Watches buying guide

While the aesthetics are an important factor in choosing a watch, it’s also important to pay some attention to what’s inside the watch, and whether it will perform all the functions you need from it.

This guide will help you understand the wide variety of styles and functions available in modern timepieces. Please remember to keep your receipt or delivery note safe once you’ve bought your new watch, as most watches come with a guarantee, usually 2 years and in the case of some brands, a lifetime.

Watch styles

Lorus R2325DX9 Men's Digital Chronograph Sports Watch, Black/Silver
 
Tissot T0864071103100 Men's Luxury Automatic Watch, Silver
 
Raymond Weil 9460-SG-97081 Parsifal Women's Round Two-Tone Steel Bracelet Watch
Alpina AL-525LFB5FBAEV6 Men's Extreme Diver Automatic Rubber Strap Watch, Black
 
Tikkers TK0013 Kids Rubber Strap Watch, Yellow
 
Marc by Marc Jacobs MBM4550 Women's Round White Dial Purple Bezel Clear Acrylic Bracelet Watch

Movements

The term “movement” describes the mechanism inside the watch that keeps the time. The main function of a watch movement is to tell the time accurately, but it might also have other functions like showing the date, day of the week, running a stop-watch, tracking moon-phases or setting an alarm. These other functions are called “complications”, so called because the movement has to be more complicated to carry them out.

There are four main types of watch movement: 

 

Quartz / battery - probably the most popular movement in modern watches, these movements use a quartz crystal and a battery to keep accurate time for as long as the battery has power. The battery runs an electrical current through the quartz crystal, which vibrates 32,768 times a second. The moving parts of the watch are regulated by this vibration. Even very low-priced quartz watches keep time extremely precisely, with accuracy close to a few seconds a year. The only consideration is that you’ll need to change the battery every few years.

Mechanical / hand-wound – rather than a battery to power the movement, mechanical moving parts are used. A spring inside the watch is wound up, and very gradually releases its stored energy, spinning a wheel a certain number of times a second. The movement is regulated by the mainspring, so once the spring has been unwound, the watch will stop. As such, mechanical watches don’t keep time as accurately as battery-powered watches, and must be wound regularly to keep going. However, many watch connoisseurs prefer the craftsmanship and artistry which goes into making a mechanical movement.

Automatic / self-winding - automatic (or kinetic) watches also have no battery, and the mechanical insides of the movement are largely the same as hand-wound watches. The difference is in how the mainspring is wound. Rather than winding by hand, the watch contains a weight attached to the mainspring, which spins whenever the watch moves. Provided you wear the watch daily, the watch will keep itself wound up. The disadvantage is fairly obvious: if you don’t wear it for a couple of days, it will stop. The solution is to reset the time and then give the crown a few twists to kickstart the movement.

Solar-powered - using a photovoltaic cell on the watch’s face, solar-powered watches convert light to electricity, which they store in a battery. They work in the same way as any other battery-powered watch after that. The advantage is that, as long as the watch is looked after, you’ll never need to replace the battery. 

Straps

Watch straps are commonly available in four styles. Provided the strap is the same width, most watch straps can be easily changed by a jeweller or watch repair shop

 

Leather straps
These straps might be calf leather with a printed effect (like lizard or croc), or exotic leather like genuine crocodile or ostrich. In rare cases, horse leather called shell cordovan might be used. Leather-look (synthetic) is also quite common. Different types of leather will have varying levels of softness, be more or less hard-wearing, have a different texture, and will develop a different patina (surface finish) over time. They’ll usually fasten with a simple adjustable length buckle.

Fabric straps
Sometimes called a NATO strap, fabric straps will add a comfortable and casual touch that works well for off-duty outfits. People who like to customise their accessories sometimes pair the dressed-down look of a fabric strap with a contrasting high-end luxury watch. Fabric will usually fastens with a simple pin-buckle. Silicon straps are also popular for a sporty look, but are also practical in terms of keeping clean.

Metal bracelets
Bracelet straps are composed of links of metal, and are usually found on dress watches. The bracelet has a more substantial weight than leather, and is traditionally worn slightly looser. Bracelet length can be adjusted by removing the bracelet and taking links out, but this can’t usually be done “on the fly” and requires specific tools. Some fashion watches do come with links you can undo yourself. A bracelet usually fastens with a deployment or foldover buckle on the inside of the bracelet, which is concealed when the watch strap is fastened.

Bangle bracelets
Almost exclusively found on women’s watches, bangle bracelets are made of large, curved links or a solid piece of metal. They add an elegant, jewellery-like feel to a watch. The bangle might open and close with a jewellery clasp, or if a solid bangle will just slip over the wrist. Sizing a bangle watch is more difficult, so be sure to measure your wrist carefully before ordering. 

Dials and faces

Watch dials are even more varied than straps. Some key differences are:

 

Shapes
Round dials are most traditional, but rectangular and oval dials have always been popular niche choices. Keep in mind that you can also have a round dial in a square case.

Numerals
Hours are usually denoted by Arabic (1-12) or Roman (I - XII) numerals. The fewer the numbers, the more contemporary the watch will usually look. Roman numerals provide a more classic feel, and are popular on dress watches.

Indices
Some watches don’t have numerals at all, instead featuring a slim piece of raised metal called a “baton” to mark each hour.

Sub-dials
Watches with extra complications might have smaller sub-dials to show the seconds and minutes elapsed on the stopwatch. The watch might also feature windows which display the date or day of the week.

Decoration
Some dials might be inlaid with enamel or Mother of Pearl, or engraved with intricate Guilloche or sunburst decorations.

Water resistance

Water resistance causes a lot of confusion when buying watches. The term “waterproof” is broadly not used, because making a watch case waterproof requires it to be hermetically sealed, a technically-difficult process reserved for high-end deep sea diving watches.

For that reason, water resistance is measured in water pressure, and represented in units of 10 metres (m), or by Atmospheres (ATM). 10m of water is equivalent to one additional ATM of pressure. 50m are equivalent to 5ATM. 100m are equivalent to 10ATM.

This scale of water resistance refers to the pressure acting on the watch when it’s static in water.  You can expect a watch with 30m / 3ATM water resistance to remain watertight at a depth of 30m in most conditions.

Do bear in mind though, that a watch will be tested in a laboratory.  Real world scenarios nearly always involve some sort of motion, whether it’s the motion of the watch, the water, or both combined. 

When you swim, your watch is moving rapidly through water. This quickly increases the water pressure beyond the 30m / 3ATM limit, even in a pool far shallower than 30m. Similarly, a watch with 50m / 5ATM water resistance is considered acceptable for swimming, but it might still leak if exposed to the dramatic pressure changes involved when diving into a pool. 

We suggest the following as a guide to water exposure:

30m/ 3ATM Splash and rainproof. Can be exposed to water, but should not be submerged. Remove when swimming, bathing or washing up
50m / 5ATM Can be fully submerged in water, so can be worn swimming, but may not be completely water-resistant when diving into the pool
100m / 10ATM Can be worn for all pool swimming and shallow diving
200m / 20ATM Suitable for pool swimming and most casual diving, but not deep sea diving

Sizes

Measurements of watches usually cover the width of the dial (the section covered by glass), the width of the case (the total width of the body of the watch, including the bezel around the edge and the crown). The depth of the case will let you know how slimline the watch is. The height of the case may include the lugs (the metal “arms” which connect the watch to the strap).

Women’s dress watches tend to be relatively small, usually not wider than the wrist they are worn on. Fashion watches can be larger, as suits their bolder design. Luxury watches may feature an automatic movement or extra complications, and might be larger as a result.

Buckled watch straps are usually supplied in one size, which can be adjusted to suit the wearer. Bracelet straps can have links removed until they are the correct length; sometimes you can do this yourself without tools. Bangle straps are slightly more difficult to size, so take measurements before you buy. 

Guarantees

Most of our watches carry a 2-year international manufacturer’s guarantee. Please check the individual item for details.

Manufacturers’ guarantees don’t cover issues resulting from excessive physical damage to the watch (such as dropping on concrete or a hard surface), magnetic damage to the watch’s movement (being worn inside a medical or airport scanner, for example) or damage resulting from improper exposure to water. In some instances, you might find you’re covered under your contents insurance.

Guarantees generally don’t cover battery changes through normal use.

When you buy a watch, do retain the warranty in the box, along with a copy of the receipt for your watch.

Glossary

There’s a whole host of technical terms connected with watches – here’s a brief translation.

Analogue - A display which uses continuously moving hands to represent the time

Arabic numerals - Numerals expressed traditionally from 1-12
Atmosphere (ATM) -
A unit in describing water resistance. 10 metres of water is equivalent to an additional atmosphere of pressure acting on the watch. This unit applies to a stationary watch. A watch in motion in water will experience greater pressure.

Automatic - A watch movement which winds the mainspring when the watch is moved, with a weighted Rotor. Sometimes it’s called a Kinetic movement, as it’s powered by moving around.

Band - A type of strap; a strip of material to which the watch is attached by the Lugs.

Bangle - A jewellery-like bangle with a watch attached.  Either slips on the wrist, or secures with a hinged closure.

Batons - Slim, vertical hour markers, often coloured to match other details on the watch, and usually contrasting with the dial to make them easily readable

Battery - Provides the electrical current which a quartz watch movement requires to operate.

