There are watches, and there are watches. The former tells you what time it is. The latter tells the world what kind of man you are – one who cares about craftsmanship, and tradition, and time well spent (and, often, well-spent upon). This kind of timepiece is usually assembled in a quiet corner of Switzerland, where as well as cogs and gears and precious metals, its makers add something ineffable, too. Something with more value than merely knowing what time it is.
And that ineffability is what makes buying a watch such a pitfall-strewn process. Unlike, say, a new smartphone, your perfect new watch isn't just the one with the most functions (unless that's what you're looking for, in which case, this very expensive Patek Philippe should fit the bill nicely). Nor is it the case that cost automatically equates to quality. It would be foolish (and a little gauche) to place a watch on the ladder of greatness just because it broke your credit card. Proper watches – the sort with insides that demand a level of craft – run the whole gamut of price tags, and quieter, classic options show that you've done your research, as well as made a significant step towards becoming a watch collector proper.
That's no easy to step to make. One of the greatest illusions of the watch world ('horology', to give its proper name) is that the whole club can feel a little exclusive, perhaps even a little exclusionary. It's a world loaded with terminology. In some cases, it's a world tinged with snobbery, too: ask a watch-head the difference between an automatic and a quartz watch and be prepared for a roll of the eyes and a silly you.
We're not like that, though. We want to help you get into watches. Every man should. So, let us break down the basics below on the Esquire way to buy your very first proper watch – or even your 20th.
1. How Watches Work
Movements: An Introduction
So, what makes them tick? Yes, literally. That all depends on an incredibly important piece of kit called the 'movement'.Also known as the calibre, the movement is the mechanism inside a watch: often a complicated, esteemed 'engine' that makes the watch go round. To make things even more complicated, there are different sorts of movements, too.
The first is quartz. Highly accurate and mass produced, these movements are regulated by a piece of a quartz and powered by a battery. When they were first introduced in the Seventies, it caused a lot of bother as many brands were able to manufacture precise and more affordable watches at large quantities, causing the old guard to have a serious rethink as to how they were going to challenge the 'Quartz Crisis'. Today, they're not so sacrilege to the more esteemed manufactures, but are largely considered as technically inferior to handmade movements elsewhere (know that they're just as good – if not better – at telling the actual time).
On the other end, there are mechanical movements. Some are manually wound, but the majority are now "automatics": watches that are purpose-built to harness kinetic energy. So every time you move your wrist, the movement stays powered. Think of it as a very bougie bike dynamo. What's more, automatics developed in-house (as opposed to those outsourced by a dedicated company) generally take more time and skill to develop and implement, thus gleaning a more 'respectable' watch by horology standards.
Why Automatics Set The Standard
A lot of it comes down to one phrase: "The least important thing a watch does is tell the time." People like mechanical watches for the same reason they might prefer vinyl over MP3s. It's not just what something does, but how it does it. And for many, that's pretty important when buying what could be the most complex, artisanal purchase of their lives (yes, even more so than that sourdough from the overpriced bakery round the corner).
The very feel of an automatic is said to trump a quartz movement, too. In the former camp, there's a 'sweep' and continuous vibration as the watch continues to power itself; quartz watches are more in line with a traditional wall clock, with a single tick along per second. One feels a lot more like craftsmanship.
And look finally to the preferred choice of the 'greats'. While there are countless watches that push the envelope, the top tier – Rolex, Breitling, Patek Philippe et al – set the benchmark for new innovation and trends in the industry. Like fashion, there's a trickle down, and these largely stem from automatic watches.
2. The Different Watch Types
The Big Five
So you know what's happening on the inside. But what's on the outside is just as important, with different occasions demanding different types of watches. These are the classic five you should consider.
The Diving Watch
Designed to function in the ocean's depths, the diving watch is, unsurprisingly, built for divers. However, the majority of these never even touch water, with many opting for a dive watch thanks to its rugged construction, luminous dials and hands, and a punchy unidirectional bezel: all features that make for a handsome watch (and a lifeline when searching for drowned treasures).
Most diving watches owe their design cues to the 1953 Rolex Submariner: the first of its kind to work at a depth of 100m.
The Dress Watch
The most jewellery-like of timepieces, a dress watch tends to be understated. Think Roman numerals, simple face and a lack of adornments. Usually attached to a leather strap, the ideal dress watch is super-thin so it can rest unnoticed under the wearer's cuff until he needs it. Also, as dress watches don't perform any specific function bar telling the time, they're also the most likely to be made from a precious metal.
