There comes a time in almost every man’s life when he feels the itch. No, not that itch. The itch, the urge, the pull, the veritable rite of passage that is buying a proper watch.
But what is a proper watch? To Esquire, it’s one that shows you’ve made the effort, that you’re no longer content telling the time from your mobile, that–yes–you’ve taken a big step toward actual, bona fide manhood.
The problem with the world of men's watches (“horology” to give its proper name) is that it can feel to the outsider like a pretentious club that doesn’t want you as a member. Ask a watch bore about the difference between a quartz and an automatic movement and he’ll look at you like you’ve used his best single malt whisky to get a bonfire going.
What You Need To Know About Movements
The first step on the road to owning the watch of your dreams is understanding the basics of what makes them tick. Yes, literally.
That means a quick word on the importance of ‘movements’.
The movement (also called a calibre) is the mechanism inside a watch—the “engine” that powers the thing. In modern watchmaking there are two main types of movement. The first is the quartz, which uses an oscillator, regulated by a piece of quartz and powered by a battery, to keep time. The majority of high-street watches use quartz movements as they’re cheap to make and extremely accurate. The second type of movement is when things get interesting.
A Patek Philippe automatic movement
Quartz v Automatic
For “real” watch-lovers, only mechanical movements are an acceptable way of powering a watch. While there are some manually-wound models about, the majority of mechanical movements are now “automatics”.
An automatic calibre works by using the movement of the wearer’s wrist to wind the mainspring, which in turn powers the watch. The great watch brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe and Omega, all produce in-house movements, which are exhaustively tested before being put on sale. Other watch companies buy in ready-made calibres from specialist manufacturers like ETA or Sellita, which are used in countless mid-range automatics.
Despite the fact that watch snobs would never dream of buying a quartz timepiece, they actually beat automatics hands-down for accuracy. So why all the fuss about mechanical watches?
Why Automatics Set The Standard
A lot of it comes down to one phrase: “The least important thing a watch does is tell the time.” People like mechanical watches for the same reason they might prefer a classic Jaguar E-Type over a modern-day Toyota or vinyl records over MP3s. It’s not just what something does but how it does it. And for many of us men, that’s pretty important (after all this is a very male world we’re in: one leading watch manufacturer told us that 95 percent of its customers were men).
An automatic watch is a living thing, as you soon discover when you hold one for the first time. One of the beauties of them is that the seconds hand travels in a smooth “sweep”, while on quartz watches it just ticks depressingly once a second. As soon as you notice this, it becomes a surprisingly big deal-breaker.
One final thing to bear in mind: if you take off your automatic watch, it’ll eventually stop. How long it can run without being on your wrist depends on the individual timepiece, but many tend to work for 38-48 hours before they need rewinding, while some can go on for a full five days.
Once you know what's happening inside your watch comes the all-important question of style. Every occasion demands a different sort of timepeice, these are the big ones vying for your attention.
The Diving Watch
Designed to function in the depths of the ocean, the diving watch is characterised by its rugged construction, luminous dials and hands, and unidirectional bezel. This device sits on top of the case, and can be used to tell the wearer how much immersion time he has left. Most diving watches owe their design cues to the 1953 Rolex Submariner, the first watch to work at a depth of 100M. A great all-rounder and a versatile choice you won't regret.
The Dress Watch
The most jewellery-like of timepieces, a dress watch tends to be understated–think Roman numerals, simple face and a lack of adornments. Usually attached to a leather strap, the ideal dress watch is super-thin so it can rest unnoticed under the wearer’s cuff until he needs it. Also, as dress watches don’t perform any specific function bar telling the time, they’re also the most likely to be made from a precious metal.
The Aviator Watch
Wristwatches took off back in 1911 when Cartier made one for pioneering pilot Alberto Santos Dumont, so it’s no surprise aviation watches are still a key sector of the market. Thanks to its bezel and slide rule, Breitling’s Navitimer, can convey large amounts of information, vital for pilots in the days before electronic navigation. Most aviation timepieces have a black face with luminous numerals and dials–a relic of the need to use them in the dark.
