Your new watch: brand or quality?

You're about to open your wallet to buy a high-end Swiss-made mechanical watch. What's more important to you - the brand, or the watch itself?

If you are tossing up between a Rolex or a Charriol timepiece, for instance, would you be influenced by their technical and aesthetic differences, or would you go for the Rolex, just because, well, it's a Rolex?

The question of brand pervades just about all of our purchasing decisions, whether we're browsing in a luxury boutique or grabbing items off a supermarket shelf.

However, when it comes to luxury, it seems we no longer think of luxury items as much as we think of luxury brands.

In the world of high-end watches, where there are more than 100 Swiss watchmakers, this is especially important. All produce high-precision timepieces certified by Switzerland's official timing bureau, but how many are instantly recognised as luxury brands? Nowhere near 100, that's for sure.

So if faced with the choice of the Rolex or the Charriol, the question becomes: is owning a luxury watch all about symbolic consumption, all about the brand?

Sydney-based independent watch retailer Nick Hacko has considered this question over many years and come to a firm conclusion.

“I think brand is everything,” says Hacko.

“We spend a lot of time trying to educate our buyers telling them why watch A is better than watch B. And we approach that from any angle you can imagine: from internals, the movement, the history, the functionality and traditional features.


“And I have to say after spending maybe 10 years on this, writing extensively on this, we have to admit we are defeated. At the end of the day, it really just comes down to brand. That is painful to admit, but that is what it is.”

For James Kennedy, CEO of one of Australia's most successful luxury watch retailers, LK Boutique, there are a range of reasons why one watch brand is preferred over another.

“It comes down to core brand values like innovation, design, production - but certainly marketing is a big one,” says Kennedy.

When it comes to luxury goods, the brand is intrinsically related to the quality of the product.

However, while the luxury sector predominantly forms a clear hierarchy of quality based on price, the fact remains that even in the pristine world of Swiss watches the old equation of value for money is not so simply calculated.

As Kennedy notes: “The big global advertising giants - are their products necessarily better quality than, say, a brand that isn't as well known? Well sometimes yes, but sometimes no.”

Nonetheless, the dominance of global brands in the luxury watch sector shows no sign of abating. This much can be gathered from the fact that many of the most successful manufacturers are eschewing traditional retail outlets in favour of setting up their own fully-branded boutiques.

“This is an international retail thing, of brands coming into Australia,” says Kennedy. “Investing in retail allows brands to create concept awareness and showcase innovative products.”

But rather than being adversely affected by this trend, Kennedy has been quick to use LK Boutique's strong relationship with Rolex to his advantage. The outcome was the right to operate the only fully Rolex-branded boutique in Australia, which opened in Sydney's Martin Place in January.

For Kennedy, operating a Rolex boutique means providing a level of customer service and product knowledge that people not only expect, but is a decisive factor in their decision to buy a luxury item in the first place.

"Sure, brand names cost money but when you also offer a quality service and experience, then people are prepared to pay extra for that,” says Kennedy.

According to Melinda O'Rourke, managing director of consulting group MO Luxury, the opening of flagship stores by major luxury watch brands is a sign of the confidence that they have in the Australian market, especially when it comes to male consumption patterns.

“Men are investing much more in terms of fashion, cosmetics and accessories; however, watches are still a very key signifier of someone's taste and perhaps their success,” says O'Rourke.

Strong growth in high-end watches in Australia has not gone unnoticed by many of the traditional luxury fashion labels.

"Brands such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Dior have really enhanced their timepiece offerings over the last number of years,” says O'Rourke.

“For a lot of brands, extending their product offering is about making sure their consumers have access to most products in that world."