Q And Answer: What Men’s Watch Should I Wear?

January 5, 2011

Q and Answer: What Men’s Watch Should I Wear?

Trevor asks: Can you outline what kind of watches are appropriate for what occasions?  Surely everything comes down to preference and style, but are there certain combinations that should be avoided?  Is there a minimum set of watches a man should own?  Do I need to match my watch with my belt buckle with my shoe buckle?

We don’t claim to be watch experts – we leave that to our pals at Hodinkee – but we do know enough to give you the basics. So here goes…

Time keeping is at best a secondary purpose in a wristwatch. In 2010, there are accurate clocks everywhere, including the computer that you work on and the cell phone you carry in your pocket. Indeed, most of these clocks are more accurate than the watch on my wrist right now. Watches keep time, but they are, essentially, jewelry. They’re chosen for their aesthetic and symbolic value.

So: what are those values?

Let’s start with your questions.

Some watches are more formal than others. Formal watches tend to have simple, elegant faces. Their bodies are made of metal, but their bands are made of leather. As with anything else, black leather is more formal than brown. White faces are more formal than any other color. Complications, if present, are simpler and not related to sport. (Complications, by the way, are the functions of a watch that extend beyond telling the current time, like stopwatches, dates and so forth.)

Less formal watches, like less formal clothing, tend to reflect sporting roots. That means complications like the aforementioned stopwatch, or other types of timers. It also means features like oversized cases (as in dive watches), metal bands and black faces. Also included in here are military watches, which are quite trendy at the moment, and often have black faces and non-leather bands. Digital watches are strictly casual and not especially tasteful, though obviously if you’re actually using them for sport they’re perfectly fine.

What watches you should own is really determined by your lifestyle and personal preferences. Where you start your collection, or even whether you collect at all, should be determined by your needs and means. I myself own four watches that I wear regularly.

One is a gold Longines from the 50s, with a small case, white face and black band. It was a gift to my grandfather to thank him for his service to Fox Theaters, and he gave it to me before he passed. It’s (obviously) very important to me, and it’s also my most formal watch. I wore it during my wedding, and reserve it for more formal occasions.

I also own an automatic Junghans Max Bill, as pictured above. It has an undyed leather strap, which has darkened over the time I’ve owned it to mid- to dark brown. It’s my favorite watch, and the one I wear most – serious enough for the odd jacket level of formality that’s my day-to-day. Works fine in a more casual situation, too.

I also own an Omega Dynamic from the 1970s with a metal band that looks a lot like this one. It’s a casual, sporty watch that I usually wear with jeans. It’s a bit unusual and space agey, but still reasonably classy. I like the heavier weight with some of my casual clothes – in fact, I’m wearing it right now with jeans and a navy blue sweater.

My final watch is a Timex Easy Reader, which was a Christmas gift a couple years ago, and cost about $20 from Target. I had a watch battery guy take the horrible leather band it came with off, and use ribbon straps on it when the fancy strikes me. It’s a nice change of pace, especially in the spring and summer.

That’s a pretty solid basic rotation, but I could probably get away with just the Junghans, or just the Omega or Timex if I rarely wore a suit. In fact, I could get away with no watch at all if I wanted – but since this is one of the only pieces of jewelry it’s reasonable for me to wear, I want to take advantage of the opportunity.

So, what should you look for when you buy a watch?

When buying a watch, you’re buying craftsmanship, aesthetics, history and (related to all of these) prestige. It’s often an act of conspicuous consumption (or the opposite). Brand is important, and brand values vary from person to person.

There are, however, some things you can consider.

  • A mechanical watch will always be “classier” than a quartz watch. Quartz watches are by any measure more accurate, but remember that the value in a watch is largely symbolic. The crafting of a mechanical movement is what makes a watch special, and what makes it different from the clock on your cell phone.
  • Watches are defined in part by their complications. More complications mean a more complex movement and generally a more expensive watch. Sporting complications mean a more casual watch. Consider what complications you might like before you buy.
  • If you plan to wear the watch very regularly, an automatic (or self-winding) watch is a good choice. It will capture the movement of your arm to power its mechanism.
  • A sapphire crystal will be more durable than plastic, and scratch less. This is typically a feature on watches costing more than $500.
  • Movement geekery is rampant in watch world – know that many watch brands do not make their own movements, so before you buy a very expensive watch, familiarize yourself with the landscape.
  • Watches have grown larger and larger over the past fifty years, after growing smaller and smaller for the previous fifty. Remember that if you’re buying a fine watch, you’ll want to keep it a long time, so what looks like exaggerated cool now will look distasteful later. Keep the size modest.

So what watches do we recommend?

On the very low end, I’m absolutely fine with the Timex Easy Reader. In the absence of quality, one often has to settle for simplicity, and that watch has simplicity in spades.

I also like very simple military watches, especially for casual wear. Visit your local Army-Navy store and take a look at the unbranded quartz options available for $30 or $40. Spend a couple hundred bucks and you can get the vintage mechanical equivalent.

Don’t spend more than about $50 for a quartz watch. Once you get above the very basic threshold, spend a little real money and get a real watch. If you can’t afford it, that’s fine, stick with the basics.

If you’re willing to spend a couple hundred bucks, look at the Hamilton Khaki, and at Seikos. These are quality watches with solid movements that are well-regarded by watch people.

If you’re looking for something more formal, consider a vintage watch. You can buy a beautiful vintage Omega, serviced, for about $500. Less if you look hard.

In that range, new, my favorite watches are the Junghans line designed by Max Bill, discussed above (it also features manual and chronoscope options), and another German watch, the Stowa. When I wanted to buy an heirloom-quality watch that could also be worn casually (a gift for my brother’s college graduation), I chose the Stowa Flieger, a watch worn by German pilots and manufactured pretty much continuously since the 30s.

Above that range, the world is your oyster. There are many beautiful watches available from companies like Rolex, Patek Phillipe, IWC and so forth. You’ll want to try and find something that will hold its value, which means well-established brands. Buy used from a reputable source and you will pay less, buy new and you will get a warranty and, generally speaking, exceptional service.

Oh, and you can match your watch metal to your other metals if you like, but I find it a bit precious.

I hope that’s of use to you. Go forth and tell time!