A watch is a complicated instrument: a user’s guide to what lies beneath

Buying a serious watch can be a daunting task, and like any major purchase, you’d be wise to know all you can before diving in. Why are some watches thousands of dollars while others are 159.99? What are all of those buttons, knobs, dials and extra hands for? Why do some watches need to be manually wound while others keep on ticking on their own? Here, we’ve answered all of your questions, so you can be as knowledgeable as you approach the watch counter.

Should I buy a strap or bracelet model?

Naturally, this is a case of personal preference, but in general, metal bracelet models will carry you through more dressy and elegant events, while strap models will suit you best for every day.


Straps can come in exotic skins such as ostrich or the increasingly popular stingray, as well as sharkskin, crocodile (real or embossed leather), or calf leathers. Leather straps can range from $10 to $100. On diving watches, straps or bracelets are extra-long to fit over dive suits. Straps can also be made of synthetic materials such as plastic or rubber.


Bracelet watches are made of metal and range from bold link styles to more delicate styles that resemble true pieces of jewelry.” A jeweler can easily remove or add links to ensure a more accurate fit. Bracelets are generally made from the following materials:

  • Base metal: Any nonprecious metal.
  • Stainless steel: A sleek, common bracelet material, shown either polished, matte or a combination thereof.
  • Gold: 14kt or 18kt gold, in yellow or white.
  • Gold-plated: A metal watch that has at least 8 to 10 microns of gold plate on top of it (1 micron = 1/1000 millimeters). The heavier the plating (i.e. more microns), the longer you can wear the watch before wearing through the plating to the base metal underneath.
  • Platinum: A very dense and expensive metal.
  • Titanium: Extremely durable, lightweight and fairly expensive material. Unlike stainless steel, titanium is hypoallergenic and nickel-free.

Are there elements that will damage my watch?

Certain types of materials can damage or corrode a plated-metal case or bracelet, such as salt seawater and chemicals. Perfume or cologne should not be sprayed directly onto a wrist if the watch is on.

As watches have become fashion accessories in their own right, there is much attention paid to styling of cases, bezels and dials.


The case holds and protects the movement, and there are various shapes to choose from, including round, rectangular, square or the newly popular Tonneau shape, which is like a “pillowed rectangle” and has a slightly retro look. Automatic watches will have heftier cases, as such movements are larger than the thinner quartz styles. Oversized, men’s style cases have become increasingly popular for women, and many models are presented to appeal to both sexes. Some eases will have a skeleton caseback, which allows the wearer to view the various parts of the movement through transparent material.


The bezel is the ring that surrounds the case. This can be plain, decorated with diamonds or notched with numerals and markers. Bezels can often move in two directions to provide additional functions on the watch. Like its name suggests, a unidirectional bezel only turns one way to prevent a misrepresentation of time. These are mostly used to measure diving times, because if the bezel is knocked in one direction, it will err on the positive side, thus indicating less air or decompression time rather than more (a potentially fatal readout).


The dial is essentially the “face” of the watch. Materials include steel, gold and enamel. Mother-of-pearl dials – with their opalescent hue – are popular for women’s watches. Dials can also be fully or partially skeletal, allowing the wearer to view all or some of the movement through a transparent material. Numbers or markings on the dial are either applied or painted on.


The knob on the watch case is used for moving the hands to (re)set the time, fixing calendar dates or winding the mainspring. Diving watches have a screw-down crown that ensures water-resistance.


Oftentimes, hands, numbers or markers, will “glow” while the watch is in the dark. Consider where you plan to use your watch the most, and if this is important to you. In diving watches that will be taken to underwater depths, it is essential.


The crystal is the clear covering that protects the dial. This can range from plastic to glass in less expensive models, while high-end watches use a scratch-resistant, sapphire crystal.


What exactly is a diving watch?

While most people use their chunkier, masculine diving watches as a fashion statement, there are those who rely on their watches to accurately tell time deep underwater, and use the elapsed time mechanism to provide critical remaining air-time readouts. Unidirectional, Rotating bezel Diving watches will have a one-directional rotating bezel, which the wearer will turn when he begins his underwater descent. This will show him how much air time he has left, and when he needs to surface. Diving watches feature a unidirectional rotating bezel, so if they are “knocked” out of position, they will only err on the positive side by reporting the diver must surface for air sooner, rather than later.


Diving watches will state on the dial that they are water-resistant to a certain depth or unit of pressure, measured by a number of ATMs, or atmospheres (l ATM = 33 feet or 10 meters). It is important to send it to an authorized dealer or the watch company itself for repairs or maintenance as they will test that the seal has been restored upon resealing the case back and that the watch remains suitable for diving. Watches that are rated 3 ATMs are OK to swim in but not snorkel or dive with. Thirty ATM is fine for scuba diving.


