We all know that a good watch has the power to instantly upgrade any outfit. But whatever about how they look – actually understanding how they work, which complications are good for what, and which features are actually worth paying for is no cinch.
So we asked a group of trusted watch experts to help us compile a list of the terms you really need to know when it comes to buying a timepiece (and impressing your mates).
A – Automatic
“Automatic is a term used to describe a self-winding mechanical watch,” says Muhaddisa Fazal, Fine Watch Buyer at The Watch Gallery. “These pieces are wound by the movement of the wearer’s arm or by winding at the crown. Power is created by the watch’s mainspring (see E below), which is wound by a rotor (see R below) that turns in response to the wearer’s motion.”
“An unworn automatic watch will eventually run out of power and will need to be wound by hand to restart. Automatic watches usually suggest a watch has exemplary craftsmanship – the mechanics keep it going for long periods of time (providing you’re not bone idle) and as such, usually cost a fair bit more than your usual non-manufacture watch.”
B – Bezel
“This is the ring located on the top side of the watch case, which holds the glass or crystal in place,” says Simon Spiteri, Accessories Buyer at Mr Porter.
“Movable bezels can serve other functions, such as tracking elapsed time, and they often have time increments marked on them.”
C – Chronograph
This is essentially a stopwatch, featuring an independent, sweeping seconds hand, which is stopped and started with two buttons that flank the watch’s crown.
A chronograph’s purpose is to allow a comparison between a time base and a permanent recording of the user’s findings – something especially useful, for everything from timing horse races to directing artillery fire, before the advent of the electronic stopwatch.
D – Dial
“The dial is the face – and an essential part – of the watch,” says Neil Waller, co-founder of British watch brand Shore Projects.
“Numbers were first included on the dial in the 17th century. Nowadays though, the 1-12 hour dial is so well-known that the numbers are often omitted in favour of undifferentiated hour marks.”
E – Escapement
“This is the heartbeat of a mechanical watch,” says Terry Markham, Senior Buyer at WatchShop.com.
“It’s the mechanism that allows for the controlled release of the mainspring (a spiral metal ribbon inside the watch), giving the watch its time-keeping facility.”
F – Fly-Back Hand
“First developed as a time-saving feature for pilots, this is a central chronograph seconds hand which flies back to zero and starts again upon compression of the second chronograph push-piece,” explains Fazal.
“Granted, the majority of us aren’t raining death from above for a living but a fly-back hand gives a nostalgic nod to the classic aviation watches from the likes of Zenith and Bell & Ross.”
G – Gasket
“This is a mechanical seal which keeps the watch together and usually fastens the dial and the caseback together,” says Fazal.
“Although it sounds pretty innocuous, a gasket can be the definitive part of a watch – thick and large variations are often reserved for big trophy watches whilst you can find alternatives in sports-led rubber or thinner, finer dimensions.”
H – Helium Escape Valve
“Although this is no more than a conversation piece for anyone other than a diver, it’s an interesting feature nonetheless,” says Spiteri.
“Historically, the purpose of a helium escape valve was to react to the changes in pressurisation inherent in diving, releasing trapped helium that could otherwise damage the watch, or even pop the crystal or glass on the face. They are primarily found on mechanical diving watches that feature a water/pressure resistance greater than 300m (1000ft).”
I – Incabloc
“Dating from 1934, this is a design for a spring-mounted balance wheel that helps protect the movement from being damaged by knocks and bumps,” says Markham.
J – Jewels
“Used in place of bearings, these are synthetic ruby mounts for moving parts within the movement and offer very low friction and durability,” explains Markham.
K – Kinetic
Kinetic refers to a relatively new technology also known as automatic-quartz movement. Pioneered by Japanese watchmaker Seiko in the late 1980s, Kinetic watches have a self-winding movement and use a quartz time-keeping mechanism, rather than a battery.
L – Liquid Crystal Display
“LCD watches are digital watches that use a ‘liquid crystal display’ to show the time either as a set of black digits over a grey background or inverted as grey digits over a black background,” says Spiteri.
“LCD displays utilise two sheets of polarising material with a liquid crystal solution between them. Since the liquid crystal display works by changing the way that light is reflected from its surface, rather than emitting its own light, it can be extremely energy efficient. An LCD watch can run for a year or more on a single tiny battery.”
