On Selecting a Watch

I am a technophile. I'm fascinated by gadgets. And since I am a computer programmer, I keep pretty well informed about developments in hardware. But I am a software person, and to a real software person, that means I am software exclusive of hardware. Software is about ideas, albeit ideas that can be realized via instructing computers, whereas hardware is about engineering and lots of hard little pieces. What this means is that there is a limit to the amount of fascination I can draw from the glitz of physical devices. I started out thinking hardware and software were all part of the same thing, and thus anyone involved in technology had to love all of it. But they are not really the same at all. I have taken to holding back a portion of my personality in Luddite mode, rejecting the lure of quick comfort through better hardware.

So how does this apply to wristwatches? As a teenager in the 70's I saw the whole explosion of quartz and digital watches, from LEDs to LCDs to calculator watches. I was captivated by these gadgets, and since careful use of time is essential in school, they were indispensible as well. On finishing school, however, and taking a step back to reflect on the process, it occurred to me that the constant dispensation of one's time according to the dictates of the clock was a form of mental enslavement. Further, it was one that I could readily be freed of because stationary clocks are plentiful enough that one's need to know the time can be adequately fulfilled by them. So it was with some relish that I let wristwatches go 20 years ago and never looked back.

There is no longer any risk of me being mentally oppressed any more. The tyranny of the educational system is now far enough behind me that I no longer even have nightmares about missing tests any more. And ironically, I have always had a tremendous fondness for time, as part of a general interest in all forms of measurement and organization. So cutting myself off from time was also a test of will. How could someone who likes watches and time so much just walk away? I think it was symbolic to me of my ability to resist the secuction of quick comfort gadgetry that really offers little you actually need, yet consumes a portion of your psychic energy and focus each day, pulling you toward the dark side. I say symbolic because a watch in and of itself is obviously just too trivial to really do those things, but it is the only machine that one married to oneself, cyborg style, on a constant basis. Nowadays people are wedding themselves to more and more bits of hardware, like cell phones, PDAs, and MP3 players. Resisting the watch was a way of keeping civilization off my back.

But my formative years are well behind me now. I no longer have to prove anything to myself or concern myself with symbolic gestures. In short, I can entertain the question, do I have any use for a watch, and if so, what use?

An example early Pulsar watch I am just old enough that my wristwatch days began with windup watches. I had two or three inexpensive windup watches when I was 10 to 12, 1972 to 1974. I remember one was a Democratic Party watch with a donkey -- I think it moved its leg or tail. Modern watchmaking really took off in the early 1970s. LED watches started to appear in 1972, and the LCD watches followed a year or two later, though in mass market I remember them coming in around 1974 to 1975. Quartz watches themselves were introduced in the early 1970s (the first model was on Dec 25, 1969), and even though watch batteries were large and short-lived, of course people loved them because they eliminated the need for winding. Self-winding watches had been available since 1926, but they were way out of my price range. Once one went to quartz, it was hard to see why one would ever go back again, since they could maintain near perfect accuracy for months on end. A conventional watch would gain or lose seconds a day, no matter how well made.

Consequently, I rode the technology wave in watches during the 1970s. I went through many quartz analog watches, and all sorts of digital watches, starting with an LED. While the LED watch craze was cool to be a part of, it was obvious from the moment LCDs were introduced that all LED watches would be museum pieces within a year. The LCD used many times less power, and you didn't have to press a button to see the time. However, until Indiglo was introduced decades later, the lights on LCD watches were quite poor. I much preferred the LCD and wore one with a builtin stopwatch and date, which were pretty much standard, though the end of my watch wearing days in 1983. Of course, the digital watch craze was not complete until the arrival of the calculator watch. The first one was introduced in 1975.

