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Feature: Watch terms collectors get wrong

If you’re just about to buy your first watch or you’ve been collecting for years, there are a few common things that even the most seasoned watch owners get wrong. Even if you know the rest, I bet the last one will still be a surprise.

Automatic isn’t the opposite of quartz

There are two main types of watch movement in use today. One is quartz, a battery powered device that measures time by running electricity through a quartz crystal. The crystal vibrates exactly 32,768 times per second, which means a second can be timed very accurately. The other is mechanical, where the timekeeping is kept without electricity at all, all mechanically with the use of springs and gears. An automatic is a type of mechanical movement that uses a free-spinning weight to wind that spring with the motion of the wearer, instead of winding by hand. So it’s more accurate to say the opposite of quartz is mechanical, not automatic.

The helium escape valve doesn’t work like that

There are so many pictures of watches underwater with bubbles leaking from the helium escape valve. It looks cool, but it’s entirely wrong. When a diver goes deep enough, they breathe a different air mix to compensate for the very high pressures. This means gases like nitrogen and helium get squeezed into the tissue, and to let them out safely, divers need to be slowly returned to normal in a hyperbaric chamber. It’s completely dry in the chamber, and saturation divers can spend many days there. Their watches are susceptible to the same problem, and without the helium escape valve, can have their crystals pop off during decompression as the gas expands again.

It’s not called a deployment

Whether it folds once or twice, the kind of clasp that makes make a watch go on easier and protects you from dropping it should it pop open isn’t called a deployment clasp. I blame autocorrect for this one, because the actual term, deployant, isn’t in most dictionaries. So what does deployment mean, then? It’s the movement of troops or equipment ready for military action. Nothing to do with straps!

Arabic numerals aren’t what you think

If you’re choosing a watch and it’s advertised as having Arabic numerals, that doesn’t mean they’re written in the Arabic language. So why is it called that? Strictly speaking it’s actually called the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, developed from the 1st century in India and adopted in Arabic mathematics by the 9th. It’s the basis of the decimal system of ten figures—representing ten fingers—and spread into Europe in the Middle Ages. Today, it’s the most commonly used numbering system in the world.

Destro doesn’t mean left-handed

For southpaws, there’s nothing worse than a watch with the crown on the wrong side. So Italian watchmaker Panerai, whose crown is notably secured by a lever crown guard, created a left-handed model, calling it “destro”. But destro isn’t Italian for left, it’s Italian for right, and can even be used to mean right hand dominant, or as it’s more commonly known, right-handed. So why call a left-handed watch right-handed? Because it’s meant to be worn on the right wrist.

There’s no silver in German silver

Although many German watches make use of a metal alloy called German silver, it doesn’t contain any of the precious metal. Despite most of German watchmaking centring around Glashütte, which used to be a silver mining town, German silver is actually made of copper, nickel and zinc. The name comes from the silvery appearance, which matures into a more golden hue over time. If anything, it’s closer to brass.

Cheap doesn’t mean what you think it does

When referring to a cheap watch, often it’s believed that the watch should cost very little. That can be the case, but not exclusively so. Something that’s cheap, by definition, costs less than expected. So, a cheap meal can cost $10. But a cheap private jet can cost $1,000,000. Therefore a watch with a high price that offers comparatively excellent value can still be called cheap.

Tritium doesn’t glow in the dark

Before watchmakers used safer superluminova to provide a night-time glow, radioactive substances like tritium were used instead. It’s often believed that radioactive elements glow by themselves, and some do, like plutonium and radon, when the radon is cooled. That typical green glow associated with radiation is actually produced by a phosphor such as zinc sulphide reacting to the radiation of an element like radium or tritium, not the element itself. This tritium-phosphor mix was used for a very long time in watch displays so they could be read in the dark.

You’ve been using “Tri-Compax” wrong

It’s common knowledge that a chronograph with two sub-dials is a bi-compax layout and with three a tri-compax layout, right? Wrong! The “Compax” name was first introduced by Universal Geneve in 1936 on a chronograph with two sub-dials, with Compax referencing the one complication, a chronograph. Then, in 1944 came the Tri-Compax, which had three complications: chronograph, calendar and moonphase. There was no Bi-compax! Bi and tri-compax have since, wrongly, become synonymous with two and three sub-dials.

Horology doesn’t just mean watchmaking

Within the watch collecting community, the word horology gets bandied around so much it’s been pigeon-holed into just one of its two meanings. We know it as the design, engineering and manufacture of watches and perhaps even clocks, but it also refers to the study and measurement of time. From the Latin horologium and the Ancient Greek horologion, it applies to everything from the most basic sun dial to the most complex atomic clocks and everything in between.

What terms do you think enthusiasts get wrong?