You would think that evaluating something as small as a watch would be relatively simple. You could just go to the local watch store and just follow your feelings. What looks good? And when the sales rep states “That watch looks particularly good on you” then you know you've got a winner?
But size masks complications and evaluating a wristwatch can be a bit like breaking out DNA. The task is anything but easy. It can be accomplished, and satisfactorily if you take the time to understand the various aspects discussed below.
I've created a simple Watch Evaluation Worksheet that you can use in conjunction with this post. In the worksheet, I give an example using a Traska Summiteer watch just to give you an idea of what information is available and how it's entered. I also allow for two more watches which you can use to compare. You need to assign your own values depending on what's most important to you but there are some common features that trump others. For example, sapphire is usually more desirable than mineral crystal, etc. But you be the judge. This form will help you organize the maze of information so you can make the best choices for your next watch purchase.
What are your objectives?
First of all, it would be nice to determine what style of watch you want, and an acceptable price range.
Now you could go with a dress watch, thin, white face with alligator strap, or you could opt for an everyday watch, a little more sporty model, or even a divers watch. You should have something in mind. Kind of what your intended use for the watch is going to be.
You really should have some price range in mind. That’s not to say if you’re under $1,000 you can’t find what you want but it may require a little different approach than if you felt $5,000 to $8,000 was your price range.
Most authorized dealers (ADs), that is those authorized to sell the well-known name brands, will probably carry a higher price range – Rolex, Omega, Patek, etc. Other companies, like microbrands, sell direct and may be purchased for prices ranging from $400 to $2,000. If you're interested in some of the lesser-known brands, check out my posts here, and here on Microbrands and other watchmakers you might not know.
So your price range is important, if for no other reason than to determine where you reasonably should start to look.
I could categorize well know brands into at least two tiers.
The high-end tier would include A. Lange & Shone, Audemars Piquet, Blancpain, Bruguet, Bulgari, Cartier, Chopard, F.P. Journe, Franc Muller, Girard-Perregaux, Grand Seiko, H. Moser & Cie, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Muhle-Glashutte, Franck Muller, Ulysse Nardin, Omega, Panerai, Patek Philippe, Piaget, Richard Mille, Rolex, Vacheron Constatin, and Zenith.
The next tier could include: Alpina, Ball, Baum & Mercier, Bell & Ross, Breitling, Bremont, Chronoswiss, Frederique Constant, Eberhard & Co., Eterna, Glashutte Original, Hamilton, Hublot, Junghans, Longines, Mido, Montblanc, Nivel, Nomos, Oris, Rado, Sinn, Tag Heuer, Tissot, Tudor, Tutima, and Wempe Glashutte.
Now, that’s my take and I admit, I would probably not get anyone to agree with me. The point is, watches can be grouped relative to heritage (which normally corresponds to both quality and price), and yet most would only agree on a few and either kick some down and others up.
If you Google this, you’ll find hundreds of classifications. The fact is, Alpina and Balls sell for $1,000 to $2,000 while A. Lange, APs, and H. Mosers sell for $20,000 to $50,000 or more. You be the judge. Price does often equate to quality.
Now, these are all companies with some significant heritage. Blancpain started in 1735, and IWC celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2018. None of these are Kickstarter companies. You pay for that.
Other companies are what we could classify as microbrands. Some of these were Kickstarter companies. Entrepreneurs who love horology and have created companies to offer their brand of watches. And this makes sense. Many companies use third party movement companies anyway – ETA, Sellita, and Ronda.
Nothing wrong with that. Any competent watch service organization can service an ETA movement. So, what other risks exist should the company go under? Really nothing.
There are in fact, many competent newer watch manufacturers from not only Switzerland, but England, Italy, France, and even the U.S. Your challenge is to ferret them out. At least if you want a watch outside of the top tier groups mentioned above.
Okay, so you have a style in mind and a price range, now what? Here are some suggestions and features that you may want to consider.
One of the best resources you can review, at least for the various brands discussed above, is a copy of the most recent Wristwatch Annual, discussed in my post on information resources.