Early Casio and Pulsar calculator watches
The first mass produced calculator:

The Texas Instruments Datamath
I have to digress here at the mention of calculators. One can't talk about love of watches or technology having grown up in the 70's without talking about calculators. Nowadays, calculators are as boring as slide rules were back then. But when we got our first Datamath it seemed to single-handedly lift us up out of the stone age to the computer age. Suddenly the magic of the integrated circuit was available 24 hours a day, always ready to perform. I calculated our average speed and average number of miles per gallon when we took trips. We did calculations that would result in a message if the digits were read as letters instead of numbers, sometimes when you turned it over. And, of course the early calculators couldn't do square roots, so I remember computing square roots by guessing and averaging with the other factor until it was right to 8 digits.

Naturally, when the programmable calculator was introduced in 1976 we (my brother Bruce and I) were very keen to get one. We took a special trip into New York City to get the TI SR-56, as you couldn't get anything like that out in the boonies (Vestal, New York). We pored over its thick instruction manual until we absorbed every detail of every feature. You have to realize, we had no idea what programming was when we started. Well, sure, we knew it meant recording instructions and running them, but we didn't understand at first why recording a series of keystrokes was useful -- after all, wouldn't it just get the same answer every time? The instructions correspond exactly to the keystrokes, and you just press the keys when in LRN mode to program it. Each instruction displayed as a 3-character mnemonic on the screen. We finally realized that the secret to the whole shebang was the conditional branch key, but we couldn't figure just how it worked. Finally, it hit us like an epiphany how branching worked, and I guess you could say it changed my life forever, because I have been addicted to programming ever since. Because of that instruction, a computer program can do many different things depending on the inputs, even play "Lunar Lander", the game program TI included. [By the way, the first programmable calculator, which got us interested in the idea, was the HP-65, but we were already TI fans and did not like the idea of RPN (Reverse Polish Notation) at all. To this day, I hate it. Although HP was the forerunner and the HP-65 is the most brilliant handheld device ever, TI's SR series was a vast ergonomic improvement.]

Anyway, to get back to watches... if I really liked watches, and the marking of time, why is it that in 1983 I abandoned watches (and calculators, for that matter) for 20 years, without looking back or having any regrets? It was really very simple. From age 13 through my completion of college, I lived under the tyranny of time. Constantly, throughout every day I lived and died by the clock, getting to classes on time and meals on time and meting out every second of my day like clockwork. Once I was out of school and I only had to show up for work on time, my actual need for a wristwatch basically disappeared, and I was glad to be rid of it just for the sense of freedom of being without it. Calculators, too, while a daily part of my life while I learned and studied math, were useless in the real world, where any math one might want to do was more easily done with a computer anyway. The computer was not quite so portable, but a little freedom from the box was not such a bad thing.

Also, from a practical standpoint, there is the matter of comfort. I recall switching to the strech metal bands (Speidel) as soon as they became available. I would remove links until it would fit snugly on my small wrist so that it would not shift position. If there is one thing I can't stand, it is a watch that shifts position. After a few years, though, I had to admit that the (temporary) welts the band would leave in my wrist were a bit too annoying, and I switched back to leather. I never had any interest in other metal bands, as they clearly could not adequately deal with the shifting issue, and metal just seemed intrinsically clunky and annoying. When I stopped wearing a watch, it was just such a relief to be rid of it, I found the trade off more than satisfactory.

Eventually, in the mid 1990s, my wife got me a clip watch I could attach to my keychain. This was a protection against simply not knowing the time in those instances were it might actually matter and no watch was available, which could matter to her if she needed to meet me at a particular time. I could of course ask the time from any number of strangers, but I have never liked talking to strangers (or asking directions). This worked well enough, but the watches would tend to die if dropped or mishandled. I finally found a Kenneth Cole dogtag watch about four years ago which is much more durable and has given me no trouble.

Ultimately, my decision to wear a watch again was quite spontaneous. We were vacationing in St. Thomas, which happens to be the watch capital of the world. It acquired this reputation because of its duty free status, which theoretically allows you to get a great deal on jewelry and watches. I would say you have to know exactly what you are buying and what it would cost elsewhere to have any comfort that this is true, as the prices can be quite high. Naturally, we toured around the shops, since they were there, and having nothing better to do, I casually looked at many of the watches.

