Old Money Choices: The Timepiece

In response to a recent inquiry from Demetrius, one of our regular readers, I want to comment on what other Old Money Guys and Gals have shared with me about their choices regarding their wristwatches. I also want to share what I’ve seen in the past year since I’ve lived in Europe.

While it’s unwise to generalize about an entire cultural group (Old Money), I would say I see some definite boundaries in terms of what OMG’s will and won’t buy in regards to timepieces. For men, the ubiquitous gold Rolex is usually not a consideration. First generation stock brokers, athletes, and entertainers usually spring for the bling. Not 3G’s (Third Generation Old Money).

The majority of my friends in the United States and my friends in Europe (France and Italy) lean toward one of two iconic brands: the stainless steel Rolex and the Cartier tank.

Regarding the stainless steel Rolex: the very experienced tell me that the Oyster band holds up over time better than the Jubilee band.  The younger generation are buying the 36mm men’s version, which is being worn (and will be inherited) by men and women alike.  This is a watch that is often purchased for a college graduate as a gift, and worn the rest of their lives for dress and sport. Maintenance costs are estimated to be about $400.00 every 18 months to have the Rolex serviced. Guys like it because you can wear it anywhere: the boardroom or the beach. With the silver finish, it doesn’t attract a lot of attention, but does make a subtle statement. Mommy Dearest purchased one in the 1970s and has been happy with hers for decades.

Regarding the Cartier tank watch: the most well-known model sports a black leather band, white face, and black Roman numerals. Again, the large, men’s size is being bought and worn by both sexes. This is a dressier watch, not as durable as the Rolex, but it does disappear nicely under a French cuff. I haven’t heard anyone discuss maintenance costs.  Worn with jeans or the classic black dress, the tank watch is versatile, elegant, and timeless.

I’ve seen pre-owned stainless steel Rolex watches start in price at $1200.00. (The one in the photo is offered by La Jolla Jewelry for $4200.00, I believe.) New models can go to  $9,000.00 in a retail setting. The Cartier tank watches can start in about the same range and go to $20,000 or more. (The one in the photo, again from La Jolla Jewelry, is offered at $6300.00, I believe.) Most everyone avoids diamonds or other jewels on the watch. They also avoid buying from craigslist or from private parties.

If you’re buying for yourself, I would consider purchasing a pre-owned timepiece from a reputable dealer. The savings can be substantial. If you’re buying for the college graduate, you might consider purchasing new from an authorized dealer. (Cartier’s service reputation for customers who buying watches from them is legendary.)

If you want to collect and hand the watch or watches down to the next generation, I’d consider Patek Philippe. They tend to hold their value over time and have a global, and perhaps unsurpassed, reputation for quality and craftsmanship.

I would, however, be careful about purchasing a wristwatch as an ‘investment’. I have consoled many crestfallen consumers who, in times of economic hardship, have taken their pricey timepieces into a local watch dealer, only to find out what the real value of their watch is. (Answer; much less than they paid for it.) Patek Philippe watches, as many people know, usually start in five figures and go to seven figures.

In summary, I see huge numbers of quality, pre-owned timepieces online in the $3000.00 to $9,000.00 price range. Shop around and feel free to negotiate. Cash is king.

Personal note: I don’t own a Rolex or a Cartier presently. I’ve tied the acquisition of a watch to career accomplishments: the publishing of my novel, the production of a film, etc.  I think luxuries are to be purchased with earned money, not inherited money. I’m not alone in that opinion. I do think that they can be excellent gifts for college graduates. I’m less certain about giving a Rolex or a Cartier watch to a high school graduate.

Like most things Old Money, the wristwatch acquisition is governed by familiar factors: what is a value; what is appropriate; what is timeless and durable; and what is discreet. More recently, it may be influenced by that nagging realization that I simply can look at my cell phone and see what time it is…and keep my money in my pocket.

That said, Demetrius, I know everyone would be very interested to know what you decide to purchase, and how it turns out.

  • BGT

42 thoughts on “Old Money Choices: The Timepiece

  1. I would go with a Cartier tank, I received one for my college graduation in 1984 and it is still going strong. I’ve only had to replace the band a couple of times.