Bezel - The part of the case which surrounds the watch dial. May be raised or flush with the case, or set with precious stones. Some watches feature a Rotating Bezel to measure time or speed.

Buckle - The mechanism which fastens the watch strap. See Pin buckle, Foldover clasp, Deployment buckle

Caliber - a specific model of watch movement, with an alphanumeric name.

Case - the body of the watch, which contains the watch mechanism and dial. Often made out of stainless steel, or sometimes silver or gold. Usually attaches to the strap via Lugs.

Chronograph - a Stopwatch complication which allows the user to track two different times simultaneously. With smaller Subdials to track minutes, hours and seconds elapsed, it’s not to be confused with a Chronometer.

Chronometer - a rare type of watch which has been certified to precision standards.  Swiss-made watches must be tested by the COSC, and meet exacting standards of construction and accuracy to be considered a Chronometer.

Complication - an additional function of a watch beyond standard 12 or 24 hour  timekeeping.  Might include a date window, moonphase display or chronograph. More sophisticated complications often result in a higher price, and are more highly regarded by collectors.

COSC. - Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres - a Swiss group which assesses whether a watch can be considered a Chronometer.

Crown - the circular protrusion from the outside of the case, attached to the mainspring. Often ridged to provide extra grip, the crown is normally used to set the time of the watch when pulled out. When flush with the case, twisting the crown will wind the mainspring of a mechanical or automatic watch. In particularly rugged models, the crown may have extra protection against water damage. See Screw-cap Crown.

Crystal - Nearly all watch faces are now made with mineral or sapphire crystal. Both of these crystals have the transparency of glass, but with a greater resistance to shattering and scratching. Sapphire crystal is used in higher grade watches, and can only be scratched by diamond and some artificial carbides.  See Dial, Face.

Dial - the section of the watch which displays the time. Often used interchangeably with Face. Note that the dial shape and the case shape may be different, and that the dial width may not include the width of the bezel.

Digital - a display which uses discretely changing numerals instead of continuously moving hands. Some analogue displays might feature an integrated digital display for specific functions.

Diver’s watch - a rugged watch with a level of water resistance greater than 10ATM. High quality watches will be completely sealed against water, with a Screw-cap Crown to prevent leakage.

Deployment buckle - a folding buckle sometimes found on steel bracelet straps. As well as being quick to remove and secure when fastened, the buckle can be concealed by the strap while done up.

Dual time -  a watch which with a second hour hand, to display the time simultaneously from two time zones. Handy for regular international commuters, or if you make a lot of international phone calls.

Ébauche - an unassembled watch movement.

Escapement - a component in the movement which transfers power from the mainspring to the regulator, therefore maintaining accurate time. The notched wheel train and anchor form part of the movement.

Foldover clasp - a clasp which collapses on itself , often closing with a safety catch.

GMT - Greenwich Mean Tine, which provides the basis for determining worldwide time zones by adding or subtracting hours for different time zones.

Grand complication - an extremely rare variety of watch which features three major complications in its movement. An example would be a watch with a chronograph, perpetual calender and mechanical alarm. Highly prized by watch collectors.  

Guilloche - An engraving technique sometimes used on watch dials or to decorate watch movements. Achieved with a repetitive turning machine, this fine decoration is found on high-end watches to demonstrate the extensive effort put into their production.

Hand-wound - A mechanical watch which requires the user to wind the mainspring. Usually accomplished by twisting the crown back and forth while it’s flush with the watch case. Most modern watches can’t be overwound without the assistance of tools, so just stop winding once there is sufficient resistance in the spring.  

Heartbeat window - A small skeleton window which reveals the mainspring of the watch, allowing the wearer to see the watch’s “heartbeat” as the mainspring coils and uncoils.

Horology - The study of time. Watch enthusiasts are called “horologists.”

Indices - The symbols other than numerals used to denote the hour points on a watch face.

Jewels - Used in mechanical watches. Jewels are industrial rubies with a polished finish, incorporated into the bearings of the mechanism where pieces of metal need to rotate or move over each other smoothly. These jewels have a low surface friction, so can keep the mechanism moving smoothly without extra lubrication. Watch movements are sometimes judged in quality by their number of jewels. They also provide a welcome aesthetic touch when the mechanism is visible in a Skeleton Dial or Window Caseback.

LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) - A commonly-used dial type on digital watches, which uses an electrical field to form letters or numerals to regulate timekeeping.

Lens - Used interchangeably for Face, Dial. Describes the transparent material covering the watch dial.

Light - An illumination function incorporated into the dial to enable the watch to be read in low light. Can be a bulb which can be switched on or off at will, or glow-in-the-dark chemicals inlaid in the numerals, hands or hour markers.

Links - These form part of the bracelet and can be removed in order to adjust the length to fit your wrist.

