Feature: 5 incredible, rare, complicated watches for less than a Rolex
There used to be a time when lateral thinking could net you a really cool complicated watch from a big name watch brand for not very much money. Maybe if you purchased a mid-90s watch in yellow gold that was slightly smaller perhaps. But these days, there aren’t too many secret corners of the watch collectorsphere that are left unpillaged—except one. I’m going to show you how to get rare, precious metal, beautiful watches—some with incredible complications—for less than a stainless-steel Rolex Submariner. With a big thanks to our marketplace partner Watchcentre for providing the watches on loan.
We’ll start with a heavy hitter, perhaps one of the heaviest of all: Patek Philippe. And I don’t mean Patek Philippe of today, a large firm producing some 70,000 watches per year. I mean Patek Philippe from the early 1900s, when it was making incredible stuff like this.
This is a sold rose gold pocket watch from circa 1911, and it is 100% a Patek Philippe watch for less than a Rolex Submariner. In fact, you can find watches like this as low as the price of an entry stainless-steel Datejust. These words I am saying are true, and it’s all because this watch doesn’t have a strap.
If you’re thinking you couldn’t possibly consider this watch because it can’t be wrist-worn, let me take you on a little tour of why silly things like logic need to be completely ignored. First off, this is solid gold, and a good amount of it. Secondly, that dial is white enamel, layer upon layer of heat fired glass paste to create a smooth and lustrous finish. You want a Patek Philippe like that on a strap and you’re starting at £75,000.
But most importantly is the movement. Gilt, handwound and incredibly pretty, it’s everything you could want from a watch bearing the legendary name. From the snail cam regulator with its polished bevels to the steel click and the steel escape wheel cock cap—which is made from the hard metal for greater durability and precision for the most delicate components of the whole movement—this engine is a feast of watchmaking goodness. Even the geartrain wheels are bevelled, and just look at the wolf’s teeth on the crown wheel and ratchet wheel.
As if you needed any more convincing, Patek Philippe still makes a movement very similar to this in a pocket watch called the 937J. Only difference is that will set you back an eye-watering £35,000.
Here’s something that’ll bake your noodle: when it comes to pocket watches, Rolex is, somehow, still king. Sure, you’re not going to find a minute repeater Rolex pocket watch—because they didn’t make them—but like-for-like with some of the most prestigious brands in the world and you’ll notice that Rolex still comes up trumps.
Tipping the scales at almost exactly the price of a Submariner is this Rolex Precision pocket watch from 1965, and after you recombobulate yourself from the realisation that it costs about 50% more than a Patek Philippe pocket watch, another cold fact is going to surface in your comprehension: that’s right, I said this Rolex pocket watch is from 1965.
Of course, when Rolex got started in 1905 it was customary for a watch brand to make pocket watches as that was the style at the time, however it was Rolex that very much led the turning of the tide when it came to the wristwatch switch. If you can’t beat your much older and better-established competitors, play a different game.
As it happens, Rolex produced pocket watches right the way round until the 1970s, and this is one of the last. And Rolex delivers no less than expected. It’s plain and simple in this company but it is still rugged and well-made in its steel case. The crown small and hardy and the build tough enough to genuinely consider wearing day-to-day. It’s the only one of the five you’ll see here that I would encourage to be worn on the daily. That is, after all, how Rolex ended up as popular as it is.
If you ever wished upon a star that you might be able to buy a Vacheron Constantin for less than Rolex’s cheapest watch, the Oyster Perpetual, then your prayers have been answered because this pocket watch from Vacheron & Constantin is exactly that.
Yes, I said Vacheron & Constantin, because this early 1900s example came to be before the ampersand was dropped in the 1970s, presumably to eke out a bit more room on the dial either side of this already long brand name.
What’s especially interesting about this watch is the winding and setting. Patek Philippe in fact invented the winding and setting mechanism solely within the crown, and so other manufacturers dabbled with alternatives. Here, turning the crown winds the watch, until a small pusher is depressed just to the left, switching the crown to setting mode the whole while it’s held down. Not particularly ergonomic, but a technically impressive solution nonetheless.
