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Guide to Choosing and Buying a Wristwatch
by Marc Rochkind (MJ)
TimeZone is perhaps best known for its posting forums (the Public Forum, the Sales Corner, and the Watch Forums), but its most valuable asset is the collection of permanent articles, distributed among the Archives, the Bulletin Board, and various columns, such as the The Horologium and Escape Wheel*ing.
Many of these articles are about choosing and buying wristwatches. However, for one fairly new to TimeZone, it's hard to find the relevant material. This is especially true of the Bulletin Board, whose 500+ items are arranged in order of arrival. Regulars on TimeZone are more familiar with what's there, but we usually have a pretty good idea what we want for our next watch and how we're planning to buy it.
So, what's needed is an organized guide through the TimeZone files to help newbies, and maybe regulars as well, choose and buy watches. Since the bulk of the material is already on TimeZone, I thought about calling this "The TimeZone Guide...," but I didn't because the words that stitch it all together are my opinions, and because I alone decided what to include and how to organize it all. But, I hope I my opinions are either widely-accepted ones, or if not, relatively harmless, and that you find what I've put together useful for you.
The scope of this guide is limited to choosing and buying new wristwatches. It doesn't cover vintage and used watches, pocket watches and clocks, other equipment (e.g., winders), adjustments and repairs, history, or business matters. Most of what's here applies equally to men's and women's watches, except for the sections on style and design, which don't adequately address women's watches. These days, women who want a sports or casual watch often choose a men's model anyway, which is great, because the larger watches are where you find the most interesting designs and technical innovations. (See? My first opinion already!)
In the links to TimeZone articles, a number preceding the title refers to the Bulletin Board number.
The best place to get most books on watches is from Amazon.com, but instead of going there directly, use the TimeZone Bookstore. It contains a list several dozen watch-related books and, if you order the book that way, TimeZone gets a cut, at no cost to you.
(This link to Watches, taken from the TimeZone home page, isn't to Amazon.com for some reason, and there isn't a link in the TimeZone Bookstore, but this book is available from Amazon.com, in case you want to get it from them.)
Here are some survey books full of information and loads of fun to read, too:
For a list of terms used throughout TimeZone (e.g., crown, bezel, crystal), see 183 : Glossary of Frequently Used Terms. (Alas, it doesn't include "complication," "flyback," and many more terms, so we really need a better glossary.) Two other useful articles are 325 : Abbreviations for watch collectors and 324 : English - German dictionary of basic watch terms.
More technical terms that apply mainly to movements are explained in the Illustrated Glossary of Watch Parts.
The first question you should be asking yourself is "What do I want my new watch for?" Is it for dress? For everyday, assuming that's not the same as dress? For specific sports, such as running or diving? The fewer watches you plan to buy, the harder it is to answer this question. If you are going to have only one, it better be a fairly plain sports model, because a heavy sports watch with a prominent bezel looks silly with a suit, and a gold watch with a black crocodile strap looks even dumber when worn with shorts and sandals. (Well, some of us look dumb in shorts and sandals no matter what the watch!)
But, if you're going to have several watches, the question becomes "What do I want this new watch for?" and that's much easier to deal with.
Here are some broad categories of watch styles (for illustrations click here):
These categories, as well as others that you might hear of, aren't very useful when you're choosing a watch. In practice, the way things work is that you see a watch on someone's wrist or in a store that you like, or you see a picture in a magazine, a buyer's guide, or on TimeZone. Then you add it to your short list, and keep doing research. So, the details that follow are much more important than what the categories are.
One of the most important stylistic considerations is the size of the watch. Over the years, watches have gotten larger, as you will instantly realize if you look at a display of vintage watches from, say, 30 or 40 years ago. Back then a watch over, say, 36mm in diameter was fairly unusual. Today, most watches are that big, and some diver watches are over 42mm. Here are some links to articles that address the size issue:
For some info on dial and hand design, see these:
A watch case can be round, oval (in either orientation), rectangular, tonneau (straight top and bottom, curved sides), and other shapes. For illustrtations, click here.
For a discussion about how a watch fits your wrist, see The Ergonomic Implications of the Anatomy of the Wrist, on Wearing a Watch. Not all stylistic and design issues are visual, as explained in 85 : Non-Visual Pleasures ... The Best and The Worst! If you know what you like and want to find out what it means, read 223 : Your Psychological Watch Profile. If you find yourself losing interest in a watch you've just bought, read 554 : A suggestion for limiting watch turnover for watch addicts.
