February 20, 2023
by David Bredan
I remember from the first days of my passion for watches how some of my friends and family voiced their concerns and views on how luxury watches were not much more to them than overpriced items used for wealth signaling, money laundering, and other lowly behaviors in modern society. Since then, I’ve heard this claim not just from a small circle of people, but from thousands of comments from within, as well as outside, the watch enthusiast community. And yet, there’s nothing about this that grinds my gears. What non-enthusiasts do with their watches is largely out of our control, and it’s not the fault of the watches or the engineers, designers, and watchmakers how some utilize the inherent value and desirability of these precious objects. Instead, I’ll talk about the pointlessness, pretentiousness, and repulsiveness of the IYKYK element, i.e., the “If You Know You Know” practice in watch design and watch collecting.
Here’s what IYKYK means when it comes to timepieces. Watch brands frequently create multiple times more expensive versions of their watches with the slightest or most meaningless variations in their design to signal “to those in the know” that this is not your ordinary luxury watch, it’s the luxury version of your luxury watch. It’s the exclusive version of an ab ovo exclusive product. It’s Rolex using a blue bezel on an 18k white gold Submariner that looks exactly like the steel one to the masses — and certainly even to masses of existing Rolex owners who couldn’t care less about these visual clues. Why? So that you, the customer, and your well-heeled and well-informed peers will know that you have spent exactly four times as much on a watch with the exact same movement, same dial, and same bezel technology, but in solid gold. Bear with me, because the issue here is not with gold watches being more expensive — the watch industry that we all love wouldn’t be what it is today without the hefty margins realized on those roughly 10 million precious metal-cased watches it has exported since the year 2000 (source: Federation Of the Swiss Watch Industry FH).
So, why might people want the color of just one component to signal that they can afford to buy one watch at the price of four? There can be a host of reasons, but is it “stealth wealth?” The sad reality is that people in certain major cities of the world, and even in what used to be their safest districts, have been getting mugged and robbed for their steel luxury watches in broad daylight — “disguising” a super-expensive Rolex as a less-expensive Rolex is unwise because it is not stealth wealth, neither in the eye of muggers nor in the eye of one’s peers. If one wants real stealth wealth, hundreds of different Rolex-priced luxury dive watches have been made over the last few decades that one could choose from and enjoy, each beautifully made, neatly designed, often with a great deal of history, and by every chance unrecognizable by adversaries and allies alike.
That’s stealth wealth done right. It’s about something truly under the radar, not a “stealthy” version of a highly visible watch from an instantly recognizable brand.
This covers the broader application of pretentiousness, but there is another element that is all the more valid because it relates to some of the most coveted IYKYK watches of our time. Over the last 10 years that I’ve spent with aBlogtoWatch, I’ve sat at hundreds of dinners surrounded by the greatest variety of watch customers, major collectors, and industry professionals. As such, I have encountered a great many discussions that revolved around “stealth wealth” just as timepieces lavished with “if you know, you know” details were being passed around the table. I don’t recall a single time when what I’m about to say was voiced by others — not because it’s a unique thought but perhaps because we were all well-mannered and did not wish to lash out over a stupid trend while singling out somebody and their precious watch. Still, here goes, for at least some of us have certainly sensed that there was something paradoxical to these “under-the-radar” watches from high-profile brands being passed around dinner tables.
You see, just about all of these non-vintage watches were deemed highly desirable for the tiny variations in their dial color, dial or bezel text, and maybe case material — without any meaningful additional innovation, engineering effort, or watchmaking pedigree to justify all those “oohs” and “aahs,” and the immense resale premium they received over the watch on which they were so heavily based. At the core of it all was the notion of “Wow, you have this version of that watch?” as opposed to “Wow, you have that watch?” Don’t get me wrong, the former can, and certainly should be part of watch collecting and friendly watch enthusiast interaction — but all too often the discussion fails to break the boundaries of IYKYK details to begin celebrating the watch, the movement, the overall design, the history, or whatever other components of the watch in hand. In part, perhaps it’s not a stretch to say, that’s because the watch in question is pretty boring or outdated when it comes to these broader aspects, and it is only these weightless modifications and self-imposed limitations in production that can breathe a moment’s worth of excitement and fascination into the picture.
Spending several times more on an essentially identical watch to receive a few dirt-cheap visual modifications and then posing as the be-all and end-all of good taste and restraint while waiting for those at the table to recognize and celebrate these actions — that is where the pretentiousness lies, at least in my eyes, in IYKYK watches.
One might claim that this is done for investment purposes, but we have all certainly seen over the last few months how the bubble of stainless steel Patek Philippe and Rolex and Audemars Piguet “investment-grade” watches has burst. Worse still, from an investment point of view, ultra-rare and ultra-expensive watches remain a prospective purchase only for an extremely small circle of collectors because they come at a ridiculous premium and are appreciated only by a very exclusive club. Watches in which these two factors come together remain interesting only so long as their super-wealthy fans care about the underlying message of such a purchase. The moment this small circle stops caring about said watch in said material, the price begins to drop, and the smaller the circle, the sooner this is bound to happen, as at one point all in the circle will have passed the handful of available watches around. We have seen this happen with six-figure-priced tourbillon and grande complication watches from a number of major manufactures during the 1990s and 2000s.
We’ll close not by zooming yet closer in on such watch-collecting phenomena, but by looking at the greater picture. The funny thing is that social media and indeed watch blogs and vlogs have done a lot to bring luxury watches to the masses on a daily basis and it is clear that a select few watches such as a Patek Philippe Nautilus, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, and the Rolex Daytona are more powerful, more effective and more widely recognized status symbols today than they have ever been. This also meant the democratization of the IYKYK concept in watches: It’s probably safe to say that millions, if not many more, know that a turquoise blue dial on a Nautilus means its wearer owns one of the rarest, most desirable, and most expensive modern luxury watches ever. For others, it’s a funky-looking watch, but, again, millions around the world know what this little trait symbolizes.
To be clear, I support every reason customers might find to spend big on watches because it supports the industry that I love being a part of. That said, I would like to see the honorable collector community and indeed the enthusiast community continues to celebrate true watchmaking brilliance, incredible engineering, refinement, and great design — as opposed to cheap, meaningless, made-up ways to justify selling the same watchmaking value at several times the price. I would love to hear your thoughts on IYKYK in watch design, whether you agree or disagree with what I said above, and if you find value in these rarified watches.