My love of wristwatches can be traced back to 8th grade. Dad bought me a watch for my junior high graduation, and though I’m sure it was nothing special I thought it was the coolest thing in the world at the time. It was likely just a Timex but it had a stainless steel case, a brown leather band, and was instantly a thing of masculinity that was mine. I developed the philosophy that the only jewelry a man should wear is his wedding ring and a nice watch, and I’ve pretty much stuck to that with exceptions granted to ’80s hair metal bands. And when Dad bought me my first nice watch (a Seiko Kinetic with a two-tone bracelet) for my high school graduation, the seeds for horological love were firmly set.
As a kid in the 1980s, watches were cheap quartz, and the cool ones had LCD screens with a stopwatch and alarm. The really cool one was the calculator watch advertised in comic books if you signed up for some program and sold enough crap door-to-door. As if elementary school kids are just itching to do more math, right? Heck no! It was a nifty gizmo, and one that my fantasies said would enable me to cheat on my math tests! And of course there were Swatches and the Swatch guard… But as a ten year old boy I was convinced those colorful things were for girls. (Who knew all these years later I would love them for their sense of whimsy?)
But the watch that finally got me hooked was a little thing too beautiful to ignore: the Stauer 1930 Dashtronic. Seriously, just look at it! What soulless monster wouldn’t love that piece of art deco beauty? I saw this thing advertised in Popular Mechanics all the time, but the ads also sounded too good to be true (they sell Stauer items in Sky Mall, so there’s an indication of the level of quality we’re talking about here). So I did a little bit of Google searching for owner reports and before I knew it, my eyes had been opened to a whole new world.
watchuseek.com has now become one of my more frequently lurked websites, and the knowledge there is simply amazing. And while that Dashtronic beauty turned out to be a Chinese made knock-off trying to pass as high-end goods (that’s what Stauer does), the guys on watchuseek actually seem very fair about them. I’ve been able to learn a little bit about everything from $5,000 and up TAG Heuers to the “lowliest” of the Casio G-Shock line. These guys simply love watches, and once you understand the caveats of whatever watch you’re currently eyeing, it’s just a matter of enjoying it for what it is.
I think I find this so refreshing because, really, a wristwatch is almost 100% personal adornment and extraneous. Coming from doing the Handgun Podcast almost full time, with a focus on personal defense and concealed carry instruction, everything was much more critical in my eye. I was constantly looking for faults or hangups that could become potentially lethal pitfalls in a life-or-death situation, and trying to explain to a budget-only minded person that Uncle Mike’s holsters and a Hi Point C9 are unacceptable compromises just got old. It became very tiring, and constant research was like slamming my head against a wall. But this? Wristwatches (and pens, which I’m sure I’ll write more about later) are something I can simply enjoy. Cheap, accurate quartz watches and the ubiquity of cell phones have made fretting over a time piece irrelevant. Now it’s purely something to enjoy.
While I was still doing the podcast, I began to lust after an Oakley Holeshot 10th Mountain Edition. I think it was $300 or $325 at the time. It was still pretty recent that I’d discovered watchuseek and the truth about Stauers, when one of my friends and I were talking about the Holeshot. “I mean, I’m a watch guy,” he said, “But $300 on a watch is just outrageous!” I couldn’t help but laugh a little bit, then told him about Stauer, this crazy watch forum I’d discovered, etc. And the price of a Rolex, or a Tag Heuer. I told him not to take offense, but that I knew just enough to think that he and I weren’t really “watch guys”.
At the time, I didn’t even know about brands like Patek Phillipe or Panerai. No matter how much more I learn, the one thing I just keep trying to remember is that there’s still so much I don’t know. But even though I’ve since bought a several thousand dollar wristwatch (a TAG Heuer Grand Carrera Calibre 17, CAV511B.FC6225), one thing I have come to believe is that you don’t have to spend that kind of money to be a “watch guy”. All that moniker really requires is a little bit of knowledge, and loving what’s on your wrist. I love the Fossil watch my wife bought me that was only just over $110, and as I type this I’m wearing a Timex Expedition purchased from Amazon for $46. You don’t have to spend megabucks, just love what you have.
