Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Watch Primer


A time piece is a very common component to a regular EDC. Unfortunately, the selection of a watch can be a mind boggling process for some. My name is John and I am a watch enthusiast. I focus on Japanese branded watches (Seiko, Citizen, Casio and Orient) and collect my musings over at Jikan Watch Blog. I am also a regular reader of Every Day Commentary and Tony asked me to write a watch primer for his readers. This post was prepared for the individual wanting to enter the watch arena, but doesn’t know where to start. While preparing this article, I quickly realized that at a high level, the “watch experience” is very similar to that of other gear, so I’ve tried to take advantage of the similarities in order to help explain the differences. Just like selecting gear, there are subtleties in the selection of a watch and I hope that at the end of this article, these will be made more clear to you and you will be able to select a watch in confidence.

The Fashion Watch Trap

Buying a watch can be intimidating. The volume, design and prices can be staggering. Where does one start? One common misconception about watches is that they are all the same. Of course, they all tell the time, but from an aesthetic perspective, some examples can have more significance than others. When selecting a watch, try to buy a brand that is an actual watch manufacturer. These are companies with a history of watchmaking. They have research and development. The watch product is an investment of their business, not a vehicle to promote the brand name. Gucci does not make watches. Burberry does not make watches. Neither does Michael Kors. There are many many more examples. There is a huge industry in Asia built around custom manufacture of watches using catalog part selections. We call these fashion watches. On the ladder of perceptions, these are the lowest. The challenge with the fashion watches is that they deal in volume. There are so many of them, we are surrounded. It is impossible to go into any store and not see a fashion watch. They often hit on the latest styles and colors and are often far overpriced for the product that is delivered. If you happen to own a fashion watch, don’t be bummed. I don’t want to be critical. I’m sure your watch works perfectly fine and looks great. But for those individuals looking for a little something special in their watch selection, buy from a company that actually makes the watches.

In the last few years an industry of selling watches on the television has exploded. Brand names such as Invicta, Renato and others were made famous on the shopNBC channel. They are promoted by salesmen who consider themselves enthusiasts and even lead online brand forums for a more social watch experience. In the watch food chain, these TV brands are slightly better than the fashion store watches. They are often designed to a higher standard than one would expect from a fashion store watch and there are some good examples of high quality pieces. Manufacture is still contracted and there are lots of examples of poor quality control and poor customer service. While the watches themselves may be pretty good, the deeply discounted MSRP and purchase payment plans can give a bit of cheezy feel to the overall experience.

Coincident with the popularity of TV watch brands, there’s also been the emergence of something called Micro or Boutique brands. These brands are similar to custom knife or flashlight manufacturers in the EDC world. The watches are usually custom designs and are manufactured in small volumes. The watch movement is usually sourced externally as it is not feasible for a small organization to make their own movements as well. Some micro brands will allow for buyer customization for example the selection of crown, dial, or hands from a menu of options allow. Some of the benefits in going with a micro brand is that you will usually get better components, build, finishing and specifications as you are dealing with small volumes. Most times the customer service is impeccable. One down fall is the longevity of these brands is an unknown so part availability and repair in the future can be an issue. In response to this, many micros actually include spare parts with the original purchase. Additionally not all micro brands custom design cases and it is quite common to have the case selected from a menu of off the shelf offerings from the case manufacturer. This may not be an issue with some customers, but it is known to happen. Some examples of micro brands are MKII, Halios, Stowa, Benarus, Prometheus, Bernhardt, Doxa, Precista and many others.

Lastly, there are the big dogs of the industry. The companies and brands with a legacy and history of watchmaking, sometimes exceeding a century. They have instant recognition of making watches. These are your Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer, Hamilton, Seiko, Citizen, IWC, Panerai, and many many more. These are the companies that drive the market with continued research and development and innovative design. They often are a complete vertically integrated organization with all parts manufactured in house, or at least horizontally organized with movements supplied by sister companies. Some, like Rolex are stand alone while many of the Swiss brands are organized under umbrella groups such as Swatch, Richemont or LVMH groups. Others like Seiko and Citizen function as a single brand name with multiple sub-brands and collections underneath. These companies offer manufacturer support and service, but as with many instances, there is additional costs associated with intangibles like advertizing and network distribution which can add to the cost of the product.

Quartz vs. Mechanical

Spend any time in an online watch forum and you will eventually stumble into one of the great internet debates of preferred watch movement. While I personally think the argument is greatly over-exaggerated in significance, it is an important decision to make, especially for the new watch buyer and I’ll try to hit the highlights.

 An ornate mechanical watch movement

Mechanical watches are very simply timepieces with all mechanical parts. Power is stored in the tension of a flat wound spring. Time is kept by the harmonic oscillation of a balance wheel which functions like a pendulum in an upright clock. Mechanical gears connect the timekeeping to the power source and then to the movement of the hands to display the time. Mechanical watches can be wound by rotating the crown (hand winders) or through the use of a weighted rotor inside the watch which winds while your hand moves around through your daily movements (automatic). Although their presence on today’s market seems like something new, this is hardly new technology and dates back to the Victorian era. Although the selection of mechanical movements today can be staggering, they are all basically derivatives of the Swiss lever escapement. The manufacture of mechanical watch movements has benefited greatly from modern manufacturing practices where part construction and component assembly can be automated with high levels of quality and as a result economic prices.

 A high end quartz movement

The quartz movement is not all that different from the mechanical one, at least when the fundamentals of timekeeping are concerned. The harmonic reference of the balance wheel is replaced with the vibration of a quartz crystal. While the typical frequency of the balance wheel is 6 to 8 beats per second (3-4 Hz), the quartz crystal vibrates at approximately 32 KHz or higher. The effect of this is to increase accuracy from seconds per day as measured with mechanical watches to seconds per month or better. The power source in the quartz movement consists of a battery cell and motor and the application of steady and consistent power over the course of the day as opposed to that of the unwinding mainspring also dramatically improves accuracy.

Seiko commercialized the quartz wristwatch movement in December of 1969. The impact of the quartz watch on the industry was epic, such that it is referred to as the Quartz Crisis (or the Quartz Revolution depending on your perspective). The continued reliance on mechanical watches in the time of the extreme popularity and economically favorable quartz watch led to the near collapse of the Swiss watch industry. After a generation of quartz watches, there has been a small resurgence in interest in mechanical watches. This is in part due to the Swiss watch industry consolidating the surviving brands and decades of marketing linking mechanical watch movements with perceptions of luxury timepieces.

So which type makes the most sense for a prospective watch buyer? While quartz movements have the perceptions of being common and uninspiring, their benefits are undeniable with accuracy, robustness to shock and abuse and years to decades of maintenance free service. On the other hand, while mechanical watches have accuracy ratings to seconds per day, are susceptible to damage from abuse and are expected to be professionally serviced every few years, they do evoke a nostalgia for times past when machines ruled the day before the gadgets arrived. Do keep in mind that a buyer has to climb very high up the luxury ladder to actually achieve an example of a movement that demonstrates all the craftsmanship that equates to one’s expectations. Simply put, most of the mechanical movements on the market today are just as mass produced and economized as their quartz counterparts. In my mind, there isn’t much difference between a disposable mechanical movement and a disposable quartz movement.

Location of Manufacture

Similar to gear, the location of manufacture of a watch can be a contentious issue. As introducers of the quartz movement and the subsequent near-collapse of the Swiss watch industry, there is an unhealthy amount of anti-Japanese bias in the industry at the expense of the pro-Swiss factions. This is unfortunate because Japan’s contributions to the history of time keeping and watch making is undeniable and the competition between the two only benefited the ultimate consumers. The marking of “Swiss Made” on the dial is an absolute for some buyers, but beware that Swiss Made does not necessarily mean the entire watch is manufactured in Switzerland. In fact, it only requires a majority of the value to be manufactured in Switzerland along with the transformative phases of assembly. The source location of everything else is usually clouded in mystery.

Types of Watches

The seemingly endless variety of watch styles can cause confusion to a new buyer. I’ll try to present the most popular styles and the reasons one would be interested in each.


Rolex Submariner. An iconic dive watch.

The diver style is certainly one of today’s most popular watch styles. They typically feature relatively plain case shapes and finishing along with simple and highly legible hands and dials which glow in the dark. The most important feature of the diver is the movable timing bezel which can be adjusted to be set against the minute hand to measure elapsed time. While this feature is intended to be used to time decompression stops during diving, the more common use for it includes timing the pizza pickup and parking meters. Regardless of use, the timing bezel always looks great. The popularity of the diver style is likely due to its overbuilt construction with thick, heavy cases and bracelets designed to withstand the extreme pressures of underwater use. Perhaps it is their utilitarian design, but divers are unique in their broad suitabilty for most dress attire....from beach to boardroom.

It does need to be recognized that not all diver style watches are the same. Many are designed for Professional Dive use and are usually noted with the words, “Diver’s” or “Scuba”, or “Air Diver’s” on the dial or case. These professional dive models must meet the requirements specified in ISO 6245. ISO 6245 basically sets forth requirements for both design and testing of every watch which must be met for use as a diving instrument. Aside from the obvious water resistance design and testing, professional divers must also meet requirements for temperature and shock resistance. All these additional requirements are for the purpose of dive safety while being used. What is ironic is that today’s diver will primarily use a dive computer with the traditional analog dive watch as a back up at best while the vast majority of professional dive watches never see anything deeper than a swimming pool.


Omega Speedmaster Professional. An iconic chronograph 

Where the diver style is the Jeep of watches, the chronograph is the sports car. The chronograph features a stopwatch function which is measured in resolutions of ⅕ to 1/1000 of a second. The pushers on the side of the case used for starting and stopping the stopwatch function provide a styling feature and the additional hands and their movement across the dial add visual interest. It is the chronograph where the mechanical really shines with a higher level of complexity and design. Unfortunately in today’s market, mechanical chronographs are significantly more expensive than their basic mechanical counterparts.


Stowa Flieger

Aviator and military styled watches are throw backs to the watches made popular by use in the world wars of the 20th century. They are characterized as having high contrast dials (typically black dial with white lettering) fully numbered and large hands which are highly legible. While most military watches are fairly small, aviator styled watches are fairly large with large easily manipulated crowns to aid in their intended use inside an airplane cockpit. These watches typically have very basic case finishing and are presented on leather or nylon straps.

Multifunction Quartz

Casio Protrek

With the inclusion of integrated circuitry in a quartz watch enabled the watch to do so much more than simply tell the time and date. Multifunction quartz watches are capable of monitoring all kinds of data including temperature, air pressure, altitude, water depth, compass direction, water tides, moon phase, GPS satellite positioning, radio controlled receipt of atomic signals, and much more popularized by brands such as Casio, Suunto, Citizen, Seiko and Tissot. The use of solid state LCD digital displays with no internal moving parts resulted in exceptional shock resistance and the fusion of fashion and durability in what is today’s G-Shock.

Vintage Collectibility

 Seiko 6309

Anything with a long history of use will likely be a candidate for collectibility and watches are no exception. There is a very active and thriving society of individuals who collect models and brands of watches long out of production. Collecting vintage watches not only involves sourcing the difficult to find watches and parts, but also repair and restoration. An unusual thing about vintage watches is that the prices are completely set by the market demand for a particular model in the stated condition and has absolutely no relationship to the cost and value of modern day watches. This may be obvious to those who collect and restore vintage time pieces, but it is still something that I have difficulty wrapping my head around.

What makes a watch so expensive?

There’s lots of factors which contribute to the cost of a watch. Design, materials and construction and origin of manufacture are obvious. Manual assembly and finishing will also contribute. Then there’s the business side of things which probably contribute the most. Brand recognition and market positioning for sure. Inefficiencies in network sales and distribution will add to sticker price as well. It goes without saying however, that relative to other examples of gear, watches represent poor value. Where $300 basically gets you an entry level watch of basic proportions, that same money can go a lot farther with just about any other example of gear. Its up to every buyer to decide where to best spend their hard earned money.


Entry into the watch world can be confusing. Hopefully this tutorial answered more questions than it raised. If I had to sum up my experiences with a one sentence, it would be to just jump in and start somewhere. Like everything else you have to build a reference of what you like and what you don’t like. What things cost. How things wear. Buy the best of what you can afford. Take care of your stuff as you’re likely to flip it. Early on it is highly advised to buy second hand. New watches greatly depreciate in value and if you are in the experimentation phase of collecting, then its best to let someone else take the hit. There is a very active online sales environment for watches and forum crawlers like can be very channenging to the integrity of your wallet. If you want to buy new, search out for deals on the gray market. These sellers offer perfectly fine watches, but usually a store warranty in lieu of a manufacturers warranty. Lastly, if you are most comfortable with a genuine manufacturer’s warranty, then make friends with your local authorized dealer. Sure you will be paying top dollar, but the face to face relationship can yield lots of other benefits such as early notice on new models and of course handling the merchandise prior to purchase. But in the end, get involved and most importantly, have fun.

All images acquired through Google Image search or watch manufacturer websites.


  1. Nice intro. Thanks for contributing. Hope you will follow up on what you like and why--in the watches you collect
    and look at and find the most interest.
    That Seiko quartz watch pictured looks interesting. Would like to know more about it for example.
    And your thoughts about new direction for watches as phones...Samsung and probably Apple to follow.
    Thanks, Don

    1. That particular Seiko is the 9F caliber. It is thermocompensated with an accuracy specification of +/- 10 seconds per year. The movement is completely sealed in vacuum to permit for a 50 year service frequency. It is used in the luxury line of Grand Seiko. The point I was trying to make is that not all quartz is the same.

      I see smart watches as a continuation of the reception based technologies such as radio controlled (atomic), bluetooth, and GPS. Although these technologies are valuable, they don't really advance timekeeping per say as without their connection to more accurate time pieces, they are basic quartz watches. This not disappoint me much as there really isn't much room for improvement with quartz timekeeping. Styling wise, these smart watches are gadgets and will never capture the same level of construction and finishing present in the jewelry aesthetic of a watch.

    2. Great post, but I have to correct this common myth:

      "That particular Seiko is the 9F caliber. It is thermocompensated with an accuracy specification of +/- 10 seconds per year. The movement is completely sealed in vacuum to permit for a 50 year service frequency."

      From p40 of the 9F62 manual:

      "Inspection and adjustment by disassembly and
      cleaning (overhaul)
      ○ Periodic inspection and adjustment by disassembly and cleaning (overhaul)
      is recommended approximately once every 3 to 4 years in order to maintain
      optimal performance of the watch for a long time.

      So Seiko recommends service every 3-4 years.

      Seiko did say on their international site that "Theoretically, additional lubrication is not needed for fifty years."

      The watch gaskets etc. will still deteriorate, and the 50 year oil life is only theoretical.

      Nevertheless, I love Seiko, especially Grand Seiko :)



  2. Nice intro, but discussing the chronometer is important as well. A chronometer designation bestowed by COSC is a guarantee of accuracy for a mechanical movement, and it affects the price point as well.

    1. Thanks for introducing the concept. I felt that was an advanced point of discussion for a general audience, but suffice to say a reader will quickly be made aware of COSC while comparing prices. I would encourage a buyer to thoroughly investigate the warranty for the level of accuracy as it may differ from one brand to the next.

  3. Curious whether any of y'all are into pocket watches. I inherited two of my fathers, his "EDC" watch which was an inexpensive Japanese knockoff of a formerly prestigious American brand, and a rather nice and apparently collectible gold pocket watch that actually was a prestigious American brand. I carried the less expensive watch for several years and discovered that I liked the form factor, as it left my hands free to work, elbows deep in a machine, without having to worry about my watch getting scratched or accidentally shorting any electronics. So since then I've sought out either true pocket watches or watches that clip to a belt loop. But new pocket watches are either bling-y or incredibly expensive, and there isn't a great selection.

  4. I need a watch at work. Sometimes I need to note the time with a quick glance that would eliminate the possibilty of pulling out my phone. For years I wore a Seiko black monster, before that a Tag Hueur. Then I started working midnights. That quickly led to a digital watch. The reason? The date on a digital watch turns over precisely at midnight, non-digital watches often take hours for the date to switch over. That doesn't matter if you are asleep, but I have to note the date and time at a glance at 0012 hours. I wear a Suunto, but truth be told a G-Shock would be fine (I don't jump out of airplanes if I can help it).

    1. Sounds reasonable to me. If you like the digital display but looking for more of a traditional steel watch form, check out Junghans and Seiko SBGF and Seiko SDGA. The SDGA uses an active matrix display which is really cool, although it is a bit expensive.

  5. I take issue with this notion that mechanical movements are pointless or "the same" as quartz unless you have a really expensive hand-made mechanical movement. I think it's cool to have a watch that operates mechanically versus by a battery. It doesn't matter to me too much how the component parts were made, I just like the fact that it's its own little self-contained mechanical instrument. It's neat.

    Now, that doesn't sound like a very convincing argument until you realize that there's ultimately no difference between a $50,000 hand-made mechanical movement and any standard ETA-2824 except that some people think it's "neat" that the former moves slightly more smoothly and so forth. That is, the subjective preference for a mechanical movement over a quartz movement is no more or less valid than the subjective preference for a very very nice movement over a regular movement.

    I suppose that's all a bit reductive. Another way of saying all that is that dismissing people's preference for inexpensive mechanical movements over quartz because both are "mass produced and economized" sort of misses the point of why people like mechanical movements. They like them because they're cool!

    1. Point taken, however, I expressed the way I did in order to remove the romantic notions too many people have regarding mechanical watches. They aren't little machines with souls as many would want you to believe. Remember it is a basic article written for a basic audience with the intended purpose of trying to clarify an overwhelming industry. People will figure out what they like all on their own.

    2. I know you're right, but can't I pretend it's a little machine with a soul, as it seems actual souls are decidedly out of my price-range?

      Also, I think this was a very well-written and helpful primer. After writing the above comment, I felt guilty about nit-picking without also saying that.

    3. Thanks. No problem.

      Check out the Timezone Horologium. Lots of good technical reads. No souls identified.

  6. A proper watch should be an integral part of one's EDC. I always find it strange to see $500 custom knives and McGizmos in someone's setup and learn that they use their phones for telling the time. Go get yourself a nice watch, you'll enjoy it just as much as a piece of other quality gear (or even more)!
    There's nothing wrong with well-made quartz watches, but trust me, the real fun begins with higher end automatics.

    1. True that. Besides a watch does so much more than just tell the time.

  7. Thanks so much for that article. Very informative.

  8. Gucci does make their own watches.......

    1. Interesting. Doesn't make me want one any more though.

  9. Thank you for the article, however, as someone who appreciates mechanical art I kinda take offense of the notion that mechanical and quartz watches are comparable. In my view watches and knives are directly comparable and I appreciate the same qualities (design, concept, workmanship, finish, etc), it's just that watches are several orders of magnitude more complex to engineer and build which means that for a watch to be comparable to a custom knife it needs to be vastly more expensive just because they take much more time to make.

    Just like that the blade of a folder is the focal piece of a knife the value of a watch comes from the design and finishing of the movement in conjunction with the case. The two needs to go hand in hand. And just like the steels and grind in a fine knife the performance difference between a high quality movement and a massproduced one is rather marginal and more of an esoteric point. But the point is that the movement needs to be made for the watch and finished to the same degree as the case.

    A custom watch is just that, a watch custom made by a watch maker for you. A "micro brand" might be customizable but has not anything to do with a custom watch. For a comparison of the different tiers of the knife world:

    Production: Rolex, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre, some Seikos. Really nice watches, good mechanical movements made inhouse (but not neccessarily for the specific watch model) but only basic finishing.

    Mid-tech: A. Lange & Söhne, Patek Philippe, MB&F, De Bethune, etc. Production based movements custom made for the watch and production techniques but much more manual finishing of the movement and case than the production watches.

    Custom: Kari Voutilainen, Philipple Dufour, Roger Smith. A small workshop that does the entire watch from scratch overseen by a single watchmaker.

    Due to the amount of labour (there's hundreds of parts in there) a nice production watch starts at around $5k, a mid-tech at maybe $20k and a custom at $80k or so, complicated watches can of course be much more expensive for the same quality of work. There's no way around that.

    Really beautiful vintage pieces can be found cheaper if money is an issue, an Omega "moon-watch" can be found for $2-3k, for example. These gives much better value than quartz, fashion or other types of novelty watches.

    Of course, if it's precision and durability that's needed nothing beats a digital Casio G-Shock, but that's mechanical art. That's a tool.

    1. To each his own, but with the exception of Rolex, Omega and maybe JLC, you've listed a bunch of brands that most people reading this have never heard of and will likely never encounter in their daily lives. Its unrealistic to compare them to the $200 Fossil that someone reading this post just bought.

      While you can appreciate the artistic merits of high end mechanical calibers, many people appreciate the engineering merits of quartz timekeeping and accuracy can be its own aesthetic.

    2. It's because many have not heard about these brands that I wanted to give a bigger picture, following your reasoning there's no point in either writing about or buying MzGizmos or Prometheus Alpha flashlights or Chris Reeve or Strider knives. I had no idea what that was or that they even existed before I started reading Everyday Commentary.

      I get a feeling that your article is a defensive speech for buying cheap watches. The quality difference between "luxury brands" and inexpensive wathces is just monumental even if it's more dollars per watch that you pay in overhead costs. I haven't been able to find a good source but I believe the relative ratio is actually less. Your argument that it's mainly marketing you're paying for with luxury watches is just BS, for example Rolex and Citizen has a similar marketing budget to revenue ratio. Due to the complexity of a mechanical watch it simply has to be a luxury item in order to be made to a high standard.

      The resurgence of mechanical watches is due to the fact that there are many people who enjoy and appreciate the engineering, craftsmanship and design of these watches. It's a way of getting a break from a digital world with outsourced factories. Not due to marketing hypnosis.

      If it's accuracy and precision that's needed a mobile phone (certainly EDC) or computer is more than enough (and probably better than most watches since they sync automatically) and if you need a true tool watch nothing beats a Quartz.

      In my mind there's so much better to save up for one nice watch instead of getting a collection of ten crappy ones.

  10. I lusted after the Seiko SBCM023 (black) and SBCM029 (orange) for a while. High accuracy quartz (+/- 20 seconds per year), 200M diver, perpetual calendar. But production ended in 2002.

    I ended up getting one of these, for $320.
    Citizen PMX56-2811 Eco-Drive (solar quartz) Titanium Diver 200M.
    Unidirectional rotating bezel, screw-down crown, bracelet/clasp extension.

    1. Yeah shame they discontinued that one. Unfortunately it was in a small case too. I just picked up a good condition Seiko 7C43-7010. A high torque quartz from the 80s in the standard 42mm diver case. You would recognize the dial as looking like the SKX007 but with white trimmed hands. Professional construction with a crystal retaining ring and an anti-magnetic cage surrounding the movement. Don't make them like this anymore. I'll prep a review on my site some time soon.

    2. I bought a new SBCM023 direct from Japan. I never took to it. The bezel felt cheap and I never liked the dial. I put it back in the box and never wore it. I kept wearing the Orange Monster although it gained more in one day (20 seconds) than the SBCM023 did in one year (exactly +12 seconds, 1 second a month) LOL. I didn't know it was discontinued until it put it up for sale last year. Now I wish I had bought a case lot of them.

  11. What an excellent resource! Great job with the article. I have been reasonably happy with my Seiko SKX173. It's an automatic, which I think is cool, even if it's mass produced. Would love to upgrade at some point, but watches are not a poor mans hobby.

  12. Good mechanical watches like Orient are super buys. Rugged , inexpensive, and in-house movements. The Mako line are "uber cool" and a perfect EDC watch.

    1. You're right, Orient is a super buy. I've had my share. Check out Orient Star. Nice step up in quality but still great value.

    2. And btw- your blog is very interesting.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I really like your introduction of all the time pieces, i appreciate your thoughts.

  15. Wow, perfect. Fortunately, I found your website! Really like it. emporio armani horloges

  16. Good stuff. Read your article on the Seiko 7C43-7010, and I'm envious! Shall be forwarding a link to this page to anyone who might be interested.