Friday, August 19, 2011

Watch Primer #04: Case Diameter

Today's installment of the Watch Primer takes a look at the role a watch's case diameter can play in determining whether the watch is right for you.

The most important factor in determining the appropriate size of a watch is its proportionality with the size of your wrist.  Generally, the larger the circumference of your wrist, the larger a watch's case diameter can be and look good while you're wearing it.  Wrist circumference isn't a perfect measure; the shape of your wrist--whether its flat and wide, rounded and thick, etc.--also affects the way a watch looks on you.  In the broadest terms, watch diameters between 34mm and 46mm span the vast majority of watches available for men.  Those with larger wrists may find watches toward the 34mm side of the spectrum too dainty on their wrists, while those with smaller wrists may feel that watches toward 46mm in diameter seem less like a timepiece and more like a piece of dinnerware strapped to their wrist.

Beyond general proportionality, there is a stylistic divide between the larger-diameter watch and those of a smaller diameter.  Smaller diameters reflect both the aesthetic trend of the 1950s and 1960s as well as the dressier side of the watch spectrum.  This makes sense, as the miniaturization of watch movements and subtlety of watch case sizing makes a watch less obtrusive and easier to wear, with the goal being that the watch blend as seamlessly into its surroundings as possible.  Larger diameters, on the other hand, reflect both an emphasis on sportiness and robustness and recent trends toward both the glorification and accentuation of the watch as one of the only accessories a man can confidently wear in a wide range of social settings, and a exultation of the watch as a work of horological art meant to be displayed.  Depending on which side of this ideological divide you find yourself, you may be inclined toward smaller diameters despite a larger wrist, or larger diameters despite a smaller wrist.

Ultimately, the most weighty criterion of whether a watch's case diameter is right for you is whether you feel comfortable with it on your wrist.  No matter how appropriate a 36mm case might seem to be for a person with a 6-inch wrist--or a 48mm case on someone with an 8-inch wrist--if the owner of that wrist isn't comfortable with the way the watch looks and feels there, it probably isn't going to work.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Watch Primer #03: The Four Essential Watches

It's been said elsewhere before, but for those looking for a streamlined watch collection that can cover virtually any situation, four kinds of watches form the essential core of your watch box.  I'm willing to go even further and say that one watch can fulfill more than one role, even potentially all of them, if you pick wisely--and are content with owning just one watch.

1. The Dress Watch

I'm starting with the Dress Watch because this is often the watch considered synonymous with the "nicest" or "most expensive" watch in your collection, though this need not (and perhaps should not) be the case.  To begin with, in the most formal of situations (e.g., black-tie formal), wearing a watch may not even be appropriate.  Or if you absolutely must have a watch on-hand, a pocket watch is actually the dressiest option.  A watch on a leather strap is usually considered dressier than one on a bracelet, and the simpler the watch dial (with fewer complications), the dressier, though applied indices (separate pieces affixed to the dial) may be preferable to painted ones.  Traditionally, this meant an hour hand and minute hand, and nothing else; even minute markers were often omitted.  A quintessential example is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin or the Patek Philippe Calatrava.  Precious metal cases were the norm 50 years ago, but increasingly relaxed standards of dress, the popularity of steel cased watches, and the ever inflating price of gold, it's not as much of a requirement these days.  Smaller-sized watches, both in diameter and case thickness, tend to be dressier since they can fit better under the cuff of a dress shirt.  The only hard-and-fast rule of the Dress Watch is that it not be a digital watch (though some might make the case for a horological masterpiece like the A. Lange & Sohne Zeitwork, I'd hazard to say that it's a bit too big and complicated in its digital mechanism to qualify as a dress watch), and that it not be on a rubber strap.

My Dress Watch: Nomos Tangente Gangsreserve

Though I sometimes make it a little sporty by pairing it with a steel stretch bracelet repurposed from a Hamilton Ventura, the Nomos Tangente comes on a smooth black patent leather strap, and that's how I usually wear it.  It features a manually wound in-house movement, a Bauhaus-inspired quintessentially German aesthetic, no date function (a perk for a Dress Watch, but one of my personal preferences too), blued steel hands, and a modest size (35mm diameter, roughly 8mm thick).  It tends more toward the modern side of the scale design-wise, is steel cased and lacks applied indices, but otherwise has the attributes of the quintessential Dress Watch.  The power reserve function in this Gangsreserve model is an uncommon complication for a watch that is otherwise so simple, and though it skirts the no-complication Dress-Watch rule, for me it adds just the right mix of personality and functionality.

