Making a purchase with confidence includes knowing the materials, movements and case sizes, then applying what you’ve learned to your personal style.
Buying a watch can be an easy impulse purchase. You can pop into a department or off-price store, spend $25-100, and you’re done.
But at some point, whether you’re a man or a woman, you’re likely to want something more impressive. A fine timepiece can cap off any outfit — whether it’s a suit, a cocktail dress or Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt.
For women, a watch acts as an accompaniment to other pieces of jewelry, ideally syncing up with her style and other accessory choices for the day. Are you wearing a gold necklace and ring? A gold watch will complete the look, not compete with it.
For men, since it is often the only piece of “jewelry” they wear, a watch acts as an anchor for their look. Of course, whether they cost $49.95 or $5,000, watches do pretty much the same thing (and your phone serves as ample backup in case they stop doing their job). But a watch also makes a statement: This is who I am; this is who I aspire to be.
A watch also makes a statement: This is who I am; this is who I aspire to be.
If you’re going to spend more than $100 on a watch, you need to understand the basics of what you’re buying. In theory, you can run out and spend $2 million on a watch because of the name. But in all likelihood, you’re looking at spending $500-7,000, and may be uncertain as to the smartest way to do it. Here’s what you need to know to make a purchase with confidence, starting with materials, movement and case size.
When considering materials, it’s important to include the case, the band, the crystal and the movement.
The case is the outer covering, generally made of metal, designed to protect the inner workings. When you’re thinking about case materials, you need to consider style and durability. Style is about what looks good to you; durability comes into play in how you use the watch. For example, are you a regular swimmer? Some cases are built to resist water from entering the watch. It’s a great idea to go with a water-resistant watch, even if the closest you get to water is washing the dishes.
Stainless steel is the most popular case metal used in high-quality watches. Stainless looks great forever because it resists tarnishing and discoloration. You might consider titanium, a newer choice that is becoming popular because it’s as durable as stainless steel but not as heavy on the wrist. Solid gold in a variety of karats (not gold plated) is expensive, and is the standard for luxurious men’s and women’s timepieces — although gold can appear flashy and is not a look every man or woman is comfortable wearing.
To be honest, a fine platinum watch will likely cost you $20,000 plus. This may be something to aspire to. Platinum is being used to create stunning watches for both men and women. It’s a naturally white metal and doesn’t change color over time — perfect when you’re looking for an heirloom piece. Because it is a very dense metal, it’s a lot heavier than gold, so men may be more comfortable with big platinum watches than women. If you have metal and chemical allergies, you should know that platinum is hypoallergenic, so it can be worn daily without incident.
Recently ceramic, particularly white ceramic, has become a popular watch material with women for its unique look and designer cachet. However, it can be found in many other colors (such as seafoam green and vivid purple), which can make for a great signature piece.
Bracelet or strap?
Another key material to consider as you think about the right watch for you is the band. Bands come in two forms: the bracelet and the strap.
Bracelets are made of interlocking metal links, usually in the same material as the case. Bracelets can be resized by adding or removing links. Bands can come in a variety of leathers, rubber, plastic, fabric and another materials, and can really change up the look of a watch. Sport watches often come with a durable rubber or nylon strap to stand up to tough outdoor activities. Certain women’s fashion watches are sold with complementary leather, rubber or plastic bands that can be switched out to match different outfits, and men can always expand their style options by purchasing extra bands as well. When it comes to bands, the color choices are endless.
A material you might not have thought about if you’re new to quality watch buying is the crystal. The watch crystal is a covering of glass, plastic or synthetic colorless sapphire that fits over the watch face to protect the interior. The type of crystal will absolutely vary according to the price of a watch.
When looking for a high-end watch, it’s unlikely you’ll find one with an acrylic crystal. Acrylic is a light and inexpensive plastic. You’ll find this often in sport watches, since it doesn’t shatter or crack. However, it scratches easily, which can ruin the look of the watch. Also, deep scratches can allow moisture inside the watch, destroying the movement.
Mineral glass is regular glass that has been heat- or chemically treated to withstand a good pounding. It’s more resistant to scratches, but can crack or shatter under extreme conditions.
