Whether you are a shy novice, or is interested and looking to learn more, this guide is for you. Think of it as Timepieces 101 – the basics to get you started.
I don’t know much about beers, just enough to order what I like should a bar not have my staples on tap.
I prefer my beers dark, so stouts or dunkel (dark lagers) are hunky-dory. Else, pilsners are fine too. Don’t get me anything too hoppy please – I don’t like that flavour profile.
That’s about all that I know – or care to learn – and it’s worked out so far.
In the same vein, surely such an approach can be applied to watches as well, especially for those who aren’t particularly interested in them.
It’s like football’s offside rule: you may not encounter it daily, but you’ll be pleased to know what’s going on when you do.
The beating heart of every watch is its movement. The movement isn’t just responsible for timekeeping, but also drives the hands and other indications on the dial.
For most of watchmaking’s 500-year history, this was done physically – a wound-up spring stores energy, while an oscillating balance measures time – hence the name: mechanical movement.
A paradigm shift occurred in the 1970s with the arrival of the quartz movement, which runs off batteries and keeps time via a vibrating quartz crystal. These are the two main movement types that are available today.
Left: A hand-wound mechanical movement from Montblanc’s Villeret manufacture. Right: A Miyota quartz movement
In practical terms, quartz movements aren’t just more accurate but also hassle-free, since batteries only require changing once every few years. Their desirability, however, is limited. For a start, a quartz movement’s seconds hand jumps at one second intervals, which is visually less refined than the steady sweep of a mechanical watch’s seconds hand. (Barring special cases, this is the easiest way to differentiate between the two movement types.)
Quartz movements are cheaper to produce, as compared to high-end mechanical movement as they are easier to produce and require less labour intensive assembly. The closest analogy to this is to compare the mass produced ballpoint pen to a carefully tuned fountain pen – both fulfil the same functions, but only the latter has soul.
Mechanical movements in turn fall into two broad categories, depending on how their mainsprings (i.e. the power source) are wound up.
A manual winding watch requires its wearer to wind it up via the crown, while a self-winding watch contains a mechanism to do so automatically, by capturing energy from the movement of its wearer’s wrist.
Self-winding movements are also referred to as automatic movements, and offer greater convenience at the cost of slightly larger dimensions, owing to the additional components needed.
Timekeeping aside, watches can have extra functions called complications. By adding components such as wheels, springs, and levers, a watchmaker can “write” mechanical programmes of various complexities. A simple date display, for instance, just requires the date wheel to be advanced once a day at midnight. A minute repeater, on the other hand, chimes out the current hour, quarter, and minutes on demand using a rack-and-snail striking mechanism. Naturally, the number and complexity of a watch’s complication(s) will impact its price.
Depending on who you ask, timepieces can be either dressy, sporty, or somewhere in between. These categories are generally nebulous, and strict definitions exist only for very specific watch types, such as ISO certified dive watches. Still, having a rough idea helps.
Dress watches tend to be simple, time-only watches with thinner cases and leather straps, all to exude an understated vibe that befits a formal occasion.
Sports watches, on the other hand, come in larger, more robust cases, and typically have metal bracelets that better withstand the tougher conditions that they are exposed to.
Specific archetypes exist as well. The aforementioned dive watch’s defining feature is a unidirectional rotating bezel – a holdover from the past when such timepieces were tools for measuring dive times. Other features include water resistance to at least 200 metres, a screw-down crown to ensure this, and simple dial markings for greater legibility.
Pilot watches, on the other hand, traditionally have large, plain dials with Arabic numeral indexes, which were all precedents that were set since the early days of aviation.
The materials used in case-making are generally straightforward, but here is a quick recap. Good ol’ steel remains the staple here, thanks to its general robustness and excellent cost-to-benefit ratio. Its common alternative is titanium, which costs more but weighs less, with some variants also offering the additional benefit of greater hardness.
Both steel and titanium can be coated with Diamond-Like Carbon (DLC), a black and extremely hard material, whether for aesthetics or greater resilience. Again, this increases the price of a timepiece. Note too, that while a scratched case can be polished, a chipped DLC-coated case must have its initial coat sanded off before a new layer is re-applied.
Precious metals, on the other hand, are generally straightforward. Like the jewellery industry, the white, pink, and yellow variants of gold are used in watchmaking. The de facto standard for gold is 18k fineness, and variations on this are virtually unheard of. Platinum cases exist as well, albeit even less frequently.
Beyond metals, there are “exotic” materials such as carbon fibre, various ceramics, and even sapphire. Such options tend to exist in limited runs, but aren’t necessarily priced to reflect their rarity vis-à-vis gold and platinum.
By now, you should (hopefully) have a better grasp of the common points of discussion for watches, and be well poised to learn more about them.
Let us know what you’re interested to find out about – we’ll be happy to oblige.