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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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