A wristwatch has to have a bracelet or strap to attach it to your wrist--otherwise, it's a pocket watch, a pendant watch, or just a small clock. If the attachment gets its flexibility from solid parts (almost always made from the same material as the case) that are linked together, it's called a bracelet. If the material is inherently flexible (e.g., rubber, leather), it's called a strap.
A bracelet is almost always designed for a particular watch model, or at least a series of models from the same manufacturer. So, it's rare, but not unheard of, to buy an after-market bracelet for a watch. (Maybe the only exception is Rolex, where there are enough watches to justify a bracelet industry.) One type of after-market bracelet, the expansion band (e.g., Spiedel Twist-o-Flex) should never be attached to a fine watch. Indeed, it should never be worn with a cheap one, either. (If you have a cheap watch, the least you can do is put a $30 Hirsch strap on it!)
Straps, however, are frequently bought separately from the watch, and for a very simple reason: They wear out. This works, however, because a strap doesn't have to match the case in the same way a bracelet does; rather, it complements the case. And, you can change the look of the watch significantly just by changing the strap. You can even put a strap on a watch that came with a bracelet.
Most bracelets and some straps have a hinged metal clasp that you can open to slip the watch over your hand. This is called a deployant clasp (often erroneously called a "deployment" clasp). Diver watches often have yet another extension that you can open to get the watch to fit over a wet suit. (But see my comment about not diving with a diver watch in the previous section.)
For a general discussion of bracelets and straps, see 488 : Strap vs. Bracelet -- Thread Summary. Some other information is in 514 : The World's Best Bracelet? and 199 : Deployment buckles and small wrists.
A watch case can be made of almost anything solid: plastic, metal, high-tech materials (e.g., ceramic, pulverized diamonds), wood, and even rock. Most cheap watches have plastic cases, and no fine watches do. We can ignore wood and rock; if you're seriously looking for a watch made of them, you either know more than I do or you wouldn't care what I say anyway.
Rado (a Swatch Group company) is the leader in high-tech materials. Other than that brand and maybe a few other models from others, this leaves us with metal, which is used for just about all fine watches.
There are base metals, in which the metal costs much less than the machining and finishing, and precious metals, in which it costs much more. The most common base metals used for watches are stainless steel (SS) and titanium (Ti). Aluminum is sometimes used, but it's really too soft.
The important precious metals are gold, in various colors, and platinum. Silver is rarely used. If you're considering white gold or platinum, bear in mind that to anyone but an expert it looks just like SS. To some this is a big problem; to others it's a great advantage (less attractive to muggers).
For a discussion of SS, see Different variations of Steel finishes. There are a bunch of articles about Ti, especially about how it's hardened, as Ti is normally rather easily scratched:
Finally, for some insight about how much you have to pay extra for gold, see 10 : Price of a Stainless-Steel Watch Compared to Gold. This article should also convince you to put a strap, not a bracelet, on your gold watch.
You almost never actually have a choice of crystals--you get whatever comes on the model you've picked. This is usually sapphire, which is a synthetic material right next to diamond on the hardness scale (see 4 : How Hard Can You Get?). Less expensive watches use mineral glass, which is glass that's been coated to make it more resistant to scratching. The cheapest watches use acrylic plastic, although there's a significant exception: certain models of the Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch, which retain their acrylic crystal for historical authenticity.
If the watch has a mechanical movement, consider a display (or exhibition) back so you can see the movement. Don't expect to get this on a diver watch, however, as it provides one more seal to leak, which is the last thing you need. Display backs are sometimes mineral glass even though the crystal is sapphire, since the display back is much less likely to get scratched.
All sports watches and most other watches are water resistant to some degree. The degree is given as a depth (or depth equivalent), but you shouldn't take number literally. That is, if the watch is rated at 50 meters, that doesn't mean you can take it diving to 49 meters (which is very deep!). The 50 meters was measured under static, laboratory conditions, and you need a substantial safety factor in real life. For a realistic explanation of what the numbers mean, see 146 : Water Resistance in Theory and Practice.
Here are some other articles related to water resistance:
For some deep diving watches, see 147 : Top Ten Deep-Sea Diving Watches by Depth-Rating. However, that articles fails to list the Roven Dino Mariana, which is rated at 9000 meters. (We don't really know what's down there... maybe there are rovin' dinos!)
Don't forget that the water resistance applies only to the case. A leather strap won't survive getting wet, unless it's a just a rain shower. If you're going to swim or dive with the watch, you want a bracelet or a strap made of nylon or rubber.
