Introduction to Classic Watches

An Introduction to Classic Watches

As we venture forth with an ongoing series dedicated to horology, it seems like a brief introduction to classic watches would be the ideal place to start. While there are literally thousands of watchmakers around the world, the goal at the Gentleman’s Gazette is to introduce the reader to quality timepieces that are worthy of your attention and possess the quality and craftsmanship that you have come to expect as a gentleman of style.

From such luminaries as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Jaeger-LeCoultre, to the lesser known that you may find at a local boutique, our mission, if you will, is to provide our readers with the skills and foresight to be able to purchase the perfect timepiece at the right price.

The History of Watchmaking

As early as 1530, portable spring-powered clocks became a luxury that no aristocrat could do without.  Sized somewhere between a desk clock and a pocket watch, these portable timepieces could be fastened to an article of clothing or worn on a lanyard around the neck.  With rudimentary mechanical movements, the average clock had to be wound twice daily.  Adorned with engravings and ornaments, gentlemen would utilize these designs as a sign of elitism and wealth.  As the practicality of the timepiece became realized, these clocks then began to be used primarily by night watchmen to keep track of their shifts.

How the watch got its name

The use by night watchmen is where many believe the word “watch” stems from.  An update of the Old English word “woecce” which literally translates to “watchman”.  Still, others believe the term was derived by sailors who used timepieces to keep track of their ‘shipboard watches’, now commonly called a shift or tour of duty.

As the centuries passed, watches began to appear on the cobblestone streets beginning sometime in the early seventeenth century.  Prior to the 1920’s, almost all watches were mechanical pocket watches and often referred to as railroad or conductor watches since they were most commonly used by the railroads.

However, when World War I broke out, American soldiers determined that the idea of having to reach into a pocket to check the time while buried deep in the trenches of war was a ridiculous notion, and thus the trench watch, now the commonly known ‘wrist watch’, was born into existence.  Originally developed by the Waltham Watch Company, it gave soldiers the unique ability to check the time while still peering down the sights of their rifles as the battle raged on.

Since then, watches have changed dramatically as new techniques and complications were invented and watchmakers jumped one by one to outdo the competition.  Considered an art form by many, there are various types and styles of watch available today, ranging in price from a mere few dollars to upwards of millions to obtain a one-off grand complications handmade in Switzerland by icons such as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Breguet.

Dress Watch - Vacheron Constantine Patrimony Traditional

Dress Watch – Vacheron Constantine Patrimony Traditional

Types of Watches

Of course, the wristwatch is the most common style of watch worn today.  However, in recent times, the pocket watch has made a comeback and is often revered by horologists and collectors around the world. With specialty watches becoming a standard, some manufacturers have committed their efforts to developing watches that can be worn in space, by scuba divers, and by pilots in multiple environments. When it comes to watches, there are three main types of movementmechanical, automatic, and quartz (which is sometimes referred to as ‘electronic’).

Mechanical Movement Vs Quartz Movement

Mechanical Movement Vs Quartz Movement

Mechanical Movements

Most commonly used in luxury or collector timepieces, a mechanical movement is shockingly much less accurate than a quartz (i.e., battery powered) movement.  Often losing a number of seconds throughout the day, they have to be manually wound on average at least once daily.  In addition to losing time, they can be very sensitive to the environment.  Factors such as position, temperature, elevation, and magnetism can cause failure in the watch and despite being costly to produce, they also require a great deal of dedicated maintenance and adjustments.  Regardless of the issues that a mechanical movement can cause, these watches are truly a work of craftsmanship and therefore are highly regarded by most watch enthusiasts.

Mechanical movements operate by using a selection of mechanisms to control the winding and unwinding parts of the watch  (something we’ll go into greater detail in with our upcoming guide to watch movements).  What these mechanisms do, in layman’s terms, is control the unwinding of the spring after you’ve wound the watch up.  Instead of simply unwinding itself, a part called the escapement regulates the action which causes the spring to periodically release.  In addition to the escapement, basic mechanical watches will also use a balance wheel which is weighted and moves back and forth, returning to its original position by a spring.  The balance wheel is moved by the escapement which basically uses the gears of the watch to deliver impulses to the balance wheel, thus causing what we often refer to as the tick or the heartbeat of the watch.  It is this ticking rhythm that causes the gear train to advance which moves the hands forward, giving us the correct time.  The combination of the weighted balance wheel and the spring is what ensures consistent and accurate timekeeping.

