Feature: The Beginner's Guide To Luxury Watches
Of all the hobbies I’ve seen and experienced, I’d say watches can be one of the most daunting—and this is coming from someone who takes pictures of space for the lols. There’s so much at stake—lots of money, I mean—and so it can seem like a scary proposition to get your head around. Well, we’re here to help, or at least to get you started.
Quartz vs Mechanical
The first thing you need to understand about luxury watches is how they work. Now, we’re not going to go into nerdlike levels of detail here, but we are going to separate the two main sources—main, not only—of power and regulation for a watch. That’s power—how the watch is driven—and regulation—how it keeps the correct time.
Most watches, especially at the affordable end, will be quartz. That’s where a battery sends a current through a literal piece of quartz crystal, which vibrates at a speed from which an exact second can be derived. The battery also powers the motion of the hands, which means it will typically last two to three years before needing a new battery. That’s why quartz watches tick only once per second, to save battery.
A mechanical watch, on the other hand, has no battery. It’s clockwork, but in a watch. A spring—coiled flat on one plane, not like a corkscrew like you would imagine a spring—is wound tight, and it’s the force of its unwinding that powers a mechanical watch. But wouldn’t it just unravel in a matter of seconds? That’s where the regulation part comes in. A mechanical watch uses a locking mechanism called the escapement to pause just long enough between each tick—usually eight per second for a smooth sweep—to provide good timing and to last for, usually, two to three days.
The second thing to understand is that quartz isn’t inherently bad. There’s a reason it became the most popular way to drive a watch. Some people might tell you that any watch with a quartz movement is bad, and that luxury watches are only mechanical. The truth is more down to preference. Some of the best watches—and the best watchmakers—use quartz. What you prefer will be your choice.
Manual vs Automatic
We’ll leave the quartz movement to one side for now to dig a little deeper into the mechanical movement. It draws power from a spring, we understand that now—but where does the spring source its power? It used to be, until the early 20th century, that a watch—or clock before it—was manually wound, being topped up every few days depending on its power reserve. First, they were wound with a key, but now they are wound with the crown. From empty, a watch usually takes around forty turns to fully wind, or until resistance is felt. Don’t force it. It may also need a gentle shake to get going.
Most mechanical watches today, however, are automatic. They can be manually wound if needed, but you won’t feel any resistance when they are fully wound. Don’t worry! You can’t overwind an automatic watch. But the real benefit of an automatic watch is that you don’t have to manually wind it to keep it running. Simply wearing it will suffice. That’s because there’s a free-spinning weight inside that moves when you do. The simple action of being mobile is enough to keep the watch running the whole while it’s being worn—and it should last a few more days extra when it’s not.
Back in the day when mechanical watches were worn because they were the latest and greatest technology, there wasn’t just one type of watch—there were many. Different professions had different requirements, and naturally watchmakers catered for them with a number of different styles of watches that were optimised for their specific function. Today, these styles can inform a purchase decision based on heritage, looks, functionality and even nostalgia, if you’re old enough.
The main styles you’ll see referenced are diver’s watches, pilot’s watches, driver’s watches and dress watches. A diver’s watch, heralding back to the popularisation of diving both commercially and recreationally in the 1950s, is most easily identified by a timing bezel that can only be turned one way, a very legible dial and, of course, excellent water resistance.
Pilot’s watches are inspired by wartime designs used by pilots in the harsh conditions of an aircraft cockpit, built for ultimate robustness and legibility. But with the evolution of flight for leisure and business, the functionality of pilot’s watches evolved to offer a more discreet way of keeping track of multiple time zones.
For the driver, a watch would be equipped not just with a chronograph—we’ll get onto that in moment—but also a tachymeter scale, a primitive calculator that can be used to measure speed. The driver would start his chronograph, race a mile and the watch would be able to tell him his average speed.
A dress watch does what it says on tin: looks appropriate with more formal attire. Smaller, perhaps in precious metals and very typically on a leather strap, the dress watch completes the gaggle of most popular types of watches you’ll be exposed to when you shop.
Not only can a watch be tuned for different activities, but different functions as well. We mentioned the chronograph a moment ago—this is one of a number of complications a watch can have that offers additional functionality above and beyond the time. The chronograph, for examples, adds the capability to measure periods of time independently of the main timekeeping function, and is controlled by a series of pushers.
Choosing a complication can be based not just on what it does, but how it looks or even the technicality behind it. For example a date complication is very useful and practical, but a minute repeater—which chimes the time with the pull of a lever—is more likely to be appreciated for its complexity and beauty than it is its practicality.
Other complications you may come across are the power reserve, which gauges how much longer a watch will last before needing to be rewound; the GMT hand, which independently reads time in a different time zone; the moon phase, which tracks the cycle of the moon; and the perpetual calendar, which adds the day, month and year to the date. Or you could keep it simple and stick to just the time!
One of the most daunting aspects to learning about watches is understanding the brand system. Yeah, we’ve all heard of Rolex, but learning that not only is Rolex not the top tier of watchmaking, but that it also sits amongst literally hundreds of others can make a person lightheaded. Then there’s understanding the difference between fashion brands and luxury watch brands, and the blurry overlap between them. A Gucci watch for $100,000? Yep. Is it good? Welcome to Pandora’s box …
Getting a handle on who’s who in watchmaking is probably the biggest challenge of all of them. It’s the master decision from which all others are made. It’s very easy to buy into a brand you think is “good” only to find out further down the line it’s not quite so great. Well, short of turning this into a 52-hour epic, the best advice a beginner can have in finding the right brand for them is to immerse themselves in subject and learn, learn, learn. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut, but if you’re a certain type of personality, that won’t be a chore anyway.
Alternatively, you can play on easy mode and stick to the obvious and go for Rolex watches, Breitling watches or Omega watches, the ones you see advertised at sporting events and whatnot. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those—but you could be denying yourself the opportunity to own something truly great.
Care And Maintenance
So, you’ve bought yourself a watch. Great. Well, no what? You wear it and enjoy it. And when you wear it and enjoy it, that’ll mean you’ll need to look after it. Now, mechanical watches have been around a while and so manufacturers have become pretty good at making them robust, but even the best watch needs a little bit of care and attention from time to time. Each manufacturer will recommend its own service interval, anywhere from two years to ten years, and some will even recommend sending a watch in when the timing starts to wander. Modern oils don’t degrade like they used to, but nevertheless there’s no harm in sticking to the schedule—except maybe to your wallet.
Day-to-day, it’s a good idea to keep a watch clean, to keep it the moving parts like crowns and pushers clear and free. A lightly damp microfibre is a great way to keep it fresh without marking it, and an old, soft toothbrush for getting into the nooks and crannies. You won’t have to do it often but—believe me—you’ll be surprised at what can accumulate if you don’t do it at all. For watches that are rated to depths higher than 50m or so, you can wash it under running water, so long as the crown is screwed down to seal it.
That might all sound like a lot, but really watches can be enjoyed on any level you’re comfortable with. Whilst getting to the real meat of it can be a really overwhelming experience, it’s a journey that doesn’t force you to go any further than you really want to. The main thing is not to take it too seriously and to make sure you remember to enjoy the road along the way. The real problem comes when you get a little braver and try to find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes …
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