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Pretty Faces
Who makes the most reliable watches?The best-looking? The top values? Here's what to know about buying a good watch, and where to shop. By Ann Cochran
Comments () | Published November 1, 2004

Decisions, Decisions

"There are two types of watch buyers: practical and collector," says Paul Pastor, owner of Chas. Schwartz.

Collectors want mechanical movement--movement being the engine of the watch. Collectors enjoy the daily ritual of winding a watch. They appreciate the precision mechanics and hand finishing of a mechanical watch and expect it to hold or increase in value.

Watches are primarily made with one of two types of movement: mechanical or quartz. In mechanical, a spring slowly unwinds in an even motion, causing the second hand to sweep smoothly around the face instead of jerking along. Automatic mechanical movements do not require winding thanks to a rotor that responds to the movement of the wearer's wrist and transmits energy to a spring. Off-wrist, they wind down after 30 to 50 hours.

Almost everything else is quartz movement, in which vibrations of a crystal are powered by a battery. Quartz watches can cost $5 or $10,000. A high-tech variation is Seiko's kinetic movement: quartz without the battery. Like automatic mechanicals, it runs on wrist-movement energy.

Most ladies' watches are quartz. While female interest in fine watches has increased, traditionally women haven't been collectors, and smaller watches are best suited to quartz movements.

I decided my son was not a collector, so I chose quartz movement.

I wanted to buy a watch Clayton could wear for years. I set my budget at $1,000.

You can find some very good watches for far less. Lower-priced brands recognized for their especially high quality include Seiko ($74 to $700), Skagen ($85 to $175), Swiss Army ($95 to $1,500), and Citizen ($125 to $1,500).

The more Swiss the watch, the better, as the Swiss are the standard-bearers for quality and reliability. To be labeled "Swiss," at least 51 percent of a watch's components must be Swiss. "Swiss made" signifies 75 percent.

Expensive watches, I learned, are not created equal. Status and ad campaigns have their effects. A $500 watch from a fashion designer is not as well crafted as a $500 watch from an established watchmaker like Raymond Weil.

Fine watches, says Joe Turchiarolo of Liljenquist & Beckstead in Tysons Galleria, "are made with heart, hand, and eye." Computers play a part in the design process, but the best watches are still handmade using old-world techniques.

Best Brands

Here's what else I learned about watch brands:

The best pedigreed watch in the world is Patek Philippe. These watches (from $7,800 ladies, $10,500 men) are worn by royalty. Patek's craftsmanship is so fine, one watch fetched a record $11 million at auction.

Rolex and Omega are bestsellers for a reason. Rolex's great reputation is justified. The watches (from $3,000) are ultra-durable, and the company's many innovations include self-winding and date functions. Omega (from $1,195) created the Seamaster Professional, or James Bond watch, and the Speedmaster Professional, or Moon Watch, used by NASA and the Russian space program.

Want a watch that's a spectacular piece of jewelry? Consider Bulgari, Chopard, and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Chopard (from $3,325) was among the first to focus on jewelry styling. In one model, loose diamonds slide around the face. Jaeger-LeCoultre (from $3,500) makes the Reverso watch, whose face slides and flips over to expose only its solid back. The inner workings of a Bulgari watch (from $1,600) are Swiss, but the beautiful curves are Italian.

Tiffany and Cartier are classics. Tiffany watches (from $1,350) are not just status in a pretty blue package. For 150 years, Tiffany has had a relationship with Patek Philippe. Cartier timepieces (from $1,750) have a French flair and a track record--the Santos watch is celebrating its 100th year.

Want to wear what pilots and racecar drivers do? Look to Breitling, IWC, Bell & Ross, and Girard-Perregaux. Bell & Ross timepieces (from $1,000) are made for high altitudes, arctic temperatures, and combat jet acceleration. Airplane instrument panels inspired their faces. IWC, International Watch Company (from $2,500), is a brand designed initially for pilots, for whom they made the first antimagnetic case. Breitling (from $1,500) has industrial and scientific roots; their Emergency model has a transmitter that broadcasts on aircraft emergency frequency. Girard-Perregaux (from $3,500), founded in the late 1700s, has a history of quality and a contemporary association with Ferrari.

Want a watch few others own? Try A. Lange & Söhne and Panerai. In the past ten years, the German Lange (from $9,900) won more awards than any Swiss brand and produced the fewest watches, less than 5,000 annually--compared with about 30,000 Patek and 750,000 Rolex. Panerai (from $3,450), watchmaker to the Italian Royal Navy, makes watches that keep accurate time on submarines. Panerai is a favorite with celebrities: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hugh Grant, Russell Crowe, Jerry Seinfeld, and Ralph Lauren wear Panerai.

Want a fine watch for less? Jewelers point to Geneva-made Raymond Weil (from $395) as the best value in luxury watches. Other good values include Tag Heuer (from $595), mostly heavy and sporty, geared for the 18-to-35 set; and Baume & Mercier (from $995), a conservative company offering new styles, like the popular Hampton with color dials and bands.

I stumbled upon Raymond Weil through a recommendation from Clayton's grandmother. The round-faced gold Weil we chose has a ridged bezel, a leather band--and Clayton's initials on the back.

