Watches, Pianos, and Guns

The Officine Panerai PAM 51

Ask just about any casual passerby to name a luxury watch and fine piano and you’ll hear two names – Rolex and Steinway.  But are these brands really snob worthy?

To be an authentic snob, one must have invested at least some time into one or several interests of the plethora of possibilities in the world today. Getting information about nearly anything is so implicit that the time to enhance your life with some of the finer things is certainly now. Finer dining experiences are common to just about anyone – to the point where many of you no longer even consider ordering fried cheese sticks! Wine enthusiasts are everywhere – beer has come a long way in the U.S. since the 70s. There is now literally a muck of high-end items in just about every category – cigars, golf clubs, bikes, hi-fidelity stereo equipment – that one can allow oneself to get all swept up about.

Most things have benefited in some way from the digital age – design modifications, precision manufacturing. But others have struggled more – what’s the point of hooking up an iPod with a song ripped at (compression rate) 128kbs to a hi-end sound system?


Some items, in fact the ones that can’t be compromised by the digital age, are the ones in which collecting and honing your interest seems most acceptable. Shotguns come to mind. My brother Terry (Terry Allen Photography) is a shotgun enthusiast and collects double-guns (double barrel) from mostly English makers (no automatics in this lot). The craftsmanship of these weapons and the intricate detail of the engravings have made these guns a perfect item to become a snob about. They boast both hand-made precision and craftsmanship, but also artisanship in the engravings. And along with shotgun collecting comes the hunting ritual itself (see my Pheasant Hunting – North Dakota post). On our recent trip, I was shooting a Westley Richards from the 1920s and the other guns with us were a Purdey (James Purdey and Sons) and Woodward (James Woodward and Sons). There was an argument as to whether the gun I was shooting was worth $7,000 or $15,000. And it was the cheap one. Talk about crazy.

Fine shotguns make fine pictures. Photo courtesy of Terry Allen

Terry’s passion has at least allowed him to propel himself into a spot as one of the world’s top gun photographers. He’s paid to do things like books with English gun makers and photograph trips with wealthy gun and hunting enthusiasts. But the guns he photographs aren’t mass-produced. They’re custom-made, mostly by hand by skilled craftsmen, with all precision mechanical parts. According to Wikipedia, a new Purdey custom-made shotgun starts around $100,000. As you might imagine, not many of these guns are produced each year. Add the craftsmanship and artistry and you begin to understand the price and why these instruments and the industry itself is such an amazing tradition. You may also guess, that remaining in business selling $100,000 guns in this global economy no matter how incredible can be a challenge. Fortunately, the very wealthy remain very wealthy. And so many of the world’s oldest and most prestigious gun-makers remain in business.

And fortunately for Terry, when a gun costs that much, it needs to be photographed and so does the person who owns it. In fact, he needs to be photographed shooting it, on a hunt, somewhere exotic. Next thing you know, you’re going. Interesting stuff.

Watches and Pianos

Watches and pianos are both very similar to shotguns in my view – hand made (but not always), purely mechanical, precision instruments, works of art. In the case of a piano, there are over 12,000 moving parts. In fact, a piano is arguably the champion of most moving parts for a purely mechanical device (no electricity driven components). A wristwatch on the other hand, I read can have up to about 1,200 parts, but that’s a lot considering the size. I recently bought both and will share what I learned.

As I said before, ask just about any casual passerby to name a luxury watch and fine piano and you’ll hear two names – Rolex and Steinway. And unlike the answer you might get with shotguns (wonder what you’d hear, Remington?), both Rolex and Steinway are deserving of their place in the mind of the consumer – top brands, fine quality. But both Rolex and Steinway have done what most other companies only wish they could do, both deliver the goods and win the marketing and advertising game with consumers. Steinway has done it through their artist program and by doing programs with top music schools and universities. Rolex has done it through advertisements and other publicity events such as the first woman to (almost) cross the English Channel and the first summit of Mount Everest, and sponsorships of prestigious events such as Wimbledon and the Australian Open tennis tournaments as well as product placements in James Bond movies and television (such as 24 with Kiefer Sutherland).