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    1. Congratulations, Jane. Good for you. Does the watch require any maintenance? I’m curious, and I’m sure others would like to know your experience. Thanks again. – BGT

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      1. I have it cleaned and serviced about every five years. It runs like a charm! Cartier offers a service program for their time pieces. All in all it’s a fantastic watch, and I believe well worth the money.

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  2. I used to have a problem with watches….I spent my first month’s pay on a Cartier tank at age 21.
    My Great Grandparents moved to England from Ireland at the turn of the century and ran a boarding house for Irish immigrants in Central London.
    My Grandparents moved to Chiswick and worked in brewing their whole lives. My parents moved to Surrey and owned a very successful car and motorcycle business. By the time I came along, I was able to indulge my passion for watches…. Submariner’s, GMT timemasters, Datejusts…I had the local dealer on speed dial.
    I wasn’t until I properly grew up, that I realised I was just trying to impress other people.
    These days I wear a Seiko series 5 and invest my money in Index funds.
    I have rarely met a high net worth individual who was not a ‘celebrity’, wearing an expensive watch.

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    1. Fascinating history, James. Thank you for sharing. Material things do have their time and place, and when they’ve lost their allure, it’s usually gone forever. Index funds it is. – BGT

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  3. When my grandfather was married in 1932 he received a Gruen wristwatch, which I inherited since the men in the family all said it was too small. My husband had a new leather strap put on it and I have been wearing it for the last decade. My family has been wearing the watch for 85 years. When purchased new it cost $50 or about $1,000 in today’s dollars. That’s less than $12 per year. Good quality is always a good value.

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  4. While the goal is to someday obtain a Cartier tank watch, I recently purchased a Timex from the late 1960s with a black leather band, white face, and roman numerals. I know in the Old Money Book you said that if you choose to wear jewelry, less is more, but each piece should tell a story. For me, the Timex watch tells a funny story from my childhood, so that was the thought when I purchased it.

    Thanks so much for posting on this!

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  5. I wear a 1962 Timex Marlin wind up on a watch band from J.Press. it costs me nothing to maintain I don’t even need batteries. Actually I did just put a new crystal on it and received some compliments. The watch was my father’s and it goes nice with the Filofax he gave me where I keep address information on people I know. I will keep my money in my trust without spending on watches and smartphone plans.

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  6. Thanks, Byron, for the feedback.

    By coincidence [on several points you’ve made] I currently have comparable proxies of the watches you’ve noted: a vintage Cartier Santos Dumont [inherited from my maternal grandfather] and a Rolex GMT-Master II [gifted to me at ’12 university graduation]. The Rolex was purchased brand new at full retail [$10,000] and the Cartier, as said, was inherited. (I would’ve loved to post pictures had the option been available.)

    I think this fairly recent inclination to purchase a wristwatch was inspired by this insatiable pressure millennials often succumb to — consume, consume, and consume even more. [Millennials -obviously- aren’t the only ones victimized by instant/constant gratification and consumption.] I’m going to reallocate my wristwatch money towards my still developing small business and/or other income-bearing ventures. Akin to your school-of-thought, I, too, believe luxuries are to be purchased with money earned rather inherited. Strong point here.

    Your post and my gut confirmed that I do not need another wristwatch. I am well-situated with what I currently have thanks to the thoughtfulness of the 2G and 3G of my family.

    Again, thanks for your time and the post. Lovely blog.
    Warmly, -dlj

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  7. I wear a Timex with a slim black leather band that has been, at times, difficult to replace. Maybe someday I will invest in a Cartier, but not until a few other, less enjoyable, financial items are taken care of.

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  8. Just bought the wife a Cartier tank for our anniversary. She was stressed at first about my outlay of $2,700. I thought it a steal. The experience of purchase was very pleasant and this was a special year for our marriage so I splurged. I own a Seiko that is a quality look alike (some would say knock off) to the Cartier tank. I get nothing but compliments for only 100 dollars. Planning on a stainless steel rolex but only with earned money. The timepiece should signify an accomplishment such as a promotion. Never with inherited money.

