A beginner's guide to buying a watch
Buying a watch today can be a bewildering experience. Not only are there so many timepieces to choose from, there are many types of watches with costs ranging from a dollar to the price of a hypercar. So which to buy? The gaudy, bling-laden dinner plate? The chrome digital "grandpa" watch? The bewildering gadget festival? To help the neophyte and not-so-neophyte watch customer, New Atlas cuts through the underbrush with our introductory buyer's guide to modern watches.
Open any catalog, visit any shopping website, step into any jewelry shop, and you'll be presented with a bewildering variety of watches. Big ones, small ones, dull black ones, shiny steel ones, bright orange ones – there have never been so many watches to choose from. And it isn't just different brands or models. It seems as if yearly someone comes up with a new type of watch. Are you a golfer? There's a watch for you. A cyclist? Here you go. Like running? You're covered. No wonder looking for a new watch can be so daunting.
It wasn't always this way. There was a time not long ago when a man, and it was usually a man, owned a watch. Singular. Owning more than one was as odd as wanting to own a dozen motor cars with a matching dog for each one. A watch is a very personal possession that does more than tell time – it's a display of wealth, status, aspiration, and even family. It wasn't and isn't at all unusual for a watch to be handed down from father to son and the gold watch awarded for retirement was a common show of respect and camaraderie.
This is because watches aren't just technology, and they aren't just jewelry. They're worn for their looks, but they also have a practical function – maybe more than one. They're often items of real value made of precious metals, but they are much more than intricate works finished in gold or platinum. They convey your position in the world. They act as a personal statement. In some ways, they are the most personal form of technology there is, as their owners will often wear the same watch for decades and will treat them as personal heirlooms.
As James Bond creator Ian Fleming said, "A gentleman's choice of timepiece says as much about him as does his Savile Row suit."
There was a time when simply owning a watch was like having your own personal spaceship, but even today when watches can cost less than a newspaper, they still hold a special place. And because we live in a highly competitive, individualistic age, the watch exists in a perfect environment to mutate and evolve into a bewildering garden of varieties.
This being 2018, one question that's bound to crop up first is, why should you buy a watch at all? We live in a world brimming with timepieces that pop up on every second gadget. Besides, almost everyone has a mobile phone now and they all tell time, so why strap a clock to your wrist?
True, a phone does have a number of advantages over a watch. If you have one, then you already have a way to accurately tell the time because clock functions are standard on phones. Also, phones can carry out many of the functions of the more complicated watches, like moon phases, tides, world time, alarms and stopwatches, and they can do so without the need to fiddle with pushers, modes, and bezels. And phone screens are much more legible than a 25-mm dial with numbers and letters that keep getting smaller as I get older.
On the other hand, a wristwatch has its strengths over a phone. For one thing, a watch is discreet. At business or social events where pulling out a phone to check the time would be boorish, a quick glance at a watch won't even be noticed. In addition, you don't have to dig around for a watch. It won't vanish into a pocket or handbag, and you can't mislay something easily when its strapped to your wrist.
When you're on the go, a wristwatch has other advantages. In bad weather, it won't be buried deep inside layered clothing. You can also use a watch and leave both hands free for driving, skiing, or other activities. And speaking of activities, a watch is an excellent example of a specialized device. There's much to be said for something that does one thing and does it well, which is why we have tool kits as well as Swiss Army knives. Taking things a step further, there are watches tailored to a remarkable range of activities with one or two frequently used functions immediately available.
Okay, but which watch to buy? How hard can it be to pick one? There are only 1.2 billion of them made each year, so the choice should be simple. However, it's anything but. If the world of watches was an ecosystem, it would be one defined by an insane mutation rate. Every year, all manner of makes, models, marks, and variants are released that are aimed at a bewildering number of markets and sub-markets. Worse, the categories tend to blur due to the fact that fashion plays to large a part in watch design and many models borrow ideas from others.
Even purely technological categories can meld into one another. For example, there are digital movements and there are mechanical movements, but then there are hybrid digital mechanical movements. There are also digital displays, analog displays, and digital/analog displays. Then there's … you get the idea.
This blending has become even more marked by the introduction of gender-neutral watches that bridge the gap between traditional men's and women's watches as women adopt more masculine styles. In fact, the world of watches is so surprisingly large that if you try to make up your mind by studying all the watches available before making your decision, you won't buy a timepiece for many years.
