Time and You: A Primer on Watches
Time, it never changes. There are always 86,400 seconds in a day, 10,080 minutes in a week, 730 hours in a month, etc. No matter how much daylight we save. Whether we spring forward or fall back. Its always constant whether it feels like it or not.
The methods of keeping that time, however, have changed.
From “reckoning” based on sun position in the sky, to sun dials, to mechanical watches, to automatic movements, and inevitably quartz then digital. Today there are a billion options for the end user. Id like to talk about the three most common and what they can do for, or sometimes against, you.
Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of watches and what might work best for you for the field and life, lets talk about why having a watch matters. There is a reason its on/in almost every packing list from military raids to civilian outings. We as humans do not posses the innate ability to accurately judge time without tools. We can guess or assume, but sometimes thats not good enough. Maybe your job requires you to write reports or chart accurate to time and date? What if your mission dictates you start an assault at a specific time? What if your needing to track how long you have been sterilizing your water to keep from fighting off disease and death? How about judging how long your significant other has been in Target shopping so you know whether to worry about the bank account or not…..? These are just a few simple examples as to why you need the ability to keep time INDEPENDENT from the digital face in your car or your phone as neither may be available, accurate, or professional.
Watches are generally placed into categories based on whats called their “movement”. Which is a horological way of saying what powers/runs them. I will group this into three categories: mechanical/auto, quartz, and smart.
The oldest form of watch (the pocket watch that dominated the railways) was whats known as a mechanical watch. The pocket watch actually ended up being the basis for early wrist watches during WW1 as soldiers would have bars soldered to the case and attached to leather straps. This is based on the movement being solely mechanical. Springs, gears, magnets, and weights control these. A strictly mechanical watch has to be wound daily (sometimes multiple times a day) in order to function. Therefor the accuracy in which the watch keeps time is up to the owner. If one is diligent and keeps the watch “topped off” then all is well. These are typically very accurate (quality level of the movement manufacturer and design dependent) and consistent. However they do tend to be less robust. Also finding a mechanical watch that has a high water resistance rating is rare because the crown (the obtruding part typically found on the right side of the watch body), has to be activated often when winding. Thus not being able to “screw down” (exactly how it sounds, you literally tighten it down and it seals via a gasket) the crown and seal it from water. Also, because you have to self wind the watch you can actually damage them by over winding them and stressing the internal mechanisms. Knowing this, most strictly mechanical watches are not good for field/disaster wear. However there are exceptions to the rule.
The only mechanical watch I have. My grandmother’s Timex
Automatic watches are mechanical watches that “automatically” wind. This is achieved by whats known as an internal rotor. When the wearer moves their arm (walking, running, etc) the rotor will spin inside the watch case, thus winding the watch for you. Most are designed to not be able to over wind as mentioned previously about the strict mechanical watches. Common examples of automatic watches can range from Seiko 5 sport to the Rolex Submariner. If one focuses on the “dive watch” family of automatics (and some field style watches) you can negate all of the negatives of the mechanical watches while gaining the positives. You typically have all of the same accuracy, while gaining robustness and water resistance (most divers have a screw down crown as a mandatory feature). This is why many dive watches are used in the field and by those going into to harms way. As long as you invest into a quality piece the chances are you wont be let down.
Examples of Automatic Life, Field and Dive style watches. The R Watch Company Prototype, Seiko SOG Homage, and Islander Watches modded Seiko SKX
Some pros to the mechanical/auto watches are the consistency, accuracy, and reliability of their movements. The lack of battery means one never has to be replaced. Not to mention they are arguably better looking and working to those with a horological eye. The cons however come in their over all robustness as they can be delicate depending on the movement, and they are not user serviceable. If it dies it dies. No battery swap to fix it.
As much as I love automatic watches, quartz movement watches bring a lot to the table. Often, but not always, at a lower price point. Quartz watches operate similarly to mechanical/auto watches, with the biggest exception being that its powered by a battery instead of a wound spring. At least in terms of analogue (think 3 hand) watches. The benefits to this should be obvious, but you no longer have to worry about the movement being wound. If you take a quartz watch off and sit it down, then come back three months later, it will still be ticking. Provided the battery didnt die of course. Most quartz analogue watches are a push pull crown (non-screw down), but like the autos there are exceptions. Therefor most do not boast a high water resistance level. Quartz-analogue watches are extremely accurate. Note that i didnt say consistent. The reasoning behind this is they are very accurate in terms of time. They will almost always beat at the same rhythm and keep time with almost zero loss. The consistency comes into their movement on the minute track. If you’ve ever worn a quartz analogue watch and watched the seconds hand hit all around the outer minutes/seconds track you’ll know what i mean. While five minutes is five minutes, quartz analogue watches tend to not always represent that time passage accurately. The running statement of “there are always exceptions” applies here as well. My Sangin Instruments Professional is extremely accurate and consistent. Quite possibly the best quartz analogue movement ive ever seen to be honest. However your off the shelf timex will not be this way.
