NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- This year you won't have to listen to me drone on about the warm, analog upside of mechanical timepieces in our bitter, cold numeric age. Stephen J. Pulvirent is more than happy to that heavy lifting for me.
"We live in a digital world, for sure. In fact, we are a digital business," said Pulvirent, who is associate editor of Hodinkee, the New York City better men's watch website and analysis firm. "But a mechanical timepiece needs you to work. And that relationship is surprisingly compelling in our lives."
Pulvirent and his boss, founder and Executive Editor Benjamin Clymer, very kindly sat down with me for a lengthy chat on what's really ticking in the mechanical watch world for 2013. And we all agreed that, never mind Samsung's high-tech app-based Gear watch or the impending Apple (AAPL) iWatch, the real news for this past year was the bumper crop in timepieces that tell time without the need for pesky batteries.
Believe it or not, mechanical wristwatches now make up the vast majority of new watches sold worldwide, according to Statistics Brain, the data collection service managed by Seth Harden. According to information it compiled from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, Convention Patronale, Bank Vontobel and others, when consumers do enter the better watch market, it's the mechanical timepiece they are seeing value in. And mega watch brands such as The Swatch Group, Richemont and Rolex dominate this market. This was a solid year for value, design and innovation among smaller makers as well. There was even an American watch maker or two worth watching.
How great is that?
So as we step into the final moments of the holiday shopping season, here are my picks for the top 10 best mechanical watches for 2013. Invest in any one of these for you or your loved ones and be reminded moment by moment of how precious time really is.
OK, Shinola's The Runwell is not actually a mechanical watch. But Detroit-based Shinola (yes, there really is a top-flight watch company in Michigan) is such a great business and design story that it might as well be. To me, The Runwell has all the heart and soul of a mechanical watch, but without the need to wind it. The hand-assembled Runwell uses a high-quality Swiss quartz movement, solid sapphire crystal and is built into a well-machined stainless steel case. Watch snobs may sniff at the fact Shinola also sells bicycle and handbags, but don't be fooled: The detail, excellent craftsmanship and backstory on The Runwell are solid. It doesn't hurt that there's a national chain of direct retailers where you can get down to last-minute and bag a Shinola.
For the money, The Runwell is the watch of the moment.
The big news for 2013 is how competitive the roughly $1,000 mechanical watch market has become. Most better watchmakers fight tooth and nail for this price point, and therefore terrific design and movement stories are found throughout. I give the nod to the Tissot Powermatic 80 not only for its clean, elegant design, but for the fact it cleverly stores 80 full hours of power reserve on each windup. Factor in the durable chronometer design and slick, black leather band and this automatic is not only good looking but practical.
Major note for bargain hunters: Tissot is an established Swiss maker with solid online channels. That means that, unlike most other better watches, some careful(!) Web price shopping should not end in tears.
We have all long since lost track of how established watch brands such as Hamilton wound up as part of the Swiss watch giant The Swatch Group. But I've not noticed the fit and figure of Hamiltons fading as part of the trend. This year the Jazzmaster Slim Petit Seconde is a standout. The white face, rose dial and high-quality brown leather strap make it the perfect fashion solution the perfect second or third watch, and a terrific pick for those ladies who love to crib a bigger men's watch for their own.
Rest assured, Hamilton is making a heck of a watch here: The Jazzmaster is water-resistant, done in a nice stainless case and has a solid, high-quality automatic movement.
It's an excellent watch with excellent style.
Great watches tell both time and a great story, and the RGN Grand Pilot is clearly a great watch. This piece is but one of a limited output from American maker Roland G. Murphy. This Lancaster, Pa., watchmaster is celebrating his 20th year working in small batches for the bespoke watch market and in self-designed pieces. This year, I was taken by the Grande Pilot as a truly top-level, 17-jewel/18,000 vibration-per-hour mechanical movement watch, done in a handsome stainless steel case.
Considering you basically become a friend of the company when you buy an RGN -- you can stop by and visit Roland any time you like -- this is a watch you won't merely own, it will be one you develop a deep personal relationship with.
It is no secret I am an utter fool for Nomos-Glashutte timepieces. I cannot say no to the simple yet elegant designs, the legibility and the terrific technology. And now there's a fun new riff on its legendary Zurich Weltzeit, or worldwatch, design: The ZW, which cleverly tells time in many cities at once. Its "5th Avenue" edition even gives us native New Yorkers the hour right here at the center of the world. (Which really is what the world, needs right?)