The much better way is to ask yourself what you want out of it. Is it just something that tells time? Is it a fashion accessory? A status symbol? Is it supposed to tell the world something about you? Do you want it for work? Sport? Play? Is accuracy important? What about functions? Durability? And, of course, price.
In a sense, the best way to look for a watch is to look at yourself. Are you the sort of person who would be happy with a $10,000 Omega? Would you be comfortable with a massive sportwatch designed to survive a hammer blow? Or would you prefer something elegant and delicate? Or do you want one to show that you've gone up in the world?
Of course, there are some very basic rules to help. You don't wear a Mickey Mouse watch with a power business suit, a garish orange sports watch with a dinner jacket, or a diamond-studded dress watch with yoga pants. Beyond that, let's look at some of the options in general terms, starting with the basic types of wristwatches
The field watch
The field watch is a good one to start with because it's the descendant of the first practical wristwatches. Up until the turn of the 20th century, watches were occasionally installed in bracelets as ladies' jewelry, but these were very inaccurate and prone to breakage because the mechanisms weren't very sturdy. They were for show and little else. Meanwhile, there were a few novelty wristwatches for hunters or aviators, but these weren't very popular.
Then the First World War broke out in 1914 and the watch world changed forever. Soldiers, and especially officers, had been carrying pocket watches as a matter of habit ever since mass production really took off during the American Civil War, but the trench warfare and artillery barrages on the Western Front made using pocket watches difficult.
The conditions were cold and muddy and the soldiers were often wrapped up in greatcoats against the weather. Worse, the tactics of the day meant that watches were vital if an army wasn't to be bombarded by its own artillery. So, officers and foot soldiers needed to keep a keen eye on the time down to the second – often in conditions where they already had both hands full.
As a result, soldiers started soldering lugs on the pocket watches and fitting straps so they could be fastened to the wrist. That way, they could tell the time at a mere glance. When soldiers went home on leave, they kept their improv wristwatches and watchmakers started to make much more rugged watches with built-in straps expressly for the military.
Two things came of this. First, the wristwatch came into general fashion after the war as an item of civilian garb for men, and the field watch was born.
By the time the Second World War broke out, field watches were standard issue in a number of armies with timepieces made by private companies to precise government specifications. There were even field manuals on how to service them and military watch repairmen joined the ranks of the armed forces. And as millions of servicemen returned home after the war, and army surplus goods hit the market, official field watches became a common sight well into the 1950s.
Field watches share a number of characteristics. They have analog displays and few functions beyond basic timekeeping. They are small to medium size, so they don't catch on cuffs or equipment, they are very durable, and are very simple in design with a dial that's easy to read. They also tend to have inexpensive cloth or nylon straps, like the modern NATO strap that's designed to keep the watch from falling off the wrist even if a lug breaks.
Today's field watches are water-resistant and still retain their military DNA with features like luminous dials and hacking seconds, where the seconds hand can be stopped without stopping the watch itself – just in case you want to "synchronize watches" like in the movies.
One advantage of modern field watches is that they benefit from a century of technical progress. Cases can be made out of titanium, ceramic, or polycarbonate; the crystals of sapphire; and the movement may be battery-powered quartz or mechanical with an automatic winder mechanism.
Bertucci Unisex DX3
Also called a diving or diver's watch, this is the major watch category and probably the most recognizable "tool" or sports watch. That is, a watch designed for a specific occupation or activity. Like the field watch, the dive watch was developed to meet a need. Specifically, a watch that could be worn by deep sea and scuba divers at increasingly greater depths and still function.
The first dive watch was the Rolex Oyster. Introduced in 1926, it had a case with a screw-on back and a screw-on crown that sealed the movement off from dust and water – even when the watch was submerged. It gained fame in 1927 when Mercedes Glietze became the first woman to swim the English Channel. When allegations arose that she'd faked the swim, she repeated the feat while wearing a Rolex Oyster as a pendant.
Dive watches by various companies soon developed a romantic reputation – especially when Captain Jacques Cousteau wore one in his feature documentary Le Monde du Silence. The reputation of such watches was set in stone in the 1960s when fictional superspy James Bond wore a Rolex not only in the novels, but in the first 10 Bond thrillers on screen. This formed a cachet that has made such a deep impression on the public that a dive watch is probably the only tool watch that one can wear with a tuxedo.
