Our new Luxe columnist and watch expert, Josh Sims, delves into whether or not the weight of a watch defines its value…
Josh Sims chats to Jean-Paul Suchel, the technical director of Bell & Ross, who spends a lot of time studying people choosing a watch. And what strikes him every time is the way they often cup a selection in their palm.
“They stand there in the shop and they weigh the watch in their hand,” he says.
“The fact is that watches are part of the jewellery world, and with jewellery there’s a direct correlation between weight and value, because of the historic use of precious metals. That’s only helped to solidify the association between heft and quality. A watch may be a small piece of material really, and yet prices are quite high, so unconsciously people feel if there’s no real weight to a watch, then there’s no value.”
That’s a conundrum for the watch world, especially as lighter weight materials such as the likes of titanium, ceramic, and latterly the more experimental likes of silicon nitride and carbon composites are embraced by the watch industry, if often for qualities such as scratch-resistance and durability.
Panerai has its Carbotech, IWC its use of boron carbide, also an extremely lightweight material; Roger Dubuis and others have explored cases in silicon, others using silicon for the balance spring or hairspring.
Silicon is half the weight of titanium. Indeed, much as aluminium has entered the mainstream for chassis design in the car industry, thanks to the pioneering work of Jaguar and Audi, titanium looks to be on the brink of entering the mainstream in watchmaking, not least because it’s now only around 15% more expensive than steel.
The Word Of Steel Watches with Josh Sims
And yet there are still more steel watches on the market. The demand for weightiness – for a sense of presence on the wrist, if not actually for something that feels too heavy is why steel is still the industry’s go-to material, reckons Zenith’s product development director Romain Marietta; aside from the fact that it’s easy to work and has appealing light-reflecting qualities.
Add in that milling out excess steel is feasible but expensive, and it’s no wonder many, maybe even most, watches are heavier than they strictly-speaking need to be. In other industries, it’s been known for weights to be added to products.
“The fact is that what’s on your wrist is about feeling, a sensitivity to its weight, so weight is important,” he says.
“But it’s another thing to say that you always want to aim for a lack of weight because if a watch is too light it can seem a bit cheap. That means you’ve got to re-educate the customer to get beyond that idea – and that isn’t easy.”
That hasn’t stopped the industry from trying. Certainly, having binged on outsized pieces, it has recently strived to lose a few grammes, even if the motivation to do so may not be entirely a matter of ergonomics of course – as Marietta notes, “sometimes it’s just a demonstration of innovation, of technical competence for the brand at large”.
And, often now, the more technically advanced the watch, the lighter it will be – as with bicycles, cars, sports equipment and so on. But means of achieving a lighter watch bring mixed results. Certainly skeletonising a movement – another trend right now – looks impressive but doesn’t save much weight, maybe 15g, reckons Suchel.
In fact, the best way to reduce weight in a movement is to make it hand-wound, he points out, “but the market generally doesn’t want that now”. So that leaves the watch’s superstructure case and bracelet – as inevitably the focus for weight reduction; and perhaps, subliminally, shaving off some weight lies behind the trend of late, putting bracelet-based watches on to NATO straps.
After all, studies have shown that in many categories of purchase, weight has a small but statistical influence on consumer estimations of value and quality.
A seminal study in 2007 by the University of Bangor, in the UK, found that the assessment was largely subliminal and very subtle but no less very real: reduce an empty container by 15% and consumers typically valued its contents at the same as at the original weight; reduce it by 30% however, and suddenly those consumers wanted to pay less for it.
Given the choice between a lightweight container and a very lightweight one, consumers are more likely to choose the heavier of the two.
However, what proved even more revealing was that expectations played a crucial role: consumers formed their perception of the product’s value based on how closely its weight matched their expectations. The greater the disruption to those expectations, the more their judgment of value was influenced.
Other studies – based around perceptions of bottles of wine – have shown that consumers expect heavier bottles to be more expensive and better quality. So is our perception of weight in watches changing?
Weight and quality with Josh Sims
“I think that association between weight and quality is changing,” insists Vivian Stauffer, the CEO of Hamilton, which, though at a more accessible price level has still used titanium and aluminium in its pieces, and which is currently working on a project with Smartflyer, an electric-powered aircraft concept from which the watch brand hopes to glean some insight into the use of super-lightweight, carbon-based materials.
“Over the last decade, the trend toward smaller watches has accustomed people to less weight on their wrists because these watches contain less material. High prestige brands experimenting with lightweight materials have also planted the idea that a lack of weight doesn’t equate to a lack of quality.” he adds.
“And I think weight will become more important as sustainability becomes more part of the discussion around watches – when materials become more highly valued for their environmentally-friendly qualities. In a generation or two, people might associate this heavy watch with excess, inefficiency, and cheapness.”