It doesn't hurt that the Zurich Weltzeit is absurdly thin, built from a simply fabulous Nomos-caliber automatic winding movement and based on a design like no other. Mix in Nomos' storied service and support and my hunch is that this timepiece gains value over time -- meaning you may not just be buying a watch, you may be buying an investment. And that, friends, beats overpaying for shares of Google, Amazon or Facebook every day of the week.
I bet those of us of a certain vintage have real memories of the original Tudor Advisor. This late-1950s mechanical was a staple for high-quality automatic watches at reasonable prices worn by smart people. Tudor has seen hard times here in the U.S. -- in fact, sales were discontinued from time to time over the years. But 2013 saw Tudor back in the American market with a relaunched Heritage Advisor, a white, multilevel face and single red sweep second hand watch built around Tudor's simply awesome movement.
What makes the watch really worth the time is its alarm. Hodinkee's Pulvirent says the Advisor's alarm rings loud, effectively and comes with a surprisingly handy on/off switch. Considering the classic design chops of this watch, the fact it comes both in steel and titanium and is sized at a trim 42mm, I can't think of a better face to wake up to than the Heritage Advisor.
We can be honest here: Storied watchmaker Zenith hasn't been the same since it got involved with the goofy Felix Baumgartner business. (That's the fellow who leapt from a space capsule last year and fell all the way back to earth.) For sure, Zenith still makes a heck of a watch, but I'm not the only customer who has a limited interest in wearing a watch marketed for zero gravity. In spite of all that nonsense, Zenith's El-Primero Stratos is pick-worthy. Not only is it done in a unique blue, but Zenith's awesome 45 B automatic movement features 36 jewels and a simply crazy 36,000 vibrations per hour.
Big note on buying a Zenith: The gray market for these pieces is deep and treacherous, so you will want to buy a Stratos via an authorized dealer. And Zenith makes something like 600 different types of movements, and has many other choices per watch, so you will want to confirm you are buying the watch you really want buy.
But for a watch that soars, stick with the Stratos.
I have a dark confession to make: I am no Rolex guy. Maybe it's be the brand, or the fact that they dominate the upper end of the watch market -- or that I never got one from my dad. But my frosty feeling may be thawing in 2013, the 50th Anniversary of Rolex's legendary Cosmograph Daytona. Many of these vintage pieces were placed at auction this year, and all fetched record prices.
Rolex also deserves credit for giving anybody the chance to taste that heritage with a new Daytona. This ludicrously top-shelf mechanical watch features a self-winding perpetual movement and Rolex's unique Oyster case, although real Rolex fashionistas will have to get their hands on the limited edition platinum Daytona for a cool $75,000. Hodinkee's Pulvirent said this watch was awesome. Even I have to admit it's a timepiece I would cherish.
Who knows how Audemars Piguet does it. But its Royal Oak line of watches doesn't merely define the category of thin, self-winding timepieces -- it defines the entire category of mechanical wrist timepieces.
That glory comes through in the details of this Royal Oak. Just gape at its stainless steel case, so well machined it might as well be made from "unobtainium." Or check out at the no-glare crystal that really has no glare. (As in none at all.) And while the dial is nominally blue, it is etched with a "Petite Tapisserie" pattern so fabulous anybody could stare at it for hours. Finally, usually stainless bracelets such as this Royal Oak are heavy, hard to wear and fall off, but this band is so light and well-engineered you won't know you're wearing it -- but won't worry it will slip off your wrist.
There is a good reason LeBron James owns an Audemars. And if you can afford one, you should own one too.
If cost is no object, this is the watch to have for 2013.
Hodinkee's Clymer voted for the Constant Escapement as a winner for the "Aiguille D'or" top prize at the Grand Prix D'horlogerie De Geneve 2013, essentially the Academy Awards for watches. And now that I have gotten to know this watch, I can see why. This thing is a mechanical and design tour de force. Girard-Perregaux invested five full years of R&D to create a fundamentally new way to beat time. It uses a vibrating 14-micron silicon blade -- six times thinner than a human hair. It is powered by two energy reserves that drive the thing at an absurdly fast 21,600 vibrations per hour.
Usually these sorts of "new movement" watches are jarring to look at, and I found it does take some time to learn to tell time easily with the Constant Escapement. But once you suss out the logic of its face, believe it or not, $123,000 is actually a value price for a piece of this vintage.
Bottom line, show up anywhere in the world with this thing on your wrist, and if you can't get that deal closed, you have bigger problems than your watch.
Happy watching to all of you!