What sets a dive watch apart is that is designed to not only deal with rough handling, but can also act as a practical timepiece hundreds of feet underwater. In fact, the dive watch is more than a way of telling time, it's a piece of safety gear. Deep sea and scuba dives depend on the diver very carefully keeping track of how much time is spent underwater. If too much time passes when one is more than 33 ft (10 m) down, then nitrogen dissolves in the body tissues and returning to the surface risks the potentially deadly bends unless periodic stops are made on the way up to allow the nitrogen to seep back out.
A dive watch is notable for having a heavy case made of stainless steel or some other tough material that can, by today's standards, withstand pressures of at least 330 ft (100 m) without leaking or compromising the mechanism. Some modern watches are rated to over 3,300 ft (1,000 m) and are fitted with special valves to allow helium to escape during extended mixed gas dives using decompression chambers. Otherwise, the watch might burst from internal pressure when returning to the surface.
The dive watch display is very simple with hands that are designed so that the hours, minutes, and seconds can't be confused for one another and the marks or numerals are large, distinct, and easy to read with luminous chapters.
Then there is the bezel, which is constructed to either lock in place or turn only in an anti-clockwise direction. This allows the diver to keep track of dive time by setting the zero mark over the minute hand when descending or timing a decompression stop. By turning only anti-clockwise, accidentally turning the bezel can only cause the diver to overestimate the time rather than underestimate it – the latter being a potentially fatal mistake.
The other things that mark a dive watch is that the bezel and other components are made to be easy to operate by a diver wearing thick neoprene gloves or with waterlogged, half-numbed fingers. Also, there's either an easily adjustable bracelet made of stainless steel, or a cloth or rubber strap that allows the watch to be quickly fitted over the outside of a wetsuit.
Citizen Promaster Diver
Invicta Pro Diver
Another watch associated with dash and romance is the aviator or aviation watch. These actually predate the birth of the wristwatch as we know it by almost 10 years. In 1906, the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos Dumont complained to his friend, master watchmaker Louis Cartier, that he couldn't operate the controls of his plane and check his pocket watch at the same time. Cartier came up with a watch with a leather strap that he called the Santos-Dumont wristwatch, which was first sold to the general public in 1911.
But the aviator watch really took off in the run up to the Second World War as aircraft became more sophisticated and capable of flying longer distances and higher altitudes. Unlike modern aircraft with their pressurized cockpits and other amenities, aircrews in those days had to fly bundled up in thick leather suits while wearing heavy goggles and oxygen masks to protect against anoxia.
As with the field watch, the major military powers contracted companies to develop wristwatches that were suitable for aviators. The result is the flying watch that we know today. Like the field watch, it has a rugged, government-specified design. But where the field watch is relatively small to keep it from catching on the cuff, an aviator watch has a very large dial of around 55 mm in diameter. In other words, they were the ancestors of today's dinner plate watches.
The other thing that marked aviator watches were the straps, which were more like small belts. This is because the watches had to be worn over heavy flight jackets where they were instantly visible. It's a tradition that carried on into the Apollo program of the 1960s when the first astronauts to go to the Moon wore their Omega Speedmaster watches on oversized straps outside their pressure suits.
Another trait of the aviator watch is the dial. Like the dive watch, this was designed for maximum legibility, only this time with large numerals on a very simple, illuminated display. On closer examination, one unusual feature of the aviator watch is that it often has an inner hour dial and an outer minute dial. The reason for this is that for the aviator, especially bomber crews, knowing the minutes is more important than the hours.
Today, aviator watches can include other complications, like a chronograph, GPS systems, a slide rule bezel for calculating fuel consumption, or even a satellite radio distress beacon. One particularly interesting function is an altimeter. This is a particularly valuable complication because it can warn the pilot if there's a sudden drop in cockpit air pressure that doesn't register on the instruments.
Seiko SSC007 Solar Aviation Chronograph
IWC Pilot IW324702
The GMT watch was first developed for aviators by the Rolex company at the request of Pan American Airways for its international flight crews. Introduced in 1954, the GMT answered a growing problem for an air transport industry that was beginning to enter the jet age. With new aircraft capable of leaping across whole oceans in a matter of hours at just under the speed of sound, it was becoming increasingly easy for pilots to become confused about what time it was where.
