In Praise of Mid-Tier Gear

What makes good gear? Is it how much costs or something more?

There are a few philosophies that have always been in the back of my mind as a collector of different material objects: own your things rather than letting them own you; don’t spend more than you can afford to lose; don’t take yourself or your hobbies (or anything, really) too seriously. 

            Contradicting any of the abovementioned ideas could likely cause any joy you get from your hobbies to escape you.  I don’t want to opine on the “right” or “wrong” reasons any of us get into anything we’re passionate about, but it seems like a pretty fundamental idea is that we do these things (or, at least, we enter into these things) for a sense of joy.  Sure, watch collecting can be as controversial as anything else.  You can debate and politicize within the Watch Fam as much or as little as you prefer.  But mostly, as is the case with debating sports trades or arguing over which album is a band’s preeminent statement, these debates are part of the enjoyment of any passion or interest.  It’s when debate turns into gatekeeping that the joy is sucked out of the room. 

            While this article is not going to be about the way that hobbies can become tainted by the kind of self-important seriousness previously mentioned, I feel like it’s important to remind oneself from time to time just why we do any of these things.  Instead, this article is going to be about the kind of joy that I hope you, dear Watch Fam, get from our endlessly interesting, totally impractical, and inexpressibly satisfying hobby.


Cultivating Joy, Stockpiling Stuff

It’s impossible for me to talk about watch collecting without thinking about my other collections, past and present, as well.  I have been a serial collector/hobbyist/enthusiast since I was in grade school.  Some of the things I’ve collected (nearly obsessively) at one time or another include:

  • Fleer Ultra basketball cards (nearly the entire 1995 & 1996 series)
  • Comics and comic trading cards (specifically Marvel with a Spider-Man focus)
  • Pens
  • Rocks
  • Pogs (and Slammers)
  • Vinyl Records/CDs/Cassette Tapes
  • Guitars

I don’t want to get into the semantics of what makes a collector a collector, say, someone who is a completist curator of one thing vs. someone who simply buys up a lot of one thing (I lean more toward the latter, though you know I was a beast with those Pogs).  Rather, I want to point out that there is a similar mindset and similar tendencies that go into collecting all manner of stuff and that mindset is usually specific to the individual. 


I can’t really separate my pathology for collecting watches from my pathology for collecting guitars, for instance.  Sure there are different specifics and very different concerns in the world of horology than there are in the world of music gear.  However, for me at least, the approach, the thrill of the hunt, the near obsession with research and word of mouth reviews remain the same.  I imagine the same thread runs through other types of collecting that I have no direct experience at all.  I’ve never collected cars or sneakers or Beanie Babies, but I completely understand people who do.

Mid-Tier Gear as an Exercise in Democracy

            Specifically, I feel that an integral part of my collecting is and has always been gear/objects/stuff that occupies what many would consider to be the mid-tier.  To clarify, before I go on, I want to define “mid-tier gear” as I see it.  Mid-tier gear bridges the divide between low-tier and upper-echelon.  It is mid-range but not middlebrow or mediocre.  It is based on value, not cost.  It takes into account not that its consumers tastes are average but that, on average, most people have taste.

            Mid-Tier gear can, therefore, be seen as something truly wonderful and unique.  Ironic, perhaps, because the largest space in any industry seems to be that middle part.  But in the world of material objects, mid-tier exists in a fascinating space.  It is a space where the collections of people with modest budgets overlap with those of people with bigger wallets.  This is truly a remarkable and egalitarian thing.  Please don’t take it for granted.


            Some people’s grails might be part of the mid-tier and they may have saved up for a long time to attain those things.  Others may be able to afford to spend more but realize the significance of mid-tier objects.  The mid-tier is where collectors and enthusiasts of varying stripes come together to agree on the most important pillars of collecting: value, reliability, performance, craft, and heritage. 

            Perhaps this is why Seiko is maybe the most accessible brand to the largest swath of people.  Seiko is a brand that fulfills all of the aforementioned criteria and whose mid-tier is vast.  Not only are Seiko’s mid-tier offerings (on the retail and secondhand market) staggering in number, but they are also extremely diverse in design.  That diversity of design language goes even further when you consider all of the available mod parts available to personalize these mid-tier watches to fit every taste. 


Since Seiko has an earnest heritage, even people who collect luxury and ultra-luxury pieces appreciate, say, the importance (and sheer beauty) of something like the 6309 Turtle.  Seiko is definitely punching its way upmarket and we’re seeing more and more pieces that are just out of reach of the mid-tier, but the mid-range watches are still plentiful and a great value. 

Mid-tier gear that is honest, well-executed, and functional is satisfying in and of itself.  While there are certainly reasons why luxury-tier goods are what they are, one could likely have a collection topping out at the mid-tier and be quite happy.


