10 commandments for your grail watch

By LK

In every timepiece collection, there is that crown jewel. You know – the king of the county, lord of the manor, queen of the castle. Seinfeld references aside, I’m sure a grail watch features somewhere in your life. It may be something you are squirrelling funds for, or it may already grace your collection.

But is that piece really, well and truly, your Grail?

I posed this question because last year I acquired what I thought was my Grail watch – the pre-20th Anniversary Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 15202 (known as the “Jumbo” to aficionados). It checked almost all the boxes – independent manufacture, storied past as the first haute horlogerie steel sports watch, iconic Genta design, incomparably well-finished bracelet and case, stunning tapesserie dial, innovative ultra-thin movement jointly developed by the Big Three watchmakers… did I miss out anything? However, as time went by, certain things started to bother me such as the presence of a date window and the fact that it was an automatic (read on to see why I prefer manual-winding watches without a date window). Those things did not bother me in a big way, but enough for me to realise that while the Jumbo was a great watch, it was not my Grail.

My key takeaway from the Jumbo episode is this: When selecting your Grail, come up with your own set of “commandments” and stick to all of them. I had formulated my 10 commandments way before hunting for my Grail, but made the mistake of disregarding a couple of them in my enthusiasm to join the high horology club. If you have no idea where to begin, here are my 10 (in no particular order of importance):

1. Non-precious metal case and bracelet

If I were to part with a few months’ salary for a timepiece, I would make sure I was paying for what mattered to me. I do not mind paying for innovation, excellent craftsmanship or special materials that actually make a difference to movement performance or case durability. But there are certain things for which I do mind paying. For instance, I mind paying for diamonds on the dial / bezel, or for a solid 18-karat gold case / bracelet. There are those who are quite happy to pay for precious metals and diamonds (especially so in dress watches); however, for the same outlay I would pick a watch in stainless steel or perhaps titanium but with a better-engineered / decorated movement than one in gold or platinum. Of course, other factors such as marketing campaigns also affect the pricing of a timepiece, but as a general rule I would select timepieces in non-precious metals.

2. A beautiful dial

The dial is all you see when the timepiece is strapped to your wrist. Your watch movement may be a superbly finished, but remains out of sight whenever your watch is out in public. There are some who are perfectly happy with a plain dial and love the idea of a hidden gem, but I personally consider it important to have a dial that is a bit unique – guilloche sub-dials, unusual fonts, applied indices perhaps. It is all very well to know that a hidden gem lies beneath the dial, but I also like the idea of having a dial which hints at a very special movement. A bit like how the chief executive may be yet another suit in a room full of suits, but carries himself in a manner that leaves no doubt as to who is in charge even before he speaks.

3. Thin

My Grail need not be ultra-ultra thin like the Altiplano 900P or the Master Ultra Thin Squelette but it should be reasonably thin. In my honest opinion, the case should not be more than 16mm thick, all the more so if it is a mere time-only watch. To me, a slim movement is the product of intelligent design, disciplined engineering and skillful execution. Not unlike the human body, but let’s not go there.

4. Wrist presence without ostentation

A case diameter of 38mm to 42mm, and you are good to go. If you are Asian and six feet tall, at least.

5. Display back and Leather strap

I can spend hours admiring the architecture and decoration of a good movement under a loupe, so a display back is a must. A leather strap, compared with a bracelet screwed to the case makes it easier for movement gazing, to say nothing of movement photography. That said, there are some Grails out there which are one with their iconic bracelets, like the Royal Oak or the Vacheron Constantin Overseas. This commandment may be dispensed with for such timepieces. And it has to be said that leather straps are probably not the most practical choice in humid Singapore.

6. Three hands

This could be the topic of a whole blog post. But broadly, I feel that a Grail should have three hands. Not two, because I need to know that my watch is alive at a glance, and I need the seconds hand to set the time with precision. Not four, because I’m guessing your Grail has a splendid enamel dial with killer patina, so why would you want another hand or sub-dial to distract you from all that beauty?

7. Batons or Arabic numerals

A personal quirk. I love batons for their minimalist look, and Arabic numerals for the slightly casual vibe they give. Roman numerals are a tad too severe and dated for me.

8. Chapter ring

The raison d’etre of a watch is chronometric precision, so what good is a watch that does not allow me to set or tell the time to the nearest minute?

9. In-house movement

It needs to be truly in-house – designed, manufactured, assembled and decorated in-house. Apart from exclusivity, I believe in-house movements generally perform better than stock movements, particularly if they were designed by a manufacture in concert with the case and dial.

10. Manual-winding

I appreciate good movement finishing and would prefer not to have a rotor (not even a skeletonised one) to partly obstruct my view of the movement. Also, manually-wound watches just seem purer to me, a throwback to the pocket watches of old.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Perhaps the overarching characteristic of any grail watch is this: it must have that unique spark which doubles your pulse the moment you strap it on.

The spark could manifest itself in any aspect – a groundbreaking complication, an insanely well-finished movement, a gorgeous hand-painted dial… but it needs to be there. Otherwise the watch fails to make the leap from Great to Grail.

I hope my 10 commandments were enlightening. I ended up selling my Royal Oak (at a small profit, thankfully – after all, it was a great watch) and eventually acquired my true Grail, which is the… subject of my next post.

In the meantime, happy hunting!

8 July 2016 note: One year on, my criteria has changed slightly – in particular I feel that it is unrealistic to limit oneself to timepieces made in non-precious metals. Many of the world’s great watches are made only in precious metals, as befits the awesome movements they house. I guess some rules are made to be broken after all.

© 2015 Ticking Notes. All rights reserved.