A Tourbillon

A Tourbillon

Truly phenomenal mechanical watches will often feature a tourbillon.  Developed by Abraham Louis Breguet, one of the world’s foremost watch manufacturers (and a personal favorite of mine who we will explore in far greater detail), hand crafted this beautiful and intricate, yet simplistic tool in 1795 with the purpose of countering the law of gravity.  By encasing the balance wheel and escapement in a rotating cage, the tourbillon ensures the mechanism is never operated in the same position which can cause the watch to loose time due to gravitational pull.  This way, regardless of where you hold your wrist, the cage will rotate to ensure the escapement and wheel are in a prime position to work effectively and efficiently.

While these movements are constantly being improved, they are an intricate process that is a true culmination of art and science.  A well-made mechanical timepiece will last a number of generations, often acting as a bequeathed heirloom, being handed down by a father to his son on a momentous occasion or in his final will.  A testament to that is an heirloom pocket watch I personally care for, which works flawlessly today, despite dating back to the 1800s.

Automatic Movement

Automatic Movement

Automatic Movements

Similar to that of a mechanical watch, automatic movements run almost identical but with one very important exception; unlike its predecessor, it does not require manual winding to operate.

By employing an off-center weighted rotor that spins as you move your wrist, which in turn, operates a ratcheted mechanism that winds the watch automatically.  To prevent the watch from over-winding (which would cause the mainspring to break), the automatic watch has a clutch that upon being fully wound, drops in front of the mechanism to prevent it from engaging the mainspring.  In addition to the classic automatic watch, there are also automatic quartz watches which utilize kinetic energy and in some cases, solar energy to operate.

Quartz Movements

Unlike mechanical and automatic watches, quartz watches (often called electronic movements) generally have very few moving parts.  Developed by Seiko in 1959, the first prototypes were codenamed 59A and developed secretly by the CEH research laboratory in Neuchâtel, Switzerland before being used as timekeeping devices in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

From ‘64 through ’67, the quartz movement was perfected and a miniature oscillator, module, and circuit board were created which could be housed in the smallest of wristwatches. Introduced in 1969 was the Seiko 35 SQ Astron, the first quartz watch which hit shelves on Christmas Day and initiated a wave of quartz movements which soon became the most popular watches based on price point and accuracy.

Unfortunately for Seiko, because the Swiss were instrumental in creating the movement, they were unable to patent the technology, and thereby allowing any watch manufacturer to create a quartz movement, something that is used in most watches you will find the everyman wearing today.

Using a replaceable battery as its source of power, the quartz movement is primarily used in less expensive timepieces, often found at various discount stores for as low as just a few dollars.  Oddly enough, even the cheapest children’s watches that use quartz movements are still on average ten times more accurate than that of a mechanical watch.

Anatomy of a Watch

Even in the most simplistic mechanical watches, more than 130 parts can be found.  With the evolution of watchmaking, the number of parts in a wristwatch can increase exponentially when you take into account the various functions and features available in today’s complications. While it is our intent to cover all of these parts and mechanisms in great detail, within this introduction to watches, we will focus on the three primary parts: the case, the watch glass, and the strap. Of course, the internal components of any watch are the movements that we have already discussed, but where are these movements located?

The Casing

The case is the skeleton of the watch, just as the bones and flesh of the body keep parts intact.  There are various ways to shape the case, the most common being circular and rectangular with other polygonal shapes as well.  In most watches, the case is made out of plastic or metal.  While various types of metal can be used, the most common for a basic wrist watch is steel.  In a more refined and expensive watch, you can often find casings made out of solid gold, titanium, rhodium, platinum, or silver.  One thing to keep in mind when purchasing a watch is to try and avoid plated casings such as a gold plating.  While it may look “pretty” at first, it will scratch easily and look cheap in the end.  If you can not afford to aquire a solid gold watch, there are many quality timepieces that contain stainless steel cases – which looks just as resplendent as their more expensive counterparts.  Other features to consider are ornaments such as stones and gems, something that should be chosen carefully and with an exercised level of caution.

The Crystal or Watch Glass

This is the see-through part of the watch that covers the face, enabling you to tell the time and see the other functions.  Typically, this window is made of mineral glass, sapphire crystal, or plastic.  In most cases, you should always opt for sapphire crystal as it has the highest resilience to scratches and imperfections.

