Ironically, the resurgent popularity of the wristwatch has come about during an era of iPhones-as-pocketwatches and ubiquitous digital time. With technology largely unchanged since the 19th century, mechanical timepieces are vestigial novelties in this modern age, and they provide a nostalgic counterpoint to our gadget-obsessed culture. They also have a human quality, from the hands that make them to the hands that wind them up.
Venerable watch marques with familiar names are turning out beautiful new models alongside upstart boutique brands and more and more people are strapping on mechanical timepieces. So where do you start? Most new watch collectors aren’t ready to drop $5,000 on a Breitling or Omega. But there are plenty of fine options for just about a grand. There are few things you need to know when you set out to make your first real watch purchase.
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
While battery-powered quartz watches are lightweight, rugged and accurate, they lack soul. Nobody gushes over the stuttering tick-tick of a quartz second-hand and there are no display casebacks on quartz watches. A circuit board and battery don’t inspire awe. Mechanical watches are micro-engineering marvels. Keeping time accurate to within a few seconds a day is the equivalent of hitting a one-inch by one-inch target a mile away with a bullet. Now consider that a mechanical watch does this using a collection of springs and gears with tolerances in the microns. The tiny machine you see when you remove the caseback is called the movement, or calibre, and it is the most important element when you choose your mechanical watch. So let’s go through the basics.
Automatic or Hand-wound?
Lacking a battery, a watch movement is powered by the steady unwinding of a tightly coiled strip of metal called the mainspring. Until the early twentieth century, all watches had to be wound by hand daily; that is, turning the crown of the watch until the mainspring is tight. The invention of the self-winding, or automatic, movement was a huge leap forward and meant that, if worn regularly, the watch would never require winding. A swinging weight inside the movement keeps the mainspring tight as you walk the dog, cook dinner or lift a glass of wine.
Whether you get an automatic or a hand-wound watch comes down to preference. Automatics require less attention if you wear it but some people like the daily interaction of winding the watch.
At its most basic, a watch movement converts the released tension of the mainspring to drive the seconds, minute and hour hands through their daily cycle. But adding peripheral gear trains to the movement can make the watch even more useful or whimsical, by displaying the date, the moonphase or a way to measure elapsed time. Anything other than the time of day is called a complication. While adding the date or even a gauge to tell how long the watch will stay wound is fairly simple, the chronograph is a complex stopwatch complication that is as impressive as it is useful. Not to mention the certain je ne sais quois a chronograph lends to any wrist.
Since it’s really the movement that lends a watch prestige and value, watch brands that design and make their own movements in-house are justifiably proud, companies like Rolex, IWC, Audemars Piguet and Seiko. But most companies outsource the movement manufacturing to specialty companies in Switzerland or Asia and then put them into their own cases. In general, the Swiss-made movements found in many mechanical watches are proven, durable calibres that are also used by some top brands like Breitling and Longines.
More Than a Pretty Face
While what’s under the hood is what makes it special, the dial and case of a watch are what you have to look at every day. And it’s here that you find the most variety. There are, of course, watches built for just about any use: diving, sailing, driving, going to the moon, dressing up or dressing down. But it really comes down to buying the one that suits your needs. And no, no matter what anyone tells you, there is not one watch that does everything well. So get the one that does most things well and suits your tastes.
If you’re someone who leads an active lifestyle and wants your watch to accompany you on your adventures, you’ll want something with a sturdy build and ample water resistance. Look for something with a minimum of 200 meters of water resistance and a scratchproof sapphire crystal. These watches are usually made from stainless steel or titanium and come on a metal or rubber band. A luminous dial and hands make it easy to check time at a glance, whether you’re exploring a dark shipwreck or jetlagged in a dark hotel room.
If you prefer a less rough-and-tumble watch, something for the office, you’ll trade off the water resistance and toughness for something slim enough to fit under a shirt sleeve. Dress watches are usually made from a polished metal, typically steel or gold. They’re often uncomplicated, sometimes even lacking a seconds hand, made to complement an outfit rather than be the center of attention.
Chronographs not only look cool, with their asymmetrical design, protruding buttons and multiple subdials, they’re also useful. Time a meeting, time your pasta, take someone’s pulse. There’s an air of readiness for action about the chronograph, harkening back to the golden era of sports watches, when pilots, race car drivers and astronauts relied on their watches for timing critical events.
No matter what type of watch you prefer, some features to look for include a screw-in crown, which provides added water resistance and a sapphire crystal, which is virtually scratchproof. Metal bands with solid (not folded or hollow) links are more durable and won’t rattle. Look for a leather strap with a folding clasp, called a deployant, which is a nice step up from the usual buckle.
Name Dropping/A Few Suggestions
We live in fortunate times. The resurgent watch industry means that not only are there more choices than ever, competition has driven some high quality timepieces into an affordable price range. Here are a few examples, all around a thousand dollars or less.
Available in several dial accent colors, the DS30 is a classic aviator watch from German brand Damasko. Highly legible and featuring the workhorse ETA 2824-2 movement, the DS30 features several of Damasko’s signature technologies, such as the use of edge-hardened submarine steel and the Damasko Crown System, which provides for a durable and longer-lasting crown. DIN-certified for anti-magnetism and waterproofness, the DS30 is about as serious a tool watch as one can get for just under $1k.
Movement: ETA 2824-2
Case diameter: 39mm
Water resistance: 200m
Autodromo Group B Series 2
Autodromo is a NYC-based boutique brand making automotive-inspired watches that don’t look like anything else on the market. The Group B, a Gear Patrol favorite, was recently updated with an integrated, stainless steel bracelet. Best of all, it’s available in multiple dial colors and can be removed from the bracelet and worn on a NATO for the perfect summer look. Whether for a motorhead or someone who merely likes unconventional designs, the Group B is a perfect first watch.
Movement: Miyota 9015 Automatic
Case diameter: 39mm
Water resistance: 50M
Junghans Max Bill Automatic
Inspired by the original wristwatches of famed Bauhaus designer Max Bill from the 1960s, the modern Junghans Max Bill models recall the simple, clean aesthetics of the famed German design school and make for fantastic everyday timepieces. The Automatic version is a highly wearable 38mm in diameter, ships on a calfskin strap and comes in several different dial colors.
Movement: J880.1 self-winding
Case diameter: 38mm
Water resistance: Not specified
Seiko PROSPEX Diver SPB051
A serious dive watch, the SPB051 is a reissue of the famed 6217, Seiko’s first diver, which debuted in 1965. Though the SPB051 has been updated with a more modern case size (42.6mm as opposed to the 6217’s 38mm), it retains the original’s general case shape and packs 200m of water resistance. With its steel bracelet, the SPB051 makes a great summer watch both in and out of the water.
Movement: R615 automatic
Case diameter: 42.6mm
Water resistance: 200m
A Word of Caution
Timepieces are addictive and the ones we’ve featured here are often called, “gateway” watches. Once you get a taste for quality mechanical timepieces, it’s easy to start growing a collection. But then again, there are worse things you could spend your money on than time.