M – Mechanical Movement
“Unlike quartz movements, a mechanical movement uses energy from a wound spring, rather than a battery, to power the watch,” says Spiteri.
“This spring stores energy and transfers it through a series of gears and springs, regulating the release of energy to power the watch. Mechanical watches have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, largely due to the high level of skill and craftsmanship required to make such a watch.”
N – Nato Watchstrap
Refers to a watchstrap made from nylon. Nylon makes for straps that are not only highly durable, but affordable too.
O – Oyster
A registered trademark of Rolex, Oyster refers to the watch brand’s line of watches that feature a screw back water-resistant case. Mercedes Gleitze famously wore a Rolex Oyster as she swam the English Channel on October 21, 1927. She was the first woman to do so.
P – Perpetual Calendar
A watch that features a perpetual calendar can tell the day, month, date and in some cases even the moon phase without the need for adjustment, even in a leap year. Until 2100, that is.
Q – Quartz Movement
“Generally more accurate than a mechanical movement, quartz is an electronic watch movement built with a quartz crystal that oscillates when an electrical current is applied to it,” explains Waller.
“The two key names in mass-market quartz movements are Swiss Ronda and Japanese Miyota.”
R – Rotor
“A component found in automatic winding mechanisms, the rotor winds the mainspring by oscillating freely in both directions,” says Fazal.
“Without it, your watch couldn’t source the energy or momentum to keep itself ticking.”
S – Sapphire Crystal
“This is a scratch-resistant synthetic material that covers the watch dial, protecting the watch face,” says Waller.
“Sapphire crystal is a premium, hard-wearing material, being twice as hard as standard glass and nearly as hard as diamond.”
T – Tachymeter
“This is a scale found on some chronographs, usually printed on the flange or engraved on the bezel,” says Fazal. “It can be used to measure the average speed that the wearer has travelled over a given distance and is read in km/h, based on the time it would take to travel 1km at that speed.”
“Measuring speed may not seem like the most important feature but it does emphasise the lengths of precision your watch can go to – they’re usually a lot more useful than you’d initially think.”
U – Unidirectional Rotating Bezel
Also known as a divers’ watch bezel, this is a bezel that can be rotated in one direction only, as opposed to a bi-directional rotating bezel which can be rotated either in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction.
Considered a safety mechanism, unidirectional rotating bezels are often found on divers’ watches, as if the bezel happens to be bumped for whatever reason, it cannot be rotated clockwise to incorrectly display a reduced elapse dive time.
V – Vibration
A unit of measurement. “‘Frequency’ is the speed at which a watch ticks,” says Spiteri. “It is measured by the number of semi-oscillations a balance spring makes in one hour (vph, or vibrations per hour). This ultimately determines the accuracy of the watch: the higher the frequency, the lower the chance of irregularities.”
“Until the 1950s, wristwatches worked mostly at a frequency of 18,000 vph; later, higher frequencies were adopted to produce a lower percentage of irregularities to the rate. Today, the most common frequency adopted is 28,800 vph, which assures a good precision standard and less lubrication problems than extremely high frequencies, such as 36,000 vph.”
W – Water Resistance
“A watch that is water-resistant can withstand exposure to water to a certain extent based on its rating,” says Waller. “Water-resistant ratings can be a bit of a red herring. If your watch claims to be water-resistant to 30 metres, it’s actually just splash-resistant.”
“The most common ratings are 3 ATM (30m); 5 ATM (50m) and 10 ATM (100m). At 3 ATM, a watch is splash-resistant but should not be submerged in water. At 5 ATM, a watch is water-resistant but if you’re going to be spending a long time in water, it’s best to take it off beforehand. At 10 ATM, your watch will have no problem hanging out in water for a while – it’s fine for activities like snorkelling, but diving isn’t advisable.”
Y – Yacht Timer
“This is a countdown timer, with intervals of up to 15 minutes, which enables yachts and racing boats to manoeuvre into position to pass the start line at just the right moment to begin a race,” says Markham.
Z – Zulu Time
A military term for Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).
Any other watch terms you’d still like to see clarified?
Drop them in the comments below.