The tangible intangibles of watches


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The watches that most people really want are not the ones that will be found easily in person. When you finally see a watch in person that you have seen many times online, “tough” decisions can suddenly become very clear – you know what you like and what you don’t. Why?

Online comparison shopping is just that – comparing youtube review and photo galleries against one another, but these are relative comparisons. There is a certain absolute baseline that is missing, because the reality of the object has not impressed itself yet – it is still ephemeral. The sense of touch, the refraction and reflection of the materials, weight, and especially fit of the piece on your wrist are all still X-factors, and yet they are some of the biggest ones.

Here are a few factors I did not think would matter to me until I saw and felt them in real life:

  • watch weight – a light watch is almost Apple magical, a heavy one with ‘presences’ has an inertia the forces its edges into you in saily wear. Titanium watches are delightfully light (not to mention warm to body temperature differently that steel)
  • height – a tall watch is in the way – it catches when you go to put a backpack on. It pulls and pushes against clothing. It catches on doors. A slimmer watch is simply more organically integrated into your learned motions and kinesthetics
  • domed crystal – a no-distortion crystal is a necessity of the Taro Tanaka’s principles of design for Seiko, however the reason watches are pieces of art is the third dinension of depth in the dial and the checnge in its look through angles of view and refraction. A domed crystal emphasized the materiality of the piece because it is an anthropormorphisation of an Eye. Just like cars are anthropormphised by their headlight design and depth – a watch needs that same roundness to feel organic and living
  • anti-reflective coating – like the eye a watch crystal should refract and not reflect. Anti reflective coating, an absolute necessity on camera lens elements, allow the piece to swallow light, let the dial materials reflect and absorb it, and then allow that to be refracted by the curve of the crystal. Without a reflective coating, this process is overshadowed by surface reflection, which steals away depth from the piece. The difference is stark in a side by side comparison in real life
  • sapphire crystal – this is a practical luxury. With acrylic the worry of scratching the crystal causes continuous, low-level damage anxiety. With sapphire, the watch can be a trusted companion. A piece that is supposed to bring delight should not bring anxiety, so sapphire is a requirement for a more expensive piece.
  • smaller watch – The trend of 44mm watches is reversing. 42 is still something that physiolagically is uncomfortable, since the crown at 3 o’clock has more tehndency to dig into a flexed wrist (Just try biking for a while to see how much of an annoyance this is). There is a reason that 34-38mm was common for most of the time wrist watches existed, and 40mm is a maximum size in terms of ‘forgettably comfortable’
  • hand windable – for an automatic movement, not being able to handwing is frustrating – the watch may be about to run out of power and there is nothing to do except swish it around manually and hope it winds, or spent on a watch winder. Manual windability allows you to trust your piece to be accurate
  • new vintage – vintage is fun, except that really a watch needs to work, and often vintage watches have some flaw that causes them to be more of an art piece than a time piece. This is not always the case with very well maintained pieces, but often if you really want the vintage version, the manufacturer has already re-issued it with updated materials and movement, for example the Oris Divers Sixty Five, Longuines Legened Diver, Zodiac Seawolf or the Junghans Max Bill series.
  • smooth sweep second hand – whatever the mechanism: automatic, springdrive, accutron. A smoother second hand  is again an organic affordance that separates a piece more distantly from digital suddenness. It is alive and constant, not an abrupt jump once a second. 28800 bph is a minum, I feel, and some Hamilton and Seiko movements use less. It is like FPS in a video game, below a critical threshold, the discontinuities become visually obvious, and the illusion of organic movement is lost.
  • proper strap fit – The watch body, lugs and strap/bracelt all work together in subtle ways to either make a watch sit well and move well with the wrist. Anything less than a perfect fit will be a constant annoyance – the watch will shift around the wrist and always settle in an uncomfortable and unreadable position. Bracelets with microadjust, straps with holes in just the right spots for winter and summer make a big difference in in interface

So, I never really considered any of these parameters until I tried several pieces in peron, and saw how much they mattered – going from non-considerations to prerequisates. A watch is a tactile, three-dimensional art piece, and also an extension of your physiology. non of this easily is transmitted on even the best youtube review, so the takeaway is don’t buy blind

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