The GMT gets around this problem by adding a fourth hand and a special bezel to a wristwatch. Unlike the hour hand, the GMT hand circles the dial once every 24 instead of 12 hours. Meanwhile, the bezel is marked out in 24 hours with 12 in a light color representing day and the other in dark to represent night.
To use the GMT, the GMT hand is set for Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) on the 24 hour bezel while the hour hand is on local time. If you know how far ahead or behind your destination is from GMT, it's simple to calculate your time there by rotating the bezel by the difference so the GMT hand points at the desired time zone. This also makes it simple to reset the hour hand when you arrive.
Timex Allied Three GMT
Longines Admiral GMT Chronograph
Also called a racing watch, the driving watch was developed between the First and Second World Wars to meet the needs of increasingly sophisticated and competitive race car drivers. Because racing, and especially rally racing, places such importance on timekeeping, driving watches are not only rugged, they also include functions like chronographs (especially with lap timers) and tachymeters for measuring the speed of a vehicle against a measured mile or kilometer.
Needless to say, such watches have to be a bit on the larger side to make it easy to read the registers and keep the numbers legible.
TAG Heuer Carrera
Ferrari Scuderia Formula
Chopard Women's Grand Prix de Monaco
On the other end of the horological scale from tool watches are dress watches, though, as we've seen, they can overlap. Dress watches value looks over practicality and are often worn as open statements of wealth and status that are hidden beneath a facade of simplicity. They tend to be thin, sleek, light and are generally designed to make an understatement rather than a splash. Think a Bentley rather than a Ferrari.
Designed for evening wear and more formal occasions, dress watches have a minimum of functions. Many don't even run to a seconds hand and a moon phase display is stretching things. The size is proportional to the wrist and some have small, hard-to-read hands and not even marks for the quarter hours. However, thanks to a certain 007, dive watches can often be seen peeking out of a tuxedo cuff.
Related to the dress watch is, for want of a better phrase, the haute horlogerie luxury watch. At one time, any watch could be classed as haute horlogerie because they were so rare and expensive that only the very wealthy could afford them and each represented state of the art technology. But in our age of advanced industrialization and digital technology, watches are absurdly cheap with Chinese-made pieces costing only about US$3.00 on average compared to US$789 for a Swiss-made watch. In light of this, the haute horlogerie watch is now a very different beast from what it was.
Today, the haute horlogerie watch is the horological equivalent of a hypercar and often costs just as much. By comparison, they make an upmarket Audemars Piguet or a Cartier look like something out of a cereal box in terms of price. The reason for the mark ups that make a haute horlogerie watch cost six or even seven figures is because they are now limited edition showpieces of craftsmanship and high-end technical innovations of design and manufacturing.
True, some haute horlogerie watches justify their price tags by incorporating jewels and precious metals, but others do so by showing just what a mechanical watch movement can still do. Some watches are tiny astronomical displays that are accurate for centuries into the future. Others contain automata like little mechanical birds that chirp on command. And then there are those that break new mechanical boundaries, like using cases made entirely out of crystal, making the movement thinner than ever before, using movements that can mimic those of a digital watch or can mechanically predict sunrise and sunset for anywhere on Earth.
And then there are the Grand Complications – watches made to show how many functions can be fitted into a mechanical watch. After all, if one function is good, then 23 is 23 times better. Maybe make that 57.
But whatever their details, haute horlogerie watches are very often showcases. They are less to be worn than admired. As such, they have not only created a new high-end market, but also an ancillary industry making automatic winders and climate-controlled watch safes that act as both protection and display cases for collectors
Ressence Type 5
Bovet Récital 22 Grand Récital
Patek Philippe Reference 5531R World Time Minute Repeater
MB&F MoonMachine 2
Fashion watches arose in the 1980s out of a fit of desperation as the Swiss watch industry faced utter collapse. Despite being a pioneer in the field, Switzerland was caught completely off guard by the quartz revolution of the 1970s when quartz movements and digital displays caused the average cost of a wristwatch to plummet while producing pieces of unprecedented precision for the price.
Within a few years, Swiss dominance of the world watch market collapsed. World-renowned firms were closing their doors or merging, and the entire industry depended on handouts from the Swiss government just to survive.