(The other three essential watches--and one more--after the jump!)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Watch Primer #02: Lugs

Lugs are an essential part of what makes a watch a wristwatch, as it would be pretty difficult for a watch to remain on your wrist without them.  The size and type of a watch's lugs can determine how a watch fits, whether it looks big or small on the wrist, how easy (or impossible) it will be for you to change out straps or bracelets.

Most lugs resemble those in the picture of the Omega Speedmaster above: tapered protrusions from the main watch case that line up to secure the watch to its band or bracelet, most likely through the use of an expanding lug pin like the examples below.

One of the original lug designs came from the World War II-era wristwatches which were pocket watches converted to be worn on the wrist (and thereby leave the wearer with the use of both hands).  A modern homage to this style of lug can be seen in the Panerai Radiomir:


Some minimalist watches, such as the Xetum Tyndall, feature a recessed "lugless" watch case:

And some watches have lugs designed to fit a particular strap or bracelet, like some Seiko 5 models:


Having specialized lugs like the ones above can limited aftermarket strap and bracelet options, but straps can sometimes be cut down to fit.

The lug's holes (designed to hold the lug bars) can either be recessed (like most of the watch examples above) or drilled, such as in the Citizen Stiletto: 

The width between the lugs can often determine how substantial a watch feels on the wrist.  Lug widths are usually even (e.g., 18mm, 20mm, 22mm, etc.) but 17mm and 19mm can also be found, though strap options are fewer.  If you purchase a watch with an odd-numbered lug width, be sure you like it on the strap or bracelet it came with, or do some advance research into the kinds of straps available in the same width.  

In my experience, though, the most important consideration when it comes to lugs is how long they make a watch look on your wrist.  A general rule of sizing is that a watch's lugs should not make it extend beyond the width of your wrist; this can lead to pie-pan proportions that will make it look as if the watch is ludicrously big, or make your wrist seem unnaturally thin.  Your maximum lug length depends on the diameter of the watch case and the size of your wrist, but for comparison's sake, the maximum for my 6-inch wrist is the 48mm tall, 42mm wide Omega Speedmaster Professional.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Watch Primer #01a: The Watch Glossary

As I was preparing the next installment of the Watch Primer series, I came across a great resource for those of us still grappling with the various terminology used to describe the parts and features of a watch. has a Watch Glossary that lists all the horological terms you need to properly discuss the attributes of a watch.

Next up on the Watch Primer, an often overlooked subject: Lugs.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Watch Primer #01: The Most Important Thing When Shopping for a Watch

This post is the first in a series that aims to give the watch-buying neophyte some guidance in purchasing his or her first "real" watch.  (What constitutes a "real" watch in of itself will be one of the many issues that this Watch Primer series will address.)

To put things into context, I consider my initiation into the greater watch-wearing world--what some might call WISdom, where "WIS" (short for "watch idiot savant") is the badge many online watch afficianados wear with pride--to have occurred early last year, when I picked up what I considered to be my first "real" watch: a blue-dialed Omega Speedmaster Date.  Before then I had a passing interest in watches, but my collection generally consisted of various Fossils, a two-tone Seiko chronograph that served as my "dress" watch, and the odd G-Shock.  I'd also had an eccentric taste for pocket watches, though my finest example was a plain hunter-style cased Charles-Hubert model, which, despite the French-sounding name, housed a generic Chinese quartz movement.  I put a lot of thought and effort into the Speedy Date I purchased, and thought it would be with me for the rest of my life, but for various reasons which I will touch on shortly, it was not to be, and I ended up selling it around a year later.  It is my hope that this Watch Primer series will help others who find themselves shopping for their first "real" watch to avoid the pitfalls that I stumbled into, despite a copious amount of research and the best of intentions.

How does it look--and feel--on your wrist?

