How To Sound Like A Watch Expert In 5 Minutes

[Editor's Note: It's with great pleasure that we're able to have our pal Ariel Adams contribute to Supercompressor. He, and have become renown for the uncompromising standard that they cover the watch industry with, we're excited to bring his expertise to these pages. Keep an eye out for future contributions from him, you might learn a thing or two.]

Like most things that take up a lot of time and money, the world of timepieces has its own unique language that might sound foreign to anybody but a dedicated watch lover. But while watch vocabulary like “escapement” and “regulator” might have you wondering whether a two-year course in Basel is necessary, appreciating fine mechanical watches and learning how to talk about them is actually pretty simple once you learn a few things.

Watches are something that aficionados often gravitate to after years of exposure, study, and conversation, and the prices often match this philosophy, starting at about $1,000 for a decent watch and rocketing up to almost any price you can imagine. For instance, the most expensive men’s watch in my book The World’s Most Expensive Watches clocks in at $5,000,000.Even if you’re at the lowest end of that spectrum, I don’t want you to enter the watch world as blind as I was when I first caught the “watch bug”—how us watch lovers refer to our little mechanical addiction—so let me give you the basics of what you need to know so you can earn the respect of watch dudes and maybe even discover something you’ll really love.

Mechanical Watches Are Sexier

In the 1980s, prices for battery-powered quartz watches plummeted, and these inexpensive alternatives threatened to almost completely destroy the traditional mechanical watch industry. Costing much less than mechanical watches, quartz watches also were a lot more accurate—which to many people was the whole point. But nevertheless, mechanical watches survived because the little engines that power them (the “movement”) were beautiful, fascinating in action, and conveyed a sense of hand craftsmanship that mass produced electronic things simply cannot do. For the most part, watch lovers feel that quartz watches lack soul while a mechanical watch is a something of value—devoid of batteries—that helps define you when you wear it.

Even more recently, the proliferation of computer technology in our pockets has had an interesting side effect of creating an “analog resurrection” where a lot of people have a few things in their lives that are decidedly not digital—think records, film cameras, paint brushes, and mechanical instruments like wrist watches. It’s nice to have something unlike an iPhone that is obsolete.

Necessary Vocabulary

Tourbillon, balance wheel, frequency, power reserve, movement, crystal, deployant, and mainspring are all terms you’ll need to know and use if you want to have a conversation about watches and movements. Usually, people begin by being able to identify the various parts of a watch inside and out, and then become familiar with the various issues relevant to horological science such as “isochronism.” If you’re a car person, you’ll understand the difference between being able to describe the parts of an engine versus talking about how a vehicle performs on the road – the same types of issues apply to a watch.

Quartz watches also were a lot more accurate—which to many people was the whole point.

Mechanical watches have three major operating systems. The first is where the power is stored. This is a spring called a “mainspring” which sits inside of a container called a “barrel,” and it will need to be wound either manually by turning the crown with your fingers or via a weight called a “rotor” that spins around in a “self-winding” or “automatic” watch with the motion of your wrist to power it. Attached to the mainspring is a system that regulates how slowly the spring unwinds, which is called the “regulator.” This is mainly two components—an oscillating wheel known as a “balance wheel” and an “escapement,” which moves that power from the unwinding spring to the mechanism that tells the time. Watch lovers like to refer to the regulator as the “heart beat” of a watch, because the beating “balance spring” attached to the balance wheel not only resembles a heart but is the main source of a mechanical watch’s life.

The idea of the regulator is to ensure that a reliably consistent amount of power is flowing from the slowly unwinding  mainspring to the “gear train” which in turn moves the hands which tell the time. The length of time a mainspring will unwind when fully wound is known as a watch’s “power reserve,” which is usually around 40 hours. If this all sounds too abstract then YouTube has a lot of videos showing how this works in glorious animated detail.

Moving away from the movement, the watch face is often called the dial. Over the dial is a crystal to protect it, which in all good watches is made from synthetic sapphire crystal (because it is very clear and very hard – tough to scratch). The main body of a watch is called the case, and people use the case width to describe its size. Watch size is a big deal and watch lovers like to argue about what sizes are best. Historically, men’s watches were smaller and today people often prefer wearing larger watches. To put these sizes into perspective, most men today prefer wearing watches sized from about 40 to 44mm wide.

