Please read basic guide first
- Complication: A “feature” of a watch. eg. stopwatch, alarm, date display, automatic winding
- Chronograph: stopwatch complication. Not to be confused with a chronometer
- Chronometer: an accuracy standard for watches. By law, for any swiss watch to call itself a chronometer, its movement must be certified by an independent lab before it is sold.
- Display Back: Mechanical watch movements these days are considered very interesting to look at. Many manufacturers now put a transparent crystal on the back of the watch so you can show off the mechanical parts when you take your watch off. This is more of a modern trend.
- Crystal: In general, they come in 3 varieties:
- Acrylic Glass: More often seen on vintage watches. Generally it is very difficult to break, but very easy to scratch. Scratches can often be easily buffed out. Still occasionally used in high-end watches because it is easier to make rounded shapes and is “warmer” to the eye.
- Sapphire: A more recent development in watches, as synthetic sapphire became more practical/affordable to produce. Very scratch resistant, generally require sapphire or diamond to scratch it. Difficult to shatter, but not as resistant as acrylic, because acrylic can flex to absorb trauma
- Mineral crystal: a cheaper compromise between these two materials. Many people dislike it, because it is not very scratch resistant, and it is difficult to remove scratches from it.
Types of watches:
- There are two main categories of watches: mechanical and quartz.
- Quartz: Powered by electricity. Very accurate, robust and durable. Most cheap watches are quartz, as well as some high end watches. Almost all quartz watches with a second hand advance once a second to conserve electricity. All modern LCD digital watches are quartz watches. A very good quartz watch should be accurate to within 2 seconds a month.
- Mechanical: A watch powered purely by mechanical mechanisms, driven by a spring. These watches are generally considered more interesting than quartz watches. They are, however, not nearly as accurate, robust or durable as a quartz watch. A mechanical watch that is gains or loses less than 5 seconds a day is considered very good. Recommended service intervals are usually every 5 years, but in practice, very few people observe this. Mechanical watches are generally more expensive than quartz watches. Mechanical watches with a second hand almost always advance multiple times a second, and so appear to sweep smoothly, especially compared to a typical quartz watch. This is generally how you tell if a watch is mechanical, or quartz, from a glance.
- Many mechanical watches are automatics/self-winding watches. This means that there is a mechanism (usually a mechanical rotor) that collects energy as you move around, and stores the energy in a spring, automatically winding your watch. If an automatic watch is not worn for a couple days, it will stop. If you have a non-automatic mechanical watch, you must wind your watch every day/few days. Automatic watches were popularized by Rolex in the 1930’s. Rolex uses the term “perpetual” to refer to automatic watches.
- There are types of watches that fall into neither of these two categories, such as electric or accutrons, or somewhere in between these two categories, such as mecha-quartz, kinetic and spring drive.
On watch size:
- Wrists measurements are usually given by circumference, not diameter. This makes more sense when sizing a wrist for a new strap.
- The “standard watch size” has generally gone up over the years. 34-36mm wide watches used to be the norm. Now, it’s probably around 40mm. Panerai is often blamed for giving rise to the recent trend of unnecessarily large watches. Every year, people often think that the trend will reverse itself, because “it’s not practical to make them any bigger.” And yet the trend continues. I personally think this is a ridiculous.
- Just because you have a small wrist does not necessarily mean you need to get a smaller watch. Sometimes a smaller watch will emphasize how tiny your wrists are. Sometimes it complements it. More than one person with small wrists has been surprised how good a Panerai looks on them. The only way to see what looks good on you is to try it on.
- I personally find that case shape, and lug-to-lug distance is more important to determine appropriate fit for your wrist than case width. Unfortunately, nobody reports lug-to-lug distance on watches, and only report case width.
- When the “case width” is reported on a watch, sometimes this measurement includes the crown, sometimes it doesn’t.
- I disagree that watches need to be metal only. This general attitude comes from a phobia of the 1980’s when cheap plastic Casios were popular. Modern watch design continues to experiment with materials, including wood, ceramic, carbon fiber, etc. Ultra-high-end watchmaker Audemars Piguet even has a $20000 watch with a rubber bezel.
- Be aware that leather straps were not meant to last forever. You should change them depending on how much you wear them, how much you sweat, and how soiled & degraded they become. Some watches, particularly consumer grade watches, use non-standard strap shapes. This will make the strap more troublesome to replace.
- I personally think that watches between $300 and $2000 should be avoided. Below this range, the watch is replaceable. Above this range, this watch is precious enough to always repair and maintain, and will make a treasured gift to a son/grandson/son-in-law in your future
- If you are sure that you want to spend between $300 and $2000, I urge you to consider a used or a vintage watch.
