own proprietary blends of gold. Rolex’s Everose gold, for instance, is designed to never fade or change color.

Platinum: This is one of the most expensive metals used in watchmaking. It is extremely durable, heavy, and resistant to tarnishing, making it a choice material for very high-end models.

Titanium: Some luxury watches use titanium, which is lightweight yet very strong, and it's also hypoallergenic. Omega's "Seamaster Professional" range, for example, offers titanium versions.

Ceramic: Brands like Audemars Piguet and Omega use high-tech ceramic for their watches due to its hardness (scratch-resistance), lightness, and comfort on the wrist. It requires highly specialized techniques to shape and polish.

Sapphire crystal: The watch glass in luxury watches is usually made from synthetic sapphire crystal. It is scratch-resistant and maintains a clear, flawless appearance over time.

Diamonds and precious stones: Many models of luxury watches come adorned with diamonds or other precious stones. These are meticulously set by skilled gem-setters, increasing both the material and labor costs of the watch. For example, Piaget is renowned for its gem-setting prowess, often setting watches with high-quality diamonds and other precious stones.

Dials: The dials can be made from a variety of luxury materials, such as mother-of-pearl, meteorite, or enamel. These often require specialized handcrafting techniques, contributing further to the uniqueness and value of the watch.

As you can guess, none of these commodities come cheap on the world market. There are significant challenges or industrial resources involved in mining and producing high quality metals or transformation materials such as ceramic. None of the luxury brands buy extremely large quantities of these materials, so economies of scale are mostly irrelevant.

2.       Craftsmanship, a key component of luxury watches

Luxury watches are handmade or assembled with extreme precision, many models requiring hundreds of hours of labor to be put together. On the other hand, consumer-type watches are typically mass-produced in factories, lacking the same level of individual attention. Mass production has its advantages in terms of reliability as robots handle specialized tasks to a very high degree of precision.

The philosophy of hand-building watches and the mass-market production are totally opposite. The luxury brands rely on human creativity and centuries of know-how, as well as the repetition of slowly acquired gestures and processes by skillful humans to produce individual watches signed by the person who was mostly responsible for their build.

In this, luxury watchmakers are actually not different from camera brands like Hasselblad, Leica or Phase One, that create high precision cameras with a unique a          artistic signature.

So what do we mean by “craftsmanship” as applied to luxury watches?

Apprenticeship: Luxury watchmakers typically begin their careers with several years of study at a watchmaking school, where they learn the fundamentals of the craft. After graduating, they usually serve apprenticeships with experienced watchmakers, gaining hands-on experience with various watch mechanisms and brands. It can take years, sometimes even decades, to master the intricacies of high-end mechanical watch movements.

Artisanal techniques: Luxury watch brands often preserve traditional artisanal techniques that have been passed down through generations. Enameling, engraving, gem-setting, guilloché, and hand-painting are just a few examples of the skills that watchmakers may spend years mastering. Audemars Piguet, for instance, is renowned for the "tapisserie" pattern on its Royal Oak dials, a complex guilloché pattern requiring a specific, traditional machine and skilled operators.

In-house movements: Many luxury watch brands design and manufacture their own watch movements in-house. These are incredibly complex mechanisms, with hundreds or even thousands of individual parts. Watchmakers need comprehensive training and a great deal of precision to assemble these movements correctly.

Quality assurance and control: Luxury brands have stringent quality control measures in place to ensure the performance and appearance of their watches. Watches are extensively tested for accuracy, power reserve, water resistance, and overall functionality. Rolex, for example, sends its movements to the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC) for certification, and then after casing up the movements, tests them again in-house to even stricter standards to ensure they achieve their "Superlative Chronometer" designation.

Hand-finishing and decoration: One of the hallmarks of luxury watches is their level of hand-finishing and decoration. This might include polishing, engraving, and applying decorations to individual components of the watch, even those that aren't visible when the watch is assembled. These finishing processes require great skill and add to the uniqueness and aesthetic appeal of the watch. The Patek Philippe brand is known worldwide for producing meticulous movement decorations.

Innovation and design: High-end brands often push the boundaries of innovation and design, developing new complications, materials, and production techniques. This requires watchmakers not only to be highly skilled but also flexible and adaptable to new technologies and practices.

3.       Luxury watches feature proprietary and innovative movements

Luxury watches use mechanical or automatic movements, complex mechanisms that require great skill to create. These movements are seen as way more prestigious than the quartz movements typically used in consumer watches for their lower cost and mass-production capability.

What are some of the well-known movements in luxury watches?

Rolex Caliber 3235: This is a self-winding movement. The movement is mechanical. It was developed par Rolex, the only watchmaker in the world to manufacture it. It includes the new patented Chronergy escapement: highly dependable, it is also very energy efficient.  The pmetal alloy used in the escapement is nickel-phosphorus, which is not interfered with by Earth magnitism. Fitted to the oscillator, the Parachrom hairspring is more resistant to shocks and temperature variations.

Audemars Piguet Caliber 2120/2800: This ultra-thin automatic movement is used in the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar. It features a perpetual calendar complication with a central rotor.

Patek Philippe Caliber 240 Q: Found in the Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar 5140, this self-winding mechanical movement is crafted entirely in-house. It features a perpetual calendar complication and a 24-hour indication. A notable feature is the 22K gold off-center mini-rotor, which allows the movement to be thin while still providing the convenience of automatic winding.

Omega Co-Axial Caliber 8500: This self-winding movement, developed in-house by Omega, was the first to include the brand's now-famous co-axial escapement, a technology designed to reduce the mechanical stress on the internal parts of the movement, and improve long-term reliability. The 8500 caliber has a 60-hour power reserve and is resistant to magnetic fields up to 15,000 gauss.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 101: This manually-wound movement, developed by the Swiss watchmaker in 1929, is famous for being the smallest mechanical movement in the world. Despite its minuscule size, it offers a 33-hour power reserve. The Calibre 101 is often found in Jaeger-LeCoultre's high-end jewelry watches.

Cartier Caliber 1904 MC: This was the first in-house automatic movement from Cartier, released in 2010. It has a double-barrel system that ensures excellent timekeeping precision and has a 48-hour power reserve. It's used in several of Cartier's models, including the “Calibre de Cartier” and the “Drive de Cartier”. 

About the author: Luis A. is the son of the founder of Orlando Jewelers,  a fine jewelry and luxury watch store located in Orlando, FL. Luis’ father was an artisan jeweler, and his son apprenticed under him before taking over the family store when his father retired. In parallel to creating fine jewelry, Luis also offers a deep knowledge of the luxury watch making industry, and carries highly selective models in his store.