When I first began to buy watches, I dealt with a watch company in Southern California. They carried a number of brands but no Rolex watches. When I asked why the sales rep stated that Rolex watches are nothing more than “mall watches” that weren't worth consideration. (In reality, they probably just didn't qualify as an authorized dealer.) Consequently, it was a while before I bought a Rolex. What did I know, he was the expert.
The point is that you really need to look and learn about all available selections, then wean yourself down to what you really want to buy. If you deal with a vendor that only carries ten brand selections, you're essentially looking at a micro selection of the available watches. This is really a disservice to you. Start broad then narrow it down. The internet essentially makes the world available to you. Take advantage of that.
If you want to want to look at the various microbrands, I have a post here or you could review some of the Youtube channels and search on “watch microbrands.”
Understand, these most microbrands are newer companies, and most won’t have long histories so this is a consideration. The prices for really good quality will be less expensive though. Hodinkee also features some prominent microbrands, so you might want to check with them also.
The watch face
Let’s look at the watch face. Is it balanced? Does it appeal to you? What about long term? Some will pin an image of the watch on their computer, and see what they think about it over time. Usually, initial impressions wane and we grow fonder of other faces.
Are the indices painted or inlaid? Some of these decisions are related to the type of watch. While other decisions may reflect on the quality of manufacturing. Painting is easier and cheaper than inlaid indices.
Same thing with the hands. Are they balanced? Do they show a level of detail that reflects quality? Are they beveled and filled with luminesce?
What kind of luminesce does it have? We know C3 super luminova is the brightest with BGW9 coming in next at about 95% of the glow of C3. Most watches now will use one of these. A few will use Tritium, Ball for example, to which the lume is self radiating but lasts about 25 years vs. luminova which absorbs light and then radiates it back but fades.
Is the face textured or just painted flat. Again, this often is a reflection of the type of watch. Certainly, an everyday sports watch that is painted black is acceptable while a dress watch should have more detail – guilloche or radiating color.
A few thought here. Is the crystal sapphire, which is next to diamonds in hardness and virtually non-scratchable or is it mineral crystal which is more easily scratched. Some brands will call the crystal Hardex, but it’s essentially mineral crystal. Even lower in quality will be some sort of plastic.
This might be okay in the Omega Speedmaster to which the original moon watch was a type of plastic (Hesalite) since the space program was concerned that if glass crystal broke, it would shatter and float about in the space ship. Always strive for a sapphire. Some other exceptions are Casio's G-Shock, it only comes in mineral, and some lower-end dress watches since dress watches are not often subject to the same abuse as an everyday watch would be.
Many crystals are coated with an anti-reflective (AR) coating to enhance visibility. This coating can be on the inside or both the inside and outside of the crystal. This is a situation where more is not necessarily better. If coated on the outside also, it may be subject to scratches and some even go so far as removing any outside coating of AR material.
Is the crown signed? Signed means that the manufacturer adds their logo or mark on the crown. Is the crown screw down or push in? You can get away with up to around 100 meters of water resistance with a push-in crown, anything more will require a screw-down crown. Does the size of the crown fit the watch? It is unusual or special or just like any other crown?
What are the water-resistant specifications?
Ideally, you want 100 meters or more. Many dress watches sport much lower water resistance. That’s okay. You just need to be careful. You would want to shower or swim with a dress watch that had a leather strap anyway, but you want enough water resistance that walking in a London fog is not going to destroy the watch.
Water-resistance is often noted in ATM, Meters, and Feet. ATM is short for atmospheric pressure and indicates the depth to which a watch is safe. Essentially 10 atm is equivalent to 100 meters, which is equal to approximately 1,000 feet.
Most diver watches are a minimum of 200 meters, with 300 meters and higher being a safer alternative. Sport watches with 100 meters of water resistance are fine if you don’t abuse the rating and try scuba diving.
Bottom line, unless you need a watch for the specific activity you are engaging in, scuba, or deep-sea diving, for example, you should probably leave the watch at home and purchase watches specific to the needs of scuba and deep-sea diving. Saltwater, sand, and water pressure is simply not good for watches.
What about measurements
I once had a boss, whose wife (apparently) bought his watch. The watch was a nice (expensive) gold dress watch, but it was only around 26mm. Unfortunately, his wrist size was probably greater than 8 inches and the watch looked like a dime strapped onto a watermelon. Not a good look.
