Since the sundial was invented some 5,500 years ago, humans have taken a keen interest in horology, or the science of timekeeping. And it’s no wonder why. Clocks break up the day in standard sets of intervals, allowing us to better organize our lives. Today, we’re utterly dependent on the clock—the world revolves around it. So it’s no surprise that timekeeping devices are everywhere, from our phones and computers to our walls and dashboards.
Why, then, do wristwatches still exist? Because watches—especially mechanical watches—are more than just timekeepers. When watch enthusiasts see a watch, they see a wearable work of art. They see craftsmanship, innovation, and a way to express their personal style. They see adventure, history, provenance, and sentimental value. Watches are given as heirlooms and as milestone markers, and they’re passed on across generations. They are daily companions on the road of life. Indeed, they are not just keepers of time but also of memories.
The Improbable Popularity of Mechanical Watches
Like wristwatches themselves, mechanical wristwatches seem outdated. After all, they were invented some 500 years ago. Not only are they less accurate than battery-powered watches, they also require more frequent cleaning and calibration. And yet, since the 1980s, mechanical has been the primary source of fascination for watch enthusiasts.
Why mechanical? Much of the appeal lies in the watch’s movement: the motor that keeps the watch ticking. As its name suggests, the movement comprises tons of tiny brass and steel components working in unison—the escapement, rotor, springs, and gears, to name only a few. It’s little wonder why many enthusiasts refer to mechanical watches as tiny cities.
Quartz vs. Mechanical: What’s the Difference?
In order to activate those moving parts and keep the watch accurate, mechanical watches must store power mechanically, then release that power in a controlled manner to turn the gears. Some mechanical watches are manually wound by hand, though most mechanical watches today are automatic, or self-winding, which means they’re wound by the wearer’s natural movement—all without the aid of a battery. Mechanical watches are true wonders of engineering.
Quartz watches, on the other hand, use a battery and a tiny synthetic quartz crystal. The battery emits an electric current, which oscillates the quartz crystal at a precise frequency. While they are more accurate than mechanical timekeeping devices, quartz watches lack the intricacy and soul of a mechanical watch.
Basic Watch Components
To understand watches, it’s important to familiarize yourself with basic watch componentry and terminology. Below is an incomplete list of the elements that make up the modern wristwatch.
Bezel: A bezel is an outer ring that protects the crystal. Dress watches might have a small, plain bezel, while sportier watches such as divers and aviators might have larger, rotating bezels capable of measuring elapsed time.
Bracelet/Strap: The bracelet is the piece of material that attaches the watch to your wrist. It is typically made out of stainless steel. When made out of leather or nylon, it’s referred to as a strap.
Case: The case of a watch is the housing for the dial and movement. Watch cases are most often made of stainless steel, which manufacturers will polish or brush for aesthetic purposes. And while they’re most often round, watch cases can come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. Case width and thickness are two common measurements to look out for.
Complications: Complications are elements of a watch dial that offer functionality outside of the basic time display. A date display, often positioned at 3 o’clock, is an example of a complication. A chronograph is another complication and it offers stopwatch and timing functionality.
Crown: The crown is the small knob, usually positioned at 3 o’clock, that’s used to set the time and date.
Crystal: This is the translucent material that sits above the dial. Cheaper watches often come with a mineral crystal, which is prone to scratching but resistant to shattering. More expensive watches are fitted with a highly scratch-resistant sapphire crystal, which is slightly more prone to shattering.
Dial: The dial is the face of the watch, where the hands and markers live—the business end of a watch.
Hands: Watch hands come in a variety of different styles. There are sword-style hands, syringe-style hands, and dauphine hands, among many others. Some watch hands, such as those on dive watches, have specific shapes and colors to improve legibility.
Lugs: Lugs are the pieces of metal extending from the 12 and 6 o’clock positions of the case. In conjunction with the spring bars, lugs help hold the watch strap or bracelet in place.
Lume: Lume is a glowing material applied to the dial and hands of many watches to improve visibility in low-light conditions.
Hour Markers: Some watches use Arabic numerals as hour markers, and others use Roman numerals. And still others use no numerals at all, using baton-shaped markers instead.
Subdial: A subsidiary dial, or subdial, is any smaller dial within the larger dial. Chronograph watches often have two or three subdials, which measure running seconds, minutes, and hours.
Stay Tuned for More on Watches!
There you have it: Watches 101. But that’s only the beginning. Stay tuned for articles and tutorials that dig deeper into automatic watches. In the meantime, if you have questions or comments about the article, or about watches in general, leave ‘em below. Or, if you have personal recommendations or watch stories to share, we’d love to hear them—and see pictures, too!
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