Feature: $300 vs $300,000 Watch
The gulf between $300 and $300,000 is enough to buy a house. A real house. One you can live in with your family, furniture and dog. Here are two watches that look incredibly similar that exhibit that same cavernous difference in price. So, take the cheaper Tissot PRX, add a two-bed in the suburbs and what do you get? The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Let’s take a closer look.
When you spend $300,000 on a house, you expect to get a few things thrown in. Doors, windows, maybe a carpet, a little bit of grass sown in the back yard. Spend a thousand times as much and you’d expect a thousand times as many doors, windows and grasses. With the Tissot PRX, there are similar expectations. A bracelet that holds the case, that holds the movement, that holds the dial, that holds the hands. You know, a watch.
There are other glamorous additions as well. You can wear it while you bathe, so long as your bath doesn’t exceed 100m deep. You can check the date, so long as you remembered to change it on the last short month. The crystal is scratchproof sapphire and the 40mm wide by 10.4mm thick case corrosion-resistant steel. So’s the quick release, adjustable bracelet, too. It’s made in Switzerland by a company that’s been at it since 1853. That’s the same year Levi Strauss decided to change the lives of middle-aged men forever.
So, does a thousand times the price get a thousand times the watch? Three thousand hands, more dates than Egypt, a bracelet a mile long and a pressure rating that could survive a black hole? Nope. Not even close. In fact, not at all. There’s a bracelet and a case, a movement and a dial, three hands and a date. The Royal Oak is still just, you know, a watch.
W the actual F is going on here then? The water-resistance is half the Tissot’s, it’s barely any different in size at 39mm wide by 8.1mm thick, and here’s a good one for you—it’s nowhere near as accurate! The Tissot, thanks to its Swiss movement, the well-regarded ETA F06.115, will be about a second out every month. The Audemars Piguet can’t achieve that per day.
So where is all that extra money going? Well, the Royal Oak is made of platinum—but not all of it. Just the bezel and the centre links along the bracelet. The rest is titanium. Yes, titanium is more exotic and expensive than steel, but even combined with the platinum, not a thousand times as much. Don’t sell the house just yet!
Even Inspector Clueso would agree that these two watches look very similar. Almost … too similar. And there’s a reason for that. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak hails from a time when hard-edged, angular cases were dominating the watch scene, and it was one of the first. Not the first, but certainly the most famous. It was the cork in the bottle for the big, old, stubborn brands realising that if they were still going to be relevant, they were going to need to wear their caps backwards and ride skateboards.
Of the many watchmakers that followed Audemars Piguet’s 1972 Royal Oak, including giants like Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, was—surprise—Tissot. They did what everyone else did and put forward their interpretation of that 70’s look in 1978, a watch that would come to earn the name “PRX”. Precise, Robust, 10 atmospheres of water resistance, which equals, now as it did then, 100m.
So, it’s no wonder they look the same. It’s uncanny. You could say the Tissot is a copy of the Royal Oak, but it’s closer to the Rolex Quartz Date 5100 which came out in 1970, two years before the Royal Oak. So you could say they’re both copies of the same thing.
Aha, you say, nervously clutching the deeds to your house outside the Audemars Piguet boutique, but of course the Royal Oak has its fantastic Tapisserie dial! Now, as an enjoyer of small cakes, if you’d said patisserie dial I would have been impressed. But as it happens, for just a few hundred bucks more, Tissot will provide you with a tapisserie dial of its very own.
Game, set and $300 match, it seems. The Tissot just has the Royal Oak’s number. But clearly we’re missing something here. If the Tissot was really all things to all watch owners, it too would cost as much as a Ferrari. But it doesn’t. These days, the price of a Tissot would barely fill up a tank of fuel. So, what gives?
So Now What?
Remember I said the Tissot was much more accurate than the Royal Oak? If you’re new here, then I’ve got some news for you. Accuracy is a good indicator of quality in a watch—to a point. Get too much accuracy and you’ve crossed a line from collectible to corrupted. At least in the minds of some people. That’s because the Tissot PRX has a quartz movement. It’s powered by a battery and has that characteristic one tick per second.
For many people I’m sure that’s all lovely, not having to worry about setting the time until the battery runs out after six years or so. For people who really can’t get enough of watches, however, it won’t do. Yes, the 70s was an era dominated by quartz, yes, both these watches appear very much to ape Rolex’s first quartz—but like any war waged between analogue and digital, the diehards have to have it the old-fashioned way.
So, the Tissot with the pastry dial is also available with a mechanical, spring-powered movement too. You wind it with the crown or with the motion of your arm and it’ll keep ticking for a full 80 hours. That’s enough time to watch the extended cut of The Lord of Rings trilogy six times, so plenty. It’s also longer than the mechanical movement in the Royal Oak will last, running out of puff after just the third viewing.
If you’re confused now, you should be, because what we’re saying here is the Royal Oak is not only more expensive, it’s also worse. The only feather in its cap is that it contains a little bit of platinum, but then again so does a catalytic convertor, and you don’t see those going on the open market for a few hundred thou. No, something else is at work here—something nerdy.
What you might have noticed about the movements in these watches is that they don’t look the same. Not even close. That’s because the Powermatic 80 in the mechanical PRX is a bit of a workhorse, a trusty, hardy, reliable tractor that will do you good service now and forever. But it’s not beautiful. It’s interesting, but it’s not beautiful.
The calibre 2121 in the Royal Oak, however—phew. That thing draws crowds like a New York subway vent when it has a Marilyn Monroe on top of it. It’s also hand finished, which requires talented people spending many, many hours slowly grinding, shaping and polishing the finish you see before you. Does that job sound tedious? It is, and that’s why it costs so much.
It’s also historic, first created in collaboration with Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin alongside the watchmaker that actually built it, Jaeger-LeCoultre. It was the thinnest automatic movement in the world in the 1970s and it still is today, only surpassed by thinner movements using a smaller winding rotor that doesn’t span the entire watch. You could say it was the movement that saved Audemars Piguet and those others too, without which they could have disappeared forever.
I expect that’s a pretty unsatisfying conclusion and you’re still left wondering where the bulk of the $300,000 comes from. Well, everything about the Royal Oak is appealing, from its looks to its history and of course that beautiful movement, and that makes it desirable.
The standard Royal Oak is now a hard-to-get piece and this particular version was limited to just 250 examples, which makes it even harder. New, it was a tenth of the price, but you can’t get it new anymore. That means it’s become something that’s a relatively new phenomenon in the watch industry, but one that’s very familiar with art: a commodity.
The price is what it is because that’s what people will pay for it, on the basis that they hope its desirability will continue to climb and the next trade on will once again be profitable. It’s an interesting place to be in because, whilst that all sounds like doom and gloom to everyone who’d like it but can’t afford it, it opens up the market to newcomers who otherwise wouldn’t be able to compete. It also makes the PRX the bargain of the century.
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