Measurements are important no matter what your wrist size is. The more recent trend towards oversized watches looks horrible on small wrists (say 7 inches and less) while, small watches look ridiculous on large wrists (say 7 3/4 inches and larger.) It’s important to know your wrist size and match a watch that fits. Watches around 39mm seem to be the sweet spot for many wearers and is the size of, for example, the Rolex Explorer I.
Even more, understand that watches with a large bezel, like most diver watches, can be 41 mm or greater, but will appear much smaller on the wrist because the rotating bezel highlights the center crystal which may only measure 31mm or so. Also, the lug to lug distance of a watch will make a difference in the perceived size of the watch on your wrist. It is important that you either try on the watch or have a solid idea of how it will look on your wrist.
Another important dimension – what is the lug width? The lug width will dictate which watch straps are available. The most common widths with men’s wristwatches are 20mm and 22mm but you will run into the occasional 21 or other off size. This makes it difficult, but not near impossible to find straps that will fit your watch.
The final dimension you should be aware of is the thickness of the watch. Dress watches, which are normally under 10mm are easier to fit under your sleeve cuffs. An everyday watch might come in around 10mm plus while some diver watches will be closer to 14mm and more. You maybe don’t want a watch that looks like a clock strapped to your wrist so be mindful of the thickness. Again, this goes back to your wrist size. Larger wrists will support a thicker watch while small wrists may not.
The watch movement may be the most critical component on a watch, at least to many collectors. What is its origin – is it Swiss or Japanese? Nothing wrong with either but, you’ll want to know. Believe it or not, some automatic movements don’t allow for hand winding. Additionally, hacking, which stops the minute hand when you’re setting your watch is available on most but not all watch movements. You’ll want a hacking watch to more accurately set the time.
Some really expensive watches come with manual-winding movements. This allows for a thinner watch and many of these watches include a power reserve indicator to give a visual indication of how much the watch is wound. Most mechanical watches are automatic such that a rotor keeps the watch wound through the movement of your wrist. Generally, automatics are easier to work with but some like the manual winding concept.
You should check out the movement specification of the watch you want to purchase. It is from a third party such as ETA or Sellita. Or is it an in-house movement or possibly a modified ETA or Sellita. Many of these movements have been around for years and have a reputation as to accuracy and longevity. Actually, the longer they’re around the more they’ve been adjusted to higher and higher quality standards.
Another important issue to consider, is the movement COSC certified? In other words, is it a Chronometer. This is a certification of accuracy for approximately only 3% of movements and designates accuracy of between -4 to +6 seconds a day which is a 99.994% accuracy. Interestingly, the accuracy of many watches currently is really spectacular even without COSC ratings. Omega has its own, additional, accuracy certification which is known as a METAS certification. If you purchase a chronometer you should receive an actual statement of the movement’s accuracy in various positions (i.e. crown up, crown down, etc.). If accuracy is critical to you, you may want to look for a COSC certification in your watch purchase.
The movements BPH or beats (ticks) per hour is normally 21,600 or 28,800 (which equate to 6 and 8 beats per second, respectively). Both can be extremely accurate and both can be adjusted to qualify for the COSC certification. Theoretically, the higher the BPH, the smoother the movement of the sweeping second hand – that, however, is not always distinctive. This is maybe more “nice to know” than necessary.
Another “nice to know” stat is the power reserve rating. Typical wristwatches have a 30 to 48-hour power reserve, which is simply the time it takes for the watch to wind down. There are exceptions, the A. Lange Lange 31 has a power reserve of 744 hours or 31 days. It comes, however, with a price tag of over $144,000.
What is the finishing on the case? It’s unfortunate that too many watches try to emulate the Rolex Submariner. Unfortunately, most just look like a hunk of stainless steel without any special character.
Almost all watches made with stainless steel will use 316L stainless steel. Rolex (and some Ball watches) use 904L (which Rolex calls “Oystersteel”). This is stainless steel that offers higher resistance to corrosion. Outside of the extra corrosion resistance, there is nothing special about Oystersteel – it’s probably more marketing than anything else although the look is slightly different.
