In case you haven't noticed, it'll soon be gift-giving time again. And to those of you still struggling to find that perfect something for that special someone--even yourself--we'd like to offer some, ahem, timely advice.There are few more desirable, or desired, possessions than a fine timepiece. If the person you are thinking of this holiday season has been exceptionally good--and by that we mean had a platinum-selling album, brought in a multimillion dollar deal, named you to the board of a major foundation or gave birth to triplets--then they might themselves unwrapping an exceptionally good, and exceptionally expensive, watch this year.
While many watchmakers make most of their profits from bread-and-butter product lines--which, at the higher-end levels, tend to retail in the $5,000 range--many of the top-end brands also offer watches that cost well into six figures.
These include mechanical men's watches laden with grande complications or ladies' watches dripping with jewels from premier Swiss watchmakers such as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Girard-Perregaux and the like. Oh, they're going to cost you--$200,000 per easily, and much, much more if you really want to splurge. But the gift you'll be giving is as timeless, intricate and impressive as they come--even if it ends up under lock and key, as such timepieces tend to do.
The creation of very expensive and very intricate watches is a long tradition within the relatively brief history of the industry, which really only got going in the latter half of the 19th century. During World War I wristwatches became popular with military officers and soon watchmakers such as Cartier and Patek Philippe began marketing limited edition and steeply priced models expressly for the connoisseurs' market. And it didn't take long for others to follow.
"Then as now, at the most expensive levels wristwatches are status symbols meant for collectors," says Matthew Morse, editor in chief of WatchTime magazine, who notes that these days any watch retailing for more than $100,000 will likely only be of interest to true aficionados. "Though some watch companies don't make a lot of money off of their highest-end watches because of the cost of research and development, they still produce them to give their brand an ambiance of exclusivity. For people who can afford them, they're about the pleasure of owning something extraordinary, whether or not they ever actually wear them."
Go looking for an exorbitantly expensive wristwatch, and what will you find? On the men's side, it's complications and plenty of 'em, including chronograph functions for timing laps, moon phase indicators for tracking slices of the lunar pie, and perpetual calendar functions which track days, months and even years for centuries--as if you really need a watch to tell you that.
The new Grande Complication by Jean Dunand really packs them in with a mono-pusher split-second chronograph, split-second hand isolator, minute repeater, tourbillon, bi-retrograde perpetual calendar, and even a see-through sapphire back signed by its creator, Christophe Claret. Marketed by Swiss manufacturer World Première Watchmaking as "one of the five most complicated wrist watches in the world," the Grande Complication is certainly one of the most expensive, with a limited edition of six--three in 18K rose gold, two in 18K white gold, one in platinum--ranging $700,000 to $800,000 per. Alas, the first specimens haven't quite been shipped yet, and so couldn't be included on our list.
Lately watchmakers have also begun loading their high-priced products with more useful complications, such as power reserve indicators that alert when your watch needs rewinding, or GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) functions to make it easier for travelers to keep track of multiple time zones.
One of the most prestigious and costly complications to be found is the tourbillon movement, an intricate mechanism that eliminates time-keeping errors caused by minute variations that result from shifts in gravity whenever a watch changes position. Invented in 1795 by Abraham-Louis Breguet, tourbillon movements have been so de rigueur on high-end watches of late they risk becoming overplayed. "There are tourbillons, and there are tourbillons," observes Morse, who notes that when less-exclusive watch brands latch onto the complication for "instant cache," they're really just "manufacturing luxury that has no soul."
If the tourbillon is bordering on overproduction, "minute repeater" functions are still on the rise. First created in the days before widespread use of electric lighting, repeater watches aid wearers in the dark by chiming or "repeating" the current time at the push of a button. Using bells of different tones, a minute repeater will ring out hours, quarter hours, and the minutes past since the last quarter hour. Like most of the complications found at the priciest levels, it's convenient, unnecessary and totally cool.
Of course, all such attributes are only worthwhile if you can actually purchase a watch that has them, which at the highest-end levels is often easier desired than done. Many of the world's most expensive watches are produced in severely limited quantities--including infinitesimal editions of one--and frequently have buyers lined up long before they're finished, often at rates of just a few per year. As a spokeswoman from Audemars Piguet responded when we enquired about the company's highest-end timepiece: "I was thinking of a skeletonized Grand Complication which retails for $700,000, but unfortunately it was sold as soon as we received it." Unfortunately for anyone who could afford it, that is.
To that end, we've compiled a selection of ten highest-end wristwatches that are not only exorbitantly expensive, but are available right now. These are not classic watches, i.e., old watches, which can often cost considerably more. In 1999 the most expensive watch ever sold, a 1933 gold Patek Phillipe with 24 complications, was auctioned off at Sotheby's (nyse: BID - news - people ) for $11 million.
They include nine watches for the gentlemen, and one drenched in jewels for the ladies--though, these days, you can pretty much get away with just about anything on your wrist. You may have to hustle to get them, as more than a few of the watches are available in minimal quantities of just one or two. Just know that they're worth the time and trouble--whoever you're buying them for.