Gorgeous Swiss timepiece will cure your Apple Watch envy

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Photo: Luke Dormehl/Cult of Mac
Photo: Luke Dormehl/Cult of Mac

Having not worn a watch regularly since my high school days, I recently took the plunge and bought my first “adult” watch, a self-winding automatic Swiss timepiece.

I had several criteria I wanted to meet. Firstly I wanted a self-winding automatic, because I liked the idea of owning a Swiss watch and I wanted one that, at least in theory, has a longer lifespan than a battery-powered quartz timepiece. Secondly, I wanted to keep my purchase sub-$2,000. Thirdly, as a watch novice, I was looking for something that would be as multipurpose as possible.

After some research, I settled on a watch from the Longines Master Collection — buying it in a dedicated brick-and-mortar store rather than online, so that I could try it out in person before buying.

Based in Saint-Imier, Switzerland, and dating back to 1832, Longines is probably the most affordable entry point to the luxury watch brands. The company’s winged hourglass logo is the oldest registered for a watchmaker. Longines is best known for its “Aviator” watches, designed to help pilots with air navigation. It also provided the timekeeping devices used at the first modern-day Olympics in 1896.

The Longines Master Collection sounds like the company’s top-end offering, but is actually one of its entry-level product lines. This particular model costs around $1,980.

How does it fare? Read on to find out.

The Longines in action. Paleness of wrist may vary depending on lack of sun.
The Longines as it sits on my pallid English wrist. Photo: Luke Dormehl/Cult of Mac

Appearance

The L2.629.4.51.6 is a very attractive watch — understated but assured. Unlike it’s clunky model number. It features a black dial, and brushed stainless steel body and bracelet. This particular model sports Roman numerals, although the Master Collection includes models with Arabic numbers instead.

The watch has a 1.5-inch body and a 7-inch bracelet, which can be easily adjusted by taking out or replacing links. It feels pleasingly heavy, but not restrictive, uncomfortable or even all that noticeable within a day or so of strapping it onto your wrist.

The sapphire back of the watch displays its inner-workings in all their cog-whirring glory.
The sapphire back of the watch displays its inner workings in all their cog-whirring glory. Photo: Longines

It has sapphire crystal glass at both front and back, with the front being slightly domed. At the back there’s a window showing off the internal mechanisms, giving an intriguing peek behind the curtain that also demonstrates that the watch is working as it should.

The watch face features three colors: silver, white and black. The numerals, chronograph dials (more on them later) and words “Longines,” “Automatic” and “Swiss Made” are all in white, while the Longines logo and rings around the chronograph dials are stainless steel. The date window reverses the overall watch face design and features thin black numbers on a white background.

What I like about the watch face is that it is easily legible at a glance, but closer inspection (particularly when viewing at an angle) reveals additional detail. The black background, for example, appears solid when viewing the watch head-on, but is actually textured, with different patterns for both the main face and the inside of the chronograph dials. The numerals are slightly embossed, which makes them stand out against the Longines logo and the background.

If I have a design complaint, it is that the III, VI and IX digits are partly chopped off by the two chronograph dials. To a lesser extent this also affects the II, IIII (rather than IV), VIII and X numerals, all of which lose a piece. It’s a minor quibble that doesn’t make it any harder to tell the time, but seems out of place on an otherwise attractive and well-designed watch face. This is really the first and only time that the L2.629.4.51.6 feels like a budget watch, since I can’t imagine a similar piece of design clumsiness being overlooked on a higher-end timepiece.

To put it in Apple terms, imagine Jony Ive settling for the Apple logo sliced in half by, say, the iPad’s rear camera. Not going to happen, is it? That’s how I feel here.

Features

This is a tech and gadget blog, so we all love features, right? Well, sort of. As I stated up front, I didn’t feel that I had my watch preferences quite “down” at the point of purchase, so I opted for a watch that possessed, for want of a better phrase, a bit of everything. I didn’t want a completely plain face, but I also steered clear of some of the more feature-heavy timepieces which tend to be classified as aviator, diving or sports watches. No moon phases or depth gauges for me!