The Band or Strap

This is an equally important part of the watch and should be chosen very carefully.  Straps can be made with a variety of materials including leather, metals, fabrics, and rubber.  When choosing a strap, a great deal of consideration should be placed on where and how you will be wearing your watch.  If you intend to wear your watch diving or on the beach, then rubber may make sense.  But if it’s being paired with a bespoke dinner jacket, then avoid this at all costs.

Choosing a Wristwatch

Choosing a watch is a complex and challenging task that should not be taken lightly. With an extensive collection of watches, it becomes easier over time as your necessities are covered and simple desires become your guide.  However, in the beginning, most owners are looking for a watch that can be used in a variety of environments.

Dress Watch - Patek

Dress Watch – Patek

Dress Watches

For the businessman or well-appointed gentleman, a dress watch is a must have.  Typically paired with formal or business attire, this watch is used at work, worn to the symphony, and adorned on special occasions.

While it doesn’t have to be worn exclusively with a suit or tuxedo, a dress watch should be purchased with that attire in mind. It is still perfectly appropriate to wear a dress watch with a polo shirt and shorts.  Typically, if you only own one watch, it is highly recommended that it be a dress watch that is simplistic and ideally with a circular face, similar to the quintessential Patek Philippe Calatrava.

The case of a dress watch should always be metal and never plastic.  At the very least, purchase a watch of stainless steel, but always consider a precious metal when the budget allows.  Also, the face should be simplistic as previously mentioned without any adorned ornaments such as diamonds or jewels.

A steadfast rule for dress watches is that they should be treated with dignity and care, never worn on the beach, to a frat party, or the local fair.

Casual and Sport Watches

The most predominant among casual and sports watches are the dive and flight watches that were made for the self-explanatory purposes of diving and flying.  Often worn in casual environments such as sailing, partying in the Hamptons or relaxing at the cabin, one thing is certain; while James Bond may wear a dive watch with his suit, you should not.  This is a fashion faux pas to the extreme and one that any watch aficionado will find abhorrent.

When choosing a dive or flight watch, be sure to determine your use of it.  If you are diving, then pick one that can handle the depth you plan on reaching.  If you’re a pilot, pick one that is suitable for your flying environment.  A flight watch can be used for anything from a hot air balloon ride to spacewalking outside the International Space Station.  However, if  you simply want a watch that can handle extreme environments such as driving your Bugatti down the Autobahn or knocking the bar at your local watering hole, then pick a rugged design with a rubber or metal strap.  A steadfast rule for dive and flight watches is that they can be worn in many environments, but never with formal attire.

Finally, if it’s the preppy look you’re going for and you want to look your best at The Cape, try going with a fabric strap that accentuates your lifestyle.   But when it comes to the plastic calculator and digital watches, leave those for your ten year old kid.  No gentleman should wear one unless it’s an “on duty” tactical watch for those in law enforcement or the military.

Romain Jerome Titanic DNA Watch

Romain Jerome Titanic DNA Watch

Fashionable Watches

In my humble opinion, fashion watches are not those made by brands such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, or Guess, but anything of actual quality that is a cross between a dress watch and a casual or sport watch.

The reason I say this is that the majority of watch aficionados consider a fashion watch to be a cheap timepiece made by a third party and branded by a meretricious self-proclaimed “designer” that sells their product through the use of marketing aimed at the mass population, designed to give an overinflated sense of ego or self-worth.  These are typically the watches you will find in the $300 – $3000 range, and, in most cases, are the ones I would NEVER recommend anyone buying.

With that said (or ranted), a fashion watch in my opinion is one purchased out of desire rather than necessity.  Although the watch may not be capable of being used for deep-sea diving, it should also be worn in a casual setting rather than with a suit.  These are the watches produced by leading watchmakers, but fail to follow the common guidelines for a standard dress watch or sports watch.  Some examples include the $300,000 watch that doesn’t tell time, a watch made from the RMS Titanic, or ceramic works of art.

These are watches purchases solely on their appeal as art and fashion. They can often be wonderful conversation starters and are certainly the ultimate mark of wealth, but perhaps not always refinement.

 

Patek watch in the making

Patek watch in the making

Conclusion

While watches have many uses, in essence, the traditional timepiece was used to track time and ensure the wearer was abiding to an accurate schedule.  Today, watches are used for a variety of tasks, from acting as a fashionable accessory to measuring distance or even oxygen intake.  Some watches contain multiple complications such as: stopwatches, calculators, video games, and various meters or monitors.