This helps a watch maintain its water-resistant seal. The wearer must manually unscrew the crown before he can pull the stem out and reset the time. After the crown is pushed back in, the crown is screwed back down.


What do analog and digital mean?

Analog watches display time with hands, or markers, that point to numbers or graphic markings on the watch. Digital watches tell time with a numeric display, either using a liquid crystal diode (LCD) that displays a continuous readout, or a light-emitting diode (LED), that shows the time at the push of a button. Some chronographs use ana-digi display, which uses various means to display the time as well as various timing readouts.


What’s the difference between quartz and mechanical movements?

Essentially, a quartz movement is one that is powered by a battery. A tiny quartz crystal vibrates at approximately 32,000 times per second to power the watch gears and keep time accuracy. Quartz watches are extremely accurate, to a few seconds a day, but extreme temperatures can affect this. Quartz watches can lose one second per day if temps exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit or drop below 32-degrees Fahrenheit. Batteries usually last between two and five years. Chronographs, which use more energy than watches displaying merely hours and minutes, will need battery changes more frequently. Lithium batteries, however, can last up to 10 years.

A mechanical watch is any watch that is not battery powered. This can be a manual-wind watch (wearers must wind themselves via turning the crown back and forth until the tension indicates the operation is complete), or an automatic, where the movement of the wrist powers the movement. Due to the more complicated movement (a traditional mechanical watch is made up of about 130 parts), mechanicals are more expensive than quartz. While mechanical products total 10 percent of Swiss exports, they represent more than 50 percent in value, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

An automatic (also called a self-winding) watch’s mainspring (driving spring) is wound by the movements or accelerations of the wearer’s arm. A rotor turns and transmits its energy to the spring by means of an appropriate mechanism. The system was invented in Switzerland by Abraham-Louis Perrelet in the 18th century.

Higher-end watches tout their superb “movements.” What does this mean?

A movement is the “engine” of the watch, and like a fine race car, there are differences in design, engineering and quality. Here are some terms that revolve around movements:

  • ETA movements: Movements are often manufactured by separate companies and sold to be inserted into various watch brands.
  • Jewels: These are essentially ball-bearings made from synthetic sapphires or rubies that reduce friction.

They also resist temperature changes better and hold oil longer than metal would. Basic mechanical watches include at least 15 jewels.

What is a complication ?

Simply put, a complication is a watch that does more than tell the time. The most common complications display the date and are called “calendar watches.” Chronographs are also complications, including additional hands that are started, stopped and brought back to zero with the aid of one or two push buttons on the watches side. Highly complicated watches feature one or more of the following: alarm, second time zone, moonphase, repeater or a perpetual calendar that automatically adjusts for leap years.

Can I swim with a watch that’s water-resistant”?

There is no such thing as water-proof, but water-resistant is a term commonly used with watches. If your watch says water resistant with no indication of high pressure (measured in atmospheres or ATMs), it is safe for the shower or a quick swim. It would, under no circumstances, be safe for scuba diving. For diving or prolonged underwater use, you will need a diving watch. Also remember that unprofessional battery changes could wreck the seal and render any type of water resistance obsolete.


What are chronographs and chronometers, and do I need them?

“Need” is a subjective term. Many people don’t use all the functions on their watches but enjoy the prestige as well as the aesthetic value they provide with various subdials, additional timing hands, and intricate readout displays.

A chronograph is a watch that measures various intervals of time when activated, much like a stopwatch. But a separate mechanism ensures that such stopwatch functions do not interfere with the watch’s regular time-keeping abilities. Standard chronographs usually sport three subdials on the face, each with their own marker hands and “button pushers” for operation. Chronographs can also combine analog and digital displays.

A chronometer means that a watch’s functions and precisions have been tested and are certified by an official Swiss institute. The requirements are very stringent in the 16-day test: a few seconds per day in highly unfavorable temperature conditions (for mechanical watches) and positions that are ordinarily encountered.

Do diamond watches use high-grade diamonds?

Diamonds have become a strong fashion statement, showing up on bezels and even eases on watches of varying price points, even on fashion watches retailing for less than $100. Naturally, the less expensive the watch and smaller the diamonds, the lower the quality. Make sure they are prong-set so they won’t fall out of the watch with prolonged use.

How do I care for my watch?

If you have a mechanical, it helps to have it professionally cleaned every three to five years. They will disassemble the watch and clean all the individual parts to remove debris and oil that may have hardened and accumulated on the gears. The watch will then be reassembled, oiled, and all measures will be made to ensure that it is still water-resistant (if it was before). Seals will be replaced, and the watch should be checked with special pressure equipment through the manufacturer’s agent to ensure it maintains the standards previously held.