Is The Mechanical Wristwatch Still Relevant In The Digital Age?

Previously we shared that a gentleman is always well dressed. And nothing completes a well-tailored attire better than a wristwatch. One simply doesn’t leave home with bare wrists. Whether suited and booted, or casually elegant, one’s outfit isn’t complete with bare wrists. Whilst many take to fashionable bracelets, a true gentleman doesn’t simply adorn decorative pieces for the sake of being fashionable. Hence, nothing beats a truly functional piece like a proper wristwatch when it comes to wrist adornment.

Close up of a gentleman's wrist, showcasing an elegant dress watch, partially hidden underneath the shirt cuff, which in turn peeks out from underneath of a dark jacket cuff.
Nothing accessorises a formal suit better than a dress watch, one that’s elegant looking, and easily slip underneath the cuff. Like a true gentleman, a wristwatch’s presence is to be subtly discovered, not announced.
Image by StockSnap of Pixabay

A Brief History Of The Wristwatch

The gentleman’s wristwatch dawned with the demands in the trenches of Western Front during The Great War (WW1). Prior to that, only ladies wore wristwatches. Or more accurately, wrist jewellery adorned with precious stones, metals, and sometimes, a working timepiece too. It was more jewellery than a functional timepiece. But on the battlefronts, accurate time telling was crucial to coordinate between the frontline troops and the artillery support. Pocket watches, which were popular until then, proved inconvenient when one’s hands were already armed with a rifle at ready. As a makeshift solution, the officers made leather pouches to hold their pocket watches, and attached them to their wrists.

Troops returning from the war continued wearing wristwatches in their civilian lives, instead of hanging them from their pockets. And before long, the men’s wristwatches started getting more popular than pocket watches.

Rise Of The Wristwatch Culture

Early 20th century saw the rapid advancement the world of horology. Many famous watchmakers made a name for themselves in the emerging market. New discoveries and technologies quickly adapted into the art of watchmaking. The big names in the horology world quickly established by the middle of the 20th century. Many of these brands have survived until today.

Stainless steel Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date in black dial, and Sea-Gull M186S in white dial and black leather strap, wrapped around a watch cushion.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date (left) is a great match for business formal all the way down to business casual outfits. And Sea-Gull M186S (right) will look right at home in black tie gala events.
Image by Author

Few well-dressed men leave home with bare wrists. One’s simply not “complete” without an elegant timepiece on his wrist. Regardless whether a clean look of an elegant dress watch, or a robust sport watch with a multitude of complications.

Mechanical Wristwatch Movements Reign Supreme

Up until then, spring-powered mechanical movement reigned supreme. Advancements in horology meant shrinking of the gears, springs and levers, making newer movements even smaller than their predecessors. In essence, we’re now moving into the artistic world of micro-engineering. Not unlike the world of computers today, where devices are shrinking in physical size. Subsequent generations of mechanical movements are better engineered, contain more complications, yet smaller than their predecessors.

Two mechanical watches side by side, one showing the front (dial face) and one showing the exhibition case back, displaying the inner workings of the mechanical movement.
Many mechanical watches come with transparent case backs, also known as exhibition case back. It’s indeed mesmerising to visually enjoy how hundreds of tiny components working together in great precision through the case back, to enable us to tell the time on the dial on the front.
Image by Author

Three Ages Of Extinction Of The Mechanical Wristwatch

Like all established technology, newer advancements in technology will, in time, replace its predecessor. In the case of the mechanical wristwatch, there were three distinct phases of “extinction”.

(1) Superior Quartz Accuracy

Seiko ushered in the quartz age in 1969 with the introduction of the Seiko Astron. The world’s first commercially-sold wristwatch driven by a quartz movement. Considered by many to be the “most accurate” wristwatch to date. No prestigious Swiss brands from any reputable watchmakers could even dream of matching it. As the early 1970s came rolling by, more and more watchmakers started offering battery-powered, quartz-driven wristwatches too. Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them…

Close up of a watch face of a typical fashion brand, quartz powered wristwatch.
Wristwatches driven by quartz movements are very inexpensive. Hence it’s highly popular as a fashion wearable than a horological timepiece. In fact, the retail price of a quartz-driven wristwatch is determined more by the brand than the technology that powers it.
Image by Rene Lehmkuhl of Unsplash

Mechanical movements come in a varying degree of accuracies when it comes to keeping time. Generally speaking, the more intricate the movement (read – more expensive), the more accurate the keeping of time will be. Unfortunately, even the most accurate mechanical movements (read – the most expensive) can’t even compete with a cheap quartz movement. Mechanical movements don’t even come close to the extremely accurate, and yet abundantly cheap, quartz movements.