Then along came Nicolas Hayek, who in 1983 hit on the idea of attacking the market from the opposite direction. Instead of trying to revive interest in the traditional Swiss watches, which were rapidly becoming a high-end niche market, he introduced Swatch. A contraction of "second watch," the Swatch group turned the whole idea of watch ownership on its head.
Previously, watches were regarded as expensive, precious heirloom items that one only bought infrequently and only one at a time. Swatches came in a bewildering variety of inexpensive timepieces costing a standard CHF 50 (US$50) thanks to new automated manufacturing techniques and were often brightly colored in plastic cases covered with garish designs.
The selling point was that these watches were so cheap and came in such a variety that they were no longer just watches, but fashion accessories. Instead of one, you bought several and wore them with whatever outfit or occasion they matched.
Today, any number of firms have lines after the Swatch model with some placing more emphasis on the box the piece comes in rather than the watch itself. Some are even watch kits that allow the wearer to mix and match straps, bezels, and other components to achieve the exact desired look
Swatch Poppy Field GW705
Peugeot Women's 677G
Emporio Armani Amber Dial Men's Watch AR1605
Bangers are watches for everyday wear and are the watch world equivalent of the rabbit as opposed to the field watch's fox. As predators, foxes survive by being roughly built with strong muscles and dense bones, so they can chase down prey. Rabbits, on the other hand, have relatively weak muscles and fragile bones. They survive by reproducing so quickly and in such numbers that a reasonable number of their progeny survive.
That's basically how a banger watch works. These are the watches (usually cheap quartz models) that you don't really care if they pack up and aren't even worth the bother of changing the batteries when they rundown. In fact, some models can't change the battery.
These are the watches sold at dollar stores and garages. Their sole function is to tell time and not to be made a fuss over when they break. In other words, bangers are the perfect watch for those who couldn't care less about the social cachet of their watch, or those who need one to wear on nasty jobs like clearing brush, working on car engines, clearing drains, or fixing the plumbing.
Anything that costs less than a cup of coffee
This being the 21st century, there's another type of watch on the market that may be as radical a change as the introduction of the quartz caliber. Smartwatches are essentially wrist-worn, touchscreen computers that have roots giving back to the early 1980s, but started to appear in their present form about 10 years ago.
When they first came on the market, modern smartwatches were cranky and expensive and had to be paired with a smartphone in order to work. They've come a long way since then and now show the same broad range in price and capabilities as other computing devices. In fact, it wasn't that long ago that traditional watch companies saw them as the next big thing and were worried that the smartwatch would be the new quartz watch.
Today, the panic has died down as early smartwatch companies folded and the tiny computers started to settle into their market niche. There are smartwatches that can not only operate without linking to a smartphone, but they have GPS, accelerometers, and heart-rate sensors to act as fitness monitors in addition to notifying the wearer of texts, instant messages, social-media posts, and app alerts. Some can even make calls and have voice control.
However, smartwatches still have their issues. Unlike quartz watches, they need to be recharged on a regular – often daily – basis, depending on use. They also tend to be bulky and comfort can be a problem. In addition, they go obsolescent so fast that buying one housed in anything but the cheapest case is a bad investment.
But perhaps the biggest factor governing the future of smartwatches is that they aren't just competing against conventional watches, but also emerging technologies like AI speakers and digital assistants. Smartwatches already suffer from the question of what problem do they actually solve. If something like a more advanced version of Alexa manages to solve that problem first, then the smartwatch could start to fade like the digital watch or vanish almost entirely like the PDAs of the 1990s.
Apple Watch Series 3
LG Watch Sport
Samsung Gear Sport
Huawei Watch 2
So far, we've touched on the major watch categories, but what about the details? Obviously, one thing to consider are functions. Do you need a simple watch? How simple? Not even a second hand? What about telling the day? Date? Day of the week? Or maybe you want something more complex like a chronograph, a tachymeter, or a tide indicator.
Then there are the movements. Today, you can have a mechanical watch or quartz, analog or digital, a smartwatch with a touchscreen, or a hybrid combining features of any of these. Each of these has its advantages and its disadvantages.