While we will not touch on video game and calculator watches (two products I trust none of our readers will wear in public), we will explore all aspects of the finer forms of horology in a new, ongoing series dedicated to the expertly crafted watches and the people who wear them.  We will delve into the parts and mechanisms that make up a watch, chart the history of watchmaking, and produce in-depth resources and guides that will turn even the Casio-wearer into a watch connoisseur.  From boutique watch reviews to Baselworld featured complications, our goal is to provide the reader with the most in-depth and accurate resource available to the true gentleman or dandy.

To ask a question about watches or suggest an article, please let us know via our contact form.

Summary
Article Name
An Introduction to Classic Watches
Description
Learn all about classic watches, the difference between mechanical, automatic & quartz movements in this series kick-off about wristwatches.
Author
15 replies
  1. Daniel Gerson says:

    I am very much looking forward to future articles, especially to your suggestions for high quality watches that are not burdened by a big name and therefor an astronomical price. Suggesting something like a 20.000€ Calatrava as an allrounder to base your collection on can’t be assumed to be appropriate for the majority of the readership.

    • Sven Raphael Schneider says:

      Just wlike with our other guides, we will always make sure to introduce you to a number of different price categories and tips.
      Out of curiosity, what insights do you have about our readership and what’s appropriate for them?

  2. Jonathan says:

    As a big fan of high quality watches I really liked the article. Would it be possible, in the next article, to talk about the pros and cons of different brands (Bell & Ross) and to mention the best movements to look for (El primero and others)?

    • Sven Raphael Schneider says:

      Before we provide brand profiles, we will cover the basics and offer guidance as to how buy and care for a watch. Of course, we will highlight individual pieces along the way. Then, we will focus on brands.

    • Sir Caron says:

      Yes a discussion on the merits of quintessential movements should certainly be instrumental in choosing a quality timepiece and would be much appreciated.

  3. Thomas R. Leslie IV says:

    I wear both a Patek and a Reverso. A man should be limited in the jewelry he wears, limited in my opinion to cuffl links and watches, with the exception of shirt studs for formal attire. I typically wear the Reverso (grande) during daytime, and the Patek at night, unless wearing a suit in daytime, when I wear the Patek. Most men these days seem to use a cell phone to tell time! When has anyone ever said the time is now 12:01:34! How accurate do you need to be. Fine watches are a fading example of the attire of a gentleman.

  4. David Schwartz says:

    Love your choice of the Patek Calatrava – unfortunately the new 5119s are much larger than the 3919s. Patek has unfortunately been influenced by the Panerai-induced trend towards watches of greater diameter. But whatever size the Calatrava is indeed the finest simple dress watch.

  5. Noel Parker says:

    Thank you for an excellent article. I am a great fan of 1950’s manual and automatic Jaeger LeCoultre watches, which were meticulously crafted and assembled. With care and regular servicing they still run perfectly and have a tremendous feel of quality and effortless classic design.

  6. David Tan says:

    Excellent idea for an article! There is just so much marketing hype and dross on the internet about watches that an honest article from a sartorial site (and not a watch one) is incredibly refreshing.

    I like some of the modern Vacherons and Pateks, but their prices are vastly inflated over their 1960s counterparts while their quality has declined noticeably (in both finishing and actual timekeeping).

    Give me an original 1950s or 1960s beauty in fine condition any day. The same applies exactly to motorcars (Gullwing, E-type).

    Recently, an online friend launched his own watch brand aimed at the sartorial set. He strives for a clean, elegant design with fine quality and workmanship, infused with character and heritage. I can recommend this as well, having bought one of his watches.

    maisonceladon.tumblr.com/

    Please keep up the good writing!

    regards,

    David

  7. Carl Sahlin says:

    I enjoy all of the writings on this website and this series on watches especially. My paternal Grandfather was a watchmaker. He died before I could appreciate his trade (I was ten years old.)

    But now, with apologies for changing topic, Sven Raphael, can you recommend some top drawer men’s clothing places to visit in Germany when I am there next month? I will be in the Frankfurt area followed by a brief sojourn in Cologne. Ich kann Deutsch, reden ist keine problem.
    With Thanks,
    Carl

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