The 1965 Rolex – very Mad Men-esque

Piano makers are having a harder time of it these days. Cheap digitals along with pressure from Asia, in particular Chinese manufacturing, mass producing pianos with lower labor, assembly line efficiency and less reliance on craftsmanship has hurt the big European makers, not to mention owning a piano means someone has to know how to play it. Contrast that with the fact that almost any person would wear a wristwatch – and there’s no learning involved.

Or is there?

On my most recent birthday, I was approached by my wife who wanted to get me a fine watch to commemorate the event. With only a few weeks before the big day, there was a lot to learn beyond Rolex. I’m the kind of guy who prefers to be just a little different you see. So a Rolex would be too easy. But what do you need to know about watches? Fine watches are certainly works for art, and without some appreciation of the history or artistry of a particular maker, you may not have enough to justify the price alone.

OK, I’ll admit it, I didn’t do as much research as I would like, and I’m much more knowledgeable on pianos, so I’ll not try to give a lesson on what makes a watch cool. But here are some of the basics that I perceived:

      1. Accuracy isn’t everything. In fact, fairly highly accurate quartz watches which can be accurate to within 10 seconds per year are not valued in luxury watches. Automatic or self-winding and manual winding watches are more prized for their craftsmanship. These watches are often less accurate. Automatic watches use a spring to turn the gears which move the hands. Most luxury watches are automatic or self-winding, however the mechanism that drives the automatic winding takes up a lot of space in a watch’s case, therefore some makers continue to design watches that require manual winding to reduce the heft of the case in some designs. Automatic or manual wind is the way to go. No battery – dear God, no.
      2. Magazine watch ads are not a good way to gauge the relative panache of a particular watch brand. Though Rolex and now Patek Philippe ads are frequently seen (and no disrespect meant here), Tag Heuer, Raymond Weil, or Movado are generally seen as unimpressive mass-produced watches with mass-produced innards with unexceptional movements. They may impress average folks, but are not snob worthy.
      3. Watches (and pianos) should not be viewed as investments (for chrissakes). The only thing that makes a piano hold its value is inflation. The older it is, the closer to breaking down it is. Watches are a little different. While it is possible to buy a watch that could increase in value over time, it most likely, especially when buying new watches, never will. Fine watches (and fine pianos for that matter) do have a long life and are worthy of passing down to your children and so in some sense, people may consider that an investment. And that is a reason to buy a true luxury watch because generally speaking the market for used watches that are high quality timepieces is excellent – as I have read, whether it’s 6 months or 30 years later. The resell of cheaper mass-produced watches is limited. Bottom line is that a fine watch will hold a great deal of its value.
      4. Do your homework. If you’re like me, and you don’t have time to learn everything. Take the advice of others. Understand as much as you can and then understand which is a mass-produced pseudo-luxury watch and which is an authentic luxury timepiece. It will affect not only what you might pay, but resell value later if you choose to buy in and out of different watches, which many people do.
      5. Buy used. New watches buyers, like with just about anything, take the biggest hit in depreciation. A used watch can provide excellent value. Look online, but visit a reputable used jewelry or watch dealer in person. Gauge their knowledge in what they know about the watches other than Rolex.

So I did my homework and found several brands that I like the reputation and style. Those were IWC, Officine Panerai, Cartier and yes, I didn’t completely discount Rolex. There was a jeweler in Atlanta that specialized in used watches, Ermitage Jewelers and their website was very good. Since I was leaning away from Rolex, I was eyeing the Officine Panerai. Rhonda liked the Cartier better than me and also tried to get me interested in Breitling and Omega which are nice, but I also wanted to stay away from big magazine ad manufacturers. I was leaning to something only someone reasonably in the know would notice.

