If you’ve never put any research into buying a watch, starting out can be daunting. But we believe a knowledgeable customer is our best customer, so we put together this basic primer.
Metals used in cases and bracelets
Most cases are made of stainless steel, in particular 316L “surgical grade” stainless. 316L is used because it offers a good balance of strength, hardness, corrosion resistance, and affordability. Some lower-priced watches will use 304L, which is a lower grade of stainless, and less resistant to corrosion.
Other metals are sometimes used, either because they are precious/rare metals (gold, platinum, palladium, silver, ruthenium), have increased hardness, strength or corrosion resistance (Tungsten, 440 steel, Tegimented Steel), are lighter (Titanium), or have an unusual characteristic, such as bronze, which develops a “patina” as it ages. Using these alternative metals will increase the price of the watch.
Quality timepieces will use 316L at a minimum, and avoid 304L. When alternative metals are used, their value, utility, additional cost, attractiveness and upkeep should all be considered before purchasing.
Cases and bracelets can be given a variety of finishes, such as brushed, polished, bead-blasted, cerakote, PVD/DLC, and some blends of finishes, most commonly a mix of brushed and polished. Additionally, they can be plated with a thin layer of metals such as gold or chrome.
Plated coatings may not wear well over time, as some may be easy to scratch, or just rub off over months and years of wear.
Cerakote (ceramic coating) and PVD/DLC (physical vapor deposition/diamond-like carbon) add an extremely hard and corrosive-resistant outer layer to the underlying metal, and alter the appearance of a watch, typically making it look black (PVD/DLC) or varying shades of black/gray (cerakote). However, these coatings can be scratched, and the contrast between the coating and the underlying metal can be an eyesore to some.
PVD coatings come in a variety of grades. Generally, DLC and Cerakote will be more durable than PVD coatings.
Polished finishes can look great, but will often show fingerprints, and any scratches will be obvious. Many high-end watches, especially dress watches, are given a polished finish. However, some very inexpensive watches are also mirror-polished, or given a chrome finish, but very often the polishing isn’t done very well, the metal looks warped, and it can make a watch look cheap.
Brushed finishes will tend to hold up better than polished over time, but generally don’t have the same level of visual impact - they’re not as eye-catching as polished surfaces. The benefit of a brushed surface is that it won’t show fingerprints, and will camouflage light scratches. However, just like with polishing, if a brushed surface isn’t done well, it shows. Bad brushing will be uneven, have strokes which aren’t parallel, etc. When two brushed surfaces or pieces come together, it can be difficult to join them in a way that doesn’t look awkward. Generally, the brush strokes of two adjoining pieces should be parallel to each other.
A mix of brushed and polished finishes is a popular choice among many watchmakers, as it offers a good balance of the visual “pop” of polished surfaces with the durability and easy maintenance of brushed surfaces. An added benefit is the interplay of polished and brushed finishes can add visual interest and appeal to a watch design.
Display Crystal Material
The glass on the front of a watch is the display crystal. Most watches use either acrylic, or some form of either mineral or sapphire.
Acrylic is actually not glass at all, but a form of plastic. Acrylic was widely used in watches from the ‘50’s through the ‘70’s, and is found in many vintage timepieces. Acrylic cannot be shattered. Instead it will dent if enough force is applied. Acrylic, being comparatively soft, is easy to scratch, but because it is soft any scratches are generally easy to buff out.
Because it can be formed into sharper curves, acrylic is still used today for watch designs with distinctive domed crystals with “bubble” shapes. Because of its durability, its easy maintenance, its ability to be formed into sharper curves, and its vintage appeal, many watch enthusiasts prefer acrylic to other crystal materials. Acrylic is also sometimes used in higher-end watches, sometimes under different names, such as "Hesalite".
Display crystals are most commonly made from either mineral glass or sapphire. Sapphire is harder than mineral glass, nearly as hard as diamonds, and so it is more difficult to scratch, yet being harder, it is also more brittle. Mineral, being softer than sapphire, it is more easily scratched, but being less brittle, it is harder to shatter.
Mineral glass is less expensive than sapphire, and so it is more commonly found on lower-priced watches. Sapphire, being more expensive, is more commonly found on higher-priced watches, and its use is generally seen as indicative of a higher-quality watch.
Because scratches in mineral glass can be very difficult, often impossible to buff out, and because it would require extreme force to shatter a sapphire crystal, sapphire is generally regarded as being preferable to mineral glass. However, not all mineral glass is created equal, and there are many variations of mineral glass which some manufacturers claim offer an increased level of scratch resistance, such as "sapphire-coated mineral", "Hardlex", and "flame fusion".
Display Crystal Shape and Coatings
The most common shape of display crystals is flat. Flat crystals offer the lowest profile, avoiding increased thickness and any added risk of inadvertent damage. Flat crystals also offer the greatest clarity/least amount of “distortion”, or light bending/changing direction as it travels through the crystal.
However, many crystals are shaped into a dome, with curves ranging from very subtle to quite dramatic. Domed crystals can give a watch a pleasing organic shape which many people find attractive. Additionally, many people enjoy the distortion seen when looking through a domed crystal from the side.
The more pronounced the dome is, the more distortion will be seen, and from an increasing range of viewing angles. Less pronounced domes will provide a smaller amount of distortion, and only when viewed at the more oblique angles, and otherwise will generally offer a level of clarity very close to flat crystals.