Lugs - The “arms” which protrude from the top and bottom of the watch case. Each lug features a drilled hole. A telescoping pin is pushed through the watch strap, and then fixed into place between the two lugs.

Magnetisation - A reduction in the accuracy of a mechanical watch movement caused by exposure to a strong magnetic field, including medical or airport scanners, or powerful speakers. A magnetised watch should be serviced to restore accuracy.  

Mainspring - The primary spring in a watch where the potential energy is stored. Gradually releases over time, regulating the time and providing energy for the movement. The watch will stop when the mainspring is fully unwound.

Mechanical - A watch movement that operates without batteries, using only moving parts such as cogs, levers and springs. Held in higher regard by watch experts due to the higher difficulty involved in their production.

Moonphase - A complication which tracks the waxing or waning of the moon. Although sometimes used as a decorative feature, the moonphase can be used to infer information on the tides, or to provide an indication of how much moonlight there will that night.

NATO strap - A fabric watch strap, that adds a more casual feel to a watch.

Numerals - Used to denote the hour points on the watch face, traditionally either Arabic (1 - 12) or Roman (I to XII).

Perpetual calendar- A watch complication that tracks and displays the day, date, month and year without requiring resetting for shorter months or leap years. Found in extremely high end watches.

Pin buckle - The simple pin-and-hole fastening used on leather watch straps.

Physical Vapour Deposition (PVD) - A method of coating a watch with a film of vaporised metal. PVD coatings provide an even coverage which is harder and more resistant to abrasion than electro-plated metals.

Power reserve indicator - Mechanical watches store potential energy in the mainspring. A power reserve indicator records and displays how wound up the mainspring is, providing a warning for when it needs winding.

Quartz - A watch movement that uses a battery running a current through a quartz crystal. Keeps extremely accurate time, but relies on the battery having a charge.

Radio-controlled - These watches receive radio-controlled signals from a satellite transmitter to ensure highly accurate timekeeping. Radio-controlled watches are accurate to within one second.

Retrograde - A display which resets back to zero once the cycle has completed.

Rotating bezel - A watch bezel which can be rotated, instead of remaining static. See Unidirectional Bezel.

Roman numerals - Hour markers of I - XII, associated with more classic-looking dress watches.

Rotor - An eccentrically-weighted piece of metal that spins about when an automatic watch moves, providing the distinctive weight and sense of internal movement of an automatic watch.

Sapphire crystal - see Crystal.

Screw-cap crown - A cap used to prevent water leaking into the seams around the watch crown. Hinges into place over the crown and screws into place.

Skeleton - Describes watch cases of dials which use a transparent surface where an opaque surface would traditionally be used. A skeleton dial is see-through, allowing the movement to be visible behind the hands. When only a small part of the dial is transparent, it’s called a Skeleton window.

Shock-resistant - A watch designed to withstand gentle jolts during sport or leisure activities.

Splashproof - A watch that can withstand splashing with water, but should not be fully submerged as water may enter the watch mechanism.

Stopwatch - see Chronograph.

Sub-dial - A smaller dial set inside the main watch dial. Examples include the second, minute and hour sub-dials on a chronograph watch.

Sunburst - A decorative engraved effect on a watch dial. Created with a turning machine, it creates fine lines emitting from the centre of the dial.

Swiss-made ­- A legally protected term when describing watches. Due to the prestige associated with the Swiss watch-making industry, many watch producers have misused the term. A watch is considered Swiss-made if the movement is Swiss, the movement is cased up in Switzerland, and the watch undergoes its final inspection before shipping in Switzerland. Otherwise the watch may be described as having Swiss parts, but may not be described as “Swiss made”.

Tachymeter - A numerical scale around a watch bezel, which can be used to calculate speed or distance of a moving object.

Unidirectional bezel - A movable bezel with markings which can be used to measure elapsed time since a starting point. Often found on diving watches. Use by setting the large top arrow of the bezel at the current position of the minute hand. As time passes, compare the placement of the minute hand with the position of the large arrow. The numbers on the bezel will show the elapsed time.

Waterproof - The International Organisation for Standardisation prohibits the use of the term “waterproof” when describing watches. See Water resistance.

Water resistance – A laboratory-assessed standard that details how well a watch can be expected to resist exposure to water without leaking. Based on submersion of the watch in static water, it’s measured in intervals of 10 metres / 1 ATM. Diving watches must be 100m / 10ATM water resistant. See the detailed section in this guide for more details, as this term is based on laboratory conditions, and not real world use.

Window caseback - A case with a transparent back, usually mineral or sapphire crystal, instead of a metal back. Allows the interior of the mechanism to be seen when the watch is removed.

World time - A sophisticated complication which allows the wearer to switch between time zones with the press of a button, without manually adjusting the hands. Ideal for frequent international travellers.