As the name suggests, this is a “Beginner’s Guide to Buying a Watch.” We designed this guide to help those readers that are new to watches, and need assistance in determining the basics of a watch so as to make an informed decision when buying one.
Quartz vs. Mechanical
One of the first things to consider when buying a quality timepiece is if you want a “quartz” or a “mechanical” watch. (We don’t focus on smartwatches.)
Quartz watches are generally inexpensive, easy to maintain, and highly accurate (typical accuracy is 15+/- seconds per month). They run on battery power, a long-life lithium battery lasts approximately 3-years. In some cases the battery is rechargeable, in which case sunlight “solar-powered” (like a Citizen Eco-Drive) recharges it; or wrist movement “rotor-powered” (hybrid like a Seiko Kinetic) recharges it (not to be confused with a rotor that winds the mainspring on a mechanical timepiece).
Mechanical watches are generally more expensive than quartz, and although they are not as accurate, most modern timepieces are very accurate (the best watches, some of which are officially certified chronometers, are accurate to 5+/- seconds per day, or better). Power comes from a mainspring which is either wound by hand (the old-fashioned way) or automatically wound (self-winding) by a rotor that oscillates as your wrist moves, which in turn winds the mainspring.
Unlike quartz, the power that is reserved is typically only enough for a few days, so if left unattended, the watch will need to reset and wound (this is why there are automatic watch winders). Good automatic mechanical timepieces allow you to also manually wind the timepiece (although some cheaper models do not, so be aware of this). Maintenance is more expensive on a mechanical timepiece than quartz, but it is not too bad considering the time between maintenance is very long.
Purists might argue that mechanical wristwatches are the only true watches. The first wristwatches were, of course, mechanical. And there is definitely a certain something about owning and wearing a mechanical timepiece. But everyone has to start somewhere, and many people who enjoy mechanical timepieces also own quartz timepieces as well.
Case and Caseback
When selecting a watch, the case is very important. You should consider factors such as material, shape, and size.
The majority of watches are round, so you definitely cannot go wrong with that. Rectangle, square, oval, octagonal, and tonneau-shaped watches represent the primary alternative watch case shapes.
The diameter of a watch case is very important because everyone’s wrists are different, therefore it is highly recommended that you try on any watch before you buy it. And perhaps equally or even more important is the lug-to-lug. This is the measurement across your wrist. If the lug-to-lug length is greater than the width of your wrist, it will hang over.
Vintage watches ( watch at least 25 years old) tend to have much smaller diameters than many of the timepieces being made nowadays. Not only does the diameter of the watch affect the overall look, but it also affects comfort. If you buy a watch that is too big, and that has an oversized crown, it could dig into your wrists and be very uncomfortable to wear. The thickness of a watch is important as well. Too thick can be uncomfortable, so once again, try it before you buy.
The material is another important factor when buying a timepiece. Stainless steel, ceramic, titanium, gold, and platinum are the most prevalent case materials. Stainless steel is the most common, and maybe the best all-around metal for watchmaking in regards to quality, price, and value. Stainless 316L is typically what’s used for watch cases, however, Rolex and a handful of other brands use a more premium and weather-resistant stainless steel called 904L.
Titanium and ceramic are very light, with ceramic having the added advantage of being very scratch resistant. Although, ceramic is also brittle and can crack if dropped, whereas titanium does not have that downside.
Titanium and steel are not highly scratch-resistant, but with hardening techniques and hard coatings such as PVD/DLC (generally black or grey), both titanium and steel can become very resistant to scratching.
Gold (which mostly comes in white, yellow, pink varieties) and platinum provide the most flashiness, but they are also the most expensive case materials, not to mention gold and platinum are extremely heavy. The common 18K gold allows used for watch cases is solid enough to support the case but is also relatively soft compared to a standard stainless steel alloy like 316L, and therefore can be easily scratched.
The caseback of a quartz timepiece is virtually always going to be solid, there is no point in being able to see the mechanicals of a quartz movement. Mechanical watches, on the other hand, are typically beautiful and therefore many watches have open or clear case backs.
Some brands will use a mineral crystal in the back, as opposed to sapphire crystal, to reduce cost. But most timepieces with a clear caseback will use a sapphire. For diver watches, professional instrument watches sports watches, the caseback is typically solid (steel, titanium are most common) to ensure water resistance and robustness.
Plexiglass (acrylic), mineral crystal, and sapphire crystal are the three most common types of glass on timepieces. Plastic is common in vintage watches, as well as low-priced timepieces. Mineral crystals are found mostly on entry-level timepieces. Sapphire crystals are the most premium type of crystal, as they are very clear and virtually scratchproof (however be careful as their hardness makes them extremely brittle which means they can shatter).
Unless you are buying a watch for under $500, or a vintage timepiece, then you should always look for sapphire glass. Also, it is best to have one or two coatings of anti-reflective treatment (inside and outside). Some companies forgo anti-glare treatment or do a poor job. When you look at a timepiece with and without a glare-proofing treatment on a sunny day, you will quickly realize the importance of an anti-reflective coating.
Functions or Complications
A basic three-hand timepiece displays hours, minutes, and seconds (some timepieces may even come with just the hours and minutes, or in rare cases just the hours). Some popular functions include dual time zone, world timer, chronograph, alarm, power reserve, and date. Some advanced functions (also called complications) include a tourbillon, split-second chronograph, flyback chronograph, perpetual calendar, and minute repeater.
Strap or Bracelet
There are many great choices when it comes to straps or bracelets. Calfskin leather straps, alligator straps, suede leather, vintage leather, rubber, textile, metal bracelets, and Nato. It is nice to own a few different straps or a strap and bracelet, so you can switch them out for different outfits or occasions.
Things to Consider
Price, brand, heritage, resale, discounts, reliability, and durability are other important factors to consider.
Resale is a particularly relevant topic in 2021 because there are currently a handful of brands and models within those brands that sell for retail (at the store level) and above retail on the secondary market. Rolex is the most dominant all-around, and especially when considering their stainless steel professional and sports watches, such as Daytona and Sky-Dweller, which command the highest resale relative to the retail price. Also, Patek Philippe is one to consider with one of the most popular watches being the Nautilus 5711, and the Aquanaut, and many of their other references, particularly stainless steel references. Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille are the other main two watch brands that have many references that sell for over retail on the secondary market. There’s no guarantee how long this will last but there are no signs of slowdown as of April 2021. Other brands to consider that could achieve this status in the short term are Omega and Vacheron Constantin.
Many watch brands now sell directly online, and buying online is safer than it has ever been, however, be careful in who you deal with. We highly recommend only purchasing from “Authorized Dealers” or directly from the manufacturer to ensure authentic timepieces. Although, there are reputable secondary sellers that are worth dealing with, and of course, private parties. The latter you should do at your own risk, and just like if you were buying a car from a private person — always meet the buyer/seller somewhere public like a watch store, coffee shop, or your bank — to reduce the chance of being robbed.
Update: Originally published November 2012, has been updated as of April 2021.