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Watches: why are there so many timepieces that fly under the radar?

You’ve heard of the Breitlings, Rolexs and TAGs of the world, but what about the rest?

Published: 16 Apr 2024

How often do you see a car that you don’t recognise? The answer depends on your level of enthusiasm, but even for a novice it’s not too hard to get your head around the manufacturers selling the models that account for most cars on the street.

A comprehensive overview of the watch market is not so easy. There are hundreds of watch companies, lots of them producing hundreds of models each. I would challenge the Dungeon Master of all watch geeks to know every watch out there.

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There are good reasons for this imbalance. When you buy a car, you may care about various things like power, style and fuel economy. But you also expect a car that can withstand a small collision without bursting into flames.

While there are regulations requiring cars to meet agreed safety levels, watches have no such restrictions. Manufacturers will tell you proudly how their watches go through endless testing and will never let you down. But that is up to the individual companies. They are not regulated in the same way as cars for the simple reason that watches provide very little threat to life.

The upshot is that if you want to start a watch company, it is about as difficult as printing your own T-shirts. You buy some bits, put them together and sell them on. And many people do, all around the world. So many that we cannot keep track of them all.

There is a downside to welcoming all comers. When a market gives everyone a crack of the whip, lots of people step up and have a go. That means competition. And with all that choice, why will anyone buy your watch instead of all the others? The short answer is that they probably won’t. Many companies disappear before you even know they existed. And the spoils continue to go to the relatively small number – Rolex, TAG, Breitling etc – that have the background and budget to ride the economic waves.

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Here is the paradox. There are tons of different watches, but most people want one their friends will recognise. Out in the real world, you spot an unusual watch about as often as you see a kit car.

Image: Getty

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