I’ve made passing mention of my affection for wristwatches. I really enjoy them. Collecting, wearing, learning about, and admiring them gives me as much pleasure as any hobby I have.
As with many such passions, they make little sense. Sure, some people jog with them, and a pilot might use a watch with an E6B bezel, and such. However, most people don’t need one. Got a cell phone? Then you have a reliable clock with you. Sit in front of a computer? Have a gander at the lower right corner of the screen. What’s that on the instrument panel of your car, up between the vents in the center console? See?
I’ve worn a watch since I could tell time, and I’m thoroughly trained to look at my wrist for the time, even in the presence of other clocks. Generationally, I’m probably at the tail end of folks for whom that’s true. I suspect that sometime in the near future, they’ll be more curiosities than anything, like pocket watches are now.
The second way watches don’t make (objective) sense is in the relationship between price and utility. You use a watch to tell time, right? So better watches are more accurate watches, right? Thing is, it’s often true that the more expensive the watch, the worse its timekeeping ability. North of a few thousand dollars, it’s practically a certainty that a $15 Casio from Target is a better timekeeper.
Just about any watch available today is either quartz, using an electronic oscillator regulated by a quartz crystal; or mechanical, with a movement that includes a mainspring, an escapement, and a balance wheel. Odds are good that any watch you’ve ever owned has been a quartz watch, and even the best mechanical movements can’t touch them for accuracy. If all you’re concerned about is knowing what time it is, that $15 Casio is your best bet. Even a really cheap quartz can usually manage to keep time within 30 or 45 seconds a month, whereas a high-quality mechanical watch would be doing well at double that.
Most inexpensive watches are quartz, but not all quartz watches are necessarily inexpensive, depending on how you define the term. Seiko and Citizen dominate a middle range of nice quartz watches, say $200-600, that are definitely not cheap, but well short of luxury watch pricing. Some luxury nameplates have ultra-accurate quartz watches on the market in the $2,000-$3,000 range that keep time to within 10 seconds a year or so.
And that’s about the upper limit for quartz. Consider the little miracle of the Casio G-Shock watch, with alarm, stopwatch, electroluminescent backlight, and so forth. Now make it water resistant and shock resistant. Now make it solar-powered—never needing a battery—and make it synchronize daily with the U.S. atomic clock, so its inaccuracy is always less than a second. Did you know that you can buy such a watch for as little as $40 now? How cool is that? And if you only need to know what time it is, that’s exactly what you should do.
Now if you want to step off into an abyss of lunacy, get into mechanical watches.
There are some great, high-quality mechanical watches out there too, sharing that same middle pricing territory described above. I play there. (That’s one of my favorites above—a black Seiko Monster diver, expertly customized by Bob Thayer, Jr. to my specifications.) I’ve played a little north of there a couple of times, actually. But the truly silly pieces—I mean, watches that cost more than cars and houses—are all mechanical, and therefore all inferior timekeepers to the lowly $15 Casio cranked out by the bazillions, mostly in China.
I guess this is as good a time as any to mention the R-word. Ladies and gentlemen, learn, live, and know this: there is nothing magical about a Rolex.
Mind, the company has done some significant things. They introduced the water resistant watch, they were the first company to offer a watch with the date on the dial, and they improved and popularized (but did not invent) the self-winding watch. But here, now, know that Rolex is a mass manufacturer (about three-quarters of a million watches every year; forget all the “hand-crafted” nonsense) of good-quality mechanical wristwatches that, in my view and the view of many other enthusiasts, are priced double to triple what they’re worth, compared against other offerings of similar quality from other manufacturers.
Rolex isn’t even particularly expensive, relatively speaking, and is considered a bit of a poseur brand in the true upper echelons of luxury watches. I’ll post more about the silly-expensive mechanical watch sometime soon, but there are many watches on the market with six- and even seven-figure price tags. Such implements, of course, make no practical sense whatsoever. They are purchased as art, as displays of wealth, or both.
I passed “long” some time ago, so I’ll stop there for now. I can talk about watches pretty much indefinitely, and as I typed the above, about ten ideas were trying to get through my keyboard simultaneously. That just means “more to come,” mainly. For now, take away these two things:
- You probably don’t need a watch. If you look at your wrist reflexively for the time, you’re a dying breed. (But I am too, so you’re in good company.)
- Cheap watches keep better time than expensive watches.
Horologically yours, and until next time,