The availability of affordable generic quartz movements in the market marked a paradigm shift in the world of watchmaking. Anybody can design their own wristwatch case, slap on a cheap, generic quartz movement, and market their own branded wristwatches. It’s no surprise that many companies with no horological background jumped on the bandwagon. Even fashion labels started offering cheap quartz wristwatches after that.

Everybody soon predicted the inevitable death of the mechanical wristwatch after that.

(2) Rise Of The Digital Watch Face

With the availability of the cheap generic quartz movement came even more radical changes. It’s no longer trendy to tell the time by the position of the hands sweeping across the radial watch face. People wanted to know the time up to the individual second. And deciding which side the minute hand was leaning towards was no longer “accurate” enough. The late 1970s introduced a new trend – the digital watch face.

A modern wristwatch with multiple complications on a square digital face worn on a wrist.
The late 1970s ushered in the digital wristwatch craze. After centuries of telling time with the same hands sweeping across a circular watch face, the individually numbered display feels “fresh”. And telling time up to the specific second became the norm from then on.
Image by Erik Mclean of Unsplash

Suddenly, the analogue watch face, with the hour markers printed on the dial, seemed “outdated”. Hence, the “modern” digital display is the way of the future, as the classic analogue watch face fell out of favour. It’s easier to add new complications to a digital watch face without cluttering the already busy-looking analogue watch face. Plus, with the abundance of the cheap, generic quartz movements, digital wristwatches, too were getting cheap… Real cheap

Everybody predicted the imminent death of the mechanical wristwatch…. again…

(3) Wearing A Computer On Your Wrist

“Smartwatches” are not exactly new. They actually date back to the early 1970s. Highly specialised, and probably very expensive, most models aren’t even available commercially. I’d hazard a guess that they were more technology demonstrators than being functional timepieces. It wasn’t until 2015, when Apple made it trendy with the introduction of the Apple Watch. Advancement in computer hardware miniaturisation made what was then physically (and financially) impossible now possible, and relatively affordable too. They even managed to shrink the computer down to the size of a wristwatch. Hence, you’re essentially wearing a computer on your wrist.

Close up of a wrist wearing an Apple Watch wristwatch with white strap.
Apple Watch, the modern day smartwatch. It’s essentially wearing a computer on your wrist.
Image by fancycrave1 of Pixabay

You now have tremendous computing power on your wrist. Not to mention also the accuracy of syncing the time to the atomic clock via GPS satellites. Even wristwatches with the extremely accurate quartz movements pale in comparison. Is there even a reason to even consider anything other than smartwatches?

If the mechanical wristwatch still hasn’t died, it definitely will soon. I mean, is the horological micro-engineering still even relevant today?… Surprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes

The Mechanical Wristwatch Is Still Very Much Alive Today

The original purpose of the wristwatch was to track and tell the passage of time. But today, it has evolved beyond merely telling the time. It has now, more than ever, become an accessory to complete the well-dressed gentleman. It’s an indication of the relationship between the gentleman with time. And a subtle, simple looking dress watch is the best complement to his business suit. And that’s a clear indication of a person who respects punctuality, for both himself and his host.

A gentleman dressed in a navy suit and white shirt, sporting a gold case, brown leather strap and white face with Roman numerals dress watch.
A suited gentleman sporting a subtle and clean looking dress watch is the epitome of one who respects punctuality. A rare quality in this day and age.
Image by Ruthson Zimmerman of Unsplash

Obituaries announcing the death of the mechanical wristwatches were plentiful in the past. So much so that I really wonder if it really died at all. Up until today, it has already survived three ages of extinction. And it’s likely to face many more ages of extinction in the decades to come. So if you fancy yourself a gentleman, and respect punctuality, then complete your look with a mechanical wristwatch.

