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Feature: My £250 Watch VS A £25,000 Patek Philippe

You may have seen that I bought myself a new timepiece—check out the review if you haven’t seen it already—and it’s no ordinary watch. It’s a pocket watch, from 1950, from the American railroad, and it cost me £250. So why on Earth would I even consider comparing it to a £25,000 wristwatch? Well, because—why not?

The History

So, with the pocket watch I broke the decision to buy the thing down into three factors: history, movement and price. Seems only fair I see how the Calatrava stacks up against it in the same arenas. Of course, I get that this is a pocket watch and that is a wristwatch and so the two aren’t really that comparable, but I hope you think, like I do, that it’s a bit of fun—and that there’s a degree of curiosity to see just what the outcome is.

Let’s start with history then. Like a game of top trumps. Patek Philippe gets the ball rolling with a founding date of 1839, almost two centuries ago. It’s one of the older Swiss brands, built on a foundation of low production, complication and customization, a reputation that has since given it the best seat in the house. Hamilton, originally an American brand, you may think lags far behind, and it does—but perhaps not as far as you’d think.

The period of Patek Philippe’s founding just so happens to coincide with the genesis of America’s vast railroad network, the Granite Railway of Massachusetts, three miles of track, laid in 1826. By 1850, over 9,000 miles had been laid, and that’s when the railroad companies decided that accurate time was an important part of keeping all those miles safe. So, with Webster Clay Ball’s imminent appointment as Chief Time Inspector, 1892 was the perfect moment to establish Hamilton, to make accurate, high-quality pocket watches for the railroad network.

Ironically, this Patek Philippe Calatrava, here in 6006G form and whose railroad track minute and second rings were not at all chosen by accident, is descended from Patek Philippe’s need to get out of the pocket watch business. After almost a century of trade making pocket tickers, and with the company on the ropes, it was to designer David Penney to reinvent the company for new owners Charles and Jean Stern. The 1932 Calatrava was the answer.

The Movement

If there’s one thing Patek Philippe knows how to get right, it’s a movement. Inside the 39mm white gold case of the 6006G lies the calibre 240 PS C, a self-winding combination of classic traditionalism and modern convenience with the inclusion of the solid gold micro rotor.

In comparison with the 992B inside the Hamilton, it’s smaller of course to fit the wristwatch format, has six more jewels, beats six times per second instead of five, has a power reserve four hours less than the 992B’s 52, and gets a date complication as well. But that’s all on paper. Neither this Calatrava nor this 992B are owned today to perform as chronometers, regardless of whether they can. It’s all about the look. So how do they look?

Despite the calibre 240 PS C’s unusual bridge layout to accommodate the micro rotor—which in turn means a more complex, offset route to the hour and minute hand unlike the 992B’s direct feed from the centre wheel—it is otherwise incredibly traditional. Being Patek Philippe’s whole mantra, that’s hardly surprising, and so the finishing and decoration here will be entirely representative of the calibres seen when the Hamilton was new.

This 992B is from 1950, and the first from 1940, around the time the Calatrava was introduced, so it’s unsurprising to see a similar finish on both. What is surprising is that the 992B’s price in 1950, adjusted for inflation is around $700, demonstrating what Hamilton was capable of with its production facilities and why the American system of watchmaking was so coveted across the world, including in Switzerland. It’s pretty much how Patek Philippe makes watches today, after all.

Accounting for its age and use on the Chicago Great Western railroad, the 992B exhibits many traits similar to the 240 PS C. The balance is poised with tiny weights. The graining is fine and clear. The bevelling is brightly polished. The wheels are crisp and precise. Okay, so not as crisp and precise as the Patek Philippe’s calibre, but do you know what? It’s closer than it has any right to be …

The Price

Comparing two things of extreme price difference seems like a foolhardy exercise, because someone with the £250 to spend on the Hamilton is less than likely to have the £25,000 needed for the Patek Philippe—but maybe we’re considering it from the wrong point of view. For £250, should an enthusiast of all things that tick and tock who has the wherewithal to own and enjoy a Calatrava purchase a 992B?

In the one sense, the pocket watch is a complete waste of time. When will it be worn, if ever? Will it ever even leave the house? Is it just an expensive, ticking paperweight? The Patek Philippe can be worn and appreciated on a daily basis. The 992B can’t, or is certainly very unlikely to be. That is until the wearing part is taken out of the equation. As a miniature desk clock that can be opened up and admired, the 992B can be appreciated endlessly. The history of its use in bringing all four corners of America together doesn’t cease because it cannot be worn.

That it costs just a single percent of the Patek Philippe, the fact that it can even be considered alongside one—even if the comparison isn’t entirely fair—makes it one of the best value purchases in all of watchmaking. Where else can this much ground be covered for such little investment? With over half a million 992Bs made, supply is steady and the price should remain low for many years to come. Servicing is straightforward thanks to its mass-produced nature, and reliability is strong thanks to a requirement to live a hard life on the railroad. So, at £250, why wouldn’t you buy one?

Well, first and foremost, not everyone who buys a Calatrava wants to enjoy watchmaking to such a degree. The Calatrava is a very fine watch with a beautiful calibre, and the Hamilton adds very little to that experience if the Calatrava’s owner is already satisfied. But as part of a collection, however small, it’s practically essential, if only as a pleasing dose of mechanical eye bleach with which to start each day. You can pay a lot more for a lot less.

This unexpected purchase that, at first, left me wondering if I’d wasted £250, has turned out to be one of my best horological purchases to date. I would surely love but will never hope to own a Calatrava, but to be able to experience something of its heritage and beauty for not far off the starting price of an Apple Watch is, for me at least, turning out to have been a complete no-brainer. If you can afford it, I say do it. It’s a hard purchase to regret.

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