Why You Should Wear a Watch
Full disclosure: I make watches for fun, but my feelings about wearing watches hasn’t changed since long before I started tinkering with them. There are plenty of reasons to wear an old-fashioned, non-smartwatch. Of course, if you’re reading this, you may be thinking of reasons regular watches are stupid. And you know what? I can’t argue with you on that score. You’re not all wrong.
People wear wristwatches because they supply us with convenience. They do something useful for us. Smartwatches do plenty of useful things, but the relationship between one’s worn accessories and oneself is not like between one’s phone and oneself; a phone can be put down and ignored or even turned off, but a wristwatch is supposed to live on your wrist all your waking hours. The wristwatch grew out of specific needs. Our relationship with it, and with time, reflects that history.
Past Is Prologue
First, some history. We may think of wristwatches as archaic, but they are actually a fairly new invention. Sure, clocks and pocket watches have been around for a long time, but the wristwatch didn’t become popular until after the pilot’s watch came into being in the first half of the 20th century. They didn’t start to appear on the wrists of the very cool until later, when the sport dive watch came into being, shooting up in popularity in the late 1950s and 1960s. The quartz watch didn’t become widespread until the 1970s, when the technology made a good, reliable wristwatch available to everyone and forever changed the way people think about watches. Even the watch brands we think we know may be older or younger than their marketing departments imply.
Rolex, for example, was founded in 1905 but didn’t hit its stride as the maker of the iconic dive watch until the popularization of the Submariner in the early 1960s. They didn’t even invent the dive watch or their famous screw-down crown. On the other hand, Seiko was founded in 1881 (as Seikosha) and has always been a marque respected by collectors, despite (unlike Rolex) making many inexpensive watches in addition to its ridiculously expensive Grand Seiko models.
Why is Rolex more of a prestige brand than Seiko? Primarily because of brilliant marketing. Of course, that marketing plays on the reason so many people love watches: their history. Watches are purchased not just in fancy jewelers but on military PXs and in dingey back alleys. Some watches, expensive or otherwise, aren’t just owned by one person, but by generations of a family. Sure, I own some luxury watches I inherited from my father, but the watch that makes me smile every time I clap eyes on it is the cheapo Wenger he wore day to day. Of course, if you buy an Apple Watch, you’re lucky if you don’t have to replace it within five years. Give it a decade or two of upgrading a smartwatch model, and you’ve spent the money it would have cost to buy a Patek.
Naturally, there are more accurate ways of keeping time than wearing a watch. Many of these ways one needn’t pay for.
If you have a mobile phone, you have a fairly accurate clock in there. Sure, a quick check of NIST will show you that your phone company doesn’t care that its clock is off, but it’s close enough for government work. You might be in the market for or currently wear a smartwatch. Those things keep time as accurately as your phone, never mind that your phone is probably off a bit. They also do things like let you know you have texts, or that you’re getting robocalled again, so they have uses beyond keeping the time.
Those who look down on the dated wrist-mounted watch may think of its enthusiasts as superficial, wearing little more than jewelry. Though some people wear watches for trivial reasons, the impetus to wear a watch isn’t always impractical. I argue wearing a regular watch is a much better idea than using any other method to keep time.
Time Is More Than Money
No, this isn’t an endorsement of a luxury watch as an investment. What a watch can do, be it a $14,000 Rolex Oyster or a $50 Timex, is change your relationship to time and, in turn, the way you spend it. This is the single most valuable thing a regular watch does for its owner.
Using a watch, especially a mechanical one, means having to periodically set the time. This ritual causes you to be aware of time in a much different way. This awareness of time is the very reason I found out that the phone companies’ clocks are all off, as are the ones in all the churches in my neighborhood — some by more than 2 minutes.
The effect of watches on one’s awareness of time is similar to the findings of a study on improving attention while driving, among teens with ADHD. The study found that giving the study subjects a car with a manual transmission made them more engaged in the act of driving (and less prone to distraction) than giving them one with an automatic transmission.
