New dial color, different case material, celebrity endorsement... This is often all it takes to create a new watch and announce it with fanfare, even when little else has changed from existing models. You never see brands get very excited about, say, a new set of hands. And yet, a watch's hands are critical to its functionality and successful design — more so than you may realize.
Stop and recall the most iconic watches you can think of: their hands are most likely distinctive and such a cohesive part of the larger design that you could probably identify the watch based on them alone. Hands are not only integral to a watch's design, but they are delicate, refined components that often require specialized skills to produce which even large watch companies need to outsource.
While watch hands never grab the headlines, you will hear hand designs discussed by enthusiasts, who will often refer to archetypal shapes with specific names. As these are mostly nicknames, not everyone agrees on what certain watch hands should be called, and many unique designs have no set name. Whether you're researching your next purchase or just want to hang with watch dudes, though, it's good to know the basics. Here's a rundown of the most common and traditional types of watch hands and what they're called.
"Alpha" hands are like elongated arrows with narrow stems as bases, the shape of which is versatile and can be appropriate for formal or sporty watches alike. The wide part of the arrow offers space to add luminescent paint or skeletonization. People may disagree on whether "alpha" or "lance" is correct for certain examples.
Example watch: Parmigiani Tonda GT
The term "baton hands" is sometimes used interchangeably with "stick hands" (see below). The former, however, has a looser definition, covering examples like the famous Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Baton hands can describe generally long, straight designs which tend to be thicker than stick hands and which can accommodate lume and sportier applications.
Example watch: Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Selfwinding
Breguet hands were invented by Abraham-Louis Breguet in the 18th century. Note that they are not merely stems with loops near the tips: the loops are thinner toward the end, forming a sort of crescent shape, and the tip's base is wider than the stem. Many brands other than Breguet use this style today.
Example watch: Breguet Classique 5157
Probably named for the segmented sections reminiscent of churches' stained glass windows, this stately type of watch hands was popular in the early 20th century but is still used here and there. Though elegant in nature, these hands tend to feature on vintage-styled military and pilot watches.
Example watch: Oris Big Crown Pointer Date
One of the most natural and popular hand shapes, dauphine hands are deceptively simple-looking. Long and pointy on one end (and short and pointy on the other), they are usually faceted to catch light for better legibility, as their narrow tips leave little room for luminescent paint. Their proportions also need to be carefully designed in order to keep the hour and minute hands easily distinguishable.
Example watch: Grand Seiko Heritage Seasons SBGA427
This descriptively named shape fits well on formally or elegantly styled watches and doesn't easily take lume. The hands often have subtly rounded edges or facets like the dauphine. The French word for "leaf," feuille, is also used for this design.
Example watch: Montblanc Star Legacy Full Calendar
This shape usually refers to seconds hands only. Like the candy on a stick they're named after, the design is a long stem with a round tip, usually lume-filled. They're often found on sporty and retro-themed watches.
Example watch: Timex Mk1
This handset includes an hour hand with a circular motif composed of three equal segments which, along with the stem and tip, are filled with luminescent paint — the circle being reminiscent of carmaker Mercedes-Benz's logo. (There's likely no credence to the speculation that this name is related to the athlete Mercedes Gleitze who swam across the English Channel in 1932 wearing one of Rolex's early water-resistant watches.) The design is so closely associated with Rolex, however, no brand can use it without inviting comparison.
Example watch: Rolex Submariner
Like the Mercedes, this distinctive design is defined by the hour hand, which in this case features a large diamond shape near the tip. Designs such as the snowflake and Mercedes make the hour hand easily distinguishable from the minute hand and often have origins in dive watches where legibility is emphasized — and that is true of the snowflake as well. Not particularly intuitive or descriptive of its shape, the origin of the "snowflake" name is unclear. Primarily associated with (Rolex-owned) Tudor watches, it's aesthetically controversial but also instantly recognizable.
Example watch: Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight
Descriptively named, these are about the most simple straight line shapes you can imagine. They're typically thin and don't accommodate much luminescent paint, making them primarily used on minimal and dressy watches.
Example watch: Hamilton Intra-Matic Auto
A syringe might not be the first image this shape suggests to everyone who sees it, but the name makes sense. A wide base allows for plenty of luminescent paint, while the tips extend to their markers for precise reading and setting. The needle-like ends also open up the dial and prevent thick hands from visually taking over.
Example watch: Sinn U50