Take mechanical movements. These have centuries of engineering experience behind them and are available in both manual winding and automatic versions. They can be serviced just about anywhere in the world, will last an indefinite time if properly maintained, will keep their value, and enjoy a certain air of seriousness that quartz watches don't. On the other hand, modern mechanicals have been pushed well up the price range to the point where a good one costs as much as a second-hand car. While there are still affordable mechanicals, it's definitely a case of you get what you pay for.
Quartz watches, on the other hand, are insanely accurate with even cheap models outperforming certified wrist chronometers. They can range from models so cheap they're disposable to ones costing over US$10,000 and are indistinguishable from the mechanicals unless you hold one up to your ear and hear the distinct ticking sound of the stepping motor.
And then there's the quartz watch's famous ability to handle all manner of functions – especially when it has a digital or digital/analog display. Not to mention the super-quartz watches that incorporate little solar panels that eliminate the need to change the battery.
On the downside, quartz watches don't lend themselves to repair except by the manufacturer – and then only for top-tier models. Also, quartz digitals don't tend to age well and can look very downmarket after a few years. In general, digital displays have tended to be associated with "grandpa" watches as analog displays increase in popularity.
What to look for in a watch
So what specifics should you look for in a watch? We've already talked about how it should fit your lifestyle and have the functions you want and none of the ones you don't, but what specifics should you be on the alert for?
One obvious factor is the cost. Watches have never varied more in price, ranging cheap enough to give away at cinemas to fetching a million dollars at auction for a collectors item. That may seem daft, but a wristwatch is one of those items where the price is whatever the market will bear. So, the best advice is to pick a watch that fits your budget and seems worth the price. What that is is up to you. I've seen someone hopping up and down with glee as he went to pick up the Rolex that he'd scrimped a decade to afford, and I've also known others who think that anyone who spends more than $10 on a watch is barking mad.
Another top factor to consider is legibility. My previous watch was a very stylish dress watch that looked great and was reasonably priced but the elegant hour, minute and second hands were so easy to confuse for one another that I always looked like I was pointedly staring at my watch when I was just trying to figure out the time. A watch that's hard to read is like a hypercar that you can't fit into. It may be fantastic, but it's also pointless.
By the same token, a watch should be comfortable to wear. If it gouges into your wrist or keeps catching on things, then putting it on in the morning won't be much of a pleasure. In addition, consider the watch's size. A big watch will probably be less comfortable and will look silly on a small wrist. On the other hand, too small a watch might be harder to read and will look equally silly on a large wrist. The best rule of thumb is to find a watch that is proportional to you – especially if it's being worn on business or formal occasions.
Flip it over
If you're looking for a watch that's a little more on the pricey side, there are a few hallmarks that you can be on the lookout for. Flip the watch over and study the case back for a few minutes. If your watch has a case made of gold or silver, it may have actual hallmarks to certify the metal's purity. Other certifications can show that your watch meets the standard to be marked Swiss Made, that it meets official chronometer standards, or that it's made to government specifications for military issue.
Even the least expensive watch case back may have a wealth of information, including the model and make, the company that made it, the type of movement inside, the watch's country of origin, the movement's country of origin, and the battery needed for quartz movements. In addition, the case may say how water-resistant the watch is, if it's anti-magnetic, what material the case is made of, and what type of crystal is used. It may even have a serial number or the number of a limited edition.
Weight and accuracy
If your watch is in the medium to expensive range, it should be heavy for its size. This doesn't just apply to a deep-sea dive watch, but for any timepiece down to a small lady's watch. Even the smallest should have some heft to it compared to a cheap one of the same width.
Accuracy is another thing to look for. Today's quartz movements are so accurate that they can be used for celestial navigation, but mechanical watches can vary a good deal with an accuracy within seconds per day, month, or year showing the quality of the movement. Swiss-made watches are tested by the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute and are accurate to within 10 seconds per day.
Another way to judge accuracy in a mechanical watch is by looking at the seconds hand. On a quartz watch, the stepping motor makes the seconds hand shift in steady one-second beats, but in mechanical watches, the beats can be several times a second. This can be seen in the seconds hand. The quartz beats one second, then another, then another. In a mechanical watch, the hand will move five, 10, or even 20 times per second. If it beats enough times, the hand looks like that of an electric wall clock and seems to move in a single, smooth sweep – an indication of a very precise, accurate movement.
Like other consumer goods, watches are often known by their brands as much as their specifications or looks. And, like clothes, motorcars, and wine, it's often the label you're paying for rather than the quality. This is particularly the case with some upmarket timepieces being mass produced, yet commanding prices with an alarming markup.