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  9. For generations, in our family young men and women have received a Tiffany stainless steel watch (no diamonds, etc.) for college graduation (or five years after they’ve started a business if they do that instead, but that’s another story). About 8 or 9 years ago, I saw a lady’s simple, low-profile Timex that was being discontinued & had the most beautiful mother of pearl face that I’d ever seen in my life on a watch, plus it had a date function, which I’d always wished I had on my Tiffany watch. I bought three of them “for a song”, and also bought three different color leather bands that match the shoes & bags I wear (I keep it simple, but I do like matching leathers), put the watchbands on the watches, and I enjoy wearing them as much as I enjoy wearing my Tiffany watch. So, I have four watches, and that’s about three more than most in my family, big-spender that I am (ha, ha).

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  10. Good topic Byron, thanks for the post. There are many good quality watches to choose from and I do really like the simple look of the Cartier tank. At the moment I have a stainless steel seiko which looks just like the Rolex in the picture except has a black dial face. Bought it 9 years ago and had to replace the battery once at the 5 year mark (battery powered but solar assisted). Haven’t had to service it once other than that. Obviously it’s far from being a heirloom quality watch, but for anyone looking for an everyday use watch that doesn’t want to drop a lot of cash, I would suggest this brand. Was under $200 if I remember correctly. Vintage Omega are suppose to be excellent value as well, although I don’t know first hand as I’ve never owned one.

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  11. I’m a fan of Rolex watches and have owned one since 1989. Over the years, I bought two more (from earnings, in cash). I was always a fan of Patek (the Calatrava in particular) but I want a do it all watch and Rolex fits that need more than Patek, even the very pricey Nautilus. The watch I wear the most is an older stainless steel GMT II. It’s been sailing, golfing, hiking, etc. and never missed a beat. While Rolex encourages servicing every few years, for most of us, that’s unnecessary. My Rolex Sub is now 17 and has never been serviced, is accurate to a couple seconds a day and looks great with just a bit of patina. The GMT is about 15 and the same can be said for it.

    While it may be an old money trait to wear a Timex on a ribbon strap, I’m not rich enough to do that. ;o)

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    1. Hi, Chris. It’s great that your Rolex has done so well over the years, and that you’ve got one watch that rolls with anything you might be doing. Thanks for sharing. – BGT

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  12. I own the Explorer II which sits nicely in the hammock of “looks like a Rolex but doesn’t scream it.” I also own the Cartier Roadster XL which is a bit more finicky and recently cost $600 to service. I’ve never had the Rolex serviced and it ticks perfectly. I’m a stickler on cost of ownership so my recommendation to folks is to go with Rolex if you want to wear your timepiece everyday and are concerned with knocking it about a bit. Purely white collar professions (think Lawyer, CPA, Wall Street) may be fine for daily Cartier use. Architects, Engineers, Sales and, possibly, Dr. may find a Rolex more reliable. I reserve my Cartier for formal occasions and have a black alligator strap to accompany it.

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  13. BTW, assuming you get your Rolex serviced at one of their service centers, be prepared for sticker shock! Fortunately, the watch will come back looking and working about like new (which some owners of older Rolex’s do not want) and come with a two year Rolex warranty.

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  14. Love hearing about all the different kinds of watches out here. My absolutely favorite is one my parents and husband gifted me. A Victorinox Swiss Army Field Collection Women’s Officers silver dress watch. Stylish and durable, all stainless steel (including the clasp) with a sapphire scratch resistant crystal, quartz movement, water resistant down to about 100 meters (for the girl who always forgets to take her watch off in the shower!) and the Victorinox guarantee. For anyone who owns a ‘rugged military grade’ cell phone, this is the watch equivalent.

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  15. I am fortunate to have inherited a 1950’s and a 1978 oyster perpetual/date just from my father in law. The first was bought in Hong Kong during his navy years. The second was a gift to him, after the birth of his daughter (my wife). I now truly prize the vintage aspect of the first, and the iconic aspect of the second. Thankfully, I will be able to pass on these heirlooms to my two children… perhaps after college.

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  16. I love your book and this blog! I inherited my grandmother’s Movado which she purchased for herself (with help from an aunt) while working as a bank runner in Memphis during the War. While my day-to-day is an Apple Watch, I love wearing this when the mood strikes.

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