People who delve deeply into a certain culture often forget that others have not gained the knowledge and experience that they have. Such is the case with watches and watch terms. Many seasoned collectors today wrongly assume that everyone knows as much about the watch niche as they do. However, the truth is that there are always newcomers in any field. These people deserve assistance with the basics of the thrilling yet very complex watch world. That education is precisely what we will provide in this article.
Without further ado, here are the most basic and essential watch terms that every newbie—and expert—should know. Use this to sound like a pro the next time you talk to someone else in the watch community
20 Important Watch Terms You Need To Know
This is one of the first few terms you should educate yourself on, especially when you’re just starting out with collecting. The movement is basically the watch’s machinery, which manages the time and makes it run continuously. Typically produced in Switzerland, Japan and China, this component is primarily responsible for powering all of the watch’s functions. These include the unwavering motion of the hands when telling time and making any complications work effectively. For a better analogy, the movement can be comparable to a human’s heart. Also known as a “caliber,” this component is contained within the case, beneath the dial. It is usually protected by a sturdy case back made out of stainless steel or sapphire crystal.
Not all timekeepers have the same kind of movements. They can either come with manual, automatic, or quartz mechanisms, which we will discuss in greater detail below. Both manual and automatic movements come with a mainspring, a dial train, an escapement, setting jumper and a balance wheel. They also have a second hand that rotates in a suave, sweeping motion. Meanwhile, a quartz caliber consists of a battery that usually lasts up to 5 years, an integrated circuit, a quartz crystal and a stepping motor. Its accompanying second hand moves in a slow yet very satisfying ticking manner.
One of the most acclaimed watch movements is the caliber El Primero, which translates from Spanish as “The First”. It was officially released by Swiss brand Zenith in 1969. Zenith continues to manufacture the El Primero movement today. Its exact build and configuration remains the same, with few minor tweaks on the side to help the movement keep up with the times. However, what makes the El Primero so iconic is its exceptional accuracy and frequency. The El Primero movement boasts 36,000 vibrations per hour (“vph”), as opposed to the usual 28,800 vph from other brands and calibers. This fantastic can be found in the brand’s major collections, such as Zenith Chronomaster and Zenith Defy. Tag Heuer, Ebel, Movado and even Rolex also previously utilized the El Primero in some of their products.
Continuing with our discussion on movements, let us now first find out what automatic calibers are all about. First unveiled in the 1700s, this movement directly gains power through the kinetic energy from the wearer’s moving wrist rather than relying on a battery. When the wearer’s wrist moves, the movement’s oscillating rotor also starts to turn, putting the mainspring to work. This causes the rest of the watch’s gears to start, so the movement winds itself and tells precise time.
Though not considered a necessity, timekeepers with automatic movements can still be manually wound using the crown and the winding stem. However, there is no clear signal indicating when the watch is fully wound. It is better to wear the watch consistently to avoid inconveniences or possibly over-winding your watch.
Since their engines have some heft to them, automatic mechanical watches can sometimes be quite heavy on the wrist. Depending on your preferences, this factor may be a hit or miss, especially for those who constantly put their hands to work everyday. Often regarded as the most popular type of watch, automatic timepieces are also generally more expensive and take an incredible amount of craftsmanship and engineering to create.
A good example of a watch that relies on an automatic engine is the Hamilton Khaki Field Auto Ref. H70605163. As a field watch, it has a 42mm stainless steel case, and a muted green dial with a 12/24-hour layout and a date component. Its H-10 automatic caliber exceeds expectations by bearing a power reserve of 80 hours.
Manual-winding movements, also known as hand-wound movements, are similar to automatic calibers when it comes to components and conceptthey have one key difference: wearers must manually wind them regularly for smooth operation, rather than relying on battery or wrist motion for power. Timepieces that use hand-wound movements are known as mechanical watches. Twisting these mechanical watches’ accompanying crowns will wind up the mainspring. This process allows the watches’ gears and springs to fully work and eventually tell accurate time through the use of an escapement and a balance wheel.