In terms of added extras, the L2.629.4.51.6 features a chronograph, which is essentially a stopwatch. It’s a nifty tool, and satisfyingly implemented — with one dedicated hand recording seconds, while the chronograph dials record minutes. Press the top button on the watch body and the timing starts; press the bottom one and the time-measuring snaps back into the 12 o’clock position with a satisfying click. The regular time-telling function of the watch works as normal while you’re using the chronograph.

The watch is water-resistant to a depth of 30 meters or 100 feet, although I have not tested this and have so far removed it for activities that might get it wet.

While it’s not technically a feature, I should comment on the watch’s sound, which can’t be heard when the timepiece is hanging on your wrist at waist height. The watch produces a crisp, high-speed ticking that’s audible when you put the timepiece next to your ear. There is no chiming feature.

Accuracy

A self-winding automatic watch is never going to be as accurate as a quartz watch, since its internal mechanisms are the result of mechanical components instead of the battery-driven vibrations of a quartz crystal. With that being said, any inaccuracy I have so far experienced has been so minor that it does not have any impact in real-world terms. We’re talking about changes of seconds rather than minutes over several weeks. Hand movement is excellent, and the hands line up perfectly with the markers.

Accuracy is equally good for the chronograph, although the fact that you’re likely to be running it for minutes rather than months means that the slight gain/loss of time over an extended period is of less importance. Absolutely no complaints here.

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The watch’s stainless steel bracelet is solid without feeling heavy. Photo: Luke Dormehl/Cult of Mac

Conclusion: Who watches the watchmen?

The Longines Master Collection L2.629.4.51.6 is a watch I like a great deal. At $1,980, it’s not an everyday purchase, and you’ll certainly find quartz fashion watches for a fraction of the price. For a self-winding automatic, however, it definitely represents good value, without feeling like the entry level model that it is.

It’s not a flashy timepiece that will instantly attract attention, but it’s a high-quality piece that adds a certain something to a good suit, although it can just as easily be worn with jeans and a polo shirt.

In a way, the watch is a bit like a 16GB iPhone 6: a perfectly acceptable high-end product that is going to suit a percentage of the population without them having any need to upgrade it. The 16GB iPhone 6 does most of what you would find on the top smartphone configurations, but also leaves you with somewhere to go in the future. Watch a lot of media and wish the screen size was a bit bigger? Get the iPhone 6 Plus.

It represents good value, without feeling like the entry level model that it is.

Find yourself running out of storage? Get a 64GB or 128GB model.

The same is true with the L2.629.4.51.6. If you find yourself drawn to its more showy features, there are other, more ostentatious watches with which to fill your wardrobe. If it’s the ruggedness and/or functionality that you like, however, you may want to explore diver’s or aviator’s watches.

One other question I would have for future watches is between the metal and leather strap options. (Longines produces a very similar watch with a leather strap.) At the end of the day, this comes down to personal preference. The stainless steel bracelet offers a little more flexibility, since removing and adding links is easier than having to order new watch straps to fit the size of your wrist. I went for this option, partly because I’d owned watches with leather straps before and wanted something different.

Going forward I might gravitate toward leather next time, since I feel the inevitable scuffs tend to give the band character — as opposed to making it look scruffy — over time.

Ultimately, that’s what the L2.629.4.51.6 does to you. Prior to getting it I wouldn’t have been talking about “next time” I buy a watch. Now I am. Much like my first Apple product, I now feel myself at the top of a fascinating, possibly very expensive, rabbit hole.

Does it make me want the Apple Watch any less? Not really, although it does make it a much harder decision regarding which one I would wear on a regular basis. It also makes me realize I’ll run out of wrist space long before I run out of compelling watches to buy.