When Time Is Money--And Art

Handcrafted watches draw devoted fans with deep pockets.

For $10, you can buy a quartz watch that keeps perfect time. But chances are it will never become a collector's item, impress your boss, or give you the eerie feeling that a tiny heart is beating on your wrist. For that, only a mechanical timepiece, powered by a spring instead of batteries, will do. In a mechanical watch, "you can own something that truly could be regarded as a masterpiece," says Chet Borgida, a 58-year-old New York collector and financial executive. "And you don't have to keep it on a wall. You can carry it with you all day long."

The craftsmanship of such watches may be matched only by that of a fine automobile -- and the two can cost the same. Geneva's Vacheron Constantin makes an intricately carved watch in rose gold that retails for $395,000.

The movement -- the mechanism that keeps time -- can include hundreds of parts. Just polishing a tapered bar to keep a gear in place can take a watchmaker eight hours. Even with the advent of computer-aided design, many of these watches take months to produce, and just a handful of any model may be made each year. Adding to the allure, some watchmakers have exceptionally long and distinguished histories. Geneva-based Rolex lays claim to the first truly waterproof watch case, the Oyster, first produced in 1926. Vacheron Constantin supplied timepieces to Napoleon.

You don't need a royal treasure to buy one of these creations, but it helps. A basic mechanical watch, such as the least expensive Nomos Glashütte, starts at about $700. Officine Panerai's sporty-looking automatics begin at about $3,000, and it's possible to get a Rolex for about the same. After that, prices rise steeply.

In quality, Geneva's Patek Philippe is the acknowledged leader among aficionados. Watch collectors rave that the normally hidden workings behind the face of a Patek Philippe are as painstakingly engraved as those visible through the display back. The cheapest Patek Philippe runs about $9,000.

But it's the features known as "complications" that can have the biggest impact on price. A calendar is the simplest. Others include a power reserve, which will keep the watch ticking for a few days even if it's not being worn, a stopwatch, and a moving diagram showing phases of the moon. The minute repeater is the icing on the cake. When the wearer pulls a small lever, tiny chimes ring out the time, similar to a grandfather clock. Minute repeaters can easily cost $100,000.

For all their craftsmanship, "you don't go into watches for the investment opportunity," says Matthew Morse, editor-in-chief of WatchTime magazine. Some brands -- Patek Philippe, Rolex, Vacheron Constantin -- tend to keep more of their value. In general, though, putting money into watches is similar to spending on cars. For collectors, mechanical watches are tiny pieces of art they can wear. And, of course, they do tell the time.

By Kimberly Weisul

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