Compared to self-winding watches, the crowns of mechanical timepieces have a stopping point. This tells users when the watch has already reached its winding limit. If over-wound, these watches can also suffer severe damage, which can then affect their overall effectiveness and longevity.
Known as the oldest type of movement, manual-winding calibers are often utilized by luxury brands, who want to showcase their ingenuity and creativity. Greatly admired for their intricacy, hand-wound movements are considered true works of art due to the effort and expertise needed to craft them. One example of a premium hand-wound watch is the Grand Seiko SBGK007, which has a stunning build and pristine finish. Its Caliber 9S63 movement comes with a small seconds feature and a +5/-3 seconds per day accuracy rating.
Probably the most common type of movement today, the quartz caliber provides any wearer with great convenience. Invented in the 20th century, this mechanism relies on a battery, which has an electric current that fills the quartz with sufficient energy. This will then cause the quartz to oscillate at a whopping 32,768 hz per second. As soon as the quartz starts to vibrate, it sends pulses to the movement’s electric stepping motor, which prompts the dial train to work. The train will regulate the energy in the quartz, causing the watch hands to move.
Timepieces with quartz mechanisms are almost always cheaper and less complex than their automatic and mechanical counterparts. Despite this, they are still the most accurate and dependable of the bunch, making them worth every penny. Extremely low-maintenance in all ways, quartz watches are easier to use due to their lightness. They are usually utilized by mid-range and high-end brands to produce designer, fashion, and sports timepieces, and the like. They also come with accessible price tags that will surely please every user. As such, it is no wonder why these quartz watches have become extremely popular over the past few decades. That said, one thing true watch connoisseurs do not like about quartz movements is that they have much simpler blueprints and lack an awe-inspiring appeal.
The Tag Heuer Formula 1 Ref. WAZ101A.FC8305 is one of the best men’s quartz watches in the market today. Available in many other colorways and configurations, this sporty piece has a rugged-looking bezel and a water resistance rating of 200 meters.
Moving on to physical attributes of the watch, we have the dial. This is basically the front portion of the watch that you look at whenever you need to read it. Also referred to as the watch face, it holds almost all of the crucial information, such as the time, date and day.
The dial is typically also home to any complications the watch might have. These include sub-dials for the chronograph and small seconds features, the power reserve indicator, the annual and perpetual calendars as well as the moon phase indicator.
The dial can come in many shades, textures, finishes, materials, and designs. It can sport just one tone, a matte or sunburst finish, or be highly detailed with engravings and precious stones. It can also feature Arabic or Roman numerals, geometric hour markers, or even a mix of all of them in just one model.
Usually the most flashy part of a watch, the dial is what consumers immediately notice when trying to look for the next member of their collections. It plays a huge part in wearers’ purchase decisions, along with the watch’s movement and features offered. This is why brands devote much attention to making the dials of watches highly attractive. The more unique or exquisite a dial is, the more wearers will be intrigued and eventually fall in love with the piece.
One watch with a jaw-dropping dial style is the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref. 15400ST.OO.1220ST.03, which has tiny squares on its face in a pattern called the tapisserie. The Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde Ref. J003525540 also has an outstanding dial. It features skeletonized apertures that allow viewers to admire the beauty of its movement. Another fan-favorite is the Franck Muller Vanguard Lady Ref. V 32 SC AT FO AC COL DRM (RS) COL DRM, which has large multi-colored Arabic numeral markers that easily catch the attention of many.
The bezel is a ring surrounding the dial of the watch, which connects the case to the lugs. Usually made out of metal or ceramic, it also plays a big role in keeping the protective crystal barrier in place. All watches, no matter what type or kind, always feature bezels
Depending on the watch’s purpose, a bezel can be plain, embellished with various markings and numbers, or studded with precious stones. Luxury brands often offer bezels adorned with precious stones, or those made of different materials than the case itself. There are also watches that come with square-shaped or octagonal bezels, which exude more edge and character than those typical rounded ones.