So my birthday arrived and we planned a trip over to Atlanta to view the watches in person. Ermitage is fancier online than they are in person but we went in to a quiet store with no customers and a nice case full of mainly Rolex watches. We asked about some of the other brands and found out that they were kept in the back in the safe. We asked to see the IWC and the Panerai. Ermitage had no men’s Cartier watches in stock at the time. Another watch that is lower end but stylish and has garnered some respect was Oris. All three of these were used and so we tried them all. The IWC didn’t excite, but the Panerai did. The Oris was nice too and much less expensive. Quickly I was down to the Panerai which was the most expensive and out of my budget and the Oris.

As the clerk would go back into the back to retrieve the next watch I was interested in, we would look at the Rolex watches in the case. I eventually picked the two or three of them I liked best from their appearance. It just wasn’t in me to buy a Rolex as my first luxury watch. Of the three I liked, one was a throwback, it looked rather vintage. The clerk said yes that she thought it was from the 80s. Hmmm, I thought. Princess Di, Mr T, Boy George?  Looks too cool for that. She pulled it out of the case and said nope that she was wrong. It was from 1965.

Really?  1965?  The Beatles,  Ford Mustangs, Robert Redford?

1965 just happened to be the year of my birth. Suddenly I had a third candidate. 1970 and it’s just another watch. But today, my birthday, a 1965 Rolex? There was definitely some Mad Men appeal to this thing. Definitely a little Don Draper quality going there.

So it’s exceedingly hard to put on a watch at a jewelry store and know what you think. It’s easy to look at, but when you put it on and then try to look at it on your wrist, it seemed very self-conscious. You look at yourself in the mirror – that seems odd. You look at the watch again on your wrist, you back it away. It’s retarded. You just can’t get a real good feel. I resorted to this:

“Hey Rhonda,” I said. “Ask me what time it is.”

“Hey Trent,” she responded. “What time is it?”

At least that gave me the opportunity to hold up my wrist and look at the watch and say, “Ah, as a matter of fact, it’s four twenty-seven.”

Still weird.

I felt a little under pressure but ultimately the Panerai was the watch. It was a Luminor Marina Model PAM 51, self-winding automatic. It had a white-painted dial while most Luminor Marinas have black sandwich dials. The white PAM 51 also has just a 40mm case whereas the most other of the blackface are 44mm which is really big. The 40mm PAM 51 felt perfect, and no adjustment was needed in the metal band (which is fate saying, yes). The Panerai was also the one I liked going in – different, unknown – the perfect watch for me. As well, the company has an interesting history. Though it’s Swiss manufactured, the company’s headquarters is in Milan and its origins date to 19th Century Florence. The company’s reputation as maker of precision instruments was solidified at the turn of the 20th Century when it became the official maker of watches for the Royal Italian Navy. Take a look at it at night and the word Luminor has meaning as the hands glow brightly, perfect for a diver or a seaman on duty in the dark. It is definitely thrilling to own and enjoy, and I intend to learn more about it in the future.

Ironically, my first thought was that now that I have this watch and it’s not a Rolex, it’d be OK now to get the cool 1965 vintage Rolex and start a collection. So many hobbies, so little time.

Pianos are another story altogether.

My 7-foot Yamaha

Pianos are very expensive – there are almost no grand pianos of any make (new or nearly new) that sell for less than $10,000. Fine grand pianos easily sell for between 50-100 thousand dollars, and concert grands can cost up to $200,000. The quality gap between the lower end and the high-end are no longer so easily discernible. High end pianos are hand-made by seasoned craftsmen with no compromise in any components. With the fine Italian maker Fazioli, wood for the soundboards (a large, important and delicate component of any piano) are taken from a particular Italian forest from particular trees known for their ability to produce uniquely resonant wood to ensure the absolute finest quality piano.

Cheaper pianos are made with the help of computer-automated manufacturing. These pianos can use cheaper components, but the quality is relatively remarkable and consistent. Most of these pianos are made in Asia, while high-end pianos are still made in Europe or in the case of Steinway, America. The highest end piano names also have a direct lineage from the 18th or 19th Century. Almost all makers, including mass-produced Asian manufacturers claim some sort of piano heritage, but some are not authentic. Many companies however are still led or employ namesakes of the original family.