So what kind of knowledge have I picked up and think a jeans and t-shirt watch fan should share? Really, just the basics of quartz vs. mechanical watches and how to recognize them.
Quartz watches are cheaper and more accurate than mechanical and since that’s a win/win situation the conversation is over, right? Not so much. For everyday use, I can’t really think of a valid argument against a quartz, but because they’re so cheap to buy they also don’t have much in the way of heirloom quality or repair support. They’re disposable. When they break you chuck ’em out and get a new one, and many times CAN’T be repaired because there simply aren’t parts made for them anymore. But they’re also hardy and will last for years. If it’s electric, it’s a quartz watch and derives its timing from the oscillator that’s regulated to a very precise frequency by the quartz crystal. You can recognize these at a glance in even analog watch faces because the second hand will jump very distinctly from one second to the next. One, pause, two, pause, three, etc. Even in more expensive watches like a Bulova or an Oakley. So you’re paying for the name, fashion, and maybe materials but not a “fine timepiece”. There’s nothing wrong with that, just be aware.
Mechanical watches on the other hand are driven purely by, well, the mechanical force of a wound spring. They’re not as accurate and more costly (and from what I’ve read, it’s recommended they be serviced about every two years), but a good jeweler should be able to keep them running forever. If you have an automatic watch, it’s typically a self-winding mechanical and the tell-tale sign is a second hand with a much smoother sweeping movement of several very tiny ticks between each second. Don’t be fooled by thinking that more “jewels” means it’s a nicer watch– the jewel is just the bearing that parts pivot in for the complications (added features like a chronograph or day/date window). A six jewel Swiss watch could easily out-price a 17 jewel Chinese watch. And the term chronometer is supposed to be reserved for watches of a certain precision standard, but outside of Switzerland (where they’re certified by the COSC) it’s really up to the scruples of the watchmaker.
The last two paragraphs are nothing new to the die-hard watch aficionado, and odds are if you found this blog by Google you already know all that or even have suggestions to improve, correct, or clarify the info. But I felt like I should at least put the basics out there.
So from there, what’s the point? Well, while it broke my heart to discover that Stauer were mostly just Chinese movements (the motor, if you will, that powers the watch), it set me on a few years’ journey of discovery that led right back where I started. I’m just accepting of it now. My Fossil is an automatic and almost certainly a Chinese movement (Fossil started life importing and re-branding inexpensive watches from the far east) but I don’t care; I simply love it. My Oakley Holeshot that touts a Swiss 4-jewel movement is quartz. These may just be “fashion watches”, but who cares? My TAG is something I’ll pass down to my kids, even if the cognoscenti tease that it’s more a marketing firm than a watch company these days. But in the meantime I’ll enjoy it, and anything else in my collection just for being the marvelous little works of art that they are.
Confession: I do find myself eschewing quartz watches these days except for necessity (like now, while I’m deployed in Afghanistan). I really like the detail and complexity of all those little gears and after growing up with jumping second hands, the smooth sweeping of a mechanical just fascinates me.
My Holeshot has been plagued with problems for a future blog post, so spending serious cash on a quartz watch is nothing I’m inclined to do again. I think a mechanical watch appeals to any guy who likes tinkering under the hood of a car or on a motorcycle, so I’m pleased there are actually affordable options out there. Check out Xetum, for example. I highly encourage any gearhead to go mechanical if they can (an old Omega was dependable enough for a zero-G trip to the moon, after all). And if you get up some serious scratch to spend on a watch, check out Panerai before plunking your bank down on a Rolex (edited after more learning a bit more) you’ll never go wrong with a Rolex Daytona.