History, Watch Movements, and Industry Trivia
I will attempt to impart some knowledge about wristwatches to those who may not know anything about them. I am a hobbyist in this area, and while I do not plan on writing a scholarly treatise on the subject, I wish to pass information on the subject to those who may know nothing about it. This does not mention everything so any well educated watch enthusiasts who read it will have to keep that in mind. Basically, the briefest history that I can give is as follows. Watches started out as mechanical clock devices filled with gears and springs. The internal moving parts that power the clock or watch is called the movement. Clocks are large, and eventually they were reduced in size to the pocket watch size. People used pocket watches for a few hundred years. They started as jewelry items for kings and the rich, but eventually pocket watches filtered down to the everyman. The first wristwatches were ladies items. Men in the late 1800’s and early 20th century wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a wristwatch because it was seen as a feminine item. Ironically, it was World War One which ushered in the era of mens wristwatches. The wristwatch was compact and could go almost anywhere, and soldiers needed to know the time for timing all sorts of missions and wartime things. Eventually watertight wristwatches were made for navy missions and the dive watch was born. They were also important to military aviators.
Today, most watches are water resistant to varying degrees, from those that are safe when you wash your hands to those that can go deeper than any human can venture outside of a protective submersible. Watches were traditionally mechanical, consisting of a little motor inside that consisted of gears and springs which run from energy stored in the mainspring from winding the watch. Our grandparents and some of our parents can remember these as the only watches in existence at one time. A variation on the mechanical watch is the automatic winding watch, which has the same type of movement but with the addition of a rotating weight on the rear of the movement which rotates with the movement of the wearer’s wrist, thus always keeping the watch wound as long as it is worn. There is a mechanism that prevents over winding. Some automatic watches can be wound via the crown, just like the older non automatic types, and these have the same mechanism built in where you cannot over wind them even from the crown. Older non automatic mechanicals which require hand winding have no such safety feature and if you force it to wind after you encounter resistance, you effectively break the watch and it must be repaired. The manual wind mechanical watches only should be wound once a day at the same time every day to ensure no over winding occurs. These type of watches were frequently broken when in the hands of children, who tend to want to keep them fully wound because they do not fully understand that it only needs one daily winding. There are some types of manual wind mechanical watches that only need one full wind every 8 days, but these are rare.
There was a brief period of battery powered electric watches of a non quartz type were in vogue. These were powered by a battery like modern quartz watches, but they did not rely on the oscillating quartz crystal, but by other means which are outside of the scope of this article. These watches were on the market from the late 1950’s until the 1970’s, being marketed alongside traditional mechanical manual wind and automatic wind watches. The quartz watch was invented in Switzerland in 1962, but the Japanese marketed one first in 1969. This marked a crisis in the Swiss dominated watch industry, and sounded the death knell for many Swiss and American mechanical watch firms. The Swiss followed with their own quartz models, but the Japanese giants Seiko, Citizen, and others were to dominate the overall watch market through inexpensive and even throwaway battery powered quartz watches. A few stalwarts continued to make mechanical watches for wealthy connoisseurs, and firms like Rolex and IWC, among some others, never gave up on mechanical watches, although at times they did produce their own quartz models. You see, when electronic and quartz watches were first available, they were representative of new technology and they were popular for that reason. Some advertisements bragged that the battery powered watch could run on it’s own power, not the wearer’s. They are also much more accurate than any mechanical movement can ever hope to be. It is a running joke, and sometimes an inconvenient truth, that the average very cheap quartz watch keeps better time than a very expensive Swiss mechanical timepiece. Those of us who are practical may not understand why someone would pay thousands for a less accurate watch, but at this level there are many other factors that go into the consideration of which watch one desires to wear.