Pry Before You Buy

Ask about warranty coverage and recommended maintenance. According to Steve Cho of Salona Jewelers in McLean, "Warranties don't necessarily correspond to the caliber or price of the watch." Tiffany & Company provides the Tiffany of warranties--five years--while Rolex gives two.

Ask what the crystal is made of, how scratch-resistant it is, and the replacement cost. If you are spending a few hundred or more, the clear cover of the watch should be a man-made material called sapphire crystal, which is highly resistant to scratching and cracking. Ask if the movement is all metal, which is preferable, or if it has any plastic parts.

What do I know for sure about buying fine watches? If you are going to spend a lot, try to learn a lot. And to make a good decision, allow yourself plenty of time.

Time to Shop

The Washington area has lots of jewelry and department stores that carry watches. Even Costco sells them. If a store is not an authorized dealer, warranties won't apply.

If you frequent a certain jeweler, start there. Jewelers can order watches, even lines they don't carry.

To save money, consider an estate watch--a Cartier that cost $3,000 new may be $1,000 used.

With care, consider online purchasing. A respected Web site is antiquorum.com. Others worth trying are vintagewristwatch.com, artoftime.com, alanmarcusco.com, and ebay.com.

Here are some of the area's top places to shop for fine watches:

Boone & Sons, 5550 the Hills Plaza, Chevy Chase, 301-657-2144; Tysons Galleria, 703-734-3997; 1025 Connecticut Ave., NW, 202-785-4653; booneandsons.com. Boone sells Concord, Chopard, Tag Heuer, Raymond Weil, and the trendy Michele line with interchangeable bands and affordable diamond accents. Family-owned for more than 40 years, Boone offers a 30-day money-back guarantee on all in-stock purchases.

Cartier, 5454 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase, 301-654-5858; Tysons Galleria, 703-749-4664; cartier.com. At Cartier's Chevy Chase boutique, sales associate Andrea Mitchell is proof of how well trained Cartier salespeople are. Mitchell glows when discussing the features of Cartier timepieces. If exclusivity appeals, ask about Collection Privée, an annual production of no more than 500 watches.

Chas. Schwartz & Son, Mazza Gallerie, 5300 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 202-363-5432; and in the Willard Hotel, 1400 F St., NW, 202-737-4757; charlesschwartzjewelers.com. Washington's oldest jeweler has been around for more than 100 years. Owner Paul Pastor, who knows and loves watches, carries Omega, Baume & Mercier, Roven Dino, and estate and vintage watches.

Continental Jewelers, 1010 Connecticut Ave.; 202-833-3366; continentaljewelersdc.com. One of owner Jim Gianforte's most memorable moments was attending a party where Russian and American astronauts were presented with Omega's Moon Watch on the tenth anniversary of the Soyuz hookup. Continental also sells Omega's sister brands: Rado, Longines, Tissot, and Hamilton.

Gold-N-Time, 1742 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-328-8700; gold-n-time.com. This Dupont Circle shop is the only area store carrying Zeno, a Swiss brand with oversize faces and reasonable prices. The store claims to have the area's largest selection of antique watches, both wrist and pocket, and it does repairs.

King's Jewelry, 609 King St., Alexandria; 703-549-0011; kingsjewelry.net. In the watch business since 1955, King's sells Rolex, Tag Heuer, Raymond Weil, Hamilton, Swiss Army, and Seiko.

Liljenquist & Beckstead, Tysons Galleria; 703-448-6731; liljenquist.com. This is the area's most respected watch dealer, with 17 carefully chosen lines, including Patek Philippe, A. Lange, Girard-Perregaux, IWC, and Panerai. The knowledgeable staff has a minimum of seven years' experience there. Four full-time repair technicians, one trained by Patek, work on site.

Lynn Jewelers, 1030 17th St., NW; 202-833-2500; lynnjewelers.com. Founded in 1946, Lynn Jewelers is known for its selection of watches and great repair work. Lines include Corum, Breitling, Raymond Weil, Baume & Mercier, Seiko, and Swiss Army. Mitchell Engle, one of the owners, offers this tip: Breitling is similar to Rolex but offers more bang for the buck.

Salona Jewelers, 1333 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean; 703-848-2660. Owner Steve Cho carries five lines--Omega, Movado, Roven Dino, Citizen, and Seiko--with prices ranging from $50 to $3,000. A watchmaker who trained in Korea and started working in the United States for Neiman Marcus, he respects lower budgets.

Tiffany & Company, 5500 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase, 301-657-8777; 8045 Leesburg Pike, Vienna, 703-893-7700; tiffany.com. Tiffany watches--choose from 140 styles--are a good value as well as status symbol. For women, retro and modern cocktail watches are the latest trend. For men, the popular new Mark T-57 watch was inspired by the gold pocket watches Tiffany produced long ago, but is made of stainless steel and vulcanized rubber.

Tourneau, Fashion Centre at Pentagon City; 703-414-8463; tourneau.com. America's largest watch retailer, Tourneau is opening a 19th store here this fall. The flagship store in New York has more than 100 brands, both new and preowned. Tourneau offers authorized repair services, a three-year warranty in addition to the manufacturer's, trade-ups of your old Tourneau watch, and free lifetime battery replacement.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 11/01/2004 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles