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A complete beginner's guide to buying a watch

Finding a good timepiece takes, well, time.

close-up of three silver wrist watches Credit: Getty / GerbertAndrey

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The world of watches can be very intimidating. There’s a lot to understand about timepieces, with confusing terms around function, style, and features. The complexity of choosing a watch is what kept me away from doing it for so long.

As a style writer at Reviewed, however, I can’t continue to ignore the watch. It's not that I don't like them—like a sports car I can’t afford, I find watches aesthetically pleasing and I appreciate how they can elevate any outfit. And, as I've already learned, you don't have to spend Rolex prices when brands like G-Shock make some very elegant styles.

If you’re like me—i.e., someone who is interested in watches, but is unsure where to start—below is everything you need to know about how to buy a watch.

The parts of a watch

person looking at wristwatch
Credit: Getty / Ivar Østby Simonsen

There are many terms to describe the anatomy of a watch.

There are many pieces of a watch that are customizable, from its face to its band. Before buying a watch, it’s important to understand its anatomy to ensure you’re getting the right style for you.

The main parts of a watch include:

  • Bracelet: A watch’s wrist strap or band.
  • Bezel: The metal ring surrounding the watch’s face that. This holds the crystal.
  • Case: Where a watch’s internal parts are kept.
  • Crown: A button on the right side of a watch that sets the time and date. (On mechanical watches, this also winds the spring.)
  • Crystal: A watch’s glass window.
  • Dial: Also referred to as a face, a dial is where you can find the time.
  • Lugs: What connects a watch’s band to its body.

How does a quartz wrist watch work?

quartz crystal
Credit: Getty / ivstiv

A tiny quartz crystal is what powers a watch's movement.

A quartz watch offers the most accurate and reliable way to tell time. It’s powered by a tiny crystal—a quartz—and operated with a battery and small motors. It’s easy to maintain as the only upkeep it requires is a battery change. Depending on the quartz, the battery can last up to four years, and in some cases, it’s even rechargeable via solar energy or wrist movement. (In the latter case, a tiny oscillating pendulum swings around and charges a small electrical generator through kinetic energy—the movement of the wrist.)

How it works: A tiny piece of quartz crystal is etched into the shape of a tuning fork to serve as an oscillator. The watch’s battery shoots electricity to the quartz crystal, causing it to vibrate (over 32,000 times per second!) at a low frequency. Those vibrations then generate regular electric pulses that drive a small motor into the watch’s hands, which results in an accurate time measurement until the battery’s life slows and eventually dies. Generally, quartz watches are sleeker and slimmer, and are cheaper in price than mechanical watches.

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How does a mechanical wrist watch work?

man working on repairing a mechanical watch
Credit: Getty / Rudenkoi

Mechanical watches are more intricate than quartz watches.

A mechanical watch uses a more expensive and intricate technology—the first type of technology used for such time pieces. While quartz watches operate via battery, mechanical watches are powered by a mainspring that needs to be wound. Manual mechanical watches are wound by hand, while automatic mechanical watches have rotors that wind the mainspring through moving your wrist. These watches are also sometimes referred to as self-winding. In either case, that winding powers a series of gears that help a small weighted wheel oscillate inside at a constant rate. A tiny device called an escapement pushes the watch’s wheels and moves its hands forward at a constant rate. Mechanical watches are most costly to repair and require more upkeep due to their hundreds of internal parts. Though not as accurate as a quartz, mechanical watches can precisely tell time provided you keep them wound and in working order.

Although mechanical watches are more technical, more expensive, and require more upkeep, they are the preferred choice of purists and collectors. Think of mechanical fans like those who prefer vinyl record players to digitally streaming music.

The types of watch dial displays: Analog, digital, and hybrid

nixon watches showing off analog, digital, and hybrid styles
Credit: Nixon

From left to right: Analog, digital, and hybrid watch.

A dial—also known as a watch’s face—is where you read the time. On an analog dial, which is the most traditional style, an hour, minute, and second hand point to numbers on the face. A digital dial, on the other hand, is usually an LCD screen powered by a quartz battery. Digital watches are rarely mechanical. Think of analog dials as the type of clock you’d see on a classroom wall, and digital as a bedside alarm clock.