Apparently, the spectacular initial chic of digital watches has worn off. One could simply blame the amazing low cost at which they can be made. You can get a full-featured digital watch for five dollars. But more than that, the digital watch face has just never been a thing of beauty. Never are the digits made in an appealing font, and never in any colors but black on gray, still the only colors of LCD. Here are some attempts to make digital watches more appealing. None of them quite hides the fact that the basic black numerals on gray is a downer.

In fact, what one finds is that all expensive watches are analog watches. The dial and hands can be made of any materials, e.g. those that are esthetic. And the hands of a watch face is quicker to make sense of at a glance than a digital readout because it is graphical. It can give both approximate and accurate time, not just accurate time.

But wait. Can't an LCD display use hands instead of digits, or combine hands with digits for the ultimate in accuracy and ease of use. As these watches show, it is definitely possible to do this in LCD, but the public must have realized that old-fashioned real hands were just plain better, because watches with LCD hands were not available for long. I think the ones shown here were only accurate to 5 minutes, which doesn't seem good enough. The ones on the right were good to a single minute, but don't look like hands any more.

Perhaps the ultimate in combining digital with analog was this Casio Data Bank watch, which looked like a fine analog watch on the outside, but flipped open to reveal a hideous but functional calculator watch inside.
There is one more style of LCD watch that bears discussion -- the fully pixelated watch. By using a fully addressable 32x16 pixel screen, one can vary the fonts and even provide mini video games, as this $5 Timex watch does. Clearly, with higher resolution and color this design will one day replace analog completely, but for now the technology does not appear to be there.

Mostly, though, the surviving styles of combination analog/digital watches use real hands behind a semi-transparent LCD digital display.

Or, a more common arrangement is to squeeze a small LCD panel behind the analog face, such as shown here in my present day Timex Expedition.

What it comes down to, though, is that digital watches just don't cut it. So, having grown up to view digital as the be all and end all and have the dream ripped apart, what really is left? Well, I do hold out hope that the LCD stanglehold in digital will give way to full color graphics, as it has in cell phones and digital cameras. But those are devices where power doesn't have to last years without interruption. To make it in a digital watch we either need much better batteries or color LCD. So I have reluctantly forced myself to blank digital out of the picture and consider analog watches for their merits, if in fact they have any.

It is true analog watches have a graphical readout, and a long tradition. The motion of hands can be a pleasing effect, and it can be somewhat convenient to know the time at the shortest notice without having to think much about it. By cutting out the symbolic processing step that digital watches require, analog watches are just that much less effort that it is pleasing. And there is the ineffable pleasure that might come from investing one's time and energy into putting on, taking off, and reading time from a watch as a personal expression of one's personality. So matching the watch to the personality seems like it could be an interesting exercise and perhaps a worthwhile experience.

So now, after all this preamble, I have set myself on the matter of selecting the ideal analog watch for myself. The first question one has to ask is, what do you expect a watch to give you? Watches nowadays can do more than just tell time. Perhaps the highest state of the art is the Tissot T Touch. It is the only analog watch that uses the primary hands for other than hours and minutes -- they also can act as a compass or an atmospheric pressure indicator. Four of the other special functions (thermometer, altimiter, chrono and alarm) just point the hands at the function name rather than doing anything graphical with them. Overall, then the use of the hands for other than normal hour and seconds is at best a neat trick and not really a revolution in presentation.

So, if you are looking for multiple functions and are not terribly impressed by gimmicks, what else can you do? The truth is, digital watches rule in this department. I would say the Casio Pathfinder compass watch PRG40 is typical of state of the art. Excellent as a compass, with graphical display, and as a barometer, altimeter, thermometer and chronograph, one has to think that if these are the features on wants, one should just get a digital watch.

But let's face it. When do you really need to know your altitude? Who really cares about barometers? Don't you already know the temperature? Have you timed any sprints lately? The truth is, while these features are cool, they are not the reason people wear watches and are really pretty nerdy and annoying. I can't help but think if one is going to go to the trouble of wearing a watch, it should satisfy a personal sense of time rather than be a showcase of technological wizardry. So then, let's dispense with the advanced features and focus more on core features.

