A man’s wristwatch.
An investment. A staple of his style. A subtle show of his taste and his class. But above all…
…something he and every man should own.
But here’s the problem:
Buying a real watch (like this one) is intimidating and stressful:
- Watches are surrounded by industry jargon (automatic vs. quartz movements, 5 ATM, crown, case, etc.).
- You have a handful of big choices to make (the type of watch, the type of band, the best manufacturers, etc.).
- They hugely range in price (you could buy an $11 Casio, a $150 Fifth Watch or an $18,350 Audemars Piguet).
While buying a real watch seems stressful, and understanding them can feel daunting…
…when they’re distilled down, they’re actually pretty simple.
This post was made possible by The Fifth Watches, creators of classic, minimal timepieces, available exclusively on the 5th of every month.
The Ultimate Guide to Watches
This guide will teach you everything you need to know about watches, but if you’re interested in something specific, you can jump to any section using the table of contents below.
Side Note: Throughout this article, you’ll see italicized links on specific watch terms (for example: band). These are internal links that, if you click, will jump you to the definition of that term. As an example, click on the italicized link for “band”.
The evolution of the wristwatch is same as the evolution of timekeeping devices:
Early timekeeping devices
Since the beginning of time, mankind has been obsessed with time and keeping track of it…
The creation of the 1500’s portable clock opened the door for the two timekeeping devices we’re most familiar with today:
Pocket watches, originally referred to as “pocket clocks”, became popular during the 16th century and remained the most common type of watch until World War I.
As their name suggests, they were small, flat and designed to fit in a man’s pocket. They usually had an attached chain that secured them to a waistcoat, belt loop or lapel.
The vast majority of pocket watches used a manual, mechanical movement (which we’ll get into below).
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the first wristwatch was made in 1868 by Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe.
Like I mentioned above, wristwatches didn’t become popular among men until World War I. Before this, they were considered feminine and dainty… a pointless fashion accessory for women.
Then, during WWI, wristwatches began to be advertised as a battlefield accessory… manufacturers even prayed on the public’s fears with slogans like:
The soldier’s most prized possession is his wrist-watch, by its accuracy he advances confidently ‘over the top’ behind the barrage of our own artillery, knowing to the minute the limit of safety in advance.” source
…and no longer a feminine accessory. To this day, it remains one of the few accessories for men that’s considered manly.
Side Note: From here on, when I say watch, I’m specifically talking about wristwatches.
The movement is the motor of the watch.
While its source of power varies, it’s what moves your watch’s hands, keeps track of the date, and runs any of the watch’s other functions
Broadly speaking, there are two different types of movements:
Movement Type #1: Mechanical
Movement Type #2: Quartz
The inside of a mechanical movement pocket watch.
It uses a coiled spring, called a mainspring, that slowly unwinds to release its energy.
The mechanical movement was the mechanism that powered the first portable watches.
Through gears and springs, this released energy is routed to power the watch’s many functions, like turning the hands or keeping track of the date.
Fundamentally, this is how a mechanical movement works… but there are two unique types of mechanical movements:
Manual (hand-wind) movement
The manual movement is the oldest type of watch movement, and was installed in the first portable watch ever made.
As the name suggests, the wearer must manually coil the mainspring by turning the crown.
Automatic (self-wind) movement
As the name suggests, this movement automatically coils its own mainspring.
Here’s how it works:
As the wearer moves their wrist, the rotor spins. This spinning builds kinetic energy which is used to wind the mainspring.
So… while the mainspring is constantly loosening (to power the watch), it’s also constantly tightening (as long as the wearer’s wrist is moving).
The quartz movement was introduced by Seiko in 1969.
This revolutionary movement was electronic and made its mechanical predecessor technically obsolete in almost every way:
- More affordable
- Precisely accurate
- Requires very little maintenance
Here’s how they work:
In quartz movement watches, the mainspring is replaced by a battery.
This battery sends an electrical current through the quartz crystal, electrifying it and causing it to vibrate (more than 30,000 times per second).source These vibrations power the motor that drives the watch’s hands and other functions.
While not technically a watch movement, I wanted to quickly touch on smart watches:
The first real smart watch, The IBM WatchPad, was introduced back in 2001.
As the name implies, a smartwatch, like your smartphone, can do a myriad of different things from checking the weather to making calls.
But here’s the thing:
The Apple watch isn’t a watch.
I read an article from the Atlantic that perfectly summarizes what it is, “The Apple Watch is a watch in as much as a DVD player or a microwave is a watch.” […] “It is ultimately a device that helps you decide whether to look at your phone.”
When you wear a watch, you’re making a statement. Which statement would you rather make: timeless and classic or hip and current?
From leather to metal, there are a handful of different styles of watch bands… below, I’m going to cover the four most popular types.
I want to quickly mention that you’re never stuck with one type of watch band. With most watches, it’s easy to change your watch band… and you should.
…By doing so, you can quickly change your watch’s look to match different styles and settings.
Pro Tip: Each watch from TFW’s New York Classic collection comes with two different style bands.
If you’re looking for a versatile watch, I highly suggest The Tribeca. It’s sent with two leather bands, one black and one tobacco colored… meaning you essentially get two incredibly diverse and unique watches.
Here are the four most popular types of watch bands:
Leather is soft, flexible and, in my opinion, by far the most comfortable material for a watch band.
A leather band gives your watch a classic, elegant look that’s perfect for both casual and professional settings (and everywhere in between).
The bottom line:
Unless you’re doing something specific, like diving, I highly suggest a leather band for its versatility and comfort.
