It seems like a simple transaction but there are plenty of factors to consider before buying your first watch. With the help of James Buttery, Weir & Sons offers you some insider advice on choosing the right timepiece for you.
Watches tend to be a big purchase whatever your budget, whether you’re in the market for a perpetual calendar or your first serious timekeeper. The reason for that and the reason we buy watches at all has changed completely in the last few decades. Gone are the days of buying a watch to keep you on time throughout the day. Today we are constantly surrounded by digital smart devices far more accurate than any mechanical watch could hope to be, so we have no real need to carry a watch with us; instead need has been replaced by desire, and the idea of having a single watch has become as antiquated as the idea of watching television in black and white.
Watches in the 21st century are a more romantic, symbolic purchase with a host of factors worth considering before arriving at a final decision – although if you’ve always had your heart set on an iconic design, say a Rolex Submariner or Cartier Tank Anglaise, congratulations and thank you for reading this far.
If you’re new to watches and intimidated by the terminology, remember we all started somewhere. It takes time to learn the many intricacies of watchmaking, a craft that is hundreds of years old. By picking up a specialist magazine like this or scouring the internet for answers, you’ve already started learning, but the most useful distinction to make early on is between mechanical and quartz watches.
Mechanical watches rely on wound mainsprings for power, and a much finer hairspring and balance wheel for timekeeping. Both hand wound and automatic flavours exist; the former needs to be wound every day or so by hand using the crown, while the latter keeps the mainspring wound by means of a freely rotating weight as long as the watch is being worn. Advocates of the hand wound watch appreciate their direct connection with it and the ritual of winding it, while automatic watches offer great convenience if you intend to wear them all the time.
Quartz watches – a relatively modern development celebrating their 50th anniversary this year – take their power from a battery and the regular vibrations of a tiny quartz crystal to help them keep much more accurate time than mechanical watches. Quartz watches are often sold on the convenience of not having to reset the time after the watch has been sitting stationary for some time, when the mainspring of an automatic watch would have long since depleted its power reserve. But it’s worth remembering that eventually the battery will run out and you’ll need to take your watch to have a replacement fitted, which we can all agree is less convenient than being able to restart an automatic simply by putting it on your wrist.
In theory, of course, we should all be wearing quartz watches or even smartwatches by now, eminently smug at their superior timekeeping abilities. As I previously mentioned, our reason for buying watches has completely changed. Today, the mechanical watch is an antidote to the digital age. Those smart devices we’ve become so reliant on are far more functional than a mechanical watch could ever be, but they are also cold and impersonal.
These days, we buy mechanical watches precisely because of how anachronistic the springs, wheels and levers inside them seem: they are a link to a different time, a symbol of humankind’s ingenuity that’s much easier to relate to than one consisting of microprocessors and capacitors.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t need to begin by working out a budget, but – with so many watches to choose from – having a ballpark figure in mind can often assist in narrowing down the field a little. Whether you’re looking to spend a few hundred euros or several thousand, work out what’s achievable and realistic. With all that said, it is also worth mapping out the sort of watches you could afford if you were to spend perhaps 10 or 20 per cent more, and add up whether that might be worth it to you. It might not sound like the best financial advice to stretch beyond what you’ve budgeted for, but the number of people I’ve spoken to who wished they’d spent a little bit more to buy a watch they were proud of, rather than merely content with, still surprises me.
Even with a few hundred euros to spend, your options include mechanical as well as quartz watches but much of the cost in this segment will have been diverted to how the watch looks on the outside, so the movement will look industrial rather than a finely finished mechanical movement and will almost certainly be hidden behind a solid caseback. For this, among other reasons, I’d suggest looking to Japan, and to Seiko in particular.
The grand Japanese brand is perhaps the most comprehensive watch ‘manufacture’ in the world, which simply means it produces every major component necessary to make a watch under its own roof, rather than buying parts from suppliers. It is also unique in producing watches at every price point, from entry level quartz through to finely finished Grand Seiko and, finally, masterpieces of haute horlogerie under the Credor banner. If Seiko’s
Watchmakers are capable of producing exquisite grande sonnerie striking watches, then you can rest assured the brand will have made a good job of an elegant three handed watch from Seiko’s dressy Presage collection, or perhaps an iconic Turtle from the brand’s excellent dive-centric Prospex range.
