MATERIAL WORLD Time of the Season

As those last hours of holiday shopping tick away, here’s a guide to choosing the ultimate in accessories-a great watch.

YOU’RE DREAMING.

In the dream, you’re driving down the Tollway, eyeing the provocative billboards that tower above you. The tantalizing objects you feast your eyes on are, oh, so expensive. The names are all French. But it doesn’t matter. You’re hooked whatever the brand, trie price, the features. You covet. Ah, there’s the signpost up ahead…

The Swiss Watch Zone.

The most perfectly functional of all jewelry is, of course, the watch. For 400 years, people have delighted themselves with tiny time machines dropped into pockets or draped around wrists.

You can wear a watch the price of a car and rationalize it away as utilitarian.

“I have to wear a watch, don’t I?” you ask defensively as eyes rove over your forearm. “It might as well be a good one. You know, this baby really keeps time! “

Yes, and so does that Timex at Ward’s.

Let’s be honest. A Swiss watch is all about showing off. It’s a mark of distinction, an exhibition in gold or steel of personality. A great watch can be greedily ogled many times a day without attracting attention. It is a little ticking love machine. You gotta have it- for you, or for someone you love.

But if you’re going to enter the Zone, where do you start?

Move around inside that dream world and do a little shopping. Consider the basics as you stroll through the Galleria. Think-well, there are really only two types of watches: pocket and wrist. Only eccentrics-Uncle Steve who worked on the railroad-have pocket watches. Forget pocket watches.

Wristwatch it is. Now, are you sure a Swiss watch is the only way to go? Unfortunately, yes.

The Swiss dominate the fine watch market partly because they have plowed the requisite years and funds into developing quality luxury1 timepieces, and partly because everyone is firmly convinced all luxury watches come from Switzerland, A few years ago, the excellent Japanese company Seiko came out with an expensive solid gold line called Jean LaSalle. It should have become the Lexus of the watch industry, knocking more vaunted European brands off their stools with better design and fabulous advertising. Didn’t happen. Why not?

The Swiss own die show.

But, actually, it’s okay that they do, because they produce enough beautiful watches to satisfy nearly everybody. To tell the truth, the watch business is not really as diverse as it appears as you flip these glossy pages at Christmastime. The merger-and-acquisitions mania that swept business and banking spilled over into the Swiss watch world as well.

The company SMH, for example, made its fortune with the Swatch. Surely not a luxury item (except for the collectibles), but it is the most successful Swiss watch line in history. This brilliant marketing stroke enabled SMH to acquire and produce fin ascending order in their mix): Hamilton, Tissot, Omega, Rado, and even Blancpain, one of the finest and oldest mechanical-only watches in the world. ( Blancpains are actually handmade in a quaint old Swiss farmhouse, for goodness’ sake.)

Then there are powerful distributors. In the United States, the North American Watch Company has exclusive rights for the handmade Piaget and the luxurious Coram. They also build and sell Concord and the ubiquitous Movado. All are cleverly priced to compete very little with other watches in die family.

So, since only a few firms make and handie all the watches, what does this do for you?

It ensures that quality is nearly always vertically integrated with price (nicer ones cost more). And that modern watches are fairly standardized in their performance: Just about every Swiss watch keeps time well, is generally reliable, and (despite what they tell you at your jeweler’s) is fairly easy to repair.

So if most Swiss watches are good watches, how can you cull the wants from the don’t wants? The only really important things to consider are cost, looks, and design.

Cost is the biggest single reason people buy what they buy-no surprise there. Handmade watches and/or watches with gem-stones cost the most. The oldest, most famous watchmakers-Bregeut, Vacheron, Patek, Blancpain, and Audemars-Piquet-pride themselves on incredibly thin, ornately detailed mechanical parts in gloriously simple cases. But the realities of the marketplace have forced most of them to add sport and quartz models, particularly for women- most of whom simply don’t want to keep up with winding a watch or worrying about it getting wet.

Joining these makers in the upper echelon of price are handmade watches that don’t feature exquisite movements, like Piaget or Chopard (though Chopard has a nice line of men’s mechanicals for window dressing). These watches are basically gorgeous jewelry that tell time, nothing more. Piagets don’t even come in steel. Perish the thought.

Beneath this stratosphere of the handmade, we have the hand-fashioned. These are watch -es that are essentially made on assembly lines, but have hand attention to assembly or polishing and so forth, and can often be very rare, too. This is where the bulk of the big names fall, like Rolex, Cartier, Baume & Mercier, and Ebel. Needless to say, if these watches feature gems or are particularly rare and hyped models (Rolex Daytona Cosmograph), then they can be outrageously expensive, too.

But don’t despair if your favorite model is profanely pricey. The cagey Swiss have bent over to let you have most models in several variations. When Cartier introduced the huge and eccentrically beautiful Pasha, for example, it was handmade in 18 karat gold and featured eccentricities like little dials for recording a foursome’s golf scores. The tab ? So much for that new BMW you also wanted. It’s $47,000.

But now you can afford a Pasha for non-sultans, in steel, plain dial, on a leather strap for less than a nice used Escort with 30,000 miles. It starts at $3,750.

Finally there are the mass-market Swiss watches, all of them well but factory made. They often are gold-plated, like most Raymond Weils and Movados, or offered in an enormous range of styles and prices, like Concord and Omega.

Looks, of course, are what keep you going around staring at things you can’t afford. Looks are important. Throughout the world, it’s the same for cars and rocket ships-anything mechanical that costs a lot should look great as well as function smoothly.

The aesthetic you follow-from the nou-veau-sleek like the Cartier Panthère to the clunky wonder of a Rolex President-is entirely personal. But before you dash with your cash, think for one second about design as well as looks: How will this beauty function for you?

For women particularly, consider the weight, as well as dial thickness on your wrist. A slithery little Baume & Mercier Riviera-still forward-looking after a quarter-century- glides under the tightest silk cuffs and never hangs off your wrist as you NordicTrack. A nifty Heuer SEL or Rolex Datejust flops a little unless you have so many links taken out that you don’t dare gain a pound, (Which, I suppose, could be a good thing there.)

Men should think about design, too. A big, juicy Breitling Chronomat (gold-plated bezel, but the rest is just splendid) will be a tight fit under a business shirt. An Ebel 1911 with a gray dial will be impossible to read outside at dusk or dawn. A Rolex worn to Los Angeles or Miami might get you shot.

Consider all these things sagely.

Then look at your credit card balance.

Then go for it.

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