The Dig-In Factor

            Personally, the greatest debt I owe to my mid-tier gear is for what it’s taught me about my respective hobbies. 

            While mid-tier pieces have the ability to provide a person with respectable and satisfying collections, it should be noted that these objects are not precious.  I don’t say this to disparage anyone’s affinity for or sentimental connection to a mid-tier object.  Of course, many of the pieces of mid-tier gear in my collection are some of my dearest possessions.  Instead, mid-tier gear is not “precious” in the way that luxury items are.  Mid-tier pieces are affordable, replaceable (aside from those most sentimental possessions), and largely serviceable.  I do not believe this detracts from their greatness.  Rather, it is this lack of the need for “white gloving” that makes these things important.


Things that are not precious, that aren’t one in a million or irreplaceable or which don’t require the owner to worry about depreciation can invigorate a person to dig in.  It is my mid-tier pieces, regardless of the hobby they belong to, that I have used to feed my curiosity, test my dexterity and ingenuity, and to affirm a sense of self-reliance I didn’t know I had in me.

            Two pieces I have an extremely intimate connection with in this sense are my Seiko SKX007 dive watch and my Mexican/American hybrid Fender Sunset Boulevard Stratocaster.  Both objects are from reputable, storied brands that offer gear both below this level and far, far above.  What makes my relationship with this objects special is that I own both watches and guitars whose cost far exceeds both.  To be honest, my more expensive watches are a bit more precious than my more expensive guitars which receive a similar amount of use as my Mexican Strat.  However, it is these mid-tier objects, one related to horology and one to music, that I have likely invested more time into than any others.


            I’ve been playing, writing, and recording music probably longer than I’ve done anything else.  I received my Sunset Boulevard Strat (a special model made just for Sam Ash whose gimmick was a Mexican made/American assembled body with American Standard Strat pickups and electronics) for my birthday in 2001.  Though I have been playing guitar for more years in front of that birthday than behind it, and though I own an American Deluxe Strat, I find myself reaching for my Sunset Boulevard over and over. 


There’s just something about it that’s magical.  It might be the un-reproduceable patina of wear and use over time or the feel of it in hand.  I think, though, it’s the knowledge that it isn’t my “good” guitar and so I feel emboldened to tinker with it, both in playing and in customizing.  I’ve done things with this guitar I wouldn’t dream of with my American Strat and, as a result, I’ve learned things about the guitar I might never have if I didn’t take risks with this particular instrument and have created music with it that may never have existed.


Very similar things could be said about my SKX007.  Though I am by no means the most adventurous tinkerer I know, there are things I’ve done with this watch that I would never have attempted with a precious piece.  Though this particular SKX has a sentimental irreplaceability to me, it’s comforting knowing that it’s not one in a million and that if, heaven forbid, something were to happen to it or I were to lose it, it wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg (or a long, arduous search) to find another.  As I said earlier, I don’t want my things to own me.   It’s nice to have a totem to take with you on your adventures, but isn’t it the memories that are really what give the piece its magic?


Since I’m not gambling with more than I could afford to lose with a $200 Seiko diver, I’ve messed about with it.  I’ve changed the bezel.  I’ve bleached new inserts I’ve bought from it.  It’s the first watch I ever took the back off of with a caseback wrench and actually looked at what was ticking away in there.  I haven’t gotten into the real blood and guts of switching out hands or the crown, but who knows?  Maybe that boldness lies on the horizon.

A Final Word on Mid-Tier Gear

            What is most important about the experimenting that well-made but easily replaced affords you is knowledge.  I don’t just mean the technical knowledge that comes with taking things apart, seeing how they work, and putting them back together.  Instead, I feel it’s a knowledge more reflected back on the owner.  Throwing caution to the wind and getting into my gear with both hands has really taught me what is about these hobbies that I really love. 

At a certain point, I feel like any collector of any material object must sit back, take stock of their accumulation, their quirks, and their quiet suffering and wonder what it’s all for.  Or perhaps this only happens with those who put their objects under a bell jar, never to be disturbed by a fleck of dust or a drop of breath.  For those of us who own our things, and engage with them, we know exactly what it’s all about.  It might just be the worst kept secret in all of Nerddom.

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Comments 1
  1. Great article, and in many ways sums up my approach. I waited on my personal grail, my BB36, and now that I have it I’m fairly certain I won’t be chasing any “big fish” again. While it remains my favourite piece, I can get extremely excited over other watches with a much more reasonable cost of entry like my Lorier Falcon II I received just today. The sense of excitement was the same for both pieces, with the only discernible difference being the added sense of satisfaction that I got from the BB36 because I’d waited on that piece for longer and had to make a few sacrifices to get it. The insane breadth of that mid-tier is where I generally find the treasures I obsess the most over, and it’s where I focused both before and after my grail.

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