The weight of a watch is very important if it gets much above about 100 grams. At that point you start to feel the watch, and some people don't like heavy watches. Unfortunately, as the article 548 : Weight of watches notes, weight is seldom listed in manufacturer's specifications, although it often appears in TimeZone reviews.
If you're getting a big watch, consider titanium, which is much lighter than steel. For example, my Ti IWC Aquatimer weighs about 116 grams, about the same as my Rolex Explorer II in steel, and that's about as heavy as I'd want a watch to be. Had I gotten the Aquatimer in steel, I'd have found it very uncomfortable. Don't be afraid to ask the dealer to weigh the watch... I did when I bought my Lange 1 from Cellini, in New York. That watch was in gold, which weighs even more than steel--when you're buying a big, gold watch, you need to be extra careful.
Your biggest decision here will be between quartz and mechanical. There are three kinds of considerations that come into play:
Most of the TimeZone articles are about #1 and #2. The practical issue is that watch you want is usually available with only one type of movement. and that's probably mechanical for expensive watches and some mid-priced watches, and quartz for some mid-priced watches. There are very few expensive (over $3000, say) quartz watches (unless the high price is due to precious metals and diamonds, that is).
So, what it boils down to is that if you're looking in the $500 to $3000 range (roughly), you may want to think about whether you care about quartz vs. mechanical before you start looking, as there's no point falling in love with a design only to discover that you don't want the only movement that comes inside it.
For articles about the technical merits of quartz and mechanical movements, see the links that apepar under those subheads, below. For a general discussion, see 11 : On Companionship & Soul in Watches, 63 : Why I like a mechanical watch over a quartz, and 355 : "It is hard to love a quartz timepiece" ...Some thoughts. If you care a lot what others think, follow the posts on the Public Forum, or start your own thread. This is bound to generate the same opinions no matter when the question is asked, which is why nobody bothers to archive most of them.
On another forum I once said, "A quartz watch is like having an appliance, while a mechanical watch is like having a pet." That still sounds about right to me.
There are three interesting classes of quartz movements:
For some accuracy data on a variety of quartz watches, see 178 : Accuracy of a typical collection of quartz watches.
Here are some other articles on quartz watches:
There are lots of articles on mechanical movements, both because there's lots to know and discuss, and because to many TimeZoners the mechanical movement is most, if not all, of the watch.
These articles are about the finish of a movement:
Some articles about technical details of mechanical movements:
The beat of mechanical movements has been the subject of several articles:
It's important to many TimeZoners (including me) whether a watch manufacturer makes its own movements, and this is a popular discussion topic on the Public Forum. A controversial issue is whether a manufacturer who extensively modifies and finishes an outside movement (e.g., from ETA) is equal, in some sense, to one that makes its own. Here are some articles on these subjects:
Here are some articles that discuss watch performance in general:
Some watches, called chronometers (not to be confused with chronographs) contain movements that have passed testing by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse de Chronomètres (COSC), an agency of the Swiss government. Rolex sends 600,000+ through each year, Omega about 100,000+, TAG Heuer about 20,000+, and the other manufacturers only a couple thousand or fewer, each. So, if you think that COSC certification and the chronometer designation is mainly a marketing device used by some mid-priced high-volume manufacturers, you won't be far wrong. Even more cynically, I think that "chronometer" is basically a Rolex thing, and only those manufacturers who need to sell their watches head-to-head with Rolex care about it, and only on particular models. For example, Breitling certifies their all-gold models, which might compete with a gold Rolex Yachtmaster, but not their steel watches. The top-tier manufacturers, such as Audemars Piguet, IWC, Jaeger-Le Coultre, Lange, and Patek Philippe pay almost no attention to the COSC at all.
For some details about COSC testing, see 267 : Info about COSC testing. If you want to see a certificate (included with a Zenith chronometer, but not usually with other brands), see 55 : Big scan of a Zenith COSC certificate.
Functions and Features
Every watch shows the hour and minute somehow (usually with two hands), nearly all also show the second, and most show the date. Anything beyond these basics is called a "complication."
