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A Rolex, a Seiko and watches as a value proposition

What constitutes value in the world of watchmaking? We take a look at the Rolex Explorer and the Seiko 5 Sports to find out

The Seiko 5 Sports SRPE53K1, released in 2020.
The Seiko 5 Sports SRPE53K1, released in 2020. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Watch enthusiasts are obsessive about many things. These range from how crisp the clicks sound while rotating a dive watch bezel to the perfect size of a watch. However, the thing that they obsess about the most is that very intangible of things: value. Now, the definition of the value of a watch depends on who you ask. For the well-heeled collector, it is either the re-sale value of a luxury watch, which may or may not have something to do with the precious metals used in the watch’s construction, or just how complicated and decorated the movement is. Both these aspects overlap with other aspects like the level of artisanship involved, or the popularity or rarity of a particular reference that came out in a particular year. They also overlap with the price a luxury watch brand’s marquee timepiece fetches at, say, a Sotheby’s auction.

Also Read: How to admire luxury watches in 2021

At the other end of the food chain lies the value of a budget watch. Here the discussion shifts to the “bang for buck” ratio: is the watch below $300 (about 22,000) and features an automatic movement and sports a sapphire crystal and has 200m of water resistance? Oh, it also pops on Instagram? That’s like finding your one true love. However, the addictive rabbit hole of watch collecting is such that there always comes a time when a new release catches one’s eye, immediately dulling the lustre of the watch (es) one already owns. And so begins the hunt for the new great value watch. I mean, there is a reason why watch brands release so many different models every year; this despite the watch industry acknowledging that due to the pandemic, watch sales are down, there’s a supply glut, and that smart wearables led by the Apple Watch is decimating the competition.

And yet, at both end of the spectrum of watch buyers, value remains. At the upper end, take, for example the Rolex Explorer. The line was launched in 1953, as Rolex cashed in on the ascent of Everest (and the fact that members of the expedition carried a Rolex watch, an early and brilliant marketing strategy). With its svelte 36mm case, superior water resistance, the iconic 3, 6 and 9 in Arabic numerals and the Mercedes-style handset, it became the ultimate adventure watch. In fact, when Ian Fleming wrote his James Bond novels, he pictured his spy wearing an Explorer, one that Fleming himself wore.

A famous Rolex Explorer advertisement from 1966.
A famous Rolex Explorer advertisement from 1966.

From 1989, the Explorer ceased to be a sports watch, and turned into a luxury sports watch, with higher grade stainless steel, elements of white gold in the watch, a top-notch COSC-certified movement, and a sapphire crystal taking over from the old acrylic. Since then, the case size has been bumped up to a more modern 39mm, but as this year’s excellent back-to-36mm Explorer shows, its appeal is timeless. And, at 4,61,700, it’s certainly luxurious.

Also Read: Watch dials that will make you go green with envy

At the other end of the spectrum, take a watch line as cool and as enduring as the Seiko 5. The Japanese watchmaking giant may be known to the uninitiated as the brand that crashed and burned the Swiss watch industry with the introduction of the quartz watch Astron in 1969. But Seiko is also one of the best and most important makers of mechanical watches in the world, and has been that way since the 1950s (Seiko as a watchmaker dates back to 1881). It’s only Swiss counterpart, in terms of brand recall and fandom, is Rolex, and the latter has long given up doing something that Seiko continues to do: make quality mechanical watches for the masses. And nothing encapsulates that as vivdly as the Seiko 5.

Two generations of Seiko 5, from 2020 and 1974.
Two generations of Seiko 5, from 2020 and 1974. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

The line was first launched in 1963, when Seiko decided that young Japanese men and women entering new middle class professions needed a watch that was smart, utilitarian and well made. The ‘5’ comes from the five qualities Seiko believed this new affordable line should possess: an automatic movement, a day and date complication, a robust water resistance, a durable stainless steel case, and a stylish recessed crown at the 4’o’clock position. 58 years later, each of those principles still fuel one of the most popular entry-level lines in the world. The brand new Seiko 5 Sports SRPE line from 2020, a handsome 40mm sports watch with a gorgeous dial, can be had for 18,000. It costs less than an Apple Watch which will be technologically obsolete in a few years, and about the same as a Daniel Wellington fashion watch with a cheap quartz movement and a limited shelf-life.

As sports watches, the Rolex Explorer and the Seiko 5 Sports fulfill the exact same functions, and in their own way provide tons of value. Both are go-anywhere, do-anything, turn-heads-while-doing-them watches with decades of history, iconic designs and a loyal fan following. Both will last you many, many decades. And I can guarantee you that while you might want to buy other watches despite owning either a Seiko or a Rolex, it will likely not be at their expense. That’s true value, I guess?

Handwound is a fortnightly column on watches and watchmaking.

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