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Time is of the Essence

A luxury timepiece can make a very personal statement—and there’s one (or more) out there that can make you tick.

In corporate circles, most people put a real premium on time, but ironically that’s not always reflected in their watches. Some simply don’t know or care about the differences between a glamorous Rolex and a cheap Canal Street knock-off. Others take the view that a watch shouldn’t cost much more than a lunch—to them anything beyond a digital LCD is frivolous or downright haughty.

Watch enthusiasts like Sanford (Sandy) Miller, co-CEO and cochairman of Franchise Services of North America, have a different take. They appreciate accurate timekeeping, obsess over performance features and precise craftsmanship, and get downright intoxicated by aesthetics and other intangibles. Miller, who likens his lust for timepieces to the zeal others feel for foreign sports cars and boats, is a serious, but pragmatic, aficionado.

“If I see a watch in the jewelry box of a store and fall in love with it, I do a value calculation to see what I think it should cost,” says the 57-year-old CEO, whose company is the largest car rental franchisor in North America. “If my interest is vindicated by the price being in my wheelhouse, I’ll buy it.”

Miller acknowledges that his watches—including the Hublot Big Bang he recently received as a gift from his wife—make a statement, but says that’s not his intention in wearing them. “When I wear a watch, it’s because I like it, not because I want to draw attention to it,” says Miller, whose collection also includes timepieces from Rolex, Patek Philippe, Movado, Christian Dior and Audemars Piguet. “It’s never to send a message, although I appreciate that they can send one indirectly.”

As a result, he takes care to choose a timepiece appropriate to the occasion. Flashing a little bling in the presence of investment bankers, for example, is okay—even expected. “They are keenly aware of things like watches, and because they’re so often materially oriented, they make a judgment about you on that basis,” he says. “They want to think you’re successful because you’re borrowing money.” But wearing a high-end watch to an employee meeting is a different story. “In this economy, where people are struggling, that would be tantamount to rubbing people’s noses in it.”

Finding the Time

Collectors like Miller regularly scour the universe of new, pre-owned and vintage timepieces to find the perfect watch. When it comes to timepieces, “perfect” is highly individual, ranging from utterly flamboyant and complex to elegantly understated. Whatever your taste, there’s always something new— or old—that will speak your language, either shouting it out to everyone or whispering it to you alone.

And when you do your due diligence, buying a watch that complements your personality and wardrobe can be thoroughly satisfying—and not necessarily hugely expensive. “There are lots of exciting watches available starting as low as $500 on up to $50,000,” says Jeff Stein, an expert on vintage timepieces.

Ken Jacobs, owner of Los Angeles-based Wanna Buy A Watch?, agrees that the right timepiece doesn’t have to cost more than your typical sports sedan. “You can get into a distinctive timepiece in the $2,000-$5,000 range,” he says. “Something with an interesting design, either a chronograph or something sporty that’s desirable, special and unique for characteristics that go beyond a prestigious brand name.” Notable vintage watches in that range include chronographs by Omega, Breitling, LeCoultre and Movado, among other equally sought-after brands.

“Most upper-middle class professional people will walk into a store and spend $2,000 to $4,000 on a watch without hesitation because they know it’s nice,” notes Stein, who operates a Heuer-related web site (www.onthedash.com) devoted to chronographs and also serves as a corporate law partner in the Atlanta headquarters of King & Spalding. “But $10,000 is the entry point for some of the luxury brands like Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin, as well as more sophisticated chronograph watches from commonly known brands like TAG Heuer, Breitling and Omega with ‘complications.'” In timepiece lingo, “complications” refer to a wide array of functions beyond basic timekeeping (such as a stop watch, day/date, moon phase and other more esoteric measurements). Also sought after is the tourbillon, a rotating cage addition to a watch’s movement designed in the 18th Century to improve accuracy. Now it’s mostly a showpiece for the watchmaker’s skill and often shown off through a window on the face.

“People willing to spend more than $10,000 are often committed to the idea that they don’t want their watch to be noted,” adds Stein. “They want a stealth watch.” The thinking is that their co-workers can see what these buyers drive every day when they pull into the parking lot, so with their watch, they want something low-key, he explains.

When prospective buyers ask for recommendations, Stein typically instructs them to narrow their focus by browsing dealer web sites to get a sense of whether they want high-end or affordable, big or small, stainless steel or gold, chronograph or simple. Next, style comes into play. “I ask, ‘Do you want round, square, rectangular, art deco, or modern? Numerals, markers, or Roman numerals?'” he says. “Once I know the look they want and their budget, I can make the right recommendation—and it’s a lot more fun spending their money than mine.”

Watch Yourself

While there are occasionally great deals to be found online via eBay, Craigslist, and other classified-ad hubs, many serious luxury watch buyers are willing to pay a little more for the experience, service and peace of mind that comes from walking into a retail store to buy a brand-new timepiece. But as with cars and boats, pre-owned watches can be purchased at a significant discount—sometimes as much as 30 to 50 percent of the suggested retail price in “like-new” condition, says vintage watch expert Jeff Stein.

Vintage timepieces have long offered a great alternative to new watches, filling the gap in terms of design and character. “But in the last 15 years, Swiss watch manufacturers have reintroduced vintage-inspired contemporary models, which has actually fueled interest in pre-owned watches,” notes Stein. “You don’t have to go vintage to get interesting or high-quality watches—the marketplace has expanded to satisfy those requirements.”

Many stores and collectors—not authorized dealers but offering comparable service and expertise—have a large selection of preowned contemporary high-end timepieces regularly acquired in trades from customers who move in and out of watches quickly. That means the savvy shopper can benefit from the latest technology and modern movements at a steep discount.

Most major cities and second-tier markets boast retailers for the major watch brands, as well as stores that sell vintage watches, with intriguing selections. Here’s an insider’s list of some of the country’s best pre-owned and vintage purveyors:

Boston, Mass. European Watch
www.europeanwatch.com, 617-262-9798
Carmel, Calif. Fourtané
www.fourtane.com, 831-624-4684
Coral Gables, Fla. Worldly Watches
www.worldlywatches.com, 954-536.8188
Los Angeles, Calif. Wanna Buy A Watch?
www.wannabuyawatch.com, 323-653-0467
Miami Beach, Fla. Gray & Sons
www.grayandsons.com, 800-918-2608
New York, NY Aaron Faber Gallery
www.aaronfaber.com, 212-586-8411
New York, NY Central Watch
www.centralwatch.com, 914-930-7943

About Michael Gelfand