The Double-Edged Sword of Limited Edition Watches

The Double-Edged Sword of Limited Edition Watches

Ask any watch enthusiast what they think about limited editions (LEs); they’ll probably have a well-considered answer for you. The topic of limited production, limited edition, or otherwise “special” watch releases has been a polarizing one in our community for the better part of a decade.

In theory, a limited release (in duration or quantity) should entice buyers with its unique design and exclusivity. In practice, LEs often frustrate buyers due to inconsistent and/or unclear production practices. Some LEs are numbered, some are not. Some are limited by nature, some by design. Some LEs remain limited, some are later repurposed as permanent catalog items. 

omega ck2998 pulsometer

Image Source: Monochrome Watches

Furthermore, when brands release “too many” LEs, a misstep we’ve seen time and time again (and not just in the watch industry), buyers are left confused or underwhelmed by a market saturated with so-called “special” watches. We’ve seen major brands like Omega experience these pitfalls, receiving widespread ridicule in the late 2010s for releasing too many LEs. We’ve also seen brands like Rolex (and later Omega, to be fair) drive demand without using the word ‘limited’ at all.

So should all brands do away with LEs? Not so fast. When executed sparingly (and tastefully), brands, largely independents and microbrands, stand to gain a lot from LEs. They’re an excellent way to gauge interest, maximize often-limited resources, and cater to a specific subset of buyers.

The Appeal(s) of Limited Edition Watches

Limited Edition Watches

Image Source: Hodinkee

The appeal of a limited edition watch should supersede scarcity. As I mentioned in the intro, a good LE should entice buyers with a unique design.

“[Limited editions] should be made to target a limited audience,” said a fellow member of the TGN Supporter Crew.

The Brew x Worn & Wound Regulator Metric is a great example of targeting a limited audience. Within Brew’s larger demographic lies a subset of enthusiasts who appreciate an eccentric chrono whose timekeeping hands are on three different axes. This quirky limited edition (of 600 pieces total) was purposefully made for this limited audience. More on this model later.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms 45mm vs 42mm

Image Source: WatchProSite

Perhaps LEs should target a limited audience, but they often do not. Some LEs feature marginal changes to existing models – so marginal that the LE could very well be a standard production model – and gain disproportionate appeal due to their rarity. For example, every sub-45mm Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was limited until early 2024. The market for a smaller Fifty Fathoms has always existed, but the brand long decided to keep these widely-wearable sizes numbered and exclusive. Enter consumer frustration.

Consumer Frustration

The way I see it, LE-related consumer frustration boils down to two main issues: “FOMO for FOMO’s sake”, wherein consumers are confused as to why an LE is limited (i.e. the model has no notable production restrictions and ostensibly should be a regular production model); and “backstabbing”, a dramatic term for when a brand releases a limited edition and later elects a near-congruent model for standard production. Let’s break down these issues with a few examples.

“FOMO for FOMO’s Sake”

Omega Steel Ed White Caliber 321

Image Source: Omega

Like it or not, fear is a core principle of marketing. Fear of missing out (FOMO) on a limited edition watch may be a somewhat irrational fear (as far as fears go), but it certainly exists.

I’d say most consumers are comfortable with LE-related FOMO so long as the watch itself justifies its limited production. For example, when Omega brought back the caliber 321 in 2019, they announced that each movement would be hand-assembled by a single watchmaker, limiting production to 2,000 per year, max. Yes, Omega could have mass-produced this movement, but their production choice plays into the cal. 321's historical appeal and, after all, we're talking about mechanical wristwatches here; we all love a bit of anachronism.

Omega caliber-321-powered Speedmasters weren’t “limited editions” according to Omega, but they were inherently limited by their production style. Would-be buyers who couldn’t get a steel Ed White experienced FOMO, but at least they had a cool reason to point to. The same logic applies to LEs with NOS movements, naturally scarce materials, or even design elements that just don't belong on standard production models (more on this later).

Seiko SPB409

Image Source: Seiko

When this justification is absent, consumers get frustrated. For example, Seiko released a pair of Alpinist GMTs in September 2023 with blue and black dials, respectively. One week later, they released a white-dialed version of the sports watch. . . as a limited edition. This isn’t a bright pink dial, there are no mechanical tweaks, no production limitations – it’s just limited for the sake of being limited. Releases like this foster FOMO for FOMO’s sake, and consumers hate it.