Apparently most people agree with this line of reasoning, because almost no watches made have these advanced features. But some advanced time features are pretty popular. Day of month is the best known, but day of week and year also count. Many analog watches support the day of month feature by having the day show up in a little window. Many others have several small dials showing day of month, day of week, power reserve (amount of energy left in a self-winding (automatic) watch before it runs down). I think many people just like the idea of having extra little dials and guages.

Quite frankly, looking at all these little dials gives me a headache. Does even the wearer really know what they all do? I will admit than in some, like the Patek Phillipe shown above, there can be little doubt about their function. This watch is a masterpiece of simple elegance. And yet, it could hardly pass as a piece of art; the little dials make it look more like an airplane cockpit than a piece of jewelry. No, really it is just for technophiles, and as with my above line of reasoning, one gives up the revelation of personal style if one embraces all this foofarah.

If one really looks at the watch face objectively, one can see that it really is meant only to display the passage of hours, minutes and seconds. This is the esthetic of the design, the purpose of it, and what the space allows for without annoying crowding. If one believes the watch should be a true expression of time, it should be allowed to fulfill its destiny to the utmost without complication or distraction. This is the purity argument: that for every task there is one best way to do it which embodies the most elegance and ease, and is thus the most satisfying and esthetic.

Even the little window displaying the day of the month, while arguably being the one extra piece of information a watch might carry that is both relevant and of some use, just can't be made to fit without crushing the symmetry of the watch face. For instance, compare these Luminox Swiss Army watches. In order to accommodate the date window, the watch on the left has given up displaying 3 o'clock. Some watches give up 6 o'clock. Few if any place the date further inside and don't mar the outer symmetry, but then there is an extra, extraneous, digital gauge in the middle. Really, this digital element doesn't fit in very well on an analog watch. However useful, it just isn't any prettier than a digital watch.

While we are on it, notice the smaller extra hours 13 to 23 that are nearly ubiquitous on Swiss army watches. Certainly anyone can see that this extra clutter is both ugly and of absolutely no use in the U.S. where we never use military time. For that matter, the typeface used for the digits, a black sans-serif bold, is very utilitarian and unappealing. Perhaps it does speed reading a bit when you are trapped in a foxhole, but certainly we can find something a little more appealing?

I just began idly thinking that it was just as well that I don't wear a watch, because there was no way any manufacturer was going to make a watch I would find acceptable. I based this judgment on the casual observations I made of watches in the stores, which I find to be almost universally ugly, and on the fact that I am fairly picky. Still, while I was there I hit on the idea of seeing if there were any watches made that I could actually find to be esthetically pleasing, even though I was not really interested in having one. I guess I had probably vaguely toyed with the idea once or twice over the years that it might not be so bad to have a watch for certain occasions or just for the sake of having one if I could find one that I liked. But each time I had done this glancing at just a few models, I was disappointed. Now, looking at hundreds of watches from most of the makers around the world, I was equally disappointed and let the matter drop.

