Basic Horology For Skeptics

“Joan Rivers: Oh! Oh! Oh! It’s professor Hubert Farnsworth! He’s looking sharp in his standard white lab coat and dark slacks. His wrist watch is a Casio” — Futurama

Between the times I’m sitting at a computer, and the times I have my phone with me I rarely need a watch for timekeeping. For those edge cases I have a Casio W86. If you asked me about the W86, I’d tell you it’s the best watch ever made; accurate, lightweight, good backlight, waterproof and so cheap that you can wear it anywhere without worry.

That being said, I came across skeleton watches and found them appealing on a aesthetic level. Knowing almost nothing about watches I had to do some digging through the group wisdom and prejudice to work out my options.

A skeleton watch has the dial cut away to reveal the mechanism inside. The mechanism itself is also altered to maximise the viewable components. Skeleton watches are almost always mechanical, since a skeleton quartz watch is a fairly dull prospect.

Skeleton watches are visually interesting as you can see the fine cog work and wheels in action. Arguments against them include issues with legibility as the mechanism makes for a cluttered background, and the hands are often thin. There is also a lack of variation in skeleton watches as so much of the overall appearance of the watch is determined by the movement, and there are only so many skeletonised movements in the world. At the very high end you can find skeleton watches with bespoke movements for each watch design, but these are significantly outside of my price range.

A Chinese movement

Most cheap/affordable mechanical watches will use Chinese made movements from one of a number of factories. The quality of these varies from the terrible to the pretty good. The very cheapest watches can be found on eBay for as little as £10, which is... incredible.

Amongst the better options are the those based on the PTS-Hangzhou movements. These can be found in the ~£150 Rotary options such as the GS02518/06. The movement itself can be bought for around £20 and then are cheaper watches than the Rotary that use it. But the Rotary watches are widely available and come with an effective three-year warranty[1].

Also well regarded are the Sea-Gull movements, such as the ST16. These can appear under various brands, but Sea-Gull do sell watches themselves. One popular skeleton is the M182SLK which is around £90 + postage from various eBay sellers. With no UK presence a warranty claim involves sending back to China.

Closely related to the the ST16 is the Claro-Semag CL-888. This is the same design as the ST16, but with different manufacture and finishing. The changes and assembly location allow the CL-888 to qualify as “Swiss Made”, which is a protected term. You’ll find the CL-888 in the ~£300 Rotary Jura as well as more expensive options.

Choosing

I did like the look of the Rougois Tattoo, although I suspect all of that scroll work is to impressive newbies like myself. The movement is almost certainly Chinese but I couldn’t find a definitive answer on the manufacturer and so was reluctant to take a gamble.

Of the watches of known providence, the Rotary Jura looked the cleanest, with matt finish metal and less mess around the winder. The hands seem relatively easy to read, at least in photographs. But £300 was a bit too much of a commitment.

I ended up choosing the Seagull 182. It is the cheapest, aside from eBay landfill, and a decent movement. I appreciated its honesty as well. A lot of companies try to hide their Chinese heritage behind brand names like “Louis de Suiss of Switzerland” and dance round the desired “Swiss Made” label. For example, the cheaper Rotary watches have “Est Switzerland 1895” on then, even though they’ve never seen a canton. The Sea-Gull has “China Made” at the bottom of the face, with no attempt at misdirection.

As a watch, it is definitely more show than practical tool. Legibility is a problem in anything other than good light, due to the face clutter and thin, dark hands. The skeleton movement is nice to look at, but really only about a quarter of the watch face area shows movement to the naked eye. I do like it, but I’m glad I didn’t spend more on a skeleton. I see now why some people prefer the open heart style which has limited cut outs in the face to show the interesting bits.

Stepping up

The Sea-Gull is a satisfactory skeleton, but is there scope for a nicer non-skeleton watch?

I do actually own another watch, a Next branded field watch. I received this watch as a present years ago, so no idea what it cost but Next sell similar items sell today for around £30. I do like it and wore it regularly until the battery died and the strap went tatty, at which point it fell out of use. I’ve now fixed it up and will use it again.

Sea-Gull 182 and Next field watch

An example upgrade from the Next, in a similar style, would be one of the Hamilton Khaki models, which sell for between £250 and £600. This comparison of a Timex to a Hamilton Khaki describes some of improvements from moving up to this price category. Leaving aside the fuzzy stuff about heritage and emotional connection, I do see some of the described differences when comparing the Next watch to the Sea-Gull 182. Even though the Sea-Gull doesn’t have use sapphire glass, the crystal (front glass) is domed and visually of higher quality than the Next watch. Also, the Sea-Gull is a fully stainless steel case whilst the Next is some kind of electroplate. When bringing the Next watch back to use I did have to clean off accumulated verdigris.

So a Hamilton is plausible, if far from essential. But any higher? Well no, for a few reasons. There isn’t much going on in field watches beyond this level as they are simple creatures, and I don’t like the majority of other styles. I find most high end brands too gaudy or the dials too cluttered.

Also, with a few exceptions, watches above a certain price point are mechanical rather than quartz. With a skeleton the mechanical movement is a key feature as it’s on display, but for a fully opaque dial I don’t see the point. For timekeeping, quartz is simply a better system. A very good mechanical watch might achieve an accuracy of ±5 seconds a day, a Seiko super quartz watch will manage ±5 seconds a year. Additionally, mechanical watches need more frequent servicing, and some manufacturers won’t supply parts to independent service centres so you might be at the mercy of their pricing.

The radio controlled elephant in the room

One trick a quartz watch can perform, that a mechanical can’t, is to automatically synchronise with an external source like the NPL signal or GPS. But watch manufacturers make little use of this. This appears to be a cultural behaviour. The drive is to produce the cleverest self-contained mechanism, to show the skill of the watchmaker, rather than achieve the most accurate timekeeping.

And that attitude is where I part company with high-end watchmaking, because whilst acknowledging there is a jewellery aspect to watches, when a £30,000 watch is beaten in its core function by a watch a mere one-thousandth of its price something has gone wrong with the philosophy.

Those watches that do externally synchronise are from brands like Citizen, Seiko and Casio. There are models with stainless steel or titanium cases and sapphire glass, but most are too cluttered for my taste, e.g. the Citizen Skyhawks which have all the legibility issues of the Sea-Gull.

The watch that comes closest to my ideal of a clean design, nice case, sapphire glass and radio synchronised is the Casio Oceanus. These are, relatively, reasonably priced too at around £400. Unfortunately, they’re not available in the UK.

Which brings us full circle, I started by thinking that Casio made the best watch in the world, and it turns out they probably do.

  1. It’s actually a lifetime warranty, but you have to have it serviced every three years. Paying £100 to service a £150 watch isn’t perhaps particularly efficient. As an aside, I also wonder if they actual pay someone European wages to take apart and service the movements, or just swap them out [Back]