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Musings on Zenith and the El Primero
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In this week's Throwback Sundays article, we look at six non-mainstream watches that will elevate your collection to the next level.
by Robin Lim on September 25, 2016

For many collectors, there lies a question of “What’s next?”, after building a basic collection of watches from big names such as Rolex or Omega.

It is an interesting thought, and a dilemma that many collectors face at one point or another. So what is the next step towards horological nirvana after that TAG Heuer, Omega, or Rolex?

So, for today’s article, we will be looking at watches that are priced in the region that is close to a typical Rolex or Omega watch, but are perhaps lacking in mass appeal than these marques. While not quite as dominant in terms of popular culture and brand awareness, these are undoubtedly excellent watches that offer collectors something different beyond the usual suspects, elevating one’s collection past the ‘starter’s set’.

 

Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso

 

The Jaeger LeCoultre Grande Reverso Night & Day Singapore Special Edition. An assuming, but delightful piece.

The Jaeger LeCoultre Grande Reverso Night & Day Singapore Special Edition. An assuming, but delightful piece.

 

On the top of our list, a perennial favourite in the horological world: the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso.

Our regular readers should be familiar with the Reverso story, where its famed designer was challenged by British Officers to create a timepiece that is capable of protecting the dial side glass from shattering during polo matches. From there, an elegant solution was birthed, taking the form of the iconic reversible case. While it was originally created as a sports watch, it has turned into a dress watch over the years. This is all thanks to its simple and subtle design. It is also classy and structurally tapered, the slender watch made it perfect for any formal occasion. Given its versatility- doubling as a sports watch in a pinch when you flip the reversible case; the Reverso is a MUST HAVE once you have made your way down the checklist of notable brands.

The Reverso is available in many variants, ranging from the simple Classique, to the complicated Grande Complication a Triptyque that includes a tourbillon and the Equation of Time. Price begins at US$4,500 (approximately S$6,060) for the basic Classique Quartz variant.

 

Zenith El Primero

 

The Zenith El Primero. Probably one of the most iconic pieces in the Zenith lineup.

The Zenith El Primero. Probably one of the most iconic pieces in the Zenith line-up.

 

When it comes to chronographs, the likes of Rolex Daytona and Omega Speedmaster probably occupy dominant mind share – after all, the former was made famous by celebrated actor Paul Newman while the latter literally accompanied our first astronauts to the moon. Lurking on the periphery of popular consciousness, is the Zenith’s El Primero. The El Primero has the honour of being the world’s first automatic chronograph, and it is recognized by connoisseurs as the chronograph that features a mechanically sophisticated high-beat movement.

Despite the accolades, it is a travesty that El Primero is not as well known outside the horological circle. All things considered – the El Primero is robustly constructed, exceptional timepiece with a solid namesake movement. Interestingly, the El Primero movement was fitted in older Rolex Daytona (Reference 165XX) chronographs. In fact, they had to “de-tune” the movement to reduce wear-and-tear, from 36,000bph to 28,800bph. Rolex eventually produced its own movement for the Daytona, but this short digression gives us insight into the prowess and capabilities of Zenith’s flagship calibre.

That said, the El Primero range of watches is more than just chronographs and encompasses a variety of additional complications as well. One of our picks will be their novelty from this year’s Baselworld: the Classic Car (retailing at US$6,700, or approximately S$9,067). We particularly like its classic aesthetics, in addition to the El Primero movement which features a decent power reserve of around 50 hours. Overall, it is an excellent alternative to better known chronographs. Read our musings on the El Primero, its influence to the industry and where it is headed to.

 

Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph

 

Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SGBC015.

Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph SGBC015.

 

For the unacquainted, Grand Seiko’s association with Seiko often leads one to the inaccurate perception that the brand isn’t on par with the Swiss or German powerhouses, however, given that the majority of Seiko’s production caters to mass market consumers, one could be forgiven. But talk to an experienced watch collector, and they will easily express the kind of horological kudos often reserved for the highest tiers of watchmaking, for us, Grand Seiko exemplifies Japanese watchmaking prowess equal to the best of Switzerland (and often, with more accessible price-points to boot).

To use an analogy, Grand Seiko is akin to the relationship between Lexus and Toyota. The different identity was created many decades back (together with King Seiko in the past) to separate itself from their entry-level mass products, and more emphasis is placed on both the quality and execution of the timepiece. The Japanese penchant for perfection is telling. For instance, the finishing on the case, dial, and movement are exceptionally executed. Additionally, the attention to detail is amazing. At a minimum, Grand Seiko finishing is often comparable to some of the more established Swiss/German counterparts that are priced at a higher premium.

One of our top recommendations for Grand Seiko is its Spring Drive Chronograph. The entire range is noteworthy, and our picks are the two new Black Ceramic Limited Editions. The watch is case in Bright Titanium, and it is clad in a high tech zirconium ceramic that provides a nice visual contrast. The watch is also fitted with an in-house Calibre 9R96, which includes date indicator, column wheel chronograph, power reserve indicator, as well as a 24 hour GMT hand. Priced at ¥ 1,400,000 (approximately S$18,890), the Black Ceramic Edition is slightly on the pricier end. The more affordable alternative – the regular Spring Drive Chronograph, SBGC005, is more modestly priced at US$ 9,100 (approximately S$12,315, with titanium case and bracelet). Both are wonderful watches, although we feel that the Black Ceramic Edition will stand out, given its interesting combination and exclusivity (there are only 500 and 600 pieces that are produced for the two special variants respectively).

