Feature: 3 Expensive Chronographs (That Are Cheaper Than You Think)
High end watches come with high end prices—that's no secret. But what if there were some loophole, some trick to getting watches made by top names like IWC, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin for the kind of prices you'd pay for Rolexes, Omegas and TAG Heuers? Perhaps there is.
If you wanted to purchase a brand new IWC Pilot's Chronograph, you'd be looking to part ways with about £4,500. But what if I told you that you could have an IWC Pilot's Chronograph for £2,000 less? You'd think something was up, and you'd be right—kind of.
This IW374101 is an IWC, a chronograph, and it comes from the Pilot's collection, so it ticks all the boxes so far. It can also be acquired for around £2,500. Seems too good to be true so far, so what's the catch? Well, the 36mm case is some 7mm smaller than today's 43mm Pilot's Chronograph, but it's a chunky watch that wears bigger than the numbers would suggest, so no problem there. It's also some 25 years old, but these are well-built watches designed to last ten times that.
The fly in the ointment here is that this watch is powered by a quartz movement. But before you roll your eyes in frustration, let me tell you a little more: this isn't some off-the-shelf ETA quartz movement, no—this is much more special.
What makes the hands tick in this watch is none other than a Jaeger-LeCoultre calibre 631. Yes, that Jaeger-LeCoultre, the one that made movements for Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin.
And being that this is a Jaeger-LeCoultre quartz movement, it's a little bit more special than your run-of-the-mill crystal ticker. It's finished like a Jaeger-LeCoultre for a start, but the really unusual thing is that it’s not pure quartz—it's a mechanical-quartz hybrid.
There are two motors, one that drives the timekeeping hands at one tick per second as you'd expect for a quartz, and another one for the chronograph that ticks faster, a close approximation to a mechanical chronograph. And it goes further than that: the actual chronograph mechanism that sets the hands going, stops them and resets them, is mechanical, so it feels just like a mechanical chronograph too. All that for the price of a TAG Heuer Link.
What if I told you that you could own an Audemars Piguet chronograph for the same price as a Rolex Submariner? This isn't a joke—it's absolutely true. I'm talking Audemars Piguet of Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore fame—although I'm not talking about those particular watches, because I am in fact talking about this, the Jules Audemars Chronograph.
The cheapest mechanical Audemars Piguet you can buy today costs a whopping £14,600, and the cheapest chronograph costs £21,500—so how is it possible to have a mechanical chronograph from Audemars Piguet for just £6,500?
For the answer to that, it's worth learning a little more about the brand itself. Established by Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet in 1875, it was a partnership of Audemars' technical skill and Piguet's business sense that made the brand huge—and the Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet collections honour those two founding men.
That's why this Jules Audemars Chronograph has a more classic design than you might expect of Audemars Piguet. The marmite Royal Oak has only been a staple of the brand in its latter years, and this chronograph serves to remind us that the company is built on more than just that octagonal design.
Lack of demand has seen this watch fade from the brand's catalogue, but its relative anonymity makes it something of a bargain. The case, a hair over 38mm, is nicely sized and the bi-compax dial well balanced—its only fault is not being memorable enough to have stood alongside the Royal Oak.
And while power doesn’t come from an in-house calibre, it is still furnished with an excellent Jaeger-LeCoultre movement with a chronograph module bolted on, a familiar sight among high-end manufacturers until very recently.
And talking of the Royal Oak, how about something from another of the big three that really does look like it was designed by the same person: Vacheron Constantin's Overseas. Although it was actually penned by Jorg Hysek rather than the Royal Oak’s Gérald Genta, that doesn’t stop it being a stainless steel sports chronograph from one of the most revered watchmakers in the world—for just £7,500.
That kind of money won't get you a Rolex Daytona let alone a Royal Oak, but you won't even be thinking about that when you’re looking down at the Vacheron Constantin on your wrist. It may quite obviously be a rip-off of the Royal Oak, but then so was Patek Philippe's Nautilus—Patek Philippe even had the same guy design it—but high watchmaking has never been about trendsetting and revolutionising—it's about the slow, methodical approach to absolute quality.
And if that's what you're after, the Overseas abounds. You'll see the Maltese Cross logo sculpted in the bezel, the recessed links that slowly blend around the bracelet, a knurled crown and pushers flanking the integrated case.
Although the original Overseas, the '222'—so named as a celebration of the brand's 222nd birthday—had a movement by Jaeger-LeCoultre, this Overseas is the only one of our three that doesn't. Power comes from a Frédéric Piguet 1185 big date column wheel chronograph, which unfortunately can’t be seen—a shame, because it's stunning. It's integrated rather than modular, and has also been used by the likes of Audemars Piguet and Breguet, so you know it's good.
It goes to show that if you know your stuff and look around, you can find some top-notch watchmaking for far less than you’d expect. Whether you want an IWC, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin—or anything else for that matter—it pays to do your research and investigate the models that aren’t quite so well known.
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