“I Can’t Afford A Reputable Mechanical Wristwatch…”

We hear the same excuse all the time, that reputable mechanical wristwatches cost an arm and a leg. There’s no doubt that there ARE specialty watchmakers whose offerings do indeed cost as much as an average car. But do shop around. You might actually find some moderately priced modern mechanical wristwatches around. Of course, you don’t necessarily need one from a horological big name. There actually are many smaller independent watchmakers, or even large companies offering affordable mechanical wristwatch models.

A close up of a Seiko 5, in brushed stainless steel case and bracelet, and a black dial with Roman numerals.
The Seiko 5 is a series of affordable mechanical wristwatches that won’t break your bank. And you’ll be surprised that its quality is pretty good for the price too. Not exactly an heirloom piece, but it’ll definitely serve you well for at least the next couple of decades.
Image by Author

At the end of the day, it’s not so much the absolute accuracy in time keeping anymore. You have your smartphone for that. It’s more about the gentleman’s relationship with time. And if you enjoy mesmerising at the advanced micro-engineering of the mechanical movement, that’s a bonus too.

Fancy Yourself A Horology Connoisseur?

If you consider yourself a gentleman and horology connoisseur, don’t forget to complete your look with a timeless mechanical wristwatch. It’s definitely worth the investment. Every newly launched modern smartwatches will be obsolete within a few years. By the launch of the subsequent model, your current smartwatch will halve in usefulness and value. But your mechanical wristwatch will continue to serve you well, and satisfy you for many more decades to come.

If you’re interested to build your brand identity as a gentleman, do get in touch with Solarex Imaging. In the meantime, leave your thoughts in the poll below. And if you have any other opinions to convey, feel free to leave a comment below.

Do you own, or are planning to purchase a mechanical wristwatch?
CHOW Wei Ming

About CHOW Wei Ming

Brand consultant, photographer, creative director, storyteller, and a true believer of the power of visual communications. Outwardly expresses a friendly disposition, but hides a perfectionist nature deep inside him.

4 Replies to “Is The Mechanical Wristwatch Still Relevant In The Digital Age?”

  1. I have a small wrist, so I prefer a slim or thin watch; which is why I don’t like the current trend of these 45mm watches. Also, I fine the mechanical watches are big as well. I recently purchased a Tissot powermatic 80, it reminds me of the self wringing watches. It’s nice and looks good, but like your article reads, it’s not subtle on my wrist.

    I do find however, the Quartz watches are more of a slim watch. Frederique Constant makes a very affordable slim or thin watch; I have a couple that I purchased a few years back. I have a few Movado’s slim watches I purchased a couple of decades ago, they are my favorites.

    I would be interested in purchasing a mechanical watch if they are not too bulky and affordable. Any suggestions? I enjoyed reading your article. Thanks

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Dennis. The “trend” of wearing large wristwatches peaked at around the mid 2000s with fashion watches, and has more or less passed already. The only large mechanical watches are usually sport watches of some kind (e.g. dive, chronograph, nautical, pilot, etc.), usually with multiple sub-dials and/or moving bezels. Otherwise, a regular watch with just the time, or with just day/date complications don’t normally go beyond 40mm. It doesn’t need to.

      Quartz movements are generally more compact than mechanical movements, hence quartz watches don’t need large (thick) cases to hold the movements in. Therefore, quartz watches (analogue display) are generally much slimmer than the equivalent mechanical watches. Of course there always are exceptions to the rule. The current world’s slimmest mechanical watch is the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate 910P, at a mere 4.3mm thick.

      And if you’re looking for an affordable and moderately sized mechanical watch, you can’t go wrong with a Seiko 5. I have a Seiko 5, which is only 36mm, and cost me MYR200 (around USD50), depending on the variant. You may be able to find one that suits your fancy too.

  2. Always proud to own a several mechanical and automatics wrist watch.. and never have a smart watch… yet. So far.. ­čść

    • Thank you for your kind comments Rizal. I truly believe that mechanical wristwatches will transcend the test of time. Unlike any fashion trends, wearing a mechanical wristwatch will never go out of style.

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