I'll list some of the most popular complications here and point you to the appropriate articles. For the more obscure ones, read through the reviews that are listed at the end. The buyer's guides are invaluable for finding out which watches have which features. For an illustrated guide to features, click here.A chronograph is a watch that acts like a stop watch; that is, it can measure intervals of time. There are usually two pushers on either side of the crown. The upper one starts and stops the timer, and the lower one resets it to zero. A chronograph is useful for more than you might think; see 429 : 10 Uses for the Chronograph by IWC to see what. Two other articles are 23 : A Short Discourse on Chronograph Scales and 321 : Comparison of Chronograph Dials Valjoux 7750 - Lemania 5100, which has labeled pictures that point out the various chronograph dials. Normally, you have to stop a chronograph before resetting it. If you can reset it while it's running, it's called a flyback chronograph, as explained in 274 : How a Flyback mechanism works. An even fancier feature, called rattrapante, adds a split-second hand; see 555 : Flyback vs. Rattrapante -- What's the difference?
To help you read the time in dim light, many watches feature luminous hands and dials.The article 167 : Luminous Watch Hands discussed the various ways to do this, and How Tritium lights up watch dials treats tritium specifically.
Watches that emit an audible time signal are called repeaters, as discussed in 36 : Repeaters - an introduction and Grande Sonnerie, Jaquemart and Carillon - The World of Repeaters.
One confusing topic that comes up periodically on TimeZone is the helium-release valve, found on some diving watches. The definitive word on them is 470 : Of Gas Mixtures, Saturation Diving and Helium Escape Valves.
Most of us care as much about the brand of watch as about its specific features and design. For some factual information, here are two articles that list most of the important brands:
And here are some opinion pieces:
For many buyers, especially for their first or second watch, a big question is "Should I buy a Rolex?" Notice the phrasing: Almost as though "Rolex" is something other than "just a watch." As you might imagine, there's been a lot of discussion on this topic on TimeZone, and some of these thoughts are captured in these articles:
Given that you know which watch you want, the next step, not nearly as much fun for most people, is to buy it. First, you need to know the list price. The best sources are the buyer's guides and the TimeZone Price Lists.
Second, you need to know how to pronounce the name of the watch. For guidance, see How to pronounce the names of watches.
Next, you need to decide where you're going to buy the watch, assuming you want it new. (As I mentioned at the start, buying a used watch is outside the scope of this guide.) For most TimeZoners, there are three choices:
For some thoughts on the advantages of buying from an authorized dealer, see 260 : What is the value of an authorized dealer? The gray market has been widely discussed on TimeZone, and some of that discussion has been captured in 234 : 'Gray Market'-- Small Collection of Public-Forum Posts. Also, see Time On-Line, The New Global Grey Market.
Some of the most outstanding dealers are listed in the TimeZone Directory. Two I've dealt with, and who are widely praised by many TimeZoners, are Paris 1925 @ Rafael Jewelers, run by Richard Paige, owner of TimeZone, and Silver Magic, run by Markus Tschopp, who frequently posts on the TimeZone Sales Corner (but not on the Public Forum, as far as we know). Paris 1925 is also praised in 448 : My good experience with Paris 1925/Rafael Jewelers.
For a rating of dealers, see 364 : WATCH DEALERS RATED.
If you're thinking of buying a watch while travelling in Switzerland and then bringing it back to the US, you may want to think again. See 619 : Forum Thread: Buying a Watch in Switzerland, Returning to US.
Here are some other articles about specific dealers:
Many US-based TimeZoners buy overseas, either in-person or remotely (e.g., via email). When the watch arrives in the US, a duty is supposed to be paid. There are two frequent situations:
Here are several articles that explain things:
In case you're wondering, it does pay to know your rights. One TimeZoner reported recently that after he filed an appeal he got a refund check and an apology!
Once you've found a dealer who has or can get the watch, you need to negotiate the price. It's always negotiable, even if you've stepped into the fanciest boutique in New York, Paris, London, or Rome. Think of it like buying a car or a house, rather than a tube of toothpaste. Here are some of my own rules for getting the best price:
Here are some other articles related to buying:
One of the great things about TimeZone is that we can benefit from others' experiences. Here are some stories about buying and owning watches:
The best information on TimeZone about watches is in the reviews. Those written prior to July, 1998, are collected in the Watch Review section of the Archives, and newer ones, in order of arrival, on the Bulletin Board. A few are in the Horologium. There's a TZ Watch Reviewmaster that indexes reviews with a drop-down list, but it's way out of date. So, at the risk of creating yet another list that may go out of date, here's all of them, arranged by brand. Some reviews discuss several brands comparatively, and these are listed multiple times.
This list doesn't include reviews posted to the TZ Watch Review Forum, which you'll also want to check out.
Dubey & Schaldenbrand
Porsche Design by IWC
Stocker & Yale
Van der Bauwede