As far as high-end pianos, much like with watches, there’s a prominent well-known brand and there is everyone else.

Steinway and Sons have long been the dominant brand in high-end pianos. Some how or another, Steinway made their way into the minds of people who know very little about pianos. Much like with Rolex, people will buy Steinway pianos with little research, and on the strength of the brand alone. Fortunately, Steinway’s reputation is legitimate and buyers get a fine piano. For some people, that’s mostly the point – to be recognized as an enthusiast of high-end pianos. But for others, being a true connoisseur and more importantly a snob, Steinway might never do.

One other brand of piano that would likely come to the tongue of the average joe on the street – Yamaha. Along with Steinway, no other brand has been more successful in marketing itself with recording artists. My guess is upwards of 95% of all concert and television appearances that include acoustic pianos feature either Yamaha or Steinway. Yamaha is certainly one of the largest and finest producers of pianos. On the snob-meter, Yamaha can’t compete with Steinway and you’ll often hear piano brand snobs claim that Yamahas are too harsh on the high-end (akin to saying a wine is too fruity and sweet), but in my opinion these claims are exaggerated.

In another contrast to Steinway, Yamaha makes a range of pianos for different segments of the piano market, from lower end to higher end hand-made instruments. The Steinway brand is only used with their high-end pianos although they have recently created other brands (Boston and Essex – both manufactured in Asia) for the purpose of appealing to different segments of the market.

When I bought a piano, my budget was limited so the very high-end was out of reach, but I still spent an astronomical amount buying a 7-foot Yamaha. It was only a year-and-a-half old, so basically the previous owner had taken the new piano depreciation hit. It was too good to pass on and right in my budget. But it was the other brands that I wanted but couldn’t reach for that are important to complete one’s snobucation.

The dealer in Atlanta I visited, PianoWorks, is snob worthy – they aren’t Steinway or Yamaha dealers (though they can carry used of these brands), but are dealers of some of the top European brands – Bösendorfer, Grotrian, Estonia, and Schimmel.

The Bösendorfer 225 – sublime.

Bösendorfer is one brand whose history and recognition may surpass Steinway. They make some of the most expensive pianos in the world, hand-made in Austria. Their Imperial 9-foot concert grand is known for having the extra keys in the bass. It is truly a beast. At PianoWorks, I played and fell in love with a Bösendorfer 225 which is a 7-foot piano (225 refers to the number of centimeters of length of the piano – bigger pianos are capable of producing deeper and more resonant bass). I still consider the Bösey 225 to be my dream piano. Price at that time: $90,000.

Grotrian is a German piano with links to Steinway (Steinway’s founder sold to Grotrian in Europe long ago) and makes high-end pianos at a slightly lower price. Grotrian 214 if I remember correctly was in the $65,000 range.

Estonia is a newly recognized high-end brand using its country’s name as its brand name, and Schimmel is a German maker who is recognized for first using science and computer-aided manufacturing techniques to build precision instruments, sort of breaking a barrier between old hand-made philosophy and computer and science aided philosophies.

One other piano that I mentioned earlier and that I have once enjoyed playing, is the Fazioli. This Italian piano is usually considered the most expensive piano in the world. They were founded by furniture maker with degrees in engineering and music in the early 80s. It’s interesting that Fazioli doesn’t try to link its heritage to 19th century piano makers, well, because it can’t, but it was a very ambitious undertaking to set out to make the finest pianos in the world using technology and engineering combined with the finest materials and craftsmen. Fazioli makes the F308 (again centimeters) which is the largest concert piano on the market.

In truth, with pianos there is so much to say, so many other snob-worthy brands, so much esoteric and subjective thought about the sound and feel of particular brands and even particular instruments, that there’s almost no way to do it justice in writing.  But hopefully you get some insight and sense of what’s out there.  Visit the folks at PianoWorks and get a sense of some of these great brands and ask Sam if they have one of the special edition Bösendorfers on order.  And then break out your wallet!