Beyond €1,000, build and design start to become more elaborate, as do the materials used to make the watch. Bezels might be made of high tech ceramic instead of anodised aluminium; more scratch resistant sapphire crystal will be used instead of mineral glass. More of the watches you look at in this bracket will include those manufacture movements: you’ll have to decide whether that’s important to you, but know that third party movement builders like ETA and Sellita make great, reliable movements too.
As you go further up the price spectrum, finishing will begin to improve, both on the case – where lines will be sharper – and eventually the movement. The apt thing about buying a fine watch is that you are often paying for someone’s time. Take Patek Philippe’s classic Calatrava, the Ref. 5196, a simple time-only gold watch with small seconds. Its 215 PS Movement consists of 130 tiny components – a relatively modest number in watchmaking – but each one of those components will be hand polished and finished to the highest standard, often requiring several hours each, despite being hidden behind a solid caseback. It is those countless hours that add so much value to the finished piece.
You’ll also have to consider complications, the functions beyond timekeeping offered by certain watches. Chronographs are the most popular with buyers (although I can’t imagine what they’re all timing) while perpetual calendars will mean you don’t have to set the date until 2100, a mechanical miracle for sure. My favourite by far, though, is the GMT: a genuinely practical complication for anyone who travels or, perhaps more accurately, anyone who would like to return to the golden age of commercial aviation, when flying to some distant clime was a genuine event, not a clammy long haul chore. The GMT complication was created by Rolex in 1954 at the behest of Pan Am, which wanted a practical dual timezone watch for its pilots and received the GMT-Master.
While we’re basking in the warm glow of Rolex, we should also discuss the issue of branding. The effect is powerful and – considering the hundreds of millions of Swiss francs that watch manufacturers spend on building their story every year – it should not be underestimated. If you’re even vaguely interested in watches, different brands will speak of different things to you, which probably have very little to do with watchmaking. Whether you feel a particular affinity with Breitling’s authority in the air, Panerai’s nautical origins or Omega’s part in the moon landing… honest advice? If one brand speaks to you louder than others, let it: you’ll be happier in the long run.
There are a few things to consider before buying a watch. Once you have already decided what type of watch you would chooose and what’s the budget available, there are next steps that add contours to your final decision. What to do and what to avoid when buying a watch?
This may sound like the most basic advice but put the watch on your wrist before you buy. It might look great in the brand’s somewhat unrealistic photography, but until you try it on you won’t know for certain whether it’s the right watch for you.
Do you see yourself as traditional or at the cutting edge? A carbon fibre Hublot Big Bang might look out of place if you spend most of your time in tweed, while the refined silhouette of a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso probably wouldn’t make much sense if you’re sporting the latest Yeezys.
Mechanical watch movements are just like car engines, full of moving parts, and as such, they will need a service every once in a while. A watchmaker will disassemble each and every component in the watch, clean and re-oil them, and final regulate the watch for optimal timekeeping. Servicing costs vary depending on the level of complication, and from brand to brand.
Watch enthusiasts rarely operate in a vacuum – you’ll either have friends interested in watches or be part of the extremely active online community. Just remember to buy your watch for yourself, not for how others will react to it.
Now all that’s left to do is select the right watch, and here a bit of self-reflection wouldn’t go a miss. You’ll know your own routine, lifestyle and tastes better than anyone and the kind of watch that will fit to help you arrive at a shortlist. Do you hanker for a classic dress watch from Breguet for all those black tie events or something robust like a Tudor Pelagos, capable of withstanding the knocks and scrapes of an active lifestyle?
But this is all merely a guide: don’t take the various categories of watch too seriously. Don’t feel you shouldn’t buy a diver’s watch capable of reaching the ocean depths because you’ll only get it wet in the shower each morning. There are no established rules anymore, so buy the watch you feel most comfortable with.