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Feature: Are Cheaper Alternatives Worth It?

The movies tell you to dream big. Reality, on the other hand, has other ideas. The cushiony clouds of the dream are nothing compared to reality’s hobnail boot up the backside, a swift kick back to Earth that reminds us exactly where we belong. Do we dream of owning a Royal Oak, for example? Sure! Will we ever have one? The whistle of scuffed leather as reality’s boot clatters into us tells us no. There are alternatives, however, cheaper ones. But are they worth it?

So much of whether it’s worth taking the cheaper route to buying watches is based on you. Take this Maurice Lacroix Aikon, for example. The inspiration that led to its creation is about as subtle as a fart at a funeral, quite obviously deriving its low-poly persona from one of watchmaking’s most despised—back then—and most loved—right now—designs.

It’s not that watch, though, the one that changed history—it’s a different one that looks very similar. The memories, the stories, the journey all packed into a Royal Oak—the Aikon doesn’t get those too, just because it looks kind of the same. People wouldn’t pay thousands of pounds for a branded cotton jumper if that wasn’t true.

If you were to ask a being from the peaceful and enlightened planet Kepler-22b what it thought of our concept of branding, it would just self-destruct immediately as a way to protect the rest of its kind from ever learning of such an upside-down premise. And I’m with the alien here: why do we care so much about the label?

Well, I suppose the point is that it saves us time. Why waste valuable Cheeto-eating minutes researching, testing, trying products that are of dubious quality when you can jump straight in bed with a brand that’s already done the hard work for you? Everyone knows it, everyone trusts it, case closed, job done, back to eating Cheetos.

Except … it’s more nuanced than that. Audemars Piguet may be well known, by Maurice Lacroix isn’t exactly a complete newcomer. It has its own history, its own reputation. Sure, it takes a little more digging to find, but you’re not starting from scratch here. And that brings us to the really big difference, the part that made our first contact with the third kind end up in such a goopy mess: brand is not just about logic, but instinct as well.

If we processed the logic for everything all the time, our brains would fry. It’s why we have instinct; it shortcuts that process by referencing previous experiences and encouraging the right behaviour with feeling. “It doesn’t feel right,” people say. “I feel good about this one!” Evolution wasn’t ready for marketing, however, so when we process the reduced risk of purchasing a well-known brand, it makes us feel good. And even more so, it makes others that see us feel jealous. “Go get some!” our instincts tell us.

Is it right or wrong? That’s not really relevant. It’s more about the satisfaction you get, if it feels good. For some, the Aikon could be handed out free in boxes of cereal and they still wouldn’t wear it. For others, they’ve become conditioned to be wary of the extreme pricing of the Royal Oak, and the relative value of the Aikon’s £1,390 price will tickle them just right instead.

This is, however, based on a condition that all else here is equal, that indeed the Maurice Lacroix and Audemars Piguet are both jumpers made of the same stuff in the same factory—but we know that’s not true. So what is?

“Buy cheap, buy twice,” was an expression my parents never said. I think their motto was something closer to, “don’t buy it at all.” But, on the rare occasion that a purchase had to be made, it was made with a consideration based on a very similar attitude.

Okay, so a new sofa to replace the bag of wood and springs that was the old sofa and a luxury watch aren’t exactly the same buying experience, but the principle remains the same. You get what you pay for, generally speaking, and how much you get is determined by how much you actually want. My parents didn’t want an automated massaging robot chair, they just wanted to watch telly free of excruciating pain.

But brands know the value of brand, and that value doesn’t come cheap. If you’ve ever tried to get someone’s attention from the other side of the street, imagine doing that but for thousands, if not millions of people—and not have them think you’re a nutter. So it’s not just a case of assuming the most expensive product will be the best—more, how cheap can I go for good enough?

And for a watch like this, good enough isn’t just a practical consideration like comfort and water resistance—although this 39mm case with 200 metres’ water-resistance is pretty comfortable—because buying a luxury watch is one motivated by emotion. Good enough to tell the time and not fall off your wrist is not the same as good enough to leave you in awe at the mastery of its craft. Do you need that? No. Do you want it? Very much. You’ll pay a pretty penny for it on the Royal Oak, obviously—the real question is can you get enough of it from the Aikon to make the £1,390 worthwhile spending?

Sounds like a very big ask of the Aikon. It obviously can’t compete on brand, so it has to be much cheaper to stand a chance—but that leaves it in the position where there’s not much to spend on quality either. It’s why you’ll find a generic—but very reliable—movement inside, that lacks the dressing you’d expect from an Audemars Piguet. That already may be a big enough turn-off for some. Perhaps they’d rather wear nothing than this.

But, surprisingly, the rest of the watch fares incredibly well. Sure, mirrored finishes aren’t liquid smooth and defined with laser-tight crispness, but you still get a mix of hand-applied textures that tell you immediately that this watch is something a bit special. The chevrons around the bezel are familiar but unique, as are the raised centre links and hobnail dial.

Despite the painfully familiar visage of the Aikon, at least Maurice Lacroix has had the decency to make a really good job of it. You could buy a watch with Royal Oak vibes for a lot less than this, but that may mean sacrificing a little more of the Royal Oak experience than you really want.

There is no magic secret to having it all for nothing, but what you can get is an experience that’s a comfortable majority as good for a fraction of the price. There are some things, like the outward appearance and quality, the Aikon does very well, and others, the movement and the brand, it’s less hot on, and ultimately only you can decide whether that’s going to work for you or not. And, in case you were wondering, it works the other way as well: buying a Royal Oak doesn’t always leave you immune to regret, either.

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