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.

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