Mechanical wristwatches underwent a sort of renaissance starting in the 1990’s, which continues to this day. While cheap quartz watches still outsell luxury and other mechanical watches by an order of magnitude, the mechanical watch sector is doing well. Most European watch companies are actually owned by larger conglomerates that have portfolios of several watch brands under their umbrella. The largest one is Swatch. Swatch owns many brands including Swatch, Omega, the former American brand Hamilton, and many others. Swatch also owns the ETA company which makes most of the Swiss watch movements that power not only Swatch brand watches but also many other independent brands. There are some other smaller companies that have started making Swiss movements for sale to other companies, but ETA is the big boy and Swatch is very powerful due to that fact. Mechanical watches are made for all market segments. The Chinese have pretty much cornered the market for the cheaper mechanical watches. The Chinese have been cloning popular Swiss movements (the little mechanical motors that make a mechanical watch run) as well as making their own. They can produce them very cheaply as compared to the Europeans or even the Japanese. China plays both sides of the industry. China is a place where many legitimate watch companies go to outsource for cheap labor and business operating expenses. This is a double edged sword since the Chinese have learned a lot from doing their outsourcing work, learning what it is to build and operate an ISO certified facility, etc. This is not just with watches, but everything that is outsourced to Chinese factories. To their credit, the Chinese are very smart and very shrewd. Unfortunately, many unscrupulous businessmen and officials have turned this knowledge to the task of making counterfeit items. Not only does China produce many very hard to distinguish from the real thing counterfeit watches, but they even have counterfeited the mechanics inside which run the watches. There are differences, and the counterfeits are NOT as good as the real thing, but to look at some of them you almost can’t believe how much they look and feel like the real thing. It is also believed that many high end Swiss watch manufacturers have used the lax Swiss Made regulations to outsource as much of the parts manufacture as they can to the Chinese, then then doing a certain legal amount of assembly in Switzerland in order to use the Swiss Made label. This is not the case with every brand or every Swiss watch, but many people out there wearing Swiss Made watches would be surprised how much of their watch is really Chinese made.
The Japanese have successfully outsourced certain aspects of their watchmaking to China and other places, like Thailand, but they keep a tight lid on what they do and where. The Japanese have a much older watch industry than many Westerners realize. The Japanese big boys are Seiko, Citizen, and Casio, with other smaller subsidiaries and other watch companies taking the rest of the market. Seiko and Citizen not only make a dizzying number of quartz watches, but they also make a fair share of mechanical watches as well. Seiko not only makes many high quality mechanical watches in the affordable consumer range, but they have several quality tiers going all the way up to their Grand Seiko label, which is on par with Swiss makers like Rolex, and prices to match. Citizen makes a Campanola line, which is quartz powered, but the watches are hand made and assembled. The dials and decorations are painted on in a very old artisan tradition in a village that specializes in such art. The watches cost several thousand US dollars each. Citizen also owns a subsidiary named Miyota, which like the Swiss giant Swatch (ETA), sells their movements to other companies to put in their watches. Both ETA and Miyota make mechanical and quartz powered movements. I know that I am jumping around a bit, but there are so many intricacies that if I were to tell the whole story and all of the interrelationships this would not be an article but a book. I want to also mention that not only are quartz watches powered by batteries, but there are an increasing amount that are powered by rechargeable lithium cells. Some recharge via solar power which comes through a special watch dial material, while others are recharged by the way of a traditional mechanical rotating weight affixed to the rear of the watch movement in the same way that mechanical automatic watches are wound. The most popular solar quartz watches are the Citizen Eco Drive line, while Seiko makes the Kinetic line which charge via the mechanical rotating weight that was just mentioned. The Russians are also in the act. Russia has an interesting watch industry. The Swiss sold a lot of their machinery for watch making to the Kremlin a long time ago, and the Russians were producing their own Swiss derived but uniquely evolved Russian movements and watches for the Russian and Soviet Bloc markets until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, the Russian watch industry has undergone some mergers and changes, and privatizations.
The Russians make some good sturdy watches, but parts are hard to get and unless you are willing to send them to Russia for repair if they break you usually have to throw them away. Germany has a longstanding watch industry but today many German companies use Swiss made ETA movements, save for the higher end firms which have their own in house operations. Again, there are so many individual situations that I could never go into it here. You have to become a watch hobbyist and do your time to learn it all. For most middle class people who are not watch enthusiasts, the Rolex watch company represents the pinnacle of luxury watchmaking. I just wanted to burst that bubble. Rolex is a fantastic company which makes fantastic watches. They cost several thousand to several tens of thousands to probably higher, depending on which precious metals and gemstones are used in their production, but there are exclusive boutique brands out there who produce hand made works of art which cost more than many luxury cars to more than the average person’s home. As a matter of fact there are watches out there which cost upwards of a million dollars or more. This may be hard to believe for the average person of average means who would never pay more than $20 for a cheap watch to tell the time, but as with everything, there many levels to this market. One man drives a beat up Honda while some drive Lamborghinis. They all go from point A to point B. It is the same with wristwatches and many other things.
