The Watch Collector Series: What are the Different Watch Types?

Like just about any specialized field, watch collecting comes with its own language—its own particular jargon and terminology.

To the outsider or relative newcomer it can all be especially confusing; this is something, after all, that has had several hundred years to develop a unique vocabulary.

As part of our watch collector series, we are going to go over some of the terms you will frequently come up against as you search for your ideal timepiece.

We’ll identify the most popular types of movement and how they differ from one another, as well as looking at some of the watches designed for specific situations.

Chronometer

When you first start to dip your toes into the world of luxury watches, the word ‘chronometer’ is one you will read time and time again. While it may strike you as a somewhat grandiose term, in reality, it just means a watch that has passed the strict tests for timekeeping accuracy as set by the COSC, or the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute.

In order to issue a chronometer certification, the COSC assesses watch movements over a total of 16 days, testing the uncased calibers in five different positions and at three different temperatures.

Only those that keep to within -4/+6 seconds a day, or a 99.99% accuracy, get to include the ‘Chronometer’ tag on their dials.

Some manufacturers, such as Rolex and Omega, go above and beyond the COSC and devise their own, even more grueling, standards.

For Rolex, their ‘Superlative Chronometer’ movements have been tested both in and out of their cases and deemed accurate to within -2/+2 seconds a day. And Omega’s ‘Master Chronometer’ calibers have similar accuracy as well as a resistance to magnetic fields of up to 15,000 Gauss.

Movements

Another cause for a certain amount of confusion comes from the different types of movements that power watches.

While there are countless variations on the theme, fortunately, where luxury watches are concerned, they can be broken down into two very broad groups—quartz and mechanical.

Quartz

Quartz watches are by far the most accurate, and also the least sought after by most collectors. (If you are going to be staying in horology-land for any length of time, you’re going to have to get used to these kinds of paradoxes!)

Quartz Movement

Quartz technology emerged in the late 1960s and almost wiped out the Swiss watch industry. Impossibly precise, easily maintained, but above all cheap, these battery-powered timepieces flooded the market from Japan and America and were hugely successful.

They work by passing an electrical current through a specially shaped piece of quartz crystal, which vibrates at a specific frequency; what is known as the piezoelectric effect.

This generates a pulse that is regulated by a device called a trimmer and the power is released via a stepper motor to drive the hands.

With few moving parts, it is a particularly hassle-free system that needs far less servicing than a traditional movement, and even the cheapest no-frills quartz watch can still outperform the best mechanical one for accuracy.

Mechanical Movement

Mechanical

Happily for us all, the ‘Quartz Crisis’ of the 70s and 80s didn’t completely obliterate all of Switzerland’s manufacturers. The best managed to ride out the storm and soon, demand for the artistry and craftsmanship of classic watches returned with a vengeance.

These types of timepieces, with mechanical calibers, can be further broken down into two main groups: manual and automatic.

Manual

The oldest form of wristwatch movement, manually-wound calibers are powered by a slowly unwinding mainspring rather than a battery, which transfers its energy through a series of gears and springs to the watch’s hands.

That mainspring has to be wound by the wearer using the winding crown on the side of the case. Depending on the type and make of the watch, it might require winding as frequently as every 24-hours or as infrequently as once a week.

Automatic

Automatic Movement

Otherwise known as self-winding movements, automatic calibers work in much the same way as their manual counterparts but with the added convenience of a rotor—a metal weight that spins with every movement of the wrist, transferring its energy and winding the mainspring.

Rolex first pioneered the technology in the 1920s, and dubbed it the ‘Perpetual’ and it has been adopted by almost every luxury watch manufacturer in the world.

An extremely popular type of mechanical movement, automatic calibers only require manual winding if left stationary for long periods of time; anything from one to three days, depending on their power reserve.

Tourbillon

In amongst the different subsets of mechanical watch movements, one of the most fascinating, intricate and incredibly expensive, is the tourbillon.

Tourbillon Movement

Originally developed to counter the ill-effects gravity has on the internal calibers of pocket watches, they consist of an escapement (the mechanism that transfers energy from the mainspring to the balance wheel) housed inside its own rotating cage. If you imagine one of those multi-dimensional gyroscopic devices NASA straps astronauts into to prepare them for weightless environments, it’s the same principle.

However, while it was a useful innovation for the pocket watch, which spent the majority of its life in just one position, with wristwatches being almost constantly mobile, the tourbillon is, for want of a better description, fairly useless.

Still, they are undoubtedly beautiful to watch in action. Of course, all that beauty comes at a price. As tourbillons are amongst the most difficult and time consuming movements to make, expect to pay well into five figures as a starting point.

Watch Types

There are a wide range of different watch types, far more than we have room to list here. So, I’ve picked out a few of the most common and, crucially, useful examples. These are the ones designed with additional complications that serve a practical purpose. In horology, a complication is simply a feature beyond just telling the time. It can be as complex as a moonphase indicator or as simple as a date function.

Chronograph

Often confused with the word ‘chronometer’, a chronograph is just another name for a stopwatch.

Mens Rolex Two-Tone 18K/SS Daytona Gray, Slate 116523

A chronograph generally has a number of smaller sub dials contained inside the main watch dial, counting off different intervals of time elapsed—the seconds, minutes and hours.

The stopwatch functions are started, stopped and reset by the use of either one or two buttons, known as pushers, which generally flank the winding crown on the side of the watch.

The challenge for makers of chronographs is keeping a watch which displays so much information legible. With at least two and more usually three supplemental dials, it is easy for the watch face to look too busy.

This has given rise to some all-time design classics, perhaps most notably the Rolex Daytona.

GMT

A GMT watch is one capable of telling the time in two different time zones simultaneously. Techniques vary from watchmaker to watchmaker, but among the most commonly used is to include a rotatable bezel with 24 incremental markings, and an additional hour hand which revolves once a day.

Rolex GMT-Master Pan Am

This GMT hand, usually a different shape and painted a distinctive color, will point out the second time on the bezel that surrounds the watch’s dial.

It was initially developed in the 1950s as a way for airline pilots to cope with the sensation of jetlag. For those flying the new long-haul intercontinental routes, being able to keep track of both the local time, as well as that of the eventual destination, was shown to combat many of the effects.

The very first watch of the type was produced by Rolex in conjunction with Pan Am and called the GMT-Master, a series still going strong today.

Dive Watch

There are several different types of sports watch, all with their own individual attributes that make them invaluable for their intended use.

One of the most popular is the dive watch. Although they don’t require any additional complications as such, they are all specifically designed to withstand extended periods underwater.

Owing much of their fame to James Bond and the Rolex Submariner he wore in several movies, the modern day dive watch has to include a certain list of properties in order to be officially recognized.

Omega Seamaster Diver 300M

As set down by The International Organization for Standardization, another Swiss institute similar to the COSC, a true dive watch must satisfy their ISO 6425 standard.

Among their requirements for mechanical watches are a minimum water resistance of 100m and a unidirectional bezel with markings at least every five minutes to measure elapsed time underwater. The watch must have enough luminosity to be readable in total darkness from 25cm, and have clearly distinguishable minute indicators. It must also have a running seconds hand and a high level of magnetic, chemical and shock resistance, as well as an accuracy of at least +/- 60 seconds a day.

The variation in style of dive watch is immense, but they all tend to be among the physically toughest type of timepiece available. They are designed to endure some harsh treatment and inhospitable environments.

For just that reason, many of the higher end models, such as the Sub or Omega’s Seamaster, are often worn as both as a daily watch as well as on smart, formal occasions.

Perhaps the most versatile of all the professional models, dive watches mark a great starting point into the world of collecting.