How NOT To Buy Your First Luxury Watch

There comes a time in a man’s life when his career is taking off, he’s got a bit of disposable income, and decides to buy a fine watch. That time came for me, and this is my story.

Like anyone born after 1980, I started by googling “how to buy a nice watch.” I had a meeting coming up at my company during which I would be voted in as a shareholder and decided that I needed a nice watch for the occasion. I was at a conference at the University Club in NYC, near a stretch of the finest watch shops in the world. I took a walk along Fifth Avenue and stopped in my tracks when I saw the windows at Wempe. I was dressed well for my meeting so I decided to overcome my intimidation and go in.

Wempe Jewelers on 5th Ave in Manhattan

Socially distanced for months now, I am finding that human connections are the real luxury.

“Xiānshēng, nǐ hǎo, huānyíng lái dào WEMPE!” I blinked and stared blankly at the attractive young white woman standing in front of me. One thought ran through my head: “Did she just speak to me in Mandarin Chinese?” My next thought: “Um, how do I say ‘thanks, just looking?’ again?” Instead, I turned to English, the language I have spoken to just about everyone I know who wasn’t my elderly grandmother back in Taiwan. Later I realized that Chinese tourists are a big part of the luxury watch business in the city, but at the time I was truly baffled.

I still wish I could afford this Lange Saxonia Annual Calendar.

I looked around the store and saw a nice looking watch. I thought to myself: it’s German, it’s not even Swiss, it must be a good deal.

I looked around the store and saw a nice looking watch. I thought to myself, it’s German, it’s not even Swiss, it must be a good deal. I asked the salesman if I could have a closer look. After he fetched a velvet tray, white gloves, and a glass of water he took the watch out and showed it to me like I was buying a vowel and he was Vanna White. After wondering what the hell was happening I took the watch and put it on my wrist. Nice watch, I thought, I like it a lot, this is going to look awesome at the meeting!

“How much?” 

“Forty…”

“$4,000?”

“$40…K, sir”

Crap, I thought, get this “Lange” thing away from me, it costs more than my car!

The salesman after seeing my reaction kindly steered me towards the less expensive section. I gingerly asked to see a Longines, and breathed out a sigh of relief when I saw a price tag of $3,000. I tried it on, told him I would think about it, thanked him for the water and left.

I did some more reading over the next couple of weeks. I visited my local Tourneau and tried on a similar Longines watch in the “Master Collection” and some highly recommended “inside baseball” brands like Nomos. I liked the Longines but Tourneau didn’t stock the two register chronograph that I wanted. I then found out that there was a Longines boutique at the World Trade Center. I figured, it’s direct from Longines, it must be better, right?

The Longines Boutique in The World Trade Center

Imagining a box filled with fresh Alpine air that emitted a vigorous yodel upon opening, I took a long drive down to lower Manhattan. I spent 40 frustrating minutes trying to find a parking spot before giving up and spending $60 at a parking garage. I walked past the 9/11 Memorial to the Westfield World Trade Center. After browsing several other shops along the way, I entered the Oculus area. It felt a bit like being in a giant, white, somewhat round airport. I got to the ground level, did my final browsing at London Jewelers and Breitling, then walked into the Longines boutique. Finally, I had made it!

Imagining a box filled with fresh Alpine air that emitted a vigorous yodel upon opening, I took a long drive down to lower Manhattan. 

It was not meant to be. 40mm Master Chronograph

I walked around a few times to take it all in. Then I zeroed in on the Master Collection 2-register chronograph. “There it is,” I thought, “meeting’s next week, time to step it up!” I went through the mandatory velvet tray, white gloves, and a glass of water, I finally tried the watch on. Nervous, I asked if there was even the slightest possibility of a discount. “Sir, this is a fine watch” I was told, “We couldn’t possibly. Well, we can take off the tax. And we’ll include this fine pen.” Sold! I pulled out my credit card, spent 20 minutes on the phone when it was denied because my erratic watch buying behavior had triggered the fraud algorithm, and finally, it was mine!

