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What makes a great Watch?

By Thomas Hendricks
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Not all watches are created equal, and it isn’t always easy to tell if a watch is well made. If you’re looking at an Invicta, it’s going to be, well, garbage. If you’re looking at a George Daniels, it’s going to be magnificent. But for everything in between, it can help to keep a few rules of thumb in mind to make sure that the watch you buy offers excellent quality. 

Let’s kick things off by saying there’s no single way to determine the quality of a watch. The top dress watches will be wildly different from the top tool watches. Essentially, you’re looking for a watch that best fulfills the reason why it was made. We’ll hit on a few key things to look for across a range of categories and talk about a couple of general quality indicators. 

How to Tell if a Diving Watch Is Well Made

The Omega Seamaster 300M Diver: one of the most popular diving watches.
The Omega Seamaster 300M Diver: one of the most popular diving watches.

We’ll begin with diving watches. These timepieces need to have certain technical specifications: e.g., a minimum water-resistance of 100 m (10 bar, 328 feet), a timing system (typically a unidirectional rotating bezel), and legibility in low-light environments, to name a few. More than any other watch type, form follows function with divers, and build quality is key. The moving elements of the watch, in this case, the bezel and crown, are the quickest ways to inspect a diving watch’s quality. The bezel action should feel sturdy and click nicely, and the crown should feel solid when you wind it and screw it down. Bright and long-lasting lume is another quality element to look for, and smaller factors like a secure clasp and crown guards will help it withstand wear and tear. 

How to Tell if a Dress Watch Is Well Made

Rolex Datejust: Does THE dress watch also offer the best quality?
Rolex Datejust: Does THE dress watch also offer the best quality?

Dress watches are all about proportions and details. These timepieces should have thin cases, well-balanced dials, and character touches like sculpted lugs, elegant hands, or guilloché dials. The best dress watches are decorated by hand, and the majority are made from precious metals. By the way, be sure to avoid gold-plated watches, as the gold will fade with wear, exposing the steel underneath. Dress watches rely on only a few quality elements, so try to find a watch that looks simple at first glance while having layers of depth the closer and longer you look. 

How to Tell if a Chronograph Is Well Made

The Zenith El Primero: an underrated chronograph?
The Zenith El Primero: an underrated chronograph?

We’ll keep it brief for chronographs since much of their quality comes down to their movement, a topic that takes up its own article. There are great chronograph movements out there from Lemania, Valjoux, and others, so research is critical when it comes to these watches. Overall, look for a dial that displays plenty of information without feeling too busy, and look for pushers that have a smooth, satisfying action. 

How to Tell If a Watch Is Well Made: An Example

The Seiko Presage Cocktail Time: high quality for little money
The Seiko Presage Cocktail Time: high quality for little money

Now let’s use this Seiko Presage Cocktail Time to illustrate a few of the points we’ve mentioned. This is the first mechanical watch I bought, and it only cost a few hundred dollars. I have it on a Kevlar strap because, um, I guess at the time, I was expecting to get shot in the wrist. By the way, this strap is fraying, so it clearly is not that well made. 

This steel dress watch is about 40 mm wide and 12 mm thick. It features an open-heart design that allows the wearer to view the escapement through the dial. For some, it’s admittedly a gimmicky watch feature but a fun one for a young enthusiast just starting out.  

However, this watch does have several signs of quality craftsmanship that you might not expect to find on a timepiece costing only a few hundred dollars. The black dial is richly layered and has an espresso undertone that shines through in the light. The hour markers of this Seiko watch are applied and beveled to catch the light nicely, and the logo is applied as well. The hands are beveled, and the second hand, in particular, has a hollow counterweight for an extra touch of character. The crown is slightly oversized for easy use and features an engraved “S” as a nice little detail. 

The movement as seen through the display case back is nothing special. It lacks the finishing you’d see on a higher-end watch, but again, this Cocktail Time is very affordably priced. 

In-House Movements Are Not Necessarily a Sign of Quality

Now, the Cocktail Time does feature an in-house movement, which, we should point out, is not automatically an indication of a watch’s quality. “In-house” is a buzzword the industry has been increasingly using in the past few years, even while many reputable watches use quality movements from third-party manufacturers. Put differently: Just because you built it yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you built it better. In some cases, ETA movements might offer better, more affordable quality than some in-house calibers.

In closing, there are a handful of helpful questions you can ask yourself when considering a watch: Does the timepiece do what it’s supposed to do? Does a reputable company make the movement? How much effort went into the watch? Could you still wear it 10 years from now? With that in mind, get out there and find your next high-quality timepiece! 

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About the Author

Thomas Hendricks

I didn’t grow up a watch guy, but a few years after graduating from university, I landed a job at the online publication Watchonista as a writer and marketer. “Welcome to the watch world,” my colleagues told me half-jokingly, “no one ever leaves!” Now at Chrono24, I work as a private client advisor, helping people find the perfect watch for major life moments.

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