 

Chopard Mille Miglia GTS Power Control

 

The Chopard Mille Miglia GTS Power Control. A rather pretty sports watch with some motoring pedigree.

The Chopard Mille Miglia GTS Power Control. A rather pretty sports watch with some motoring pedigree.

 

Chopard. A brand that is often more known for its jewellery pieces than its timepieces. It’s a tragedy, considering that the Geneva-based watchmaker produces some exquisite pieces at rather reasonable price points.

One of the pieces that had caught our attention is the Mille Miglia GTS Power Control, launched late last year. As its nomenclature suggests, the timepiece has its roots in motorsports. The theme runs throughout the timepiece, including “tyre-inspired” rubber straps, racing red accents on both the seconds hand and the minute track, as well as the power reserve indicator that is reminiscent of a fuel gauge on a car’s dashboard.

With prices starting at S$8,470 for the model with power reserve indicator, we reckon this is one timepiece that offers pretty good value for money. It is fitted with an in-house developed COSC-certified movement, with decent finishing and a power reserve of around 60 hours. The quality at this price point, makes it superb value. However, if a sports watch is not your cup of tea, then perhaps you might want to check out Chopard’s superlative L.U.C collection as well. Notably, the L.U.C is the flagship collection for Chopard, and it offers collectors some pretty amazing pieces at a fraction of a price relative to competing brands.

 

Montblanc 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter

 

Montblanc 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter, in Blue.

Montblanc 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter, in Blue.

 

Over the last few years, Montblanc has positioned itself as a serious threat to their competitors. Since Jérôme Lambert took the reins in 2013, Montblanc has constantly outdone themselves by offering collectors quality pieces at attractive prices. The move has certainly yielded pretty good dividends with many collectors are finally taking Montblanc seriously and gravitating towards some of their heritage offerings in recent years.

In 2015, Montblanc launched a new series of watches under their 1858 Collection. This collection is part of the “Return to Minerva” series, featuring classic-style watches fitted with movements made in their Villeret facility, historical birthplace of Minerva movements. Of the collection, the 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter is our favourite. The watch features an alluring blue dial reminiscent of pilot’s watches that Minerva had produced between the 1920s and the 1930s. What’s especially alluring is the Calibre 16.29 inspired by the Minerva 17.29 that was produced in 1920s, and the entire movement is produced with many old school components- a visual treat with signature ‘devil’s tail’ and impeccable finishing.

Priced at S$37,800, it is outstanding value, and the market agrees with us given the amazing sales. The 44mm timepiece combines stunning good looks with class and quality.

Also consider the 4810 Orbis Terrarum or the Heritage Spirit Perpetual Calendar for more modestly priced options which we also find similarly fascinating.

 

Habring² Doppel 3 Split Seconds Chronograph

 

The Habring2 Doppel 3. The Doppel 3 is the third generation of split seconds chronographs from Habring2, following in the footsteps of the GPHG winning Doppel 2.

The Habring2 Doppel 3. The Doppel 3 is the third generation of split seconds chronographs from Habring2, following in the footsteps of the GPHG winning Doppel 2.

 

Last but not least of all, one of our favourite undervalued Independents: the Habring² Doppel 3 Split Seconds Chronograph.

The brainchild of husband and wife team of Richard and Maria Habring. Richard, most notably, is responsible for some of the innovations in the horological industry including the iconic IWC Doppelchronograph’s spilt seconds movement, which he had since adapted to use on his own watches after IWC’s patent had expired in 2011. The module first found its way to the Doppel 2.0, which incidentally won the 2012 GPHG “Sports Watch of the Year” award. Recently, the Doppel 2.0 underwent an update, resulting in the Doppel 3. Among the new features of the Doppel 3 is the two button pusher system for the split second chronograph and a modular system to allows the addition of other complications such as a full calendar. The 42mm watch is based on a manual-winding Valjoux 7760 base movement, modified for rattrapante functions. Finishing is adequate without going overboard to keep costs low.

Retailing at S$10,500, the Habring² Doppel 3 offers collectors an access to the world of Independent watchmaking without breaking the bank for it. In addition, the complication – a split second mono-pusher chronograph (second pusher is only needed because it is a split seconds chronograph) – is something that is highly-prized and its closest competitors (the Sinn 910 Anniversary Split Seconds Chronograph is probably the closest in function and price) are nowhere near in terms of either its pricing or technical innovation. Overall, it is an interesting and good looking timepiece, and one that we reckon will definitely add a new dimension to any watch collection.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Marketing and branding usually creates an unassailable perception of prestige which often complicates purchase decisions with intimidating fear and hesitation; often, since moving away from this comfort zone usually involves a huge sum of money, novice collectors often fall prey to the idea that these amounts should command a certain level of prestige and returns on the resale market- an unfortunate vicious cycle.

The six watches that we have highlighted today are priced reasonably, and offer collectors something notable beyond the starter’s collection of Rolexes, IWCs or Omegas. By taking a step away from brands with such mass appeal, you will gain greater appreciation of horology as a hobby, elevating it to the next level in the process.

So, do you agree with what we have said? Do you think that collectors should be more adventurous in terms of the watches that they should be buying? Do let us know your thoughts, as well as pieces that you think deserve a spot on this list. Cheers!

 

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