In the literature of watch geekdom we often bump up against watches that cost well into the six figures, some even in the seven. I take a populist stance on the purchase of watches and encourage the intelligent watch collector to purchase what they can afford or, better yet, save up for a nice watch they can wear forever. I also, for the most part, scoff at any watch over, potentially, $20,000.
A few weeks ago I went to the JCK show in Las Vegas, a strange trade show for jewelry manufacturers where I learned a few interesting things. There I was given a glimpse at the real underpinnings of the jewelry world and came away with a few insights. First, most jewelry is literally marked up 100 percent. That $5,000 wedding ring? It cost the shop $2,500 or less. That gold ring for $400? It probably cost $50 to make and sold to the jeweler for $150. The second thing I learned is that the difference between expensive and ludicrous can quickly be crossed when when talking about highly engineered, bespoke wristwatches and that, when wearing a $77,000 on the subway, you often concern yourself not only with not scuffing the watch against a metal pole but also with the possibility of being stabbed for the hunk of steel and precious metals on your wrist.
The watch in question was the MB&F Horological Machine 3. It’s a handmade horological novelty with separate minutes and hour hands – in those little domes – and a date window next to the rotor. If you turn it on its side it looks like a little happy frog. The rotor itself is 22K rose gold and therefore worth more than my car.
These sorts of watches are owned by the rich and the super-rich alike. One prominent customer works for one of the major firms in the valley while Sultans and Oligarchs are also a target market. Generally, they make only one or two of these watches and they’re rare by dint of their scarcity, their engineering, and their materials.
First, we need to answer the question as to what makes this watch, among all other watches, special. The watchmaking world is a stratified place. On the low end you have Swatch and Timex and the like. Prices between $10 and $1,000 usually indicate a lower-end brand using mass-produced movements and assembled by robots. Then you have a dead zone between $1,000 and $8,000 populated by the mid-range purveyors like Omega, Tag Heuer, and the like. These guys sell watches the way computer manufacturers sell PCs – you’re basically always buying the same thing but you get a little value-add (or perceived value-add) to jack up the price. Every watch in this range has exactly the same movement, using an ETA or Valjoux mechanism inside.
Then you have the manufacture watches that are ostensibly made by hand from stem to stern. These range in price from $10,000 to about $40,000, depending on complexity and materials. Then you have something like the MB&F HM3. This is essentially a custom piece with a very limited run. Built for very rich collectors, think of this as a piece of artwork you wear on your wrist instead of hanging on your wall. It is, in a sense, condensed wealth and an investment although, in another sense, it is ostentation defined.
I had a blast wearing it and you sort of understand the lure of a $77,000 watch when you strap it your wrist. First you can tell the world “Hey, I’m wearing a freaking $77,000 watch” but there’s so much more. For example, it’s an excellent conversation starter (“Did you notice my $77,000 watch?”), a fun way to meet girls (“I’m wearing a $77,000 watch. What’s your name?”) and an excellent way to smuggle drug money out of Panama without carrying cash – you simply convert your cash into a watch and carry it over the border!
Watches of this pedigree and price are rare and wonderful things. This watch was designed and made in a way that is absolutely impossible to do on a budget and everything about it, from the crystal to the case, is first rate. Is it absolutely my cup of tea and, were I not a watch journo, would I buy one? Probably not this specific model (I like more complications). However, to quote Ferris, “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”
Needless to say when I shipped this thing back I felt the weight of 77 big ones slip off my shoulders but I did, for a few brief moments, grill my FedEx delivery guy about how quickly and quietly he could get this back on his truck and out of my life.