In addition, bezels can either be fixed or movable. Sometimes, bezels can turn to allow for certain functions such as a compass, a pulsometer, a telemeter, or a slide rule. Rotating bezels can be unidirectional or bidirectional, and are situated either inside or outside the crystal. Rotating bezels are most often found on dive watches, and come with scales and other measurements that can be used to record precise periods of time.
The photo above shows off two different types of watch bezels. The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Rainbow Ref. 116595 has a decorative fixed bezel, adorned with 36-colored gradient sapphires. Meanwhile, the rotating bezel of the Tudor Heritage Black Bay Ref. 79830RB-0002 allows the user to track a second time zone.
The term ‘crystal’ refers to the transparent glass attached inside the case which covers the entirety of a watch’s dial.In some instances, the case back, or even the whole case of a timepiece can be all made out of said crystal glass.
Crystals generally protect the timepiece’s face and all of its components from external threats such as dirt, dust, moisture, impacts and scratches. Meticulously designed to provide an optimal timekeeping experience, they also have anti-reflective coatings that aid in reducing light glares.
Watch crystals come in a variety of different types, all of which have the same purpose yet have different levels of rigidity. Three of the most common are acrylic crystal, mineral glass, and sapphire crystal. The first, acrylic, is also known as Plexiglass, Hesalite, or Perspex. It is a type of clear plastic that can be easily manipulated to fit over the dial. Often found on many budget-friendly timepieces, it is the cheapest option, in terms of looks and price, among all the watch crystals. While it does not break easily, acrylic is more prone to scratches.
Next up, we have mineral glass, which offers greater scratch-resistance. Made out of silica, you can also find this kind of crystal on your window panes. It is the top choice of many entry-level and designer watch companies. Lastly, we have sapphire, which is the toughest and the most expensive watch crystal commonly used. Besides bearing a chic appeal, it also possesses unmatched legibility and scratch-resistance. Most Swiss timepieces today, such as the Hublot Big Bang Ref. 341.SB.131.RX and the Breguet Type XXI Flyback Ref. 3817ST/X2/3ZU, come with sapphire crystals, since they are stronger and easier to maintain.
A chronograph is essentially a type of watch that comes with both analog watch and stopwatch functions. It is one of the most popular complications that brands like to incorporate into their watch offerings. Chronograph watches are mainly used to measure events, races, and various periods of time. People enjoy them for their utility and reliability as well as the craftsmanship that goes into building them.
Often used by pilots, divers, and race car drivers, a chronograph can record a tenth or a hundredth of a second, 30 minutes and 12 to 24 hours. They can use quartz or mechanical movements, or even a hybrid of the two. There are also numerous types of chronographs within the horological realm. The list can be quite overwhelming and they differ depending on your needs and how they are used in your daily routines. The most common ones are the split-seconds chronograph (“rattrapante”), which can record two time periods simultaneously; the flyback, which can time consecutive events continuously; and the tourbillon, which helps increase the watch’s precision by reducing the effect of the gravity.
A chronograph watch usually has a hand and two to three sub-dials, which display the elapsed seconds, minutes and hours. Most modern chronograph models also typically have a sweep seconds hand and two pushers on the side, next to the crown. These pushers can be used to control the chronograph functions, specifically in stopping, starting and resetting it. However, there are still some chronograph watches that only have a single pusher.
Perhaps the most popular and iconic chronograph timepiece today is the Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional Chronograph 42mm Ref. 318.104.22.168.01.002. It is highly-recognized as a watch that has been on many expeditions to the moon over the decades. It comes with a black dial and a meticulously-crafted tachymeter scale.
Watch terms like this one is pretty self-explanatory. While people might be talking about aesthetics when they use the term “style,” it is most often used to describe what general category a specific timepiece fits into. The most common distinctions include dive, military, pilot, dress, and sports.