What should have been a triumphant moment instead turned to slight unease when they took the same watch I had tried on and packed it up. “Did they just give me a floor model?” I asked if they had a new one in the back and I got “Sir, this is a new one, I assure you.” Alright, alright, let’s do this. I put the huge box in the giant plastic bag with the Longines logo and got ready to take the long walk back to my car.

The pulsometer they wouldn’t sell.

“Oh, by the way sir, have you seen this?” The salesman goes in the back and brings out a distinctive looking watch with a white dial. “You did say you were a doctor? This is a doctor’s watch. It even has a scale on the chronograph to measure pulsations!” I ask if I can have that watch instead and I am told “Oh no, sir, this one is reserved. But if you check back perhaps we will have it in stock again!” And that was when the unease began its monstrous transformation into regret.

I went home and began to intensely research my selection. “Is this a modular, cam operated chronograph? Shouldn’t I have gotten the superior integrated, column wheel?” I found out that the pulsometer had a monopusher column wheel chronograph, a more rare and superior movement. Was I going to go back and buy another one so soon? Why couldn’t they have simply sold me the other one to begin with? The regret monster was sprouting fangs and claws, but I tried to suppress it. 

I ask if I can have that watch instead and I am told “Oh no, sir, this one is reserved. But if you check back perhaps we will have it in stock again!” And that was when the unease began its monstrous transformation into regret.

In my online searching I found that the same watch was selling for considerably less on the gray market. What was the real price of my watch? Allen explores this topic more with Longines CEO Walter Von Kanel on the Beyond the Dial Podcast E21

I figured that if I had perhaps overpaid I had better get my money’s worth so I began wearing the watch every day. I noticed that my wrist was getting sore from the edges of the case. The chronograph pushers were difficult to operate due to the modular construction and cam operation. I thought about the pulsometer. I got increasingly aggravated every time I looked at my wrist. I started looking for another watch.

I found that the same watch was selling for considerably less on the gray market. What was the real price of my watch?

One day I was visiting an authorized dealer in Englewood, New Jersey that I had read about on a watch blog when I happened to drive past Palisades Jewelers. I thought to myself, this place may have some watches so I stopped in. Ron, the owner, greeted me as I walked in. He did not try to speak to me in Chinese or offer me a glass of water. He tolerated my slow browsing and compulsive staring at each and every watch in the case. He offered to pull out any of the watches and patiently answered my many questions about his specialty, vintage and preowned watches. 

Palisade Jewelers

I settled on a 1940’s Breitling but after getting burned on the Longines, I was determined to do my research. I took detailed photos of the dial and case, and even had him open up the back to take photos of the movement. I went on watchuseek that night asking for opinions, and the world’s preeminent vintage Breitling collector Fred Mandelbaum, aka @Watchfred was kind enough to verify that the watch was indeed correct. I returned and drove a hard bargain, but Ron gave me a good deal and the watch was mine!

True love at last.

I still love that Breitling. It’s small, about 34 mm, and fits my wrist perfectly. It has some flaws, like some brassing of the chrome plated case, but the movement works great and the chronograph pushers are crisp and snappy after almost 75 years of use. The tachymeter and telemeter scales are bright and the dial has that special silvery luster of age.

The Longines is long gone, sold on eBay at half price, and I have never been to that boutique again. I have been many more times to chat with Ron and buy a watch or two, or more. I know what his kids are up to and he knows that I have time to listen to another story. After local businesses began reopening as COVID-19 eased its grip on our region, I called to commiserate and check on him and his family. In this world of Amazon and Instacart, buying is more anonymous than ever, but not for me at Palisade Jewelers. Socially distanced for months now, I am finding that human connections are the real luxury. If you go to Englewood, stop in and tell Ron that The Doctor says hi.

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