A regular wristwatch is a temporal stick-shift.
Your Personal Statement
Whether one means for it or not, a watch of any kind is a personal statement, like growing a beard or wearing a certain type of eyeglasses frame. This statement may come from a place of aesthetic tastes, or it may stem from an entirely practical reason. Either way, the specifics of the choice of watch type and how it is worn and treated will say a lot about the wearer, like it or not.
Some professions require special types of watches, while others may have more to do with one’s hobbies or interests. Wearing the right watch in the right setting is like code-switching without having to say or do anything. It’s the reason jerks buy fake Omegas: they want to look like James Bond but they can’t afford to service a real Omega. It’s also why even Casio put out a G-Shock that apes the look of one of the most expensive watches ever made by Audemars Piguet.
For example, a workman is unlikely to wear a delicate mechanical watch. It’s much more likely someone whose hands do hard work will wear a quartz watch. A quartz watch is cheaper, so if you smash it to bits, you won’t be so upset about it. It won’t go all cattywampus around magnetism or hard kinetic impacts the way a mechanical watch can. Third, if you punch a clock for a living, you can time your quartz watch to the clock and always arrive to work on time to the second.
Sure, you who own an already outdated $500 watch from Apple may turn your nose up at the likes of the $45-$50 Casio Dura, but it’s the watch Bill Gates wears, and he could afford to buy every watch on the planet.
Wreck Divers & Desk Divers
Modern divers usually wear dive computers these days, rather than dive watches. These modern miracles are really handy and they can be used to make calculations underwater and on the fly in ways dive watches cannot. As a result, the very existence of a diver-focused wristwatch is anachronistic.
Consequently, there are two reasons people wear dive watches: either they need a watch they can bash around and not worry about killing, or they got one because, as in the case of the Rolex Submariner, it’s a status symbol. The latter is sometimes referred to as a “desk diver” because the only diving their watch will ever do is going under their desk when they drop their Mont Blanc.
If someone wears a dive watch that has some patina, it likely means that watch has seen some hard wear out in the world. Maybe the wearer hikes and uses the watch as a compass (more on that later) or they actually take it diving/swimming/snorkeling. There are even special dive watches that are designed around the needs of sailors. Some wear and tear on one of these watches means it was acquired for use, not for show. A pristine Seamaster just says that the owner has the money for the watch and wants to look like they dive when they show up in their $1,000 oxfords at Goldman-Sachs.
A watch-collector friend of mine once told me of an encounter with a man who, like him, was wearing a Rolex Submariner. The other man asked him if he too was a diver. My friend is not a diver, and sheepishly admitted that. My friend asked the man if he was a diver. The man said he was a diver — an NYPD diver — the head one in fact — and had been given his Submariner by Rolex when he did an ad for them. Suddenly, my friend and his Submariner felt much less cool.
Another reason to wear a regular watch is that some watches have extra features beyond measuring the time of day — the very same sort of reason one might purchase a smartwatch. These extra features are called complications. A smartwatch, for example, has dozens of complications including texting and being an MP3 player. For regular watches, especially mechanical ones, adding complications means having a more complex watch movement, which adds expense to manufacture and thus price.
Wearing a watch with added complications implies that those features are useful to the wearer, and thus they say something about that watch wearer. I usually wear a watch with the day of the week and day of the month complications added to it. I like having that information at my fingertips, especially for filling out paperwork. I have a friend who hates both of those complications, preferring a watch that just tells him hours, minutes and seconds. Like him, if you don’t need a complication, you might want to skip it for aesthetic reasons. On the other hand, some folks insist on certain complications for aesthetics.
The only reason to have a watch with complications is that those features improve your quality of life. That could mean the complication has a practical use, or seeing it just makes you happy. If a complication doesn’t serve either end, why bother with it? I for one don’t want constant buzzes on my wrist when I get an email or because someone has forgotten to take me off a text thread I’m ignoring; I don’t own a smartwatch.