As its name suggests, dive watches are meant for underwater use. Made to last, these pieces have strong water pressure resistances, ranging a minimum of 100 meters to a maximum of 15,000 meters. Aside from a rotating bezel, dive watches may also come with additional complications such as a chronograph, dual-time, or a date component. On the other hand, military watches offer a higher level of reliability and utility since they were originally built to grace the wrists of members of the armed forces. Designed to withstand especially harsh conditions, these pieces have heavy-duty cases often made out of stainless steel. They also boast luminous elements that can be useful during instances where there is little to no light, and efficient and robust movements that can function well in any given circumstance.
Pilot is another popular watch style, especially among men. These watches bear humongous cases and crowns, indices and markers coated with luminous materials and legible dials. Built for the skies, these models do not disappoint when it comes to style or performance. We also have sports watches, which usually come with shockproof cases and highly-readable dials. Fully-functional and commanding, these pieces are equipped with advanced features such as a thermometer, altimeter, stopwatch, and compass, all of which come in handy during your athletic pursuits.
Lastly, we have dress watches that suit formal gatherings such as business meetings and evening parties. Elegant and versatile, they feature clean lines, minimalistic dials, and simple indices and hour markers. Brands tend to place a heavy emphasis on visuals and aesthetics when creating dress watches.
Established in 1884 by the participating countries in the International Meridian Conference, GMT stands for “Greenwich Mean Time,”. All you need to have in mind is that having a GMT watch generally means being able to set it to two-time zones. This function is especially useful for frequent flyers, who might want to check the time in another country without having to reset their watches.
Many often confuse this complication with a dual-time function since they both offer essentially the same purpose to the wearer. While both complications display two time zones at once, a GMT watch utilizes the dial, bezel, rehaut, and a 24-hour scale you can view using the separate central hand (also known as the “GMT hand”). Because of their layouts, GMT watches can sometimes even track three time zones. depending on your needs. Meanwhile, a dual-time watch typically comes with a sub-dial that indicates the second time zone using a 12-hour format.
Among the popular GMT watches today are the Rolex GMT Master II Ref. 126710BLRO and the Panerai Luminor GMT Ref. PAM01088. Sporting a rotatable Pepsi bezel, the Rolex model is 40mm in size and has a water resistance rating of 100 metersMeanwhile, the Panerai can withstand water pressures of up to 300 meters, and sits nicely on the wrist with its 44mm size.
In the acclaimed Harry Potter series, a person’s wand lights up when they say “lumos.” That spell comes from this term. In the watch world, luminescence refers to the glow exhibited by a few dial components such as the hour markers, indices and hands. These parts are all typically coated with various luminous materials, causing them to light up, especially during the night or in low light conditions.
In the past, watchmakers had to use radium paint on watches to produce luminescence. While it delivered a stunning glow, this chemical brought great health risks to both the wearers and the artisans behind the timepieces. To resolve the issue, manufacturers then opted to use tritium gas tubes as the safer alternative. Today, most modern watches utilize game-changing photoluminescent materials such as Super-LumiNova, LumiNova, or LumiBrite, electrical currents, or LED lights. Often incorporated in dive, sports, and pilot watches, luminescence brings great benefits and convenience to users. Many may take it for granted but it is one of the most vital parts of a watch that makes it worth getting.
12. Power Reserve
The power reserve of a watch refers to the total time the mechanism can function for when fully wound. To closely monitor the amount of power remaining, you can purchase mechanical watches equipped with power reserve indicators. This highly-functional complication often comes in the form of a sub-dial, with small hands and markers.
A lot of entry-level watches provide around 38 to 50 hours of power reserve. This is quite good, considering you will only need to take your timepiece out for a spin every two days. However, the best timepieces are those that can last for several days without being wound. For instance, the Chopard L.U.C QUATTRO Ref. 161926-5001 can hold up to 9 days worth of energy. It has a sophisticated case made out of 18K rose gold. Exuding great opulence, its movement is also certified by both the COSC and the Poincon de Geneve.