By now you must be wondering, how could I so completely dislike every model from every maker? Actually, I did not start out in this quest being very picky at all. But it does not take much pickiness to reduce your choices to zero. First, the watch must have a leather strap and not a metal or other kind of band. This simple requirement actually eliminates at least 75% of all watches. Metal bands are overwhelmingly the most popular. Second, it must have a little line mark for all 60 minutes. I just can't be too sure of what time it is unless I have that. This actually eliminates at least of the watches that remain. Third, it must have a second hand. I just don't see how I could like a watch that didn't appear to be moving, and that wasn't even willing to let me know how many seconds are passing. This eliminates another 50%.
Now we start getting down to less critical criteria that matter to me. I want to see all the numbers from 1 to 12. The watch face is based on the 12 numbers, and to snub any or some of them just seems arbitrary and unfair. Still, I did consider the Charles-Hubert Paris retro watch, which only has the 6, 9 and 12, because the numbers were large and attractive. This brings me to my next criterion: the font for the numbers has to be elegant, timeless, and clear. You would not believe how many watches this rules out. Finding a nice font is perhaps the hardest of all my criteria. A corrolary criterion to the 1 to 12 rule is that the watch can't display the day of the month. Very nearly all watches that display day of the month do it by snubbing one of the hours, usually 3 but sometimes 6. This really cuts into the esthetic of the watch.
Once I had clarified the above criteria in my mind, it became clear to me that I was really only interested in the esthetic of the watch, not the functionality. It was more important that it look good than that it keep good time. When I got back from St. Thomas, I hit on the idea of checking all watch makes online to see if I could find one that met all my criteria. The Invicta watch nicely matched all the criteria. But I found it somewhat disconcerting that the digits 9 to 3 are oriented toward the center of the watch, whilee 4 to 8 face away from the center. I just can't see any logical reason for this. It makes 3 especially appear upside down.
So then I thought perhaps a basic Swiss Army watch would do this trick, like the Luminox Cadet watch (shown above). It satisfies all the basic criteria, and it has luminous hands which is convenient in the dark, and it is quartz and indestructable, which seems nice. But, the font is not actually attractive, it is just a bare bones utilitarian sans serif font. And the digits are set well back from the edge, which is not esthetic. And the 24 hour time hours 13 to 23 are shown (0 is snubbed for the Luminox emblem), which is marginally useful but makes the watch look a bit cluttered. Speaking of cluttered, being overly cluttered is the main reason watches today are so hideous. Many watches are nearly impossible to read they have so much extra junk strewn all over them. For that matter, many men's watches have all sorts of extra outer dials which convey absolutely nothing useful (usually seconds) and are primarily there to make the watch seem more impressive.
Still, after extensive searching, these were the best I could come up with from contemporary watches. At this point, it finally occurred to me that while taste may have gone by the wayside in today's watches, it may not always have been so. So I started searching for vintage watches on the web. Quite a lot of watch stores have sites on the web, and there is quite a selection. And sure enough, I find the styling of the vintage watches to be far superior, based on my criteria, to today's watches. Some of the most expensive watches made today, e.g. by Patek Phillipe, still look a lot like vintage watches.
And as I read more and studied more about wristwatches, it became apparent that a true watch snob will have nothing to do with quartz watches, even though they are more accurate, because they have no respect for horology and the watchmaker's craft. Now, I am not a watch snob, but it did open my eyes to some additional criteria. Perhaps, if one is going to go to the trouble of wearing a watch at all, putting it on, taking it off, it is not so much to ask to wind it and occasionally reset it. In fact, being somewhat in doubt over whether it even has the right time keeps the whole issue of time and what it is all about more at the forefront of one's mind. We are after all contemplating an investment of psychic effort, so perhaps the investment of physical effort should be a part of that. First, I am going to invest the energy to find the one I want. That alone has cost me many hours. Perhaps it makes sense that a watch worthy of my psychic interest should require some investment of time from me beyond being taken off at night. Perhaps a little winding introduces a human element, symbolic of invested energy, that a purely automatic object lacks. Perhaps a watch that is a little unreliable, a little sensitive, and a little needy is more worthy of the (albeit small) amount of psychic energy I plan to devote to it. The whole idea is that the watch is to have some sigificance to me as an esthetic object, and as an extension of myself and my worldviews. So it should behave like I do.

So an old fashioned windup began to seem palatable to me, which would be necessary after all if I was going to have to go that way for esthetic reasons anyway. Now, in the windup domain one can get an "automatic" watch, i.e. a self-winding one. But, aside from bumping the price up hundreds of dollars, which seems excessive, this feature seems to me to compromise the esthetic of the watch. Like a manual watch, it would always be running down. Unlike a manual watch, you would never know by how much. So you would subconsciously worry about moving about enough to keep it wound, which could be an issue for someone who sits a desk all day as I do. Or, I could invest in a little watch rocking machine, but this is even more vile. The idea here is that the watch rocking machine lives your life for you (from the watches perspective). No, the windup was the way to go. Winding the watch is your little reminder that time only passes if you give it permission to, that you have to invest something to get something back.

