June 14, 2024
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What to look for in a quality watch [March 2022]

Hello Grotto Denizens!

What is there to a good watch? What do you need to look for?

Let me explain a few basic assumptions.

First, we are talking here about watches with craftsmanship and quality. Technically, you could use your phone or an expensive superstore digital quartz watch (you know the kind, the ones with the rubbery bands with stopwatch) and get reliable time. With the emphasis on quality and craftmanship, there are certain features to look out for. I’ll explain more in a minute.

Second, I assume you are new to watch connoisseurship. This is only my opinion and observation in seeking out high quality. Like any opinion, you may have more or less the same views. Add your own taste and adjust as you want.

Third, I have a preference for the long-term. So, what I am looking for is something that is will be kept for years, possibly decades, with good care.

Here’s what I look for:

Case:

The case is the physical encasement for the movement (the inner workings). Either stainless steel or titanium are good basic level case materials. Stainless steel or titanium can be found in watches from around $100 to thousands of dollars. Titanium is much lighter, tougher and scratch resistant than stainless. However, titanium does not have the ability to have a highly polished sheen like stainless steel and will be more of a ‘matte’ texture in appearance.

Additionally, non-precious metal cases in gold color will be coated. The best gold-over stainless steel will be PVD, or physical vapor deposition, type of plating. This is more durable than traditional gold plating. Anything less, is not even gold and is not recommended.

Higher end watches will have precious metals such as gold (a solid karat-level of gold) or platinum (these will easily be in the $10K+ range). Unfortunately, lower-end watches of poor quality might be a chrome coating over a brass base. This will likely corrode over the years after the coating starts to wear. Go with stainless steel, titanium or better.

Band:

The band can be either a leather strap or metal bracelet. It can also be a nylon based NATO style strap or rubberized material. Typically a metal bracelet will match the case material and should really stay with the watch. Theoretically, you can swap out a metal bracelet for a different one, but why would you?

The more traditional leather straps can be swapped out more easily to change the look. Some leather bands have a ‘fingernail’ style fob on the rear to easily remove the strap without tools. These types of straps beg to be changed out on the fly.

The NATO style straps are more of an acquired taste and reorient the look of the watch to one that is more casual. With different colors, the NATO strap can be subdued to really anything you want to express. Rubberized straps tend to be more rigid in their options.

Crystal:

The crystal is the transparent window you look into to see the face of the watch. This can be plastic in its most inexpensive form (although some vintage watches from mid-century may have experimented with the then exotic new material) to sapphire. The more entry level watches will be glass or mineral crystal. Mineral crystal is harder, but can still scratch overtime.

Not this kind of sapphire!

Sapphire crystals are lab created and are the paramount crystal. Sapphire ranks 9 on the Mohs hardness scale, really only second to diamond. This is what you need to look for. I once dropped a sapphire crystal watch on a concrete floor. While the case did get some collateral damage, the crystal was still perfect.

A lump of industrial sapphire. Same thing, just not as pretty.

Movement:

This is simply the engine of the watch. I will have a separate article on movements as there are a ton of technical details, but I will summarize here. There are two major types of movements: mechanical and quartz. Sometimes you will hear automatic as synonymous with mechanical, but this is slightly incorrect. Automatic watches are mechanical watches with an internal rotor that moves with your arm movement (self-winding). The kinetic energy of your moves translates into winding action for the mechanical movement. You can manually wind an automatic watch by twisting the crown. Without the internal rotors, you have a mechanical watch that you have to manually wind up.

Quartz, on the other hand, use the harmonics inherent in a quartz stone to keep a beat. This is done using a battery to energize this movement. Its kind of cool knowing that it is just the harmonic resonance from a quartz crystal (not to be confused with the crystal as part of the encasement) that really powers this kind of watch. When quartz watches came out in the 1970s, they were really revolutionary. They were the original industry disruptors. Depending on your views of the technology, this was called the Quartz Crisis or the Quartz Revolution. Quartz dramatic lowered costs for watches and amplified their production scale. Again, this is a topic for another day.

Within the modern watch collecting world, mechanical is look at with more esteem than quartz. This is simply because of the engineering complications of all the moving parts that go into mechanical movements. Additionally, mechanical watches have the potential to work for decades, if not centuries. If you let a quartz watch age with a battery inside, the battery will leak can cause almost irreparable damage to the watch. However, there are some high precision quartz movements that are truly works of art and science.

In addition to this pecking order, there is another on the country of origin. Namely, Swiss movements have a preeminence in the watch world. ETA, in-house custom Swiss movements (i.e. Rolex), Ronda are just a few examples of the different types of movements. Both ETA and Ronda make mechanical as well as quartz movements. Rolex only made one rare, experimental example of a watch with a quartz movement. What is ‘Swiss’ has been a major source of controversy and will be covered later too. [Essentially, there was a period where Swiss movements were being assembled in third-party countries with lower labor costs until the Swiss government put their foot down and narrowed what Swiss Made meant].

Japanese movements follow behind the Swiss, generally. This is not due to a lack of craftmanship or quality as much as that god-awful snobby word, provenance. Yes, the Swiss have centuries of watchmaking and the Japanese are the newer kids on the block. Its like French wine vs Californian wine. Or German cars vs Japanese cars. You get the idea.

Typically, if it is not Swiss or Japanese, like everything on planet earth, it is Made in China. While there are reliable examples different mechanical movements coming out of China, the quality is viewed as more various.

Complications:

This is anything in addition to just showing the time. Most commonly, there are day of the week and month complications, moon phase complications, power reserve indicators, world time, etc. In the most exotic watches, there are complications are that more important than time. Like having mechanical birds from Jaquet Droz:

See you soon!

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