A regular watch typically has a solid dial, with the movement quietly hidden under it. Skeleton watches, on the other hand, have apertures that allow you to see the inner workings of the timepiece while it ticks. In other words, they allow any user to admire the charms of their watches’ calibers and their moving parts.
Bringing a unique concept to the table, the dials of these types of watches can be completely skeletonized, or cut out in small parts to give some variation. No matter what style you choose, all skeleton timepieces offer a unique timekeeping experience to the wearer.
While they all feel luxe and opulent due to their intricacy, not all skeleton watches come at exorbitant prices. The Bulova Classic Ref. 98A177 costs only $575 USD, and it even comes with a rose gold-colored stainless steel case and a robust movement. If you have a slightly bigger budget, you can opt for the Hamilton Jazzmaster Ref. H32705651. Priced at around $950 USD, it has a blue leather strap and matching blued steel indices and hands.
If you have an automatic watch, you will know that sometimes, you still need to wind it manually and reset it, using the crown, to make it work. This happens when you have too many pieces in your collection, or you do not wear an automatic watch every single day. The watch will run out of power, which requires you to manually wind it for use again. Many do this by hand, but a large percentage of watch owners prefer to have a machine do it. These instruments are called winders. They are simply boxes with rotating slots that gently keep the timepiece in full power when not worn. These incredibly convenient containers automatically spin the watches’ rotors to keep their respective mainsprings fully wound, so the watches remain precise. Some winders are even attached to humongous vaults that can hold several precious and lavish timekeepers.
This type of technology suits wearers who have the budget, and are always on the go, so they do not have time to reset and wind all their timepieces. Many are still skeptical about the purpose of winders, and express concerns such as overwinding causing damage to the watch. Nevertheless, these concerns are unproven, and wonders are still quite handy to have, especially on days when you have much to accomplish. It is not a necessity but it surely does the job for you, and very well at that.
A chronometer refers to a timepiece that has passed and met various accuracy standards. For instance, watches made in Switzerland should be inspected by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (“COSC”) in order to obtain the chronometer certification. Also known in English as the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute, the organization plays a huge role in sustaining the prestige around the Swiss watchmaking industry.
The COSC rigorously tests and observes wristwatches, pocket watches, quartz pieces, and other time-telling devices such as desk clocks and carriage clocks. These timekeepers are kept in laboratories for around 13 to 15 days, and tested against different orientations, humidities, pressures and temperatures. Mechanical timepieces need to maintain an accuracy rating of -4/+6 seconds per day to successfully pass the test. Quartz watches, on the other hand, must sustain a ±0.07 per day precision in order to pass.
While COSC undeniably carries a huge reputation, watch lovers should note that there have been many other distinction-giving bodies established over the years. Some of them are based in other parts of Europe or Asia, such as the Japan Chronometer Inspection Institute. Therefore, one cannot say that all chronometers are certified by COSC only.
Another common term that you will surely encounter while exploring the wonders of the watchmaking field is the complication. Simply put, this word refers to watch functions that go beyond telling the hours, minutes, and seconds. A timepiece may have one or more additional complications, depending on its purpose. Those that have only one are called individual complication watches, while those that have three or more cutting-edge complications are known as grand complications.
All complications have numerous parts, which make complicated watches more difficult to assemble. Some of them even take years, requiring heavy attention to detail to build. As such, it is no wonder why pieces that have complications typically bear heavy price tags. Among the common types of complications are the chronograph, calendar, day of the week, date, moon phase, 24-hour display, tourbillon, time zones, minute repeaters, and alarms. Watches can even double as a compass, altimeter, or thermometer, especially those that are made for surviving harsh conditions.
