Many collectors and enthusiasts will tell you that you can’t be a ‘watch guy’ (no sexism here – could easily be ‘gal’) if you don’t own a traditional mechanical watch, just the same as petrolheads tell each other that you can’t be a true petrolhead if you’ve never owned an Alfa. (I have, and would rather cycle everywhere for the rest of my life than have another).
No doubt that there is an element of exclusivity or price in that statement – thanks to the complex nature of a mechanical watch, prices were always at the more ‘exclusive’ end of the scale, but in today’s world, that’s not necessarily so.
In fact, depending on where you shop, it’s entirely possible to buy a mechanical watch for the same price as some of the cheapest battery-powered ‘throwaway’ watches, and what’s more, they’ll keep time just as well as your Rolex, Omega, Breitling … any of the luxury brands.
The most complicated watch made contains over 2,800 separate parts, although admittedly, it’s a pocket watch. Having said that, you’d need a mighty big pocket – the 57260 from Vacheron Constantin measures up at a whopping 98 mm diameter, and 50.55 mm in thickness – think of it as carrying around a large vintage speedometer in your pocket, only heavier, and with about 2,785 more parts.
An average mechanical watch usually has anywhere between 100 – 300 components, the difference between ‘luxury’ and ‘Sunday market’ is human – the higher-end luxury watches have an element of hand-finishing or building, whereas the cheap & cheerful are manufactured by machines with no hand-finishing and minimal build time.
Creating complex shapes or patterns in metal can be a complex process. Take, for example, something as simple as a 6 mm machine screw (not to be confused with a wood screw); the diameter needs to be precise, or certainly within a close tolerance (+/- 0.127 mm), then it has to be cut for a thread using a die of some sort (a hardened tool with ‘teeth’ set at a certain size) that actually cuts through the metal.
Difficult on something that you can actually hold in your hand, but scale that down to something no bigger than the diameter of a needle, and half the length of a grain of rice … and once it’s cut, it needs polishing to remove sharp edges.
Of course, in today’s world, machines take care of most of these processes, but it wasn’t too long ago that this would be done by hand, making the early mechanical watches even more impressive. The difference between a branded mechanical and lower value is that while the processes are the same, the fit and finish of the components doesn’t matter when it comes to assembly – the manufacturer of a cheap watch can just scrap one that hasn’t gone together quite right, whereas that’s not an option for the high-end brands. The human element is there to ensure that everything is perfect.
Traditional vs Future
Even today, a mechanical watch is a marvel of engineering, but could we say the same for newer technology? Is an iWatch (or whatever it is) considered to be a marvel? Or the Citizen eco-drive? A watch that’s never wrong (no jokes about your partner), never needs charging, or winding, or setting … surely that’s a marvel of the modern world?
The new tech watches are great, but they don’t feel the same – move your arm quickly with a mechanical and you’ll feel the internals working, the charging; you can hear it whirring and moving, it’s alive – no other watches feel that way or give that indication.
Getting back to the original point – you’re only a true watch guy if you own a mechanical watch – but where do you draw that line? Will a cheap £5.99 special from internet auction sites give you that credence? Or does it have to be from Switzerland?
And if a cheap & cheerful one doesn’t get you in the club, what’s the limit? And why? If you need to start looking at the movement fitted to determine your horological credentials, surely that in itself makes you a watch guy?
My advice to anyone looking to get ‘in’ to watches is simple: See a watch you like? Buy it. Don’t concern yourself with what others will think, or ‘how interesting’ it will make you – around 70% of Rolex owners buy them to make a statement, not for the history or engineering, so even with a mechanical Rolex on your wrist, someone will be tutting and passing comment.