The Driving Watch
Motorsport, like flying and diving, has a masculine glamour that makes it irresistible for watch manufacturers. Driving watches should have a chronograph complication—the stopwatch feature has provenance in motor-racing—while some, like the Omega Speedmaster, also boast a “tachymeter” on the bezel, a device for measuring speed. The extra buttons on the side just look damn good, too.
The Minimalist Watch
For people who like Apple Mac computers, fixed-gear bikes and carefully constructed facial hair, minimalist watches are an increasingly popular choice. Referencing Bauhaus design, these timepieces tend to be powered by quartz movements, which means you can pick up some seriously stylish men's watches for less than USD290*. However, brands like Nomos mix modernist case design with in-house manual and automatic movements for those who believe the inside of a watch is as important as the outside.
Choosing Your First Watch
This will obviously depend on price, taste and need. If you’ve only got a couple of hundred quid, then a minimal quartz watch from modern, design-led brands like Uniform Wares or Braun is a fine choice.
At this lower price range, you can still find automatics too. Try the hand-wound Chinese Air Force watch from Seagull 1963. Super-reliable and extremely good-looking (check out themovement through the glass back), it’s a bargain at around USD364*. Staying in the Far East, Seiko and Citizen both make great automatics for less than USD290*.
Moving up the price scale, mechanical timepieces from the likes of Junghans, Christopher Ward and Sinn provide something a bit more special from around USD728*.
And if you’re lucky enough to have more than a thousand pounds to spend, then your options really open up, from a pre-owned classic model through to brand new models from some of the world’s great watch brands.
How Pricing Works
It’s a fair question: how come that watch is USD21,842* while this apparently identical one is USD291* Ultimately, it comes down to materials, length of manufacture and brand heritage. Quartz watches are cheaper because even the best quartz movements from Switzerland cost little more than USD72*, while you can pick up a Chinese movement for just a few dollars.
Automatic movements not only cost more (often a lot more if they’re made in-house and tested rigorously), but the watches that house them tend to be better designed, made of more valuable materials and come from a long lineage of expert watchmaking that you can buy into with confidence.
A Simple Guide To Complications
You’ll notice that some watches have extra dials and hands: these are called complications. These go from the “chronograph” (the one with stopwatch functionality, used extensively in motor sport models) to the “GMT”, which provides a fourth hand that can be set to the alternative time zone of the wearer’s choice. Do we need complications in an age when our phones do so much? Not really. But that’s not the point is it?
Why Size Matters (A Bit)
Just as there’s no typical wrist size so there’s no typical size of watch. While some timepieces are so large they can be seen from space, most have a case diameter of between 34-44MM. If you’re a chap with weedy wrists like a girl, a 34-40MM case will work best while rugged gents with wrists like oak trees should opt for models up to 46MM. The thickness of the case also affects how the watch looks. A watch of 10MM thickness will sit better under a cuff than one that’s 15MM.
A Quick Word On Straps
The thing that binds your timepiece to your wrists is hugely important in the character of your watch. A metal bracelet looks great on more masculine, chunky watches, while leather is the choice for conventional, dressy timepieces. A favourite of Esquire is the canvas or “NATO” strap, most famously worn with Sean Connery’s Rolex Submariner in Goldfinger. If it’s good enough for James Bond, it’s good enough for you.
Accuracy Isn’t Everything
Nothing can compete with a quartz watch on keeping time accurately, but a good automatic should only lose or gain 30 seconds or so in a week. If you’re after a super-accurate mechanical watch, then look for one that’s been certified as a “chronometer” by COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres). These watches account for only six per cent of all mechanical watches, which is reflected in their higher prices.
The World Of Vintage
While some watches can rocket in value as time passes—we’re thinking the Rolex Daytona “Paul Newman” here—most will lose some of their worth over the time. This means that if you’re willing look to past the age of a watch, you can get your hands on a true classic, like a Sixties Omega Seamaster, for less than a grand.
Last Word–Now You’re On Your Own
After taking in the above, you should have a better idea of what makes a great watch and why some watches command such status, respect–and pricetags. More importantly, you’ll soon be able to justify, to yourself at least, why you’ve swerved that dream holiday for you and your partner in favour of the chunk of metal, glass and leather proudly sitting on your wrist. Good luck with that.
First published in Esquire UK.