Domed crystals can be single-domed (curved on top, flat on bottom) or double-domed (top and bottom have parallel curves). Double-domed crystals are generally the most expensive, but offer more clarity/less distortion than single-domed crystals. Generally, when a crystal is double-domed, the manufacturer will label it as “double-domed”. Single-domed crystals will generally be referred to simply as “domed”.
The reflectiveness of a crystal depends on its material and shape. Generally, sapphire is more reflective than mineral, which is more reflective than acrylic. Many sapphire, and some mineral crystals will have an anti-reflective coating applied to one or more surfaces, in order to cut down on glare and increase legibility. AR coating can be applied to the outer surface, the inner surface, or both. Applying AR coating to the outer surface will cut down on most glare, but exterior AR coating can be scratched, creating an eyesore for the watch’s owner. Interior AR coating cannot be scratched, but won’t cut down on glare as much as exterior coating.
Types of Movements
The inner workings of watches are called movements. Most often they are quartz (powered by a small battery) or mechanical (powered by the release of tension in a coiled spring). Some quartz movements incorporate a mechanism for recharging the battery, such as solar cells or kinetic movement.
Quartz watches can often be easily identified at a glance by observing their seconds hands, which will generally move or “tick” once per second, although some quartz movements do have a smooth-sweeping seconds hand.
Mechanical movements can be of the hand-wind only variety (wound by turning the crown), or automatic (self-winding, using the motion of the body to swing a rotor attached to the movement, which in turn adds tension to the spring), many of which can also be hand-wound. Mechanical watches can be easily identified by their “sweeping” seconds hands, which will move more smoothly than in quartz watches. The higher the beat rate of the movement (measured in BPH or VPH – beats/vibrations per hour), the smoother the sweep of the seconds hand (generally, higher-beat movements will cost more than lower-beat movements).
Many people prefer the affordability, accuracy, reliability and easy maintenance of quartz watches. Quartz watches are generally less expensive than mechanical watches. Most quartz watches will never need any more maintenance than a periodic battery replacement. As long as the battery is powering the watch, the time (and if the function is included, the date) will rarely need to be adjusted. In the case of solar or kinetic quartz watches, the batteries may last a very, very long time, essentially rendering the watch maintenance-free for years, if not decades, or even life.
However, many people prefer mechanical movements, despite their added cost, lower accuracy, and periodic maintenance. Mechanical watch owners often like the fact that their watches are NOT powered by a battery, and instead are purely mechanical devices, powered by their body’s own motion or turning the watch’s crown. Many appreciate that a mechanical watch is reminiscent of an earlier time, before quartz watches. They often admire the artisanship of the watchmaker, and the fact that a mechanical watch requires some engagement from the owner in order to run. As small a detail as it may seem, many often enjoy seeing the smoothly sweeping seconds hand in a mechanical watch.
All current Lew & Huey models use automatic mechanical movements which can also be hand-wound.
Movements and their countries of origin
Most mechanical movements today come from companies in Switzerland, Japan or China.
While Swiss movements are widely considered to be the best, Swiss law only requires 51% of the components in a movement – measured by their value – to be made in Switzerland in order for the movement to be labeled “Swiss”. This loophole is widely misunderstood, but it allows many movements to be labeled Swiss despite having many parts made in other parts of the world.
Japanese movements are considered by many to be every bit as good, and in some cases better than Swiss movements. The major Japanese movement manufacturers are large companies with long histories of innovation and exacting attention to detail. Many people believe Japanese movements offer a comparable, possibly superior level of quality to Swiss movements, but at a lower price.
Many people believe “Made in China” means something is cheap and unreliable. While that can sometimes be true, China in fact has a rich watchmaking tradition going back for decades, and China’s largest maker of movements, Tianjin Sea-gull is the largest movement manufacturer in the world today. Quality among mechanical movements made in China can vary, sometimes wildly, and so doing some online research into movement calibres and their manufacturers before purchasing a watch with a Chinese movement can help avoid wasting money on something that is likely to be unreliable.
Accuracy and Power Reserve of Mechanical Movements
Even though they are less accurate than quartz, mechanical movements can still be very accurate and reliable.
A comparatively inexpensive mechanical movement may be rated by the manufacturer as being accurate to -20/+40 seconds per day, meaning in a 24-hour period, the watch may run from 20 seconds slow to 40 seconds fast. However, with 86,400 seconds in a day, that’s 99.95% accurate. More expensive mechanical movements can be rated for even greater accuracy, gaining or losing only a few seconds per day, and generally speaking, any mechanical movement can be adjusted or regulated for improved timekeeping.
Many manufacturers are conservative in their accuracy claims, and many mechanical movements will run better than the manufacturer’s specification, without any adjustment or regulation. It is not uncommon to find a movement rated as -10/+30 or -20/+40 only gaining or losing a few seconds per day, if that.
Power reserve is a term that refers to how long a watch will run once it is fully wound. Most modern mechanical movements have power reserves of 40 hours, give or take one or two hours, meaning a watch with a full power reserve will continue to run for about 40 hours, or more, with no further winding. Some more expensive watches have movements with power reserves lasting many days.
In mechanical movements, beat rate, accuracy and power reserve are all related and intertwined, along with reliability in many cases. Increasing or improving one can diminish another, requiring the watchmaker to make additional adjustments or take some other measure to compensate. Movements are somewhat like automotive engines in that increased performance comes at a price, and sometimes decreases reliability. Ideally, a mechanical movement will be designed with the appropriate balance of beat rate, accuracy, power reserve and reliability.