Metal watchbands (also referred to as metal bracelets) are frequently found in two types of watches:
- Luxury watches – Luxury watchmakers often use fine, expensive metals (like the 18K white gold used in the Audemars Piguet above).
- Dive watches – Metal remains comfortable when soaking wet.
While metal watch bands are comfortable, they tend to be heavier and bulkier than other watch band types.
The bottom line:
A great watch band for those who want to splurge or plan on getting their watch soaked.
Nylon straps are found in two main types of watches:
- Inexpensive and casual watches
- Highly durable watches
Nylon is comfortable, breathable and, more importantly, incredibly durable. Popular nylon strap types, like the NATO strap, were original created for military use.
The bottom line:
Nylon straps are a case of function over form. In most cases, they don’t look great… but not only can you get them wet, they can take a beating.
Rubber and silicone are frequently found in sport and dive watches because of their flexibility and water/sweat resistance.
They’re comfortable but are extremely casual… and usually not very stylish.
Think about it:
Would you wear a rubber-strap watch with a tuxedo? No, and really, you don’t want to wear either a rubber or silicone band with anything other than extremely casual clothing (like workout clothes).
The bottom line:
Rubber and silicone watch bands are great for exercise and activities that involve water… and little more.
While there isn’t technically one right way to wear a watch…
…there’s a lot of tradition and history etched into the culture of watches… so, you’ll generally see them worn one specific way or another.
Here are four common questions on how to wear a watch:
1. Which wrist am I supposed to wear my watch on?
Traditionally, watches are worn on the wrist opposite the hand that you write with. For example, a lefty would wear their watch on the right wrist and a righty their left wrist.
It’s much more comfortable. Your writing-hand wrist is constantly sliding across different surfaces…
…and your naked wrist slides much more comfortably and easily than your wrist with a watch.
What’s most common:
Opposite the hand that you write with.
2. How tight should it be?
From a style perspective, your watch:
- Shouldn’t be so tight that your skin is popping up around it, and
- Shouldn’t be so loose that it’s falling off your wrist or spinning around it
In between those two… it’s personal preference. Do you want your watch to firmly stay in one place or do you want it to be able to slide around a bit?
What’s most common:
Able to slide up and down your wrist a bit.
3. Do I wear it above or below my wrist bone?
Where you place your watch on your wrist is another matter of personal preference…
…but I highly recommend you wear your watch below the wrist bone for two reasons:
- It looks better – Take a look at this Google search for “watch models”. How many of those models are wearing the watch above their wrist bone?
- It’s more comfortable – When worn below the wrist bone, your watch can slide up and down your wrist… and doesn’t feel at all constrictive.
What’s most common:
Below the wrist bone.
4. Should the watch face be pointing towards the sky or the ground?
While the vast majority of people wear their watch face pointing up (to read the time from your watch, you’d point your thumb to the ground), some people wear their watch face pointing down (to read the time from your watch, you’d point your thumb to the ground).
Again, the direction you wear your watch is personal preference… but one word of caution:
If you wear your watch facing down, you’re a lot more likely to scratch the face of your watch.
Think about it:
Unconsciously, you’re constantly sliding your wrists across different surfaces (when typing on a computer, grabbing your cup of coffee, etc.). Every time this happens, you’re risking scratching the face of your watch.
What’s most common:
A watch is an investment.
If you buy your watch from a reputable manufacturer, and take proper care of it… it’ll last you a long time.
Here are two important things to do to take proper care of your watch:
First, you should never clean the inside of your watch (the movement). It’s just too easy to mess something up… so take it to a watch maker or specialist.
To clean the outside of your watch:
- Make sure your watch is water resistant to 50 meters (5 ATM) (most quality watches will be water resistant to this depth).
- Mix water and a little mild, liquid dishwasher soap (don’t use a bar of soap).
- Dip a soft-bristle toothbrush into your soap-water mixture and gently clean your watch case.
Depending on what type of watch band you have, the cleaning method can vary greatly.
Realize that the cleaning method will vary not just for different materials (like leather and metal), but also for different types of that specific material (like natural leather vs dyed leather vs suede leather).
Do a quick Google search based on your watch band’s material… something like, “how to clean a [insert watch band material] watch band”.
Now, regardless of what material your watchband is made of… this is important:
Detach the watch band from the watch case before cleaning… you don’t want to accidentally damage any of your watch’s internal mechanical or electrical parts.
First, be sure to wear your watch every few days.
This will ensure that your mainspring stays tightly wound and, in turn, that your watch’s internal mechanisms keep moving.
Second, every 3-5 years, you should have your watch serviced (have the oil changed, the inside cleaned, etc.) by a watch maker or specialist.
Taking care of your quartz watch is dead simple:
If the battery dies, replace it.
Parts of a watch
Hands – The arrows that point to the time. The shortest hand points to the hour, the second shortest points to the minute, the longest hand, which is usually a different color than the other hands (like red), points to the second.
Mainspring – The coiled spring that powers the functions of mechanical movement watches.
Quartz Crystal – A piezoelectric crystal, which means that if an electrical charge (like that from a battery) is applied, the crystal vibrates (which is fundamental to quartz watches). You can see a quartz crystal in the image to the right.
Related watch terms:
1 ATM, 3 ATM, 5 ATM – A measure of the amount of pressure a watch can handle. Each ATM is equivalent to 10 meters of water pressure. So, a watch with a 5 ATM rating can handle the water pressure that comes from being 50 meters underwater.
Buying your first real watch is a big purchase.
Cut through the industry jargon and the complex, over-complicated world of watches…
…and make an informed buying decision with the information you’ve learned from this distilled guide to the wristwatch.