What Makes a Luxury Watch?

On Friday, JCK news director Rob Bates forwarded me a link to a Kickstarter campaign for the New York City–based watch brand Leonard & Church, which leads with the tagline “A New Way to Buy a Luxury Watch.”

Rob also forwarded me a link to a Fast Company interview with the founders of Leonard & Church, Chris Chon and Jeff Leung. The piece talked about how their quest to buy fine timepieces ended in disappointment when “they found a supply chain ‘riddled with middlemen and legacy markups.’ ”

“As young professionals, we were looking to buy a luxury watch that had both quality and style,” Leung says in a stylish introductory video posted on Kickstarter. “Most watches seemed to look and feel the same but with drastically different price points. This spurred us to look further into the manufacturing and retail process of the luxury watch industry.”

Finding an industry filled with importers, wholesalers, retailers, and brands the markup range of which went as high as 1,000 percent, Chon and Leung decided to create a new model “that brings you a quality luxury watch at an affordable price by cutting out all the middlemen.”

They spent the past year perfecting designs and “partnering directly with some of the world’s leading timepiece manufacturers who hand-produce luxury watches that retail for over $800.”

The founders are so confident in their designs, production quality, and distribution strategy that they’re offering a 10-year warranty for any watch purchased through the Kickstarter campaign. The selection includes 15 styles of a unisex design in a 40 mm stainless steel case on leather, NATO, or tweed strap and a rose gold–plated stainless steel chronograph on a leather strap with a white or black dial. (The Classic watches will retail on the company’s website for $95, but backers of the campaign will get one for $70, while the Chronograph retails for $115 and is going for $90 on Kickstarter.)

A screenshot from Leonard & Church’s Kickstarter page shows its Classic model on either a black or brown leather strap.

A screenshot from Leonard & Church’s Kickstarter page depicts three variations of its Chronograph model.

“With Leonard & Church, we want to change the luxury watch industry,” Leung concludes on the video. “We know it’s an ambitious goal, but with your support, this could be the start of something big.”

I suppose part of my initial irritation with their pitch rests on our differing interpretations of the word luxury.

When Leung referred to “the world’s leading timepiece manufacturers,” he meant that Leonard & Church employs quartz movements by Miyota, Citizen’s well-regarded movement manufacturer. And while I have no quarrels with Miyota’s fine battery-powered calibers, they hardly scream luxury to me. On the contrary, I usually equate that concept with mechanical watches along the lines of a Rolex chronograph or a minute repeater from Patek Philippe.

But it’s more than the workings of a movement that define luxury for me. What about the value of heritage, the use of precious materials, and the reputation that an established brand name all deliver?

Patek, for example, traces its lineage to founders Antoni Patek and Franciszek Czapek, who opened a pocket watch firm in Geneva in 1839—the family-owned company will celebrate its 175th anniversary in October in Geneva (yours truly will be there!). The brand is known for having produced history’s most complicated timepiece, the Henry Graves Supercomplication, and its watches regularly fetch many times their estimates at auction. What’s more, my own personal experience with Patek Philippe confirms that it’s one of the classiest firms around. (I can say the same for Rolex!)

Can we all agree that Patek Philippe and Leonard & Church—a name that refers to what, I wonder?—don’t belong in the same category?

Assuming that yes, we can, I take it that Chon and Leung are referring to more widely available competitors in the luxury watch space, such as Movado, or the clutch of new Swiss brands targeting the affordable luxury segment, such as 88 Rue du Rhone, founded by the grandsons of Raymond Weil.

While they bring up some fine points about the bloated nature of the watch business, what they completely fail to acknowledge is the added value that multi-brand retailers, the core of JCK’s audience, bring to the equation.

Retail markups aren’t shady attempts at profiting; they’re the price of doing business with seasoned retail veterans who can guide first-time watch buyers and offer them a level of personalized service that I would be hard-pressed to imagine Leonard & Church is prepared to provide. So even though chronographs from the upstart brand sell for $95, compared to, say, $625 for a similar-looking chrono from 88 Rue du Rhone, I’m not convinced that all things are equal.

That’s because nothing says luxury more than pieces that stand the test of time—and for an untested product like Leonard & Church, there’s no way to know that what they’re promising will be what they deliver. At least not yet.

That said, as of this writing, the brand’s Kickstarter campaign has earned $330,666 (against a goal of $75,000) from more than 2,500 backers, which suggests that Chon and Leung’s rhetoric, if not their rationale, has resonated with people.

What do you think?