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Swiss watches - A buyer's guide

Swiss watches A buyer's guide

Things to consider when looking to buy a Swiss watch, from the case to the movement, choice of steel and strap.

If you don’t know your Raymond Weil from your Patek Philippe, or your Carl F. Bucherer from your Maurice Lacroix, don’t worry! In an industry that often takes itself far too seriously and where brands and media often overestimate the knowledge of their audience, diving into the wonderful world of Swiss watches may seem daunting. Burly security guards posted on the doors of most high-end watch shops don’t make for a welcoming environment either. So if you’re unsure where to start, here are some of the basics to consider when looking to buy a watch, whether it’s that special something for a friend or family member, a long sought-after piece from an iconic collection or simply a chance to compare different timepieces. 

How Swiss is a Swiss watch?

The Swiss watch industry is found in three main regions of Switzerland: Geneva, the Vallée de Joux and La Chaux-de-Fonds, with a later industrial concentration around the city of Biel. Notable exceptions such as IWC are found on the other side of the country, in the city of Schaffhausen on the German border.

Swiss watches are among the best in the world, but how Swiss are they? The question may sound ridiculous but there are strict rules governing “Swissness” and the use of the Swiss Made label for any product. A new federal law that entered into force in Switzerland on 21st June 2013 enshrines the concept of “Swissness”. In the product category for watches, at least 60% of the value must originate in Switzerland.

Just because a watch has “Swiss Made” on its dial, therefore, does not mean that all of its components have been produced in Switzerland. Watches that meet the much stricter criteria of 100% Swiss Made come from the so-called “manufacture” brands, who produce most of the components themselves and assemble their timepieces in-house. Given the cost of labour in Switzerland, this naturally has a considerable impact on the price and makes such watches that much more special. You may be able to find a Swiss watch with a mechanical movement for under 2,000 Swiss francs, but add the notion of “manufacture” and the price of the movement can easily double. 

What to look for: the case

Top-end brands like Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin produce timepieces with cases made almost exclusively from precious metals, such as red and white gold, as well as platinum. A gold watch is a status symbol in many countries and cultures and is often the gift of choice at retirement in the UK, for example, since gold guarantees a touch of luxury. For most of us, however, the classic Swiss watch comes with a stainless steel case, not least because of the question of price. Most Swiss Made timepieces use 316L grade stainless steel, which is nickel-free and therefore unlikely to cause you any problems with skin allergies. Cheaper grades of steel are available, of course, and mean cheaper watches. But as the word “stainless” suggests, this kind of steel will not oxidise or rust over time and can be polished out in servicing to restore its original sheen. 

You should also pay special attention to the lugs, which usually take the form of elongated protrusions where the strap or bracelet is attached to the case. Inferior quality watches are likely to have sharper edges that can catch on your clothes (for men, they can rip your shirt cuffs), or, even worse, your skin. Swiss watch cases are more likely to be have been polished by human hands on a machine to make sure the entire case has smooth, rounded edges. You can often feel the difference between an inferior product and a luxury timepiece quite easily with the watch in your hand or on your wrist. 

Cases come in a variety of shapes, from the classic round case that forms the cornerstone of any collection, to rectangular, square, barrel-shaped and cushion-shaped watches. The combination of a distinctive case or bezel with a specific material has been associated with many an iconic collection. Consider, for example, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, which was the first luxury watch to use a stainless steel case and has a distinctive octagonal bezel with screws. Brands such as Cartier have made unusually-shaped watch cases a distinguishing feature of their watch collection with models such as the elongated rectangular Tank and the deformed Crash. 

What to look for: the bracelet

As far as stainless steel is concerned, the same conditions apply to the bracelet. Comfort is perhaps even more of an issue here, so make sure that the bracelet has also been polished and has smooth contours.  Whether in stainless steel or gold, the bracelet can come in a variety of designs but almost always consists of individual links of metal, which can come in various sizes and finishes.

When is a bracelet not a bracelet? When it’s a strap! Because French predominates in the Swiss watch industry, and the word “bracelet” in French can mean either a metal bracelet or a strap, there can sometimes be some confusion here. Any form of attaching the watch to your wrist that is not metal is referred to as a strap, whether it is rubber, leather or fabric.

There is an entire culture among watch fans built around the strap alone, especially among men. Watch straps can come in all manner of leathers, from calfskin and alligator right up to trout skin. Rubber straps are the perfect fit for diver’s watches and the trendy NATO strap (where the fabric is passed through a double loop) in a variety of materials is now even being used on high-end collector’s pieces. Your choice of strap can make or break the look of your watch on your wrist. Here too, you get what you pay for. You might be able to get a regular NATO strap for less than 50 Swiss francs, but quality hand-made leather has its price, too, so don’t be surprised if you see a fine leather strap that costs several hundred Swiss francs. Because of their affordable price, NATO straps can easily be swapped with specific colour combinations that fit with a particular watch or a special event, from Formula 1 team colours to the famous purple and green of Wimbledon.