The Pilot's Watch
When Cartier first developed a watch for pilot Alberto Santos Dumont in 1911, aviation watches took off, and remain in flight to this today. That's because it's a perfect balance of technicality (multiple dials essential for dispensing large amounts of information to a pilot) and classic touches, with some models taking cues from pieces that are over 100 years old. Good for the sky, and good for everything else, too.
The Driving Watch
Motorsports and watches have a very close working relationship. And like flying and diving, there's a stuntman level of allure that translates well to its purpose-built timepieces.
Driving watches should have a chronograph complication — the stopwatch feature is very handy when overtaking Ferrari 512s — while some, like the Omega Speedmaster, also boast a 'tachymeter' on the bezel, a device for measuring speed. This is a working relationship that still works off-track, too.
Minimalist watches do exactly what they say on the tin. So, pared back watches for pared back looks. Which is great if you seek to cinch the cost-per-wear ratio, but it's also in-step with wider trends of simplicity that look to sparing designs first set by the Bauhaus movement. What's more, some of the more contemporary brands are a touch more affordable in their modernist approach. And that's always good.
3. How To Buy A Watch
Choosing Your First Watch
There are lots of variables at play. You've got your own tastes. You've got your own requirements. And, perhaps most importantly, you've got your own budget. Know that there's much flexibility at hand, though, and brands that don't quite boast the cachet of Rolex and Audemars Piguet are by no means lesser. In fact, many of them work (and look) just as well.
At the doorway of Swiss watches, you can own an automatic from brands like Farer, and Nomos. Or look beyond Europe to the East Asia, where Seiko and Citizen have forged great pieces at prices south of £200.
Moving up the price scale, mechanical timepieces from the likes of Junghans, Christopher Ward and Sinn provide something a bit more special from around £500.
And if you've got more than a thousand pounds to spend, then your options really open up, from a pre-owned classic model through to brand new models from some of the world's great watch brands.
How Pricing Works
It's a fair question: how come that watch is £15,000 while this apparently identical one is £200? Ultimately, it comes down to materials, length of manufacture and brand heritage. Quartz watches are cheaper because even the best quartz movements from Switzerland cost little more than £50, while you can pick up a Chinese movement for just a few quid.
Automatic movements not only cost more (often a lot more if they're made in-house and tested rigorously), but the watches that house them tend to be better designed, made of more valuable materials and come from a long lineage of expert watchmaking that you can buy into with confidence.
A Simple Guide To Complications
You'll notice that some watches have extra dials and hands: these are called complications. These go from the "chronograph" (the one with stopwatch functionality, used extensively in motor sport models) to the "GMT", which provides a fourth hand that can be set to the alternative time zone of the wearer's choice. Do we need complications in an age when our phones do so much? Not really. But that's not the point is it?
Why Size Matters
Just as there's no typical wrist size, there's no typical size of watch. While some timepieces are so large they can be seen from space, most have a case diameter of between 34-44mm. If you're a chap with slighter wrists, a 34-40mm case will work best, while rugged gents with wrists like oak trees should opt for models up to 46mm.
The thickness of the case also affects how the watch looks. A watch of 10mm thickness will sit better under a cuff than one that's 15mm.
A Quick Word On Straps
The thing that binds your timepiece to your wrists is hugely important in the character of your watch. A metal bracelet looks great on more masculine, chunky watches, while leather is the choice for conventional, dressy timepieces. A favourite of Esquire is the canvas or "NATO" strap, most famously worn with Sean Connery's Rolex Submariner in Goldfinger. If it's good enough for James Bond, it's good enough for you.
Accuracy Isn't Everything
Nothing can compete with a quartz watch on keeping time accurately, but a good automatic should only lose or gain 30 seconds or so in a week. If you're after a super-accurate mechanical watch, then look for one that's been certified as a "chronometer" by COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres). These watches account for only six per cent of all mechanical watches, which is reflected in their higher prices.
The World Of Vintage
While some watches can rocket in value as time passes — we're thinking the Rolex Daytona "Paul Newman" here — most will lose some of their worth over the time. This means that if you're willing look to past the age of a watch, you can get your hands on a true classic, like a Sixties Omega Seamaster, for less than a grand.
Last Word – Now You're On Your Own
After taking in the above, you should have a better idea of what makes a great watch and why some watches command such status, respect – and price tags. More importantly, you'll soon be able to justify, to yourself at least, why you've swerved that dream holiday for you and your partner in favour of the chunk of metal, glass and leather proudly sitting on your wrist. Good luck with that.