But that doesn't mean brands aren't worth paying for. They often do matter. This is more so with watches because they also include reputations for craftsmanship and even a certain legendary quality as some watches and brands become interwoven with famous figures, historical events, and technical milestones. Owning the same brand of watch as James Bond or Buzz Aldrin or Sir Edmund Hillary can be and often is a major selling point.
Then there's the protective nature of branding. We've already mentioned the term "Swiss Made." To stamp this on a watch, it has to pass the very rigid standards that Switzerland imposes to protect the watch industry's reputation. Over 26 million watches are made by Swiss companies each year. That's a tiny percentage of the world's total, but it also represents half the total dollar value of the world watch trade.
Those two words, Swiss Made, can immediately bump the price of a watch up by 20 percent. To justify this, 60 percent of the production costs of a watch must be based in Switzerland, half the value of the parts must be from Swiss-made components, 60 percent of making the movement must be done in Switzerland, as must all the technical development for the watch and its movement.
One important point about a brand is when it comes to servicing a watch – especially in regard to finding spare parts or even getting the battery replaced. While many watches can be serviced by any competent watch repairman, some require such work to be done by the manufacturer. This may be because they have the expertise, or the parts, or they may demand it on penalty of voiding the warranty.
If your prospective watch is vintage or the sort you plan to hang onto and pass on, it's a good idea to find out if the maker is still in business and what their service policies are, or if they've made arrangements with other companies for servicing on a regular basis or if they go out of business.
A word about fakes
One very important thing to remember is that once you get into the more expensive watches, fakes become a real problem. Thanks to the internet, cheap international travel, and a penchant for certain countries to indulge in consumer piracy, it's easy to get suckered into buying a counterfeit watch. It's a billion-dollar business and a highly illegal one.
Fakes can range from very competent forgeries that would require a practiced eye and a look at the movement to spot, to cheap knock offs with the date window turning out to be a sticker, to Frankenstein watches cobbled together from the parts of several others.
The simplest way to deal with fakes is to remember that if a deal is too good to be true, it probably is. If someone online is trying to fob off an Omega Seamaster and wants only $50 for it, then it's almost certainly a counterfeit and worth a tenth of what's asked.
The two best ways of avoiding fakes is to first, always buy from a trusted dealer. Legitimate shops that only offer discounts within a reasonable percentage of the regular price are highly unlikely to be dealing in fakes, as are those who deal regularly in vintage or second-hand watches. Even eBay, which used to have a problem with fakes, has become much more trustworthy these days.
The second way to deal with fakes is to do your homework. If you're going to invest money in a watch, learn all you can about the ones you want. See one in person, feel the heft of it, note the details. Many watches have crystals in the back, so you can see the movement. That means you can check to see if the proper caliber has been swapped for a phony. The basic rule of thumb is that, while a fake might deceive on its own, when it's compared to the real thing, it will generally look as crude as it is.
If you find yourself tempted to buy a fake, keep in mind that there is an alternative in the form of homage watches. Watchmakers aren't well covered by copyright laws, so their designs are easy to legitimately copy to a surprising degree. As a result, many companies create watches that are very similar to a luxury item with the exception of the logo and a few minor details. Unlike fakes, these are above board and are generally as well made as any other watch in their price range.
A personal choice
We're not going to claim that the above is a comprehensive buyer's guide to wristwatches. We've ignored many kinds of watches and the bewildering overlap between them, as well as the fact that watch manufacturing is marked by technical innovation, fashion-crazed design explosions, and major brands making improvements to classic watches over decades. To do justice to the entire field would require several very thick books, a library of videos, and much patience.
At the end of the day, it comes down to the fact that a watch is a very personal purchase. Chosen wisely, it can quickly become a prized possession or a cherished gift. Chosen poorly and it can end up lost in the back of a junk drawer. The secret is to know what you want, what you want to say about yourself or the person the watch is meant for, and what you can afford, then doing some research to make sure you pick the right timepiece. This might be as simple as skimming an online catalog for a few minutes, or as complicated as hunting down that elusive "grail" watch over a period of years. But it's worth the effort.
After all, you are buying time.
Ed's note: Prospective watch buyers might also find our guide to watch terms useful.