The basic qualities of a good watch

Buying a good watch is not something that’s just done off the cuff – it’s a highly involved decision that’s made over a considerable period of time. After all, it’s not just a timepiece, but also a deeply personal form of self-expression, and an investment for many years to come. That means finding the right one for you typically takes time.

Now, one of the first things that you’ll be looking for in your good watch is craftsmanship. The difficult thing is that when it comes to watches, this can be a highly subjective term. (By definition, even the cheapest watches involve a basic level of craftsmanship.) So then, it becomes a question of not whether a watch possesses craftsmanship, but rather a question of how craftsmanship is defined when it comes to good watches. Below, we’ve explained some of the key defining qualities typically exhibited by the finest good watches, so you can decide exactly how much each one means to you.

1. The watch case and materials
Over the centuries, the world’s watchmakers have utilized a wide variety of materials to craft their timepieces, but without a doubt the best good watches today will use high-quality materials such as stainless steel, platinum, or gold. Though you might not be able to identify these metals by sight, just holding the watch in your hand will give you a decent idea of its quality – the best good watches tend to be instantly recognizable by the distinctive weight that these materials give them.

Towards the start of the 20th century, gold was the most popular case material, and stainless steel began to see more widespread use in the 1930s. A few decades later in the 1970s, some manufacturers started experimenting with making their watches out of titanium, renowned for being twice as strong and half as heavy as steel (although naturally, it’s much more costly).

Today, some of the world’s top watchmakers have established their preferences for certain types of materials. Rolex, for example, often uses mother of pearl, gold brass, and stainless steel, while Breitling relies on titanium and steel alloys – some of the strongest metals on the market.

2. The watch glass
The watch glass is sometimes referred to as the watch crystal, and its primary job is to seal the delicate inner workings of the watch against outside contaminants like water, dirt, or other particles.

While the watch crystal might seem like a relatively simple component at first glance, just as much care goes into its construction as any other element of the watch. Some good brands use mineral glass or plexiglass, but most of the best good watches on the market are made with sapphire crystal.

Sapphire crystal is obviously a rare find in the natural world, so most good watches use a synthetic variant that’s specifically formulated in laboratories for the purpose. This type of crystal has the same structure as its natural counterpart and is designed to be incredibly hard and durable – so much so that the manufacturing process requires specially-designed cutters tipped with diamonds, one of the few materials harder than sapphire crystal. This gives the watch optimum scratch and cracks resistance, affording the inner workings an excellent level of protection.

3. The watch movement
Watch movement is a term that essentially refers to the type of mechanism that powers the watch. The general consensus is that there are three types of watch movements – quartz, mechanical, and automatic. Most people are familiar with quartz watches, whether they realize it or not, as these tend to tick from second to second. Automatic movements, on the other hand, move the second hand round the face in one smooth, uninterrupted motion.

 

Most collectors and connoisseurs agree that an automatic movement is a sure sign of a quality good watch, but it’s not a universal rule – there are lots of equally good mechanical and quartz pieces too.

Quartz
Quartz movements are fairly straightforward in principle. In a nutshell, a quartz watch is powered by batteries and electricity. In the practice, of course, the workings are a little more complex than that – involving a piece of crystal quartz that vibrates at exactly 32768 times per second – but you get the idea. Quartz watches are just as accurate as you’d expect from a quality timepiece, but they don’t have quite the same prestige as mechanical and automatic movements.

Mechanical
Unlike quartz, mechanical watches don’t rely on a battery. Instead, their internal workings are powered by a more traditional and intricate spring-driven mechanism, sometimes referred to as a mainspring, which needs to be wound every so often. It’s a quiet, solitary, and somewhat intimate task, which is enough to make it something that that many wearers regard as a perk rather than a chore. The workings of mechanical watches have been refined and perfected by the world’s top watchmakers over centuries, which is one of the reasons that mechanical movements are traditionally only associated with the best good watches.

Automatic
Also known as ‘self-winding’ watches, automatic watches are similar in many ways to those with mechanical movements. The main difference is that automatic watches don’t require winding. Instead, they rely on highly advanced technology which generates kinetic energy from the movement of the wearer’s wrist. This essentially involves the use of a weight that’s attached to the internal mechanical movement. The wearer moves their wrist, this weight spins freely, generating energy that’s then used to power the watch.

Almost all of the world’s most high-quality watches use automatic movements. It’s become such a mark of prestige that some brands such as Longines have even developed their own movements in-house, to further cement their exclusivity.

