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Thread: A beginner's guide to watches

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    El bot. geoffbot's Avatar
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    Oct 2014
    West Sussex, UK

    A beginner's guide to watches

    Not a complete one, because that's probably impossible or at least would take an age, but here's a basic guide. You may note that I'm no historian nor a stickler for details. I'll edit this with suggestions over time. I've written this on my phone on a very long train journey; it's midnight and I'm tired so this may make no sense at all. Here goes.

    First we had the hourglass to measure the passing of time. Well before that we had the sun, and various water-driven devices, but eventually we had clocks - grandfather clocks, for example - which are the basis of most mechanical watches nowadays: a coiled spring wound around a barrel, which is the energy source released through a series of wheels (not 'cogs', but we're not pedantic here) and translated to a set of hands that travels around the dial (aka 'face', but actually it's 'dial') that displays the time. Now, if you left the spring to unwind on its own it would do so very quickly, as there's nothing to slow the wheels down. Step in the 'escapement'. In a grandfather clock this is a pendulum which swings left and right and, connected to the going train (various wheels back to the mainspring) slows the seconds hand to 1 tick per second.

    Then a new escapement was invented - the Swiss lever escapement, coupled with a hairspring wound around a small balance wheel which, somewhat like a pendulum, oscillates one way, then back the other, and slows the movement down, regulating the energy release so that the seconds hand moves round the dial once per minute. This doesn't really tick as such - the balance wheel oscillates very fast - 4/8/10 times per second in fact - back, forth, back, forth so the seconds hand moves so quickly it appears to glide smoothly.

    So this was a clock. Someone miniaturized it and put it in a pocket watch - exact same principle. Wound by a key, or via the crown (knob on the case exterior) it would run for typically 2 days or so. This is a pocket watch. Your grandfather may have had one. Miniaturized slightly again and it became a wristwatch - popular first amongst soldiers and women, and now commonplace amongst everyone. This, is a 'mechanical watch', a handwound one, in this case. No batteries.

    Some genius added a weighted rotor to the 'movement' (the innards we have been discussing, not the dials, case, or hands though) which spins with your wrist movements, and winds the mainspring. As long as you move your wrist enough (really not a lot required at all) it will remain wound indefinitely. Until you set it down for a period of time that exceeds its 'power reserve' (the time from fully wound to empty - typically around 2 days though there are numerous exceptions) at which point it will stop, and require you to reset the hands to the correct time (done via the crown) and a bit of wrist action to get it started again. This is an automatic mechanical wristwatch - a basic one that just tells the time using 3 hands. You can still buy non automatic (manual) mechanical watches - you have to wind them every 2 days or so (remember there are exceptions - some watches with massive mainsprings and 31 days power reserve!); manuals are often thinner, as there isn't the added rotor thickness. Thin watches are desirable by some as it takes design prowess to create them, and they can be worn discreetly under a slim shirt cuff. The thinnest mechanical watch is thinner than a front door key. But automatics are more commonplace, presumably because of their practicality. None of the above have batteries in.

    'Complications' were invented over the ages - the date, for example; subdials showing the phases of the moon, the day, a chronograph (a seperate module which can time events and display them on subdials of the watch without affecting the telling of the time; a 'stopwatch', in fact'), power reserve indicators on the dial showing how much juice you have left, amongst others. There are some truly astoundingly complex watches with all of the above complications and many more - multiple time zones displayed, mechanical alarms built in etc. Still no batteries.

    Then, in the 1970s Seiko invented the quartz watch. Quartz is a crystal that when electrified by a current provided by a battery resonates at a very high frequency when is translated by a small computer into 1 tick per second. The battery will typically last a couple of years and then need replacing, though there are batteries charged by light, by a rotor (like an auto mechanical) etc. Almost all digital watches are quartz/battery powered. Quartz is also very accurate - something we haven't discussed so far. Mechanical watches are typically accurate to around 10-20 seconds per day. This is because of the tolerance of the tiny wheels moving rapidly up to 2 million times per day. Quartz watches are typically accurate to a few seconds per month. Of course there are exceptions - very, very accurate mechanical watches, and innacurate quartz ones. Quartz is often inexpensive - you can get something decent for 15. The iconic Casio LCD watch also has added features like chronograph, alarm, backlight etc. Quartz almost killed the Swiss watch industry in the late 70s/early 80s - everyone wanted the latest tech which is more accurate, doesn't require winding, or servicing. Speaking of which, and briefly: mechanical watches, like car engines, will eventually require a service and possibly parts replaced and an oil change. This should be done every 3-7/10 years, though quite how often is a hotly debated subject. Some say if it ain't broke don't fix it, though not servicing could lead to parts requireing replacement, which can be costly. A mechanical service can cost 200-4000... Some expensive quartz watches are serviceable, but mostly it's cheaper to replace the movement or whole watch.

    So quartz is better, right? Cheaper, more accurate, less delicate to shocks etc? Well, not if you are in an EMP blast(?!), or have no access to batteries ever again or...usually, probably, yes. But is a computer as exciting as micro mechanics with those incredible complications? Mechanicals can in theory last forever, providing they can be serviced and that parts are available (which may not always be the case). There's a good case for both options.

    Water resistance...don't believe the ratings on the dial - they lie. See chart below.

    Do not press the buttons or use the crown on your watch underwater unless it is expressly confirmed that its safe to do! You may well flood your watch.

    Price options
    Practically limitless. You can get a perfectly good quartz digital Seiko with alarm, stopwatch, etc for 10, a half-decent Seiko 5 automatic mechanical watch for 70, or you can spend 7000 on a mechanical Grand Seiko that just tells the time. Or a Rolex. An historical and mind-bendingly complicated pocket watch just sold for $20m in November 2014.

    "I don't need a watch - I have my phone". Your phone will run out of battery in 2 days tops - what if you're away camping? Or swimming/diving? Or at a meeting or dinner party where getting your phone out is rude? But, if you don't need one then don't get one! Save your cash.

    How much should you spend?
    Up to you. Set a top budget, state your requirements and look around. If you want a watch for climbing, with altimiter, barometer and compass then don't get a mechanical dress watch. Get both!

    Is a watch really worth x? Why is a Rolex 100x the cost of a Seiko 5? Well, it's probably THE most recognisable luxury marque, not just in the watch world, and you pay for a name for sure. It'll probably be a bit more accurate. It has gold hour marker surrounds. It has a much nicer bracelet. But it's a luxury good - the price is driven by what the market will bear, not in direct relation to the production cost. Speaking of which they're mostly machine assembled, not handmade by Swiss elves.

    Some watches use the same movement. Let's take the ubiquitous ETA 2824-2. This can be found - in an identical guise (there are different grade/versions) - in watches ranging from 400 to 4000. What's the difference between the two? Well, they'll have different cases, bracelets, dials, hands, let's not forget brand name...Is one worth more than the other? Up to you to decide. Go try them on.


    An expensive, complicated, decorated, hand-wound (no rotor) mechanical movement

    A mid-range, undecorated, automatic movement

    A standard quartz movement

    An expensive quartz movement


    Last edited by geoffbot; Jan 2, 2015 at 12:41 PM.
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