What to look for: the dial

If you have to read hundreds of technical specifications for watches, as we do, you will notice that dials can come in a myriad of colours and finishes. They can be silvered, brushed, opaline, galvanic and many more besides. Unless the dial is in enamel (which itself comes in a number of different types), then you should consider the colour more than anything. Your next consideration should be legibility. Can you read the time? If there are additional functions, such as a chronograph, can you read them too? Now find a dark place and try again. Can you read anything? Is there any luminescent material on the dial and, if so, how well does it light up in the dark? It may not sound obvious at first, but remember that this is one of the criteria that NASA considered when they were looking for a watch to go to the moon. 

The dial will also often give you clues about the watch without you needing to look up technical information. Watches that meet the requirements for the Swiss Made label often have “Swiss Made” displayed somewhere on the dial, usually at the bottom. Because of its simplicity, the word “automatic” may also be added to confirm that the watch has a self-winding movement. In more elaborate luxury timepieces you may also see words such as “guilloché main” to denote hand engine-turned decorations on the dial, or “email grand feu” for oven-fired enamel dials. 

What to look for: the movement

If you are a collector or watch aficionado, you probably already know a fair bit about what goes on inside a watch. If you are a complete beginner, however, there are some very important basic points to consider. Firstly, any watch movement works on the principle of oscillations, which are progressively divided until they can be converted into fractions of a second. In the case of quartz, electrical impulses from a battery are used to excite a tiny quartz oscillator that vibrates at a very high frequency (usually 32,768 hertz). Mechanical watch movements have been around for centuries and powered the very first pocket watches. They are still going strong today in the finest Swiss timepieces and their biggest benefit is that they do not need a battery. Energy is stored in a coiled mainspring, which is wound either by hand or by a winding rotor (in the case of “automatic” or “self-winding” watches) that converts the motion of your wrist into winding energy. An escapement stops the mainspring from releasing all its energy at once and transmits it to an oscillating balance wheel and balance spring assembly in a controlled manner. The oscillations of this assembly are then successively reduced down to fractions of a second by means of a gear train. Most mechanical watch movements operate at frequencies between 2.5 and 5Hz, meaning that the seconds hand can indicate fractions down to one tenth of a second. This can be seen by the movement of the so-called “sweep” seconds hand, which moves smoothly around the dial. Compare this with the instantaneous second jumps of a quartz movement and you can instantly tell the difference between the two. Quartz movements can be produced on an industrial scale, with little need for the skilled hands of a watchmaker. Mechanical movements, on the other hand, are mainly assembled by hand by experienced watchmakers who know how to adjust the movement to achieve optimum accuracy. As a result, there is a considerable difference in price between the two types of movement, which is reflected in the much higher average price for a mechanical watch. In some cases, Swiss watches have a transparent sapphire crystal case back that allows you to view the movement. Aside from allowing you to instantly tell the difference between a manual and automatic movement (an automatic movement will have a winding rotor that swings around), this is also a great way to inspect the quality of the finishing on the movement. 

Chronometer/chronograph – disambiguation

A chronometer is quite simply a device for measuring the time, but in watchmaking it refers specifically to a precision timekeeping instrument, since there is an ISO standard (ISO 3159) that governs the requirements that need to be met for a watch brand to use the term chronometer for a particular watch. A chronograph, on the other hand, is a device for measuring elapsed time. The term has stood the test of time despite being inaccurate, since the Greek etymology suggests a device that can “write” time and harks back to the early chronographs that did actually use a dot of ink to record elapsed times.

What to look for: complications

A “complication” in watch parlance refers to additional functions added to the base mechanical movement. One of the most common complications for men is a chronograph. The moon phase is a popular complication in watches for women and depicts the current state of the moon, usually in conjunction with the date. Other popular complications are variations on the calendar, showing anything from the simple date to day-date, the so-called “triple calendar” (day, date and month), annual calendar (requiring only one correction each year at the end of February) and the much more complicated perpetual calendar, which can take leap years into account and therefore does not need adjusting until the year 2100.

What to look for: differences between watches for men and women

Men and women have different tastes, which are taken into account by watch brands in their watch designs and the functions they offer. Men are often looking for functional watches and may be particularly interested in the movement. Women, on the other hand, may be more interested in practicality and not worrying about whether their watch needs winding or not. Watch sales statistics bear this out, with women expressing a clear preference for quartz watches, while men appreciate the technicality of a mechanical movement. Brands pander to women’s tastes with cases in gold, dials in mother of pearl and no limits to the use of diamonds in a watch, from a discreet setting on the dial to the so-called “fully paved” look, where every available surface of the watch is set with diamonds. Some women, however, prefer to wear a watches designed for men and one often-heard complaint is that watch brands do not do enough to satisfy their tastes with watches that occupy a middle-ground between the overtly feminine and overtly masculine aesthetics. 

We hope you found these basic tips helpful. Feel free to browse our watch database to find out more (we have over 15,000 watches listed dating back to the year 2000) and please let us know in the comments below if you would like tips for other aspects related to Swiss watches. 


Lecture 1 Comment(s)

3 December 2017
Philippe P.
Thanks a lot for this comprehensive overview of What makes a fine watch... alWays a pleasure to read you