A watch is the only piece of jewelry that most men wear (unless you go and get yourself hitched). Even as the proliferation of mobile phones makes a watch’s time-telling functions less necessary, the watch has endured. Because while just about everyone has either an Apple or Samsung smartphone, there are countless watch manufacturers and models to choose from. So a man’s choice of timepiece makes a statement about his personality and taste in a way that a phone cannot. It’s also out in the open on your wrist as opposed to tucked away in your pocket and becomes one of the first things people notice about you.
While all of the options ensure that there is a right watch (or a few) for every wrist, it also makes buying a watch one of the most challenging purchases a man can make. You can buy a watch for $20. You can also buy one, as someone did last year, for $24.4 million, which was the price paid at auction for a 1933 Patek Philippe.
To help sift through what’s really important and what is empty marketing speak, we connected with Joe Babcock. As the director of product at Nixon, Babcock is responsible for overseeing all the brand’s watches from their initial idea all the way through to when they end up in stores. Babcock has a deep understanding and appreciation of all the technical and engineering aspects of a watch, but he isn’t a snob about it and can appreciate the merits of everything from an entry level watch to a high end timepiece.
So we talked with Babcock to demystify the process of buying a watch and asked him to break it down in a way that the average man can understand.
When a guy is buying a watch, what are the most important things to look for?
There’s a lot of complexity to a watch. It’s the same with the automobile industry. If you really want to dig deeper and look into engine power and cylinder output, you can do a lot of homework. But there’s some basic things that you should take a look at. First and foremost you should establish a case size that fits. If you’re a first-time buyer or you haven’t purchased a watch since you shelved your calculator watch in ‘82 then it’s a good idea to visit your local watch store to try on a few and find a size that works. A more contemporary classic watch for men would be a case ranging from 38-45 millimeters. They wear well on a daily basis, especially since a lot of menswear has become more tailored. But you can also buy a watch in a case size of 50-plus millimeters.
Secondly, I’d say discover what’s missing on your wrist. If you have four or five analog watches then take a look at a digital watch. If you’re someone that lives an active life, make sure you have a watch that has a water rating of at least 100 meters.
Then I’d say the third thing is to have fun with your purchase. One of the best things about watches is that they come in a variety of sizes and shapes and colors and finishes. If you shop around and dig deep you’ll find a brand that shares your point of view. At the end of the day your watch can be a great vehicle for conversation.
What are the biggest differences between a $100 watch and a $10,000 watch?
I find a lot of parallels to the automotive and bicycle industries. You can get a simple 10-speed that’s practical and runs well for $200 or you can buy a full-fledged carbon fiber race bike that can get up to 12 grand. Watches aren’t much different. The main difference is the value of components, the assembly process, and oftentimes the limited edition production quantities. That chalice of desire in a higher price point watch lies in the hand-built mechanical movement, which is the engine that drives the watch function in a way that doesn’t require a battery. Those mechanical movements are highly complex gearing mechanisms. They take countless hours to assemble and they’re also really fun to look at. For the $100 watch what you get is a functional and practical timepiece oftentimes made out of surgical grade stainless steel with a Japanese quartz movement, which is highly accurate.
What’s the difference between a mechanical movement and a quartz movement? Is one better than the other?
Different things have different material values. It’s like the difference between gold and silver. They’re both luxurious, awesome materials. Quite honestly people should be amped on a quartz movement. I’ve been to our movement factories in Japan and the amount of intricate precision and detail that goes into building a quartz watch is incredible and the accuracy of timing for the price is great. The simplest way to explain it is the quartz movement uses an electronic oscillator that is powered by a battery to keep time. A mechanical movement is driven by a spring which can be wound periodically and a weighted wheel oscillates back and forth at a constant rate allowing the watch to keep time. It’s a mechanical function versus a battery powered function.
What should drive the decision between a quartz and mechanical movement?
It really comes down to how much you want to spend, and what your intention is. If you want a good daily driver that’s a rad watch, I’m going to go [with a quartz]. If I’m looking for a watch that I eventually want to give to my kid to hand down to his kid, then making an investment in a mechanical watch is something you should look at.
Once you know what case size you want, what else should factor into your purchase?
Make sure you’re buying product from a brand that’s going to service your post-purchase experience and back it up. It’s like buying artwork, you don't’ do it very often. People will only buy a certain amount of watches in their lifetime, so let that watch jump out at you.
Do watch complications—the functions that it can perform—matter?
For sure. If you’re an aloof person and forget what the date is, buy a watch with a date function. You can’t walk around with a calendar in your pocket all day, so being able to look at your watch and go, “OK, it’s December 18,” is good. That’s a practical feature. But it’s important to buy a watch with features that apply to your life. The majority of complications that are built into a watch are rarely used by the common man. They have technical merit, but not many of us fly fighter jets or race cars or blast off to the moon. But as men, we love gadgets and we love extra horsepower.
How should you maintain a watch?
A watch is a tool not a jewel, but you should treat it with some respect. Don’t just chuck ‘em in your drawer. Get a nice quality little storage box. It’s just like your car, you’re not going to run it through the bushes and hope it’s going to look good. Keep it clean.
At the end of the day how much of it just comes down to plain liking a watch, as opposed to its technical merits?
I think the impulse shop for the watch is as valuable as the educated purchase. If you’re rolling by a watch store and you see something and you’re like, “Whoa, that’s missing in my life,” it can be that simple.