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.
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.
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.
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 watchrecon.com 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.