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11 thoughts on “10 commandments for your grail watch

  1. Hi I need some views ( I agree with your points 🙂 )

    Looking to purchase another timepiece this year ( currently subC gmt2c and pam 372)

    Sadly I can’t identify a pieces which I really like

    I like it clean and with history.

    I am thinking of 15400 ( not the classic but the size and the dial plus bracelet is the selling point for me) I don’t like the ROO series. Too heavy and thick

    I am thinking of a grand Seiko snowflake. ( the movement and dial is killer) but not sure about the bracelet and is it too subtle (plain) for me to get bored soon

    What are your thoughts? I want to it mark my 35 years old and to keep it for a Long time.

    Much thanks

    Like

    • Hi, and my apologies for the late reply.

      I agree that the 15400 has AP’s trademark drop-dead beautiful bracelet and its movement (3120) is also one of the most reliable, robust and well-finished modern automatic movements out there. The only small downside is that I personally think the dimensions of the 15400 are just a bit disproportionate compared to the 15202.

      The snowflake is a gorgeous piece and certainly rarer than that 15400. While any Grand Seiko movement is nothing to be sneezed at, I still think the AP movement is a bit more special (280 parts on an automatic with a hand-engraved rotor? How cool is that?). The other issue you may have is locating a Snowflake dial. I think they have stopped producing them. I last saw one in HK (about SGD 8k) but didn’t have the wife’s approval to splurge. So you may have to pay a premium. Finally, I do believe the 15400 holds its value better than the snowflake.

      So yes, I sound somewhat biased but you asked for my two cents. Enjoy the hunt and let me know how it goes!

      Like

      • Hey many thanks for replying!

        Actually after much thoughts, I fell in love with another GS model much more and that’s the sbge005.

        The spring drive, champagne sunburst with the beautiful blue gmt hand totally drew me towards it much more. I had a thinking which is to own a gmt that I can wear to match my Son”s gmt2c hahaha

        When I received it (shipped in from Japan), I was amazed at the quality. The renowned zaratsu finishing is amazing.

        I thank you for your time and I noticed that your IG account is no more? Keep up the love for horology and I truly enjoy your reply 🙂

        P.s Maybe one day I will get the RO still hahaha

        Like

    • Again, my apologies for a reply that is 3 months’ late! Congratulations on the SBGE005. I have yet to see it in the flesh but from images the dial looks top-notch and the movement looks beautifully finished. I have changed my IG name to @Langenthusiast – do follow me and drop me a private message!

      Like

  2. It was a pleasure reading your thoughts. With no doubt they correspond to your path of getting into watches. As the world of fine timepieces is not easily revealed I shall say you did a fine job exploring it.

    I mostly agree with your Grail commandments. My list has a requirement for easy repair as it can be quite challenging to get a watch to a Swiss/German factory where it was born. Also my watch shall have no tourbillon as it is useless and expensive. And it must not be overpriced (read PP).

    For me Jumbo (I own it) does not match my Grail criterial anymore as its quality is not sublime. In my opinion Chronometer Bleu falls for all Grail criteria except for one – I am not sure how durable is the movement. By the way Breguet 7727 is very interesting.

    May you please tell me what Grail you have at the moment? Is it Haldimann H12?

    Like

    • Thanks for sharing your views. Agree with your requirement for easy repair although at that price point, I would probably have it serviced by the manufacture itself.

      Very interesting that you should mention Haldimann – it’s a very niche brand. I admire his work and the way he makes almost the whole watch itself reminds me of Dufour.

      However, I feel his austere and unusual movement finishing is an acquired taste, which I haven’t yet acquired.

      By the way, congrats on your Jumbo. It may not be your grail but it’s certainly a keeper!

      Like

      • My point was that if you buy a watch from JLC or Lange or other major brand you can give it to your boutique where it will receive official service. And that boutique is located where you live. If you buy a Haldimann or Voutilainen you have to come to Switzerland where the manufacturer is located. But if you live nearby it is not a problem.

        I may be wrong but I seem to have a similar watch route as you: Jumbo as a Grail, now considering a Journe chronometre.

        Can you enlighten me what is your Grail at the moment?

        Like

      • The good thing is that Singapore has a number of authorised dealers that bring in independents, Journe and Voutilainen included. So any servicing would be handled by them. Where are you based?

        My next piece is likely to be a Lange, VC or even Patek complication. But for now I’m very pleased with my Saxonia. It will be THE three-hand watch for me for awhile.

        I think the Journe Chronometre Bleu is a great piece (see my last review). If you can see it in person, you should. All the best and let me know how it goes!

        Like

  3. I am from Moscow, Russia. I saw Chronometre in flesh – it is a very nice watch. Your review is very smart. I appreciated it a lot, thank you. Did you regret selling it?

    Consider Lange 1815 Chronograph – it is a great watch.

    At the moment I am thinking about JLC ultra thin jubilee (https://www.hodinkee.com/articles/thoughts-on-the-jaeger-lecoultre-master-ultra-thin-jubilee) or Journe or saving and buying Haldimann H11 or H12.

    Also I would like to admire JLC extreme lab 2.

    Like

    • Thanks for the compliments. It was difficult to let go of the Bleu but I used it to fund other purchases. Also, the movement was too gold for me (just me – I have not met anyone with the same thinking!).

      The 1815 chronograph is beautiful but I will need to save up for it.

      I have seen the Jubilee too. It’s a remarkable achievement but I would prefer a display back.

      Your other choices are very unconventional and interesting – I think you need to get a Haldimann AND the Extreme Lab 2 as they are so different. The Extreme Lab 2 will be more liquid, I think. Hope I’ve been helpful. Enjoy the search!

      Like

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