Modern wristwatch cases and bands are commonly made of metal or plastics. Inexpensive metal ones are constructed of cheap base metals that are coated with chrome or some other outer layer, which usually wear off and then allow the underlying base metal to corrode and turn green along with a sour smell when repeatedly exposed to the wearer’s skin oils and perspiration. Good metal watches are at least made of surgical grade stainless steel. For some more money you can get a watch made of the high tech aviation metal, Titanium. Titanium is much lighter than steel but it is stronger and less susceptible to corrosion from salt water and other corrosives. It also doesn’t contain the nickel that is in stainless steel so it is preferred for those who even have skin reactions to steel. Some people prefer steel since the heavier weight, to them, is somehow synonymous with higher quality. Titanium feels like plastic although it is a genuine metal and is stronger and more durable than steel. It is more brittle than steel but the point is moot since humans can’t break it. They make high tech planes from Titanium alloys. Some watchmakers make steel models from slightly rarer stainless steel alloys, such as 904L stainless that Rolex is known to use in their steel models, which is reputed to be more corrosion resistant and a bit stronger than regular surgical stainless steel. I know of at least one watch manufacturer, the German company Sinn, which uses a form of German U-boat hardened steel to make parts of their watch bezels and perhaps the cases. Expensive dress watches are also made from steel, but as the cost goes up they can be made from precious metals like gold, platinum, and other exotic alloys.
The glass which protects the watch dial is called the crystal. Watch crystals used to be made from plastic, or acrylic. You can see this on vintage watches. Plastic scratches easily but can be easily polished with polishing rouge and a rag or sponge. Plastic can also crack if impacted in a hard way. Later on, the industry switched to much stronger mineral glass, which is very hard and shatter resistant but scratches easily. Most inexpensive watches today are fitted with mineral glass and as many of you know once it gets scratched you have to either live with it or have it replaced. Replacement cost is just not feasible on a cheap watch. The other type of crystal, which is on higher end expensive watches but showing up more and more on mid level range watches is sapphire glass. It is artificial sapphire and while not as shatter resistant as mineral glass, it is virtually scratch proof. The only thing that can scratch it is diamond, sapphire, or I believe, ruby. Watch out for diamond dust in some sandpapers and masonry, however. Some skilled people have been able to buff scratches from mineral or sapphire crystals, but it takes effort and know how. For my money I prefer watches with sapphire, but I do own some more affordable models fitted with mineral crystals. Most Seikos, for example, are fitted with mineral crystals, but they are such great watches no true watch enthusiast can call himself one without owning one or several. I would put a Seiko mechanical up against any high end Swiss or German mechanical for sheer durability and toughness.
The typical quartz watch will run its battery out in 3-5 years. There are some models that have 10 year batteries, and the solar and kinetics which use rechargeable lithium cells are said to have cell life of 40 years, but they haven’t been out long enough to know if that is their true life or just marketing hype. Mechanical watches, meaning the ones that require winding or which wind when you wear them, can go 3-5 years before they should be sent to a qualified service center for disassembly, cleaning, and lubrication. Depending on the watch brand this can cost several hundred dollars. Well, when the watch itself costs several thousand you don’t simply discard it when it stops running or starts running poorly because it needs service. There was such a day when people kept a watch for life and it was worth repairing. Today, it is usually the watch addict or wealthy watch owner who is willing to put up with such costs, while the majority of people merely pay to have a new battery installed in their quartz timekeeper, or discard the cheap quartz watch for a new one. This is wasteful, and I wonder how many tons of discarded watches and batteries litter our landfills. Think about it. Then again, you won’t want to pay to have a cheap Chinese or Russian mechanical serviced unless you can have it done very cheaply. There is a shortage of qualified mechanical watch repair people, and in many locales the owners must opt to send them long distances to be properly serviced. I would like to add here that the Japanese company, Seiko, is renowned for building pedestrian mechanical watches in their famous Seiko 5 line which have been known to go 20-30 years without a service and still keep acceptable time. This is a reason why I lauded them earlier.
Watch enthusiasts are amused when people who do not know anything about watches hold up an old mechanical watch that only needs winding and proclaim that it is broken because it is not “working” or that “the battery must need replacing”. Some of these people are old enough to remember when watches didn’t run on batteries, but they have somehow forgotten those days. I always hope to find a gem amongst some yard sale trinkets, but I have not been lucky enough yet. I have read stories where some watch lovers have been lucky enough to come across an old watch in such a yard or garage sale and with some restoration it is worth thousands of dollars, but in many cases us enthusiasts wear them rather than sell them. Collectors run the gamut. Some collect old digital watches. Some opt for military or dive watches. Some stick with vintage pieces while others prefer the latest and greatest objet d’art piece. Watches are rich in history and some people can be taken back to a simpler time by strapping on a historical reproduction of an old wartime timepiece, or if they are fortunate enough, a well preserved original. Some people hand them down as treasured family heirlooms while others make their living catering to the various hobby segments while being lucky enough to earn a living following a passion. I hope that this was an acceptable introduction to watches and that I have been able to enlighten some to the fact that there is more to watches than batteries and throw away trinkets. Perhaps this will encourage you to go out and spend some real money on a real watch which can last you a lifetime.