Those who often fly great distances might wear a GMT watch. A GMT watch is a watch with a fourth hand in addition to the hours minutes and seconds hands, measuring 24 hours in one full rotation. The purpose of this is to set that hand to one time zone while adjusting the main three hands to another.
This complication allows the wearer to easily keep track of the time in different places, which is handy for knowing how jet-lagged you’ll be when you land or figuring out what local time your flight will actually land, based on the estimated flight time from the departure time zone. GMT watches like the Rolex GMT Master, which largely grew out of the technical developments of dive watches, came to symbolize the international jet set who needed to know what time it was in Los Angeles, so they could make calls from Paris or Hong Kong at the appropriate time. Once again, it forces part of your mind to work on what time it is where you are and where else the watch measures time.
Other complications that have actual uses include power reserve meters (which should be self-explanatory), rotating bezels and chronographs. “Chronograph” is just a fancy way of saying “stop-watch”. Chronographs are used in a variety of areas including sports, diving, auto-racing, and even in TV news, where I used to work with a producer who would use his chronograph to mark when certain video appeared in a satellite feed.
A rotating bezel, on the other hand, has a ton of uses. Some bezels are essentially slide-rules. Some bezels are designed to measure minutes, with little markings for each minute and one big one at 12 o’clock.
Others may have markings for hours, like on the watch dial, but able to rotate independently of the markings on the dial itself. This could be for certain types of GMT watch or for watches without a GMT movement, but a need to keep track of several time zones. This latter type are often called dual-time watches. Other bezels could have the cardinal compass directions on them, or tachometer markings that are used by pilots. Some are even completely abstract.
Almost any of these bezel types can be used for any of the others since the differences mostly come down to aesthetics; the markings on the bezel, not the mechanics of the bezel itself. For example, any watch can be used as a compass, but a watch with a bezel makes it easy. If it’s daytime and you can see the sun, you can do this.
If you’re in the northern hemisphere, this is the method to use: Lay your watch down on the (paper) map you’re using. Now rotate the watch so that the hour hand points in the direction of the sun. Note the time: is it morning or afternoon? Measure halfway between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock marker, counterclockwise if it’s after noon; clockwise if it’s morning. That midpoint is approximately due south. Now, if you have a watch with a rotating bezel, you can turn your 12 o’clock marker to this point on the watch, lay the watch on the map, and know what direction is true north.
If you’re in the southern hemisphere, this is the method to use: do essentially the same thing as in the northern hemisphere, except point the noon marker at the sun instead of the hour hand. Now measure between the hour hand and the noon marker as you would otherwise in the northern hemisphere and mark the midpoint with the bezel. Now you’ve marked north instead of south.
Last but not least, there’s the issue of power. While a phone or smartwatch needs to be charged, most watches aren’t powered that way. Most modern watches have some incidental power charging mechanism that means you’ll always have it working without having to plug it in.
Automatic mechanical watches are usually powered by a rotor that moves when your hand moves. This rotor winds the mainspring of the watch, which powers the whole thing. Most of these watches will have a power reserve of at least a couple of days, meaning that if you take off your watch for the weekend, it’ll likely still be ticking when you put it back on Monday before work.
There are also solar-powered quartz watches that hide solar panels behind their dials, enabling them to charge a capacitor with sunlight, so you needn’t even wear them at all to charge them — just leave them on a window sill to get some sun. Most of these watches will happily continue to tick for six months in total darkness, and if they run out of juice, just wear them for a day and they come right back.
If you don’t like the solar part but want a quartz watch that works forever without changing the battery, some companies make quartz watches that use a rotor to charge the battery, mixing automatic and solar tech.
In any case, the simplicity of a regular wristwatch means it will always be there for you. And when it comes to measuring the neverending march of eternity, “always” is a big deal.
These are just my thoughts. I wasn’t sponsored or paid by anyone; no retailers or watchmakers. See? Honesty. Now go set your watch.
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