- A watch does not need to be over $100 to be something that looks nice, is interesting, and that you enjoy
- You do not need to spend more than $30 if you just want a reasonably good looking, reliable, accurate quartz watch. A more expensive watch is not likely to be any more reliable/durable/accurate unless it is specifically designed to do so. (eg. Casio G-Shock has tremendous durability.)
Q: Why do watch X cost thousands of dollars? Why does watch Y cost several hundred thousand dollars?
- The craftsmanship that went into making a watch is important – it’s like art. The idea that someone spent the effort to make something – taking time and talent to create something beautiful is an appealing idea to some people. If you ever open up a fine watch, the movement is always designed not just to be functional, but to be appealing to the eye. Surfaces are finished, oiled, and assembled with meticulous precision, and each one is carefully tuned by a professional. Sometimes the movements are even made with precious metals. It seems ludicrous to spend the time and effort to make something that the owner will never see to be so beautiful, but that’s how luxury watchmaking works. The idea that you have a finely crafted item that is refined beyond your ability to comprehend it, is appealing to many watch afficionados.
- Some types of watches have mechanical complications such as minute repeaters, tourbillons or perpetual calendars. These are harder and more complex to manufacture and assemble, and are partially hand made. And of course, some of the price is justified because of the name, design, rarity, and prestige of the item. Getting a Rolex in gold can easily increase the price of a watch by over $10000, even if the additional material expense is less than $1000. This is because of the prestige value of a gold Rolex. To some people, this is worth it. To some people, it’s not. To some people, the rarity of an item merits a higher price. A steel Rolex Daytona will easily trade hands at more than $5000 over the list price because of its rarity.
- Watches are similar to cars – they are a depreciating asset. Some watches will gain value over time, just like some cars, but almost all will not. But a luxury watch is like a Rolls Royce: It will always be worth something, regardless of how beat up, non-functioning or obsolete it is.
- To be clear, I’m not advocating that you should spend a lot of money on a watch, I’m just explaining why they cost what they do. You should not spend over $300 (I’d advise spending less than $100) unless having a fine timepiece is important to you. A luxury time piece will usually be less reliable, durable and accurate than a $3 quartz watch.
- The quintesential dress watch is a thin watch, with just an hour and minute hand, on a white dial, with a metal case and black leather strap. The further away you get from this description, your watch generally becomes less dressy and more sporty/trendy/gadgety/fashion-specific. It’s a range though, a watch does not need to conform to this narrow specification to be considered a true dress watch. Gold/precious metal is not a requirement of a proper dress watch.
- A dress watch does not need to have a leather strap. There are people who consider the Rado Ceramica to be a very stylish dress watch. (I, personally, disagree.)
- As a rule of thumb, if your watch can be described as “sporty” or “chunky” or “kitschy”, you should not be wearing this with a suit.
- You can have a sports watch on a leather band. They do make water-proof leather watch bands. Ironically, shark-skin and alligator-skin bands are not water-proof.
On digital watches:
- I disagree that digital watches are only acceptable for athletic contexts. There are many interesting designs, and the modern fashion-conscious male does not need to restrict themselves to such a narrow understanding of acceptable wrist-wear. At the consumer end, Diesel is one brand that carries a line of interesting watches. On the luxury side, Ventura used to make interesting digital watches that would complement a modern business suit.
On the watch brands:
- I disagree greatly with this assessment of brand classification and the various descriptions of the brands. I would move several of the names up, and several down. There are watch brands such as Phillippe Dufour that are of even higher exclusivity than “the top”, and there is really no such thing as “the best”. (I, personally, would never purchase a new Patek.) But more than that, I want to emphasize that this portion of the guide is highly subjective and driven by personal opinion.
- Since Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe are mentioned, I must add Audemars Piguet to the list. Together, these names are considered the “big 3” of the ultra-luxury Swiss watch industry. Vacheron is considered more old-world, Patek is more contemporary, and Audemars is a bit more futuristic and experimental.
- I could go on and on about every particular disagreement, but I want to make it clear to the reader the guide, and this “rebuttal” is just one perspective. Just because one person describes one make to be “of the highest quality” (or conversely “of low quality”) does not make it so.
- I will give one argument here to give you an impression of the kinds of disagreements I have with the guide:
Omega v. Rolex
- Omega vs. Rolex is one of the biggest “rivalries” in luxury watchmaking. In the guide, Omega is described as “very high quality”, while Rolex is “overpriced”, and I wanted to make a few counter points on why Rolex can be viewed as a higher quality item.
- Omega’s luster as an exclusive luxury watch has been hurt a little bit by its distribution channel – how its watches are showing up at cut rates at Costco and other outlets. It’s generally easier to find a gray market Omega than a gray market Rolex. Items on sale or reduced-rate sales channels undermines the luxury image that brands like Omega and Rolex try and project.