Frequency refers to how fast a watch ticks or beats. In other words, it is the movement’s speed, recorded through the number of semi-oscillations, or half-turns, the balance spring creates in an hour. Measured using vibrations per hour (“vph”) or hertz (“hz”), a watch’s frequency typically ranges from 18,000 vph to a whopping 36,000 vph. Contemporary mechanical watches have a usual frequency of 21,600 vph to 28,800 vph. Meanwhile, pieces with advanced calibers beat at 36,000 vph or more.
While they are treated as mere numbers by some enthusiasts, frequency actually plays a huge role in a watch’s precision. The higher a timekeeper’s frequency is, the more accurate the hands’ movement will be. Thus, budding collectors must pay attention to these kinds of details, as they make the greatest impact on the overall performance of a watch.
18. World Timer
Perfect for jet-setters and passionate travelers, a world timer watch comes with a busy-looking dial that displays 24 time zones. These time zones correspond to 24 cities in the world, all at once. With functions similar to dual time and GMT watches, world timers will help you adjust swiftly to a specific area, bringing you convenience and satisfaction.
First developed by Louis Cottier back in the 1930s, a world timer comes with an internal bezel that displays the cities, and a 24-hour hand that rotates once a day. Wearers must sync their home time zone, using the bezel, to the hour found on the 24-hour hand. The latter will continue to rotate as time passes. These world timers can be very visually appealing, with some models even coming in world globe formats, boasting am/pm indicators and highly ornate movements. They can also look sporty or dressy depending on the style of the watchmaker.
Watch manufacturers who excel in creating such avant garde pieces include Rolex, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe. As you can tell from this list of high-end luxury brands, world timers are incredibly rare and pricey, since they require a high level of craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail.
19. Moon Phase
One of the most unique and fantastic watch complications out there is the moon phase. It lets you see the different phases of the moon, or a 29.5-day lunar cycle through two rotating smoothly underneath the dial. Operated by a 59-tooth gear that spins one notch every 24 hours, the discs look similar to each other and come in different colors. Users can admire this amazing and visually appealing feature via a separate viewing window, called the aperture. Providing a memorable experience, the view of the moon on the watch follows the actual condition of said heavenly body in the sky.
Highly ornate and well-made, this kind of watch is often desired by many connoisseurs due to the utility and aesthetics it brings to the table. Despite the many favorable comments regarding these watches, many still argue that a moon phase does not have a true purpose at all aside from being an artistic feature. However, one cannot deny that moon phase watches showcase brands’ technical prowess and expertise in watch engineering. With so many designs, styles, and color combinations to choose from, it is impossible not to find a moon phase watch that will suit your exquisite tastes and budget.
20. In-house Movement
In-house movements refer to calibers designed, crafted, and produced directly by watch brands themselves for their products. To this day, the line is still blurry regarding what truly constitutes in-house movements, given how numerous brands that manufacture them still rely on other suppliers for other parts. Despite this, the term somehow brings companies an edge, simultaneously raising their reputation and their exclusivity.
Many watch companies, especially Swiss-based ones, excel in creating in-house engines. These include Rolex, which produces sophisticated perpetual movements such as the Caliber 3230, with a -2/+2 accuracy rating. Audemars Piguet is also known for producing in-house chronograph movements such as the Caliber 4401, with top-tier quality. However, many other brands, both luxury and mid-range, still tend to utilize movements provided by ETA, Miyota and Seiko.
Watch terminologies can be quite difficult to understand, especially if you are new to the field. That said, knowing these terms are extremely useful in understanding the concepts and mysteries surrounding the watch world. In addition, knowing what these strange terms mean also makes wearers more confident about themselves when holding timepiece-related conversations.
Once you acquire sufficient knowledge about commonly-used jargons in horology, it will be easier for you to determine your preferences and what watch to get. You will also learn what important aspects of a watch you should pay close attention to, so that you can make wise and informed purchase decisions.
We hope that reading this article will allow you to bypass the pitfalls brought by being a newbie in the watchmaking niche. With this guide, you will be able to use these terms casually in no time, just like a true watch connoisseur.
Photos from the aforementioned brands’ official websites