4. The name and heritage of the manufacturer
A true good watch is made of far more than just the metals and materials and technology that goes into its construction – it’s also built upon the history and heritage of the master craftsmen who’ve made it. Put simply, the best watches are produced by world-renowned watchmakers who have spent decades or even centuries continually innovating or refining their timepieces.

Switzerland is perhaps the country most famous for its watchmaking heritage. As the home of the most skilled watchmakers on the face of the planet, the country takes pride in its traditions, and its prestige is virtually unrivaled. Some of the most high-end Swiss watches display the Seal of Geneva, universally regarded as the ultimate stamp of quality from the world’s foremost watchmaking experts.

Some collectors and horologists also like to highlight countries like Germany and Japan for their prowess with timepieces, but there’s no question that Swiss manufacturers still make up the majority of the world’s best-known watchmakers, including Tag Heuer, Omega, TISSOT, Rolex, and of course, Patek Philippe.

5. The watch strap or bracelet
Good watches are typically designed to fit the wrist very closely, so the strap is a hugely important component of the timepiece as a whole. What’s more, different types of straps can have a notable influence on the aesthetics and overall feel of a watch. As with the watch case materials we touched on above, with metal bracelets you can usually tell their quality by the weight. The cheaper and lower-quality watches will use lighter stainless steel, whereas the more high-end good watches will use heavier solid stainless steel, gold, or platinum.

Other good watches – like many you’ll find amongst our range here at Leonard Dews – use leather straps. You can tell the quality of the leather by its ‘grain’. Full-grain is the highest quality of leather, as it means it’s retained its top layer – the most durable part of the hide. The next one down is ‘top grain’. Both of these are frequently used on the highest quality good watches, as they retain their durability while fitting in seamlessly with the beautiful aesthetics of the watch.

6. Chronometer rating
Every so often, you may come across a good watch with ‘Chronometre Certife’ or a similar phrase on the dial. This means that it has been chronometer rated; independently tested to rigorous standards by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute), the world’s foremost institute responsible for certifying the accuracy and precision of Swiss watches.

The tests themselves are exhaustive, monitoring the watch’s accuracy in various different environments, temperatures, and conditions over a number of days. Only watches that pass these punishing tests are awarded a chronometer rating, a testament to their durability and precision.

7. Water-resistance (if it’s a diving watch)
The water resistance of the watch might seem straightforward at first glance, but it’s surprisingly less so once you get into it. You’d be forgiven, for example, for thinking that a watch with a water resistance of 30m can be submerged to a depth of 30m, but that’s not necessarily the case. This is probably less important if you plan to keep your watch safe and dry anyway, but it’s a decision that needs careful consideration if you have any proper adventuring in mind.

If you’re planning on properly submerging the watch, ideally you’ll want one capable of going down to at least 100m, and if you’re actually planning on diving with it, it’ll need to be capable of going down to at least 200m. (The perennially popular Omega Seamster 300 can go as far as 300m, while Breitling even makes diving watches that are capable of going down as far as 500m.)

8. Complications
Complications are a fairly broad-ranging term used to refer to various additional functions certain watches can perform beyond telling the time. Some of the most common ones include internal calendars and chronographs, and some of the more complex date complications might keep track of the date and time across different timezones – helpful for frequent fliers. Some diving watches, on the other hand, monitor oxygen levels for deep-sea diving.

The Longines 42mm Moon Phase watch embodies one of the more intriguing types of complications – in this case, a distinctive element that’s designed more for its artistic value and sense of unique identity, rather than necessarily for genuine practical use. (After all, if we’re honest, knowing the phases of the moon is probably not information you’re going to have much use for on a day-to-day basis!)

A watch doesn’t necessarily need a complication in order to be classed as a good watch, but you’ll certainly seldom see them on budget watches, so it can be an excellent indication of quality right from the off.

9. Value appreciation
This is another quality that you won’t necessarily be able to tell by sight, but for many people, it’s a crucial part of their buying decision – especially if they’re collectors. If you never plan to sell the watch, you might be more concerned with how it looks and feels, so its value appreciation may be less important. However, if you’re buying your watch as an investment, it’s certainly something you’ll need to consider.

Now, the tricky thing is that there’s no straightforward set of criteria that indicates reliable value appreciation for watches as a whole – it tends to vary depending on the specific timepiece. Rolex and Patek Philippe are the only possible exceptions, as these brands tend to increase in value over time. For Rolex, this is due to its high profile with celebrities and powerful figures, both real and fictional (it’s the former official watchmaker for James Bond). Patek Philippe’s value appreciation is rooted more deeply in its high purchase price, which lends the brand a certain level of exclusivity.

On the whole, if a watch has a high-value appreciation, that’s a sure sign that it’s one of the best good watches.

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