- Not all stainless steel is equal. Omega uses the standard 316L steel in their watches. Rolex goes a bit above and beyond, using 904L steel, which is a bit more expensive, but more significantly, more corrosion resistant.
- Rolex movements are all in-house. Omega uses reworked ETA movements. This distinction is academic, but in-house developed movements are generally held in higher regard
- Rolex sports watches are universally chronometer certified. Only some of Omega’s sports watches are.
- Names are important. Rolex is a universally known name, synonymous with luxury. Omega is less well known. I had a conversation once with someone who was convinced that Movado was more prestigious than Omega.
- Rolex and Omega have a competitive history that borders on the embarrassing, with Omega usually chasing Rolex. Examples:
- Rolex creates the first waterproof watch. Omega is one of the first to follow suit, with their own (and inferior), idea on how to waterproof a watch. The distinction of creating the first waterproof watch was instrumental in setting the expectations of a modern watch. Rolex was the first to introduce this idea of a commercially available ruggedized durable timepiece – really the first sports/explorer’s watch.
- Rolex introduces the Submariner, creating the diving watch market. Omega’s Seamaster line evolves to become something shockingly similar, complete with rotating bezel with fliplock bracelet and diving extension
- Rolex introduces the GMT Master. Omega follows suit with its Seamaster GMT, which imitates both features and style of the Rolex
- Rolex made the original “Paul Neuman” Daytona in small quantities. Omega introduces the distinctly similar “Michael Schumacher” legend limited edition speedmaster.
- Rolex is the original “James Bond” watch. Omega convinces Hollywood producers to switch to Omega watches through its product placement marketting channels.
- Rolex introduces ceramic bezels. Omega follows suit.
- In truth, I like both Rolex and Omega. I just wanted to dispute the implication that Omega is somehow better than Rolex and that Rolex is “overpriced”. I think it’s a bit silly to argue “overpriced” in the luxury watch business, when you could easily make the argument that all luxury watches are overpriced.
- Where a watch is manufactured is important to watch folks. It’s not important to me personally, but I’ll give you the general impression that most people have of the different nationalities: (To be clear, these are impressions/attitudes, which are not really based on fact.)
- Swiss: Where most luxury watches come from. The Swiss have a reputation for fine timepieces, and there are very specific requirements of what can be considered a Swiss watch. A Swiss movement will cost more than an equivalent non-swiss movement, simply because of its origins. To me, this level of respect for Swiss movements has reached a absurd proportions – there are fake Rolexes, sold with the understanding that they are fakes, that go for over $1000, in large part because they are Swiss made.
- German: Watches from Germany have a similar or slightly lower prestige level than the Swiss. Similar reputation, but much less well known.
- Japanese: Known more for their development of affordable quartz watches that nearly destroyed the Swiss watch industry. Japanese movements are generally considered a great value, but not prestigious. There are some luxury brands such as Grande Seiko and Credor, but are rarely seen outside of Japan. For me, personally, Grande Seiko is one of the few brands I would consider purchasing new.
- American: A long time ago, during rail-road days, Americans really were at the forefront of fine watchmaking. They didn’t follow the trend when people started preferring wristwatches to pocket watches, and lost a lot of ground in those days. They were still active in watch development until the 60’s, with electric and accutron watches, but that industry died out with the invention of quartz. Traditional american names like Hamilton and Bulova are now foreign owned. Timex still continues, with its reputation of reliable consumer-grade watches. A few luxury manufacturers such as Kobold and RGM exist, but are relatively small.
- Chinese: Seen as the land off budget/knockoff/low quality watches. A Chinese movement will be cheaper than a Japanese movement of equivalent quality. People are starting to recognize that Chinese manufacturers are gaining in skill. The invention of the Chinese tourbillon for under $5000, and now, around $1000 shocked the Swiss luxury watch industry a little bit. (For some years, tourbillons were marketed by the Swiss as the pinnacle of fine watchmaking.) Luxury/pseudo luxury watches such as Sea-gull/Shanghai/Longio are starting to emerge.
- Random note: It might be funny to name a luxury watch company after a seagull. In western culture, seagulls are considered almost flying vermin, but in Chinese culture, seagulls have a bit of mythology associated with them. Long before people could travel freely over the oceans, seagulls seemed to fly in from beyond the horizon, from lands unseen by human eyes. They sort of developed this “otherworldy” association in the folklore.
- Watches don’t have to be serious – they can be fun and kitschy too :) Check out tokyoflash.com and www.watchismo.com for a selection of watches that are a bit off the beaten path.