Here are some typical examples from among the more likely candidates I found. Most are way out of my price range, $1000-$4000. All lack some critical feature I sought -- second hand, numbers, elegant numbers, etc. The oldest watches have nice numbers, but lack a second hand. Next came the smaller second hand, which is ok, but adds an extra wheel -- not so pretty. The black Movado at the end is quite nice (though the web site selling it points out it is a knockoff) and demonstrates how much more style Movado had than the other companies. But wait -- something has to be said about the "museum" watch that made Movado famous. I have pictured this black monstrosity last. Yes, it has an elegance and simplicity as found in the watch whose perfection I am extolling. But this elegance has clearly been taken too far. For one thing, a black face is just plain tacky, as with a black velvet painting. For another, the complete lack of numbers or markings of any kind for the hours and minutes is really just annoying and pretentious.

All that said it was by pure luck that I found my watch. While the vintage watches more closely matched the kind of watch I was looking for, nothing really clicked for me over the first few hundred I looked at. I was shooting for something around $200, with a limit around $400, as this seemed about as much as one should really throw at a fairly meaningless affectation. Most vintage watches on the web are outside this range; of course, usually only the better ones are shown. I'm sure there are plenty of old watches not worth advertising out there. Still, I hit on the watch I bought by chance and I have come to regard it as the perfect watch. It meets all my criteria for a watch and then some, to wit:

Features of my Movado watch
1. It has a nice clear mark for each of the 60 minutes, and logically with slightly larger marks for each hour.
2. It has a sweep second hand. A tremendous bonus is smaller marks for each 1/5th second, and the second hand actually ticks each 1/5th second, giving it a very smooth motion, and soft rapid ticks. Most older mechanical stopwatches tick every 1/5th second, so it can be considered a good stopwatch. I believe that windup watches always tick 5 times a second, and quartz watches always tick once per second. Once is just not enough; it is stilted.
3. It has all the numbers from 1 to 12.
4. The font for the numbers is an italic gold which is the most elegant I have seen on any watch. Completely timeless, clear, and well proportioned.
5. No day of month. This nuisance feature is one more thing you have to set on non-digital watches for each non-31-day month.
6. Clutter free. The watch make name "Movado" is very tastefully written in small letters, with "Fab Suisse" in smaller letters beneath.
7. Colors. Black hands on a white face is the correct coloration for a watch. Anything else is trendy. My watch uses a soft cream background with a very slight warm glow to it that looks very much like white until a pure white put next to it. A very nice improvement over decorator white. The tip of the second hand features a dark red arrow which lends an exacting authority to the stop watch effect.
8. Unreliable. It tends to lose a few seconds to a minute a day, but varies depending on how its wound. And of course it will be way off if you forget to wind.
9. Sensitive. It is not waterproof, so I have to be careful if it is going to rain or if I am going to get wet. I took it through airport security once, and it had to be professionally demagnitized, which I figure out because it became increasingly likely to stop and finally stopped altogether, even when wound.
10. Slim and small! The advent of miniaturization technology has not helped men's watches at all, since modern style apparently mandates that they be huge clunkers. If you have small wrists like me, these watches look ridiculously oversized, and they are a burden to wear. My Movado is just the right size. To put numbers to it, the Movado is 30mm across, vs 39mm for my Timex Expedition, or 30% larger. This means the watch face is 69% larger. Quite unnecesary -- you can read the Movado quite easily. And it is not just the face, the width has grown from 8mm to 10.5mm, 13% thicker. And this size inflation is pretty nearly the same for all men's watches. It is quite impossible to find a modestly sized men's watch any more. So the total volume is a full 91% more. Here is a picture of the two faces (the time was 10:10, the usual time used to show watches, quite coincidentally -- 8:20 having been abandoned as a frown instead of a happy face):
11. It has a nice simple black leather strap.

I find it very pleasing to look at my watch and see that it knows what time it is. It gives me a sense that the amount of time that has passed since I last looked at it is significant, and that the time that has yet to pass will be more significant as well.

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Steve Wagar <steve@wagar.com>
Last update: 6/26/04