The movement itself displays the period preference for gilt bridges and fine finishing, with the polished steel components gleaming in monochromatic contrast. The bridge securing the centre, third and fourth wheel—the fourth wheel directly driving the seconds sub-dial—has an unusual shape that was synonymous with Vacheron & Constantin, looking perhaps a little bit like a gas pump handle.
This beautiful division of the bridges in contrast to, say, the three-quarter plate of an A. Lange & Söhne, is utilised not purely for appearance, but to allow the fine adjustment of positioning across each part of the movement. As automated manufacture became more prevalent towards the end of the 1800s, these adjustments weren’t as necessary, however during that period, watchmakers like A. Lange & Söhne deliberately used a three-quarter plate to demonstrate the ability to produce components with such precision that they didn’t need to be independently adjustable.
So far, our watches have been standard three handers with no complication, but that’s about to change. One of the greatest manufacturers of chronograph movements—and indeed the manufacturer of the first wristwatch chronograph movement—is Longines. Longines competed directly with Omega as the timekeeper of international sport, securing many different competitions including the Olympics. Unfortunately, when both brands were revived from the quartz crisis by the Swatch group, only one was chosen to continue as a premium brand, with Longines relegated to the affordable leagues.
Nonetheless, at the time of this watch’s creation, the turn of the century, Longines was very much a prestigious, award-winning watchmaker, and this monopusher chronograph is a fine example of that. You’ll see the awards displayed proudly on the inner case, beneath which lies a mechanism that is once again cheaper than a Rolex Oyster Perpetual.
Yes, this hand wound, monopusher collection of exquisitely rendered components costs less than Rolex’s entry-level watch. And everything here is top spec. You can watch the column wheel snap forward one step with every press of the top-mounted pusher. There are no wire springs here, each shaped from a solid piece of metal, curving across the span of the watch to provide resistance between the nest of levers. And the wheels charged with the chronograph’s operation, they’re set with the finest teeth you’ve ever seen.
Look at the mechanism that guides the horizontal clutch into place. It’s not a simple pivot from one position, it’s a combination of actions that roll it forward, keeping it constantly connected to the running movement without disrupting it. And even the time-setting gets a party trick, with a railroad style lever-set mechanism hiding alongside the dial.
I’ve left the best until last, and this is surely the best. The eagle-eyed will have spotted this particular pocket watch is an Audemars, but not Audemars Piguet—Audemars Freres. Sadly, nothing to do with each other, but you’ll quickly see that this doesn’t matter at all.
Audemars Freres is in and of itself a very desirable and respected watchmaker, least of all because of its patronage by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. You don’t have to take his word for the quality of the watch, however, because this is, just like his, a repeater. Where the big pusher on the side of the Longines operated the chronograph, here it strikes the chime, hours and quarters. Again, we see a lever set mechanism for the time.
That’s because it’s a quarter repeater and not a full repeater, but then I would like to remind you that it costs less than a Rolex Submariner in stainless steel. There’s still two hammers, two gongs, a governor and ultimately, a chime. If the idea of a prestigious Swiss repeater watch has ever stoked your fancy, this is your opportunity.
Repeater watches are so challenging to make because the tolerances required to function are so incredibly tight. Even today a repeating watch is still one of the very few that can’t simply be assembled, but must be coaxed into place by a master watchmaker with the fine adjustment of the parts. That might mean shimmying left and right, that might mean removing material here and there—it’s just not something that’s easy to make.
Especially in the early 1900s when this was made. You’ll see the bridges generally small and designed to be adjustable during construction. Even the gongs themselves would be filed to size and shape, tuned to get a pleasing chime. And of course, once again, the finish with the gilt parts paired with polished steel is very pleasing. It’s virtually a museum piece for the price of a mass-produced basic sports watch.
What do you think of this leftfield option for getting incredible watchmaking for an even more incredible price? Is it something you’d consider or is a pocket watch just too deep down the rabbit hole?