GP Laureato

I’ll be the first to admit that ‘backstabbing’ feels like an extreme bit of vocabulary here, but it’s descriptive. Plenty of watch brands have done this: they release a limited edition and later release a regular production model that’s 99% identical. Fratello editor Ben Hodges uses Girard Perregaux as an example.

“The Girard-Perregaux Laureato is a good example of back-stabbing. The blue/steel model was released as a limited edition of 225 for GP’s 225th anniversary. Less than 12 months later they released it as a standard model (with small improvements) and the price dropped from $14,300 to $11,000. Ouch!”.

Not only is the existence of both models frustrating for those who purchased the LE, particularly at a premium, it’s confusing for would-be buyers who rightfully don’t understand the difference.

Market Saturation and Confusion

Omega Speedmaster LEs

I wrote an article about limited editions about a year ago. In it, I touched on market saturation with a car industry parallel.

“The appeal of limited editions lies in their scarcity: not just the number of watches made, but the number of limited editions run. British car company McLaren is often ridiculed for having too many limited editions. They routinely release 5+ versions of the same car, sometimes within just one trim level (e.g. the 6 “special editions” within the 570S base trim level). I’ve heard [McLaren] described as “the Taco Bell of supercar companies,” referring to their large selection of fundamentally similar products. This type of oversaturation reduces the value of limited editions. When you know they’re a dime a dozen, there’s less urgency to buy: less FOMO”.

While all of that remains true, and “too many” LEs can easily devalue their appeal, it doesn’t speak to the confusion brought on by market saturation. Continuing with the McLaren example, anyone looking to purchase a base model 570S is forced to understand the differences between all six special editions. This is unnecessary and can easily lead to confusion.

Anecdotally, I was perusing Unimatic watches just a few weeks ago. I sifted through so many limited editions that I simply lost interest and have yet to return. I wasn't so much confused as I was overwhelmed. To be clear, I love Unimatic watches and hope to own one someday, but the effects of LE saturation are undeniable.

Limited Editions Done Right

When it comes to limited edition watches, the “what” and “why” should come before deciding to limit production. “What” represents the watch itself and “why” represents the appeal to a particular audience. “Why” make it in the first place?

Brew Metric Regulator

Image Source: Worn & Wound

Once again, the Brew x Worn & Wound Regulator Metric is a great example. The Seiko caliber VK68 used to power the Metric comes standard with a 24-hour “subdial”. Until this LE, the Metric forwent this subdial to achieve a simple, two-register, asymmetric design. By utilizing the movement's pre-existing 24-hour functionality and removing the central hour hand, the watch becomes a regulator: a categorically rare dial arrangement steeped in horological history. At this point, Brew and Worn & Wound had their “what”.

So what about the “why”? Well, watch nerds who appreciate the rich history of regulator clocks will see the appeal of this model. They know that chronograph regulators are extremely uncommon, and ones under $1,000 probably just don’t exist elsewhere. Of course, there will also be a cohort of buyers who simply love the retro styling and colorful designs offered by Brew.

Brew Metric Regulator vs Metric

All that said, the Metric Regulator is a niche model, even compared to the core Metric: a watch that’s pretty niche in the grand scheme of watchmaking. This is where limited production makes sense. We have a cool watch, we have an audience that will love it, but that audience isn’t big enough to justify producing the watch indefinitely.

To that point, many independent and microbrands don’t have the resources to create new models or even refine existing ones with much regularity. Creative LEs like the Metric Regulator make the most of limited resources, all while gauging the interest and demand of consumers.

Omega Speedmaster White Dial

Larger brands like Rolex and Omega don’t have these constraints. They have plenty of resources to iterate upon their historic silhouettes, offering high-quality, desirable products that naturally generate interest. It seems like Omega realized this in the late 2010s when they stopped making limited editions (at least to the extent they used to). Rolex simply doesn’t make limited editions because they have no reason to. They know what people want, they know how to make it, and they know they can’t meet demand anyway.

Final Thoughts

When executed well, limited edition watches are a great way for brands to experiment and provide unique value. When executed poorly, or simply “too often”, LEs can erode brand/consumer trust, leading to frustration, confusion, and disinterest.

What do you think about limited edition watches? Do you own any? Your thoughts are welcome in the comments section below.

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