This is ultimately the most important factor when shopping for a watch, and the question which all the other considerations I'll discuss in the Watch Primer series factor into.  A wristwatch is just that--a watch that is meant to be worn around your wrist--so regardless of its specifications, pedigree, or rare metal/jewel content (or absence thereof), the most important consideration is how it looks and functions while strapped to your arm.  It's frighteningly easy to forget this simple fact when you're comparing an automatic movement to a manual wind, a simple silver dial to one with several complications competing for your attention, or a gold-tone case to a carbonized-black DLC one.  Compounding the problem is the fact that while you can place the watch over your wrist and perhaps even look at it in a mirror in most stores, you most likely won't be able to size the bracelet or buckle the strap properly until after you've purchased the watch.

When you take the time to view it on your wrist, the aesthetic considerations often become incredibly easy.  I've heard many other watch collectors describe how a watch to which they were indifferent suddenly "sang" to them when placed on their wrist; conversely, other watches that seemed perfect on the computer screen didn't live up to those expectations "in the steel," perhaps because they were too big or small, or because certain tones or surfaces appeared differently under camera lighting than they do in person.  There are also some watches that might not appeal to you at first, but begin to grow on you as time goes on.  Usually, these tend to be classic-but-quirky designs (Audemars Piguet's original Royal Oak is a fine example).

A Tale of Two Speedmasters

I experienced the love-it-online, dislike-it-in-person, love-it-again-over-time progression myself in the form of the Omega Speedmaster Professional.  I fell in love with it the first time I saw it online, but was less enthusiastic about it when I first put it on my wrist--next to the Speedy Date, it seemed a bit too large on my wrist.  (My personal obsession with blue-dialed watches and the lack of a regular-issue Speedy Pro with a non-black dial also helped in pushing my first purchase toward the Speedy Date.)  But the Pro continued to grow on me, and eventually I picked it up.  Today, it's still in my watch box--the sole mechanical chronograph in my collection--whereas the Date has gone on to another owner.

How did that happen?

On paper and in the watch store, the Speedy Date seemed to be the favorite.  Its 40mm diameter versus the Pro's 42mm seemed the perfect size for my wrist.  It featured the convenience of an automatic movement while the Pro is manual wind, and has chronometer certification (basically an assurance of accuracy) whereas the Pro does not.  The only thing the Pro seemed to have in its favor was the fact that it was the original design, and the true "Moon Watch" of the Apollo missions.  That is a signature distinction in the watch world, but certainly not a sufficient reason by itself to purchase a watch.  So I ended up purchasing the Date.

Over time, however, as the Date became my daily wearer, I noticed that the watch's caseback seemed to chafe against my wrist.  The caseback has a slightly raised edge where the curve around its edge meets up with the large Speedmaster emblem engraved at its center, and that edge seemed perfectly designed to abrade my wrist.  In trying to resolve this issue, I sought out straps to replace the bracelet, in the hope that a more readily adjustable fit might sort things out.  Then I released the second mistake I had made was not looking into the Date's lug width, which is 19mm.  As it turns out, 18mm, 20, and 22mm are the most common lug widths found on men's watches, and the sizes for which you'll find the widest range of strap options.  There are 19mm straps out there, but they lack the variety in style, material, and color that you'll find in more common sizes.  Moreover, I've been unable to find any NATO or Zulu-style watch straps in a 19mm width.  Despite the difficulties, I found and tried out a couple of 19mm straps, but the chafing continued.  So, for the sake of my wrist I was forced to part with the Speedy Date.  (From what I've seen on watch forums like WatchUSeek, my experience with the Speedy Date is rare; most owners have nothing but good things to say about the various models in that line.)

The Speedy Pro's caseback lies much flatter on the wrist, and, in the "sapphire sandwich" version that I decided on, features a large sapphire crystal window that allows you to view the beautiful hand-wound movement.  I encountered no chafing with the Pro, and I came to appreciate the daily (or once-every-other-day) ritual of winding the watch.  Though its 42mm diameter still remains on the larger side of my watch collection, it still seems proportional even on a wrist as diminutive as mine (roughly 6 inches in circumference), and has earned a permanent place on my watch roster.

The Bottom Line

Aesthetics are always an important consideration when watch shopping, and very well may make or break your purchase decision.  But also keep in mind how the watch feels while worn--particularly the shape of the caseback, and where it sits naturally on your wrist--and whether functional attributes like lug width should factor into your decision making (and if you plan on swapping bracelets for straps, it will).  That's the lesson I learned the hard way from my Speedy Date: no matter how good the watch looks, if it doesn't sit well on your wrist, you may end up selling it shortly thereafter.