You will notice that watches that are all highly polished tend to look cheap. Watches that are all satin tend to look like tool watches (think Sinn). The stainless steel watches that combine the two and use bezeling will tend to look more attractive and expensive. Make sure you get a good look at the side of the watch to see how the watch is finished and if the case if distinctive and interesting.
Strap, bracelets, and clasps
Many people don’t give too much consideration to the strap or bracelet offered on the watch but understanding the strap and the various options is critical.
Watches that have customized straps or bracelets limit the options down the road to customize or modify your watch. Watches like Hublot or some of the Cartier Santos have very specialized straps. This is all well and good, but you are limited. You will almost have to rely on the manufacturer for any replacement straps and, especially with Hublot, you won’t have any choices beyond the original strap.
Other brands have spawned a number of companies that cater specifically to that brand and provide a number of replacement straps with a myriad of different options. Brands like Rolex, Tudor, Panerai, AP, and Frank Mueller have third party strap companies that specifically offer replacement straps.
Most other brands have almost unlimited replacement strap options from rubber to leather to NATO. See my article on straps for available strap offerings here. In fact, with most brands, the sky's the limit.
Let’s discuss bracelets. Most bracelets are stainless steel, although some watches offer gold and even platinum for their bracelets.
Does the bracelet taper? The reason this is important is that it’s lighter. Some stainless steel bracelets, for example, taper from, let’s say, 20mm to around 16mm. This gives a sophisticated appearance and is much lighter than a straight 20mm band.
Make sure the band has solid end pieces. Even some earlier Rolex straps had hallow end pieces. So check that out.
Also, what type of connectors does the bracelet use. The best bracelets use screws, either hex or flathead. While lower-end bracelets use pressure pins. Nothing wrong with either but it does, tacitly, designate the quality of the bracelet.
Some really cheap bracelets are rolled vs. solid pieces. Unfortunately, many Seiko bans are rolled pieces – think cheap vs. solid pieces.
With respect to the clasp. Many watch companies offer common tang and buckle clasps. This is fine and is even a classic look, however, tang and buckle clasps will wear the leather strap much quicker than other options. It’s might be a good idea to store the original strap with its tang and buckle and purchase another strap and clasp for you to wear.
The best clasp options are deployant (often misspelled – deployment). These come in simple fold over to higher-end butterfly configurations. The benefit of a deployant clasp is that they make attachment and detachment quick, easy, are pre-sized, and do not put pressure, and thus wear and tear, on the leather.
Deployants are always used on metal bracelets and you need to inspect their fine-tune adjustment mechanism. Cheaper stainless steel deployant clasps will offer a four to six-hole adjustment for fine-tuning the size. To make these adjustments, however, you will need to take the watch off and use a tool. Higher quality deployants will offer some sort of slide mechanism that will allow for minor adjustments, sometimes while the watch is still on the wrist. The concept of this fine-tuning adjustment is to accommodate the small expansion of your wrist size with temperatures changes. Some butterfly deployant clasps in stainless steel will use a push-button or friction mechanism to open and close.
After you’ve evaluated your prospective purchases using the criteria above, it’s time to look at some of the special features.
For example, does the watch come with multiple straps? A roll case or other features?
What is the warranty?
How scratch resistant is the bracelet? Some stainless steel watches are more resistant to scratching – like Traska’s proprietary scratch-resistant coating that increases the hardness from 200HV to almost 1200HV. Sinn also has what they call a “Tagiment” feature which increases its hardness to around 2000HV.
Does it have an exhibition back that displays the watch’s movement? Is the movement finely finished?
Is the watches resale value significantly different than its retail value? Some resale values exceed the retail value. This simply denotes higher demand. Other watches are sold at drastic discounts. This matters if you consider your watch as part of your investment portfolio, but it helps to understand the valuation outside of the list price.
Running through the above criteria can help you sort through the many options available. It also helps you understand your needs better.
It depends also on what you deem critical. Some would never purchase a watch with a mineral crystal. Others would never buy any watch that didn’t meet a specific accuracy level. Still, others would never consider quartz, ecterera.
Understanding your specific needs and running through the various conditions will go a long way in helping you make your next selection a satisfactory choice.