Examples of Quartz Analogue watches. My Sangin/TAD Professional dive style watch, and my Timex Expedition North field watch. Note that the timex is actually solar powered. A worthwhile offering in many quartz watches.
Quartz digital watches are a bit of a different story. While still being battery powered, they utilize a display screen. Put simply, your looking strictly at numbers as opposed to hands. The two prevailing reasons i hear for these types of watches are speed, and ability. Its certainly faster and easier to look down at a straight forward number display of the time compared to having to take the time to look at the relation of watch hands on the face. The second is that there are apparently people out there who simply can not tell time on an analogue watch face. How this is possible since its grade school knowledge i do not know, but i digress. Common examples of these watches can range from the Timex Ironman to the simpler Casio G-Shocks. Some of the biggest advantages to these types of watches are their weight, performance, functions, and cost. Most if not all are made of some form of plastic/polymer construction which not only makes them extremely light (compared to a metal automatic on an oyster bracelet), but also very durable. Many have a single molded body construction thats sealed off from water and environmental exposure. Which makes them great for adventure based activities. Many have stop watch, timer, alarm, calendar, and other functions to aid the user. To top it off this can all be achieved at a sub $40 price point as well. The largest cons for me come from these features. Often they are not needed and depending on design will be inadvertently accessed. Many have external buttons to toggle through the functions. These tend to get pressed accidentally and when you go to look at the time your accidentally in some other function. Thus, then having to toggle back through to the time function. Building upon that con is the largest for me. Thats noise and brightness. These watches tend to have a light up screen that activates when buttons are pressed, and chimes/alarms with these buttons. Yes many have silencing features for these, but it never fails in my experience for the watch to light up or chime when i least need/expect it to. Another small personal con is they simply have less aesthetic appeal to me. Your opinions may vary.
The only example I have for a quartz digital watch. A Casio G Shock G-Rescue.
Ah, smart watches. These are an interesting one. You basically take a phone, diagnostics vitals monitor, and a digital watch; then cram them all together. If your the type of person that simply has to have ALL the features possible on one device then these are for you. You can monitor heart rate, pulse ox, sleep quality, GPS location, moon phase, altitude, barometric pressure, and….the time. They are really great for fitness reasons and general adventure. If your constantly out hiking and exploring the weather and GPS functions can be great. For “tactical” situations though these features tend to me disabled due to location and data tracking which basically leaves you with a run of the mill digital watch anyways. There is a known incident where an entire base internal perimeter and most locations within were accidentally marked from soldiers using these watches for runs and the like. The data was then hijacked and used to plot mortar fire. This is something to consider. Examples of these types of watches would be my Garmin Instinct Solar Tactical. The name of this watch actually highlights the largest issues with smart watches. Battery life. Some offer solar “charge” options which are really more of battery extenders. Most require being plugged into an electric source to charge. Some of the earlier ones only had a few days of battery capability and even less when using functions like the GPS. However technology has gotten a lot better over the years and now we are seeing weeks if not months out of some of these smart watch offerings. Albeit this is typically seen in using the standard “dumb” watch mode outside of a few select models.
The only “smart” watch I own. Garmin Instinct 2 Tactical Solar. Pictures show it in both “smart” and “dumb” mode. Note the surprisingly impressive battery life in both modes. The solar feature can extend this indefinitely if done correctly.
One final thing Id like to touch on is field expedient options for bright/shiny watches. As you have probably seen most of mine and others watches are of a semi bright stainless. While none are polished, some are still lighter brushed and thus reflect light and shine. So what to do about that? Well here are a few simple options: roll your sleeves down to cover the watch, wear a sweat band over your watch, wear gloves with cuffs long enough to cover the watch, or wear the watch on the inside of your wrist. These are some simple and low cost options of maintaining field discipline with almost any watch.
So heres the thing. I cant tell you what watch to wear. Its a deeply personal thing when it gets outside the realm of “issued to me.” However I can give you some personal requirements for watches to be functional for our endeavors:
2- Legible in daylight and dark
4- Date Complication
5- Subdued/functional colors if non-stainless.
6- Brushed or Matte Stainless when possible
7- Screw Down Crown
9- Water Resistance of at least 50m.
There ya have it. If you find a watch you like that meets those requirements you should have good luck. Granted I’m no expert. As always feel free to leave your comments and thoughts down below.
Stay Safe. God bless.