One of the biggest, saddest wastes I’ve ever seen in in the realm of personal consumption is the quartz watch. Be honest -- how many non-running quartz watches have you abandoned in the last 20 years or so? Did you keep them? Are they languishing in a dresser drawer with a depleted battery? When you can purchase a reliable, accurate timepiece for $7 including shipping online, why bother with it when the battery runs down? That’s the thinking out there. Just another aspect of our throwaway society.
Whoever came up with the idea of running a weak electrical current through a tiny chip of insanely abundant quartz to measure time was pure genius. That one invention brought the time-honored art of Swiss watch making to its knees. To add a big bucket of hurt to the already dismal watch industry, many people abandoned wrist watches in favor of their cell phones. Why strap something on to your body when you’ve already got something almost cyber-grafted to your person like a cell phone? Admittedly, the two aforementioned factors set the Swiss scrambling to revive their decimated industry. Amazingly, something cheap and whimsical saved the day.
Enter the "Swatch." Clever name ... Swiss + watch = swatch. Mass produced quartz watches in low cost plastic cases was the bane of the Swiss watch business, so what did they do? They hit back with a mass produced quartz watch in a plastic case with one critical twist. They brought in designers to create cases and bands that were bright, colorful, and exclusive. They made series of Swatch watches that became collector items due to design and limited series production. While Casio was punching out great functioning but conservative looking watches, Swatch was adding joie de vivre, thus breathing life into their products. Nowadays Swatch collecting has driven prices of those old plastic watches into the stratosphere.
What about the ultra-expensive Swiss watches that are handcrafted? Believe it or not, there has been a resurgence of demand for them precisely because of the exclusivity. Anything that is made well and connotes uncompromising quality is going to be sought after by a certain level of society, and Swiss watches are it.
The one thing that the high-end Swiss watchmakers are still up against is the ubiquitous knock-off. Today there are more fake Rolex watches out there than there are real ones. Some of the fakes last a few months and then they fail or the finish rubs off. Many get delivered that are non-functioning right out of the box.
Then there is the emerging Chinese fake that cannot be told from the real thing. They come with perfect functioning automatic movements that use a weight to keep them automatically wound. The second hand sweeps in a smooth arc just like a real Rolex. There is a holographic label on the watch back, just like the real thing. There is laser engraving on the inside of the crystal’s bezel, just like the real thing. How can you tell if it’s real or not? Some experts can discern a fake even when all of the factors I just mentioned are present, while others need to get out their special tools and remove the back of the watch to check the movement. That’s where you find out what’s really going on, and that brings us full circle.
Removing the back of a watch is not as big a deal as one might think. Most mass manufactured watch backs are pressed in and don’t require a specialized tool for removal. You can pry them off with a jackknife blade. You can replace the battery easily by removing it (don’t use anything metal to remove a battery; it will ruin the quartz movement if you inadvertently short out the battery). Go to the drugstore and get a replacement battery and simply reverse the disassembly process. We can save millions of dollars worth of unused quartz watches just by using a little initiative!
As for avoiding buying a fake high end Swiss watch? It’s best to get yours at an authorized dealer. Also, buying a used high-end watch can be tricky unless you know what to look for. Contrary to what they say about not buying a used Rolex online, it can be done safely, but only if you know how to do it and what to look for, so I don’t recommend it. However, if you must, find a seller with an immaculate rating and at least get a money-back guarantee. And have the seller crack the back and photograph the movement ... and educate yourself. There’s all kinds of good advice out there for the budding watch collector.
Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.