Then there is sapphire crystal — which is not made from an actual sapphire — found on almost all watches over $500. This synthetic compound with the same physical, chemical & optical properties of natural colorless sapphire is the choice of high-end watch manufacturers because it withstands scratching better than the others. However, it shatters more easily than acrylic. Only a diamond or another sapphire can scratch the surface.
Watch enthusiasts can debate for hours the pros and cons of movement — the way a watch works. We’ll keep it limited to a few paragraphs about the three types: Mechanical, quartz and automatic.
Mechanical movement is truly old school. It uses a spring that is wound by hand using a button (the “crown”) on the side of the watch. Timepiece aficionados choose vintage watches with mechanical movements as well as new productions made this way. The “craftsmanship” is what turns them on. What you need to know, though, is that you will need to “turn on” this type of watch by hand winding it — which means if you forget, you’re going to start using your phone to tell time. Mechanical watches can lose or gain time of up to 10 seconds a day — something to keep in mind if you live or die by the 7:22 train home.
Possibly the timepiece movement most understood is the quartz. Quartz movement uses a tiny sliver of quartz that vibrates at a precise frequency when electricity is passed across it. This power comes from a battery that usually needs to be replaced once a year or so. Quartz movement watches are cost-effective for brands to manufacturer, so you’ll find the most affordable watches have this movement. Many watch manufacturers call their movements “Swiss quartz,” but these days there is little to no difference between “Swiss” quartz and other quartz. Also helpful to know: regular quartz watches are extremely accurate.
Finally, there are automatic — or self-winding — movements. These timepieces run on the energy you produce by swinging and using your arm every day. Even if this is the only watch you use (i.e., you’re wearing it daily), you’ll still need to reset it once a month or so, as these watches commonly gain or lose a few minutes. However, it may make sense to also purchase an automatic watch winder — which gently winds the watch. Watch winders that run silently and slowly can set you back a couple hundred dollars (they can also be pieces of art in their own right that display your watches while they’re not in use), but are definitely worth the purchase should your automatic movement collection start to grow.
If you’ve been studying wrists recently (less creepy than it sounds), watch case size is definitely growing. Case diameter is measured in millimeters — the average women’s case diameter is 34mm or smaller. The average men’s case diameter is usually at least 40mm or larger, which is a little more than one and one half inches. However, it’s really not uncommon to see case diameters of 48, 50 and even 55 mm (that’s 2.2 inches!). And those gigantic faces are not limited to men. Women have become very confident about making a statement with a big-faced watch.
But here’s what you need to consider — whether you’re a man or a woman. Does the watch overwhelm you? Does the size look ridiculous on your wrist? Sometimes big is just big. A simpler style in a slim case may be a better choice than one that is flashy and huge. For example, a big classic rectangular watch versus a big round chronograph. Again, think about what you want your watch to say about you.
The right time
The style of a watch should appropriately reflect the event you’re attending or how you’re commonly spending your days.
Black-tie events require formal watches (not the one you use when you go mudding). For a man, a watch with a plain white or black face and a leather strap is perfect. The classic rectangle in a smaller, delicate size that matches the metal of the other jewelry she’s wearing is right for a woman.
Chronographs are distinctive and useful. A chronograph is a watch that includes at least one “sub-dial” (and often more) that functions as a stopwatch. These watches can look substantial and impressive, as many have much larger case diameters to house the additional dials. That style, along with the recognition of the chronograph as a complex piece of art and science, is the reason so many people who don’t need the functionality wear them.
If you want a watch that is uniquely you, consider a brand like Michele that lets you choose the band and the case separately (your jeweler will put them together for you). Online configurators make it easy and fun to create a watch that reflects your style and personality.
For a look that “goes with anything,” stainless steel in a classic bracelet for men or women can’t be beat. However, the white ceramic timepiece is making its way surely and steadily toward that level as an option for women. Also look for watches with textured leather straps, which provide a level of elegance. If the occasion calls something a bit “more,” a timepiece with a dial made of lustrous white mother-of-pearl or ringed with diamonds can be a beautiful, shimmery choice.
Take this information and apply it to your personal style, as well as how you will most use your new timepiece. Your style might be vintage or modern, all-in or subdued. But once you know the basics of what goes into a high-end watch, you’ll be able to match your style needs to the quality requirements and get something spectacular for you.