Besides stainless steels, wrist watches use a lot of materials you probably expect like gold, titanium, and other metals and precious materials. Exotic and high-tech materials are now popular in modern watches such as zirconium oxide ceramic, carbon fiber, and silicon (used as a replacement for some metal movement parts in some watches).

Types Of Watches & Complications

They say originality is hard to come by and that couldn’t be more spot on when it comes to timepieces. While watch designers still strive to be unique, most of the watches today are interpretations of existing themes and designs. That isn’t inherently a bad thing, and it’s helped the watch industry rally behind established themes and styles that have proved appealing to people for generations, which means many of them have been in continuous refinement for over 200 years. As you might guess, watch people are really into history, and in a lot of ways the history of watches corresponds to the history of science, exploration, industry, transportation, and sports.

Most men today prefer wearing watches sized from about 40 to 44mm wide.

While watches come in a lot of flavors, there are a few basic categories. Dress watches and traditional watches tend to have that “older”, more classic look to them. If you wear a lot of suits or tend to be more formal in how you dress, these will probably have lot of appeal to you. The rest generally fall into the wide world of sport watches, which often boils down to dive, racing, and aviation pieces.

“Complications” is watch speak for “functions,” so basically the stuff watches do other than just tell the time. The most popular complications are various types of calendars such as a date indicator. Calendars get a little bit more complicated when they add more information, such as the date of the week or an indicator that displays the current phase of the moon. “Annual calendar” watches are accurate enough to only be adjusted on leap years, and “perpetual calendar” watches take into consideration the extra day in February on leap years.“Chronographs” are watches that contain a stopwatch function which measure elapsed time. These are most popular in sport pieces such as racing watches. GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) watches have an addition hand that revolves around a 24 hour (versus 12 hour) scale and are used to indicate an additional time zone. World time watches take that a step further and allow you to know the time in any of the 24 (or more) major time zones.

Some Important Names

The watch world is more than Rolexes and G-Shocks. In general, the cool kids like European watches, and stick to mostly Swiss watch brands. Here are some brands that for the most part you can wear that will get you a positive nod from even the most snobby watch lover. For entry level brands you can look at companies like Seiko, Hamilton (Khaki), Nomos, TAG Heuer (Carrera, Monaco), Longines, Bulova, Ball, and Frederique Constant. Going up a few notches you can look at Omega (Speedmaster, Seamaster, and Constellation), Zenith, Oris, Chopard, IWC, Panerai, and Cartier. That will take you into the $10,000 plus rage. Up from there and into the stratosphere you can check out Audemars Piguet (Royal Oak), Blancpain, Breguet, Girard-Perregaux, Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre (Reverso), Vacheron Constatin, and A. Lange & Sohne.

Cool Old Stuff Or Exciting New Stuff?

Spend any time thinking about buying watches and inevitably the question of whether or not to buy a vintage watch will come up. In fact there are some collectors who exclusively like vintage timepieces. Vintage watches have the benefit of lasting the test of time (no pun intended). That means popular vintage watches have the benefit of still looking good today after all these years. In fact, some are considered better looking today than when they were new. Getting a cool vintage watch is like buying a mature investment because you never need to wonder if it will look good in a few years.

The cool kids like European watches, and stick to mostly Swiss watch brands.

Vintage watches aren’t always a good idea though, and like old cars they simply aren’t going to have the reliable ownership experience of new cars. Watches are machines and they are constantly working – that means they can break, and after years of service they will need service or new parts. Also, watches in the past were for the most part not made with the same high-quality parts as they are today which means they are inherently more fragile. So while vintage watches can look cool and add edge to your style, they aren’t as reliable as modern watches and can be expensive to upkeep.If you want the appeal of a vintage watch but the ownership experience of a new one a good option is to look for one of the many modern watches with a vintage style or meant to emulate an actual vintage design. Some people consider that the best of both worlds.