A hybrid display combines both analog and digital into one face. These can look like analog watches, but they also feature a small LCD screen that usually conveys more than just time, like weather, dates, and moon phases. Many modern hybrid watches also often offer Bluetooth connectivity.

a field, diver, and pilot watch from Citizen
Credit: Citizen

From left to right: A field, diver, and pilot watch.

Now that you know how they work, let's cover how they look. Some of the most commonly found watch types include:

  • Analog: Barebones, straightforward, and to the point, an analog watch tells time—and that’s it. It typically doesn’t have any special features. Fossil and Timex sell popular analog styles.
  • Digital: A watch with an LCD face. Modern versions of this style have shifted toward smartwatch. The G-Shock DW5600E-1V is a classic digital watch.
  • Diver: Originally intended for professional divers, but have since grown in popularity and become ubiquitous with luxury watches. A diver watch is water-resistant and able to withstand intense pressure. It’s sometimes made with rubber or silicone bands, though modern and luxury divers are made with stainless steel or titanium. Invicta's Pro Diver is a best-selling choice in this category.
  • Dress: Like its name implies, this isn’t meant to be worn daily, but rather on special occasions, like weddings and formal events. It traditionally has a smaller face. The Seiko SUP880 is an example of a traditional dress watch.
  • Military/Field: Military watches, also known as field watches, are built for durability and to hold up in harsh environments. The numbers are usually bold and easy to read, as they were intended to be used in combat. The bands on field watches are typically made of durable polyester or nylon to hold up against dirt and grime. The Timex Weekender is a very popular style of field watch.
  • Pilot: Not to be confused with military/field watches, a pilot was built with aviation in mind and features large numbers on the face. Pilot watches are sometimes equipped with a compass or a tachymeter, which is a scale inscribed around the rim of a watch’s face that measures speed and distance. Casio MTP4500D-1AV is a well liked basic pilot watch.

Special features to look for in a watch

variety of wrist watches
Credit: Getty / Sergiy1975

Complicate your watch with a variety of these features.

In timepiece terminology, a complication is an added feature clock that goes beyond telling time. This can be something as simple as a stopwatch or as complex as an astrolabe dial, which displays the current position of the sun and stars for astronomers.

Watch descriptions will often include technical terms for these complications, many of which sound similar to each other. The most commonly added features include:

  • 24-hour: Instead of using a 12-hour scale, this watch will measure time with a 24-hour analog dial.
  • Alarm: Alarms can be found on both automatic and quartz watches and are gentler in tone than standalone alarm clocks.
  • Annual calendar: This display features the complete day, date, month, and year.
  • Atomic: An atomic watch receives radio calibration signals from a highly accurate atomic clock, which is what NASA uses to tell time.
  • Chronograph: This is a fancy word for a stopwatch. On analog watches, a chronograph is sometimes controlled by two buttons above and below the crown—one for starting the stopwatch, the other for stopping it. On digital display watches, it’s displayed on the LCD screen.
  • Date window: This will show the day’s date.
  • Dual time zone: This is the ability to keep track of a second time zone. On an analog watch, this usually means manually positioning a numbered bezel over the dial.
  • GMT: Also known as Greenwich Mean Time, this allows a watch to track two or more time zones.
  • Moon phase: Usually depicted with graphics, this means a watch can track the phase of the moon as it currently is in the sky.
  • Luminescence: This indicates a watch has a component that allows it to glow in the dark, either with a back light or fluorescent materials.
  • Perpetual calendar: This display features the day, date, month, and year. Unlike annual calendars, it takes leap years into account.
  • Power reserve: Useful with mechanical watches, a power reserve indicates how much power is left in a watch before it needs to be fully winded again.
  • Tachymeter: Often found on pilot watches, this is a scale that measures speed based on time traveled. It’s always seen alongside a chronograph and is inscribed on the bezel, or outside rim, of a watch.
  • Simple calendar: This means a watch will display the day and month only. It needs to be manually adjusted.
  • Water-resistant: No longer exclusive to divers, many watches can withstand at least 50 meters of water pressure. Water-resistant depth varies by watch.

Feeling overwhelmed yet? Buying a watch can be daunting, but there are plenty of retailers and brands that you can browse to find your preferred style. There are even watch subscription services that allow you to try a new timepiece every month. Seems like it’s time—pun intended!—to start shopping.

The product experts at Reviewed have all your shopping needs covered. Follow Reviewed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the latest deals, product reviews, and more.

Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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