So, you’re looking to buy your first mechanical watch ever. Congratulations, but first a warning… IT CAN GET VERY ADDICTING.
You’re probably thinking “oh, I’ll just buy one watch, that’s all I’ll need.” Well, be careful, because that’s exactly what I thought when I bought my first automatic watch, a Seiko 5 SNXS79 from Amazon.
2 years later and here I am, blogging about them with multiple watch boxes filled with dozens of affordable and a couple of not so affordable automatic watches sitting on my dresser behind me. Who would’ve known I’d fall so deep down the rabbit hole?
Is There Really a Difference?
Anyway, with the huge variety of options out there, you’re probably wondering, what makes one mechanical watch better than the other? What should you be looking for when buying your very first mechanical watch?
There are tons of differences, subtle and not so subtle, between watches that you probably won’t notice as a new mechanical watch owner. At least, until you’ve owned your first mechanical watch and begin to appreciate some of the minute details.
For instance, if you’ve never owned a mechanical watch before in your life, are you really going to care if the movement beats at 21,000 beats per hour as opposed to 28,000? Probably not.
But someone who has been geeking out about mechanical watches for a while will probably appreciate how the second hand of the watch that beats 28,000 beats per hour sweeps just a little more smoothly. It’s so subtle, you barely notice it, and most people wouldn’t even really care.
It’s these subtle nuances that set watches apart from each other. So here are the 11 things you should look for when buying your first mechanical watch.
1. Quality of Parts
This is relatively simple. Is the crystal (the glass protecting the watch) made of mineral or a much more scratch resistant and durable sapphire glass? You usually don’t see sapphire glass in affordable, entry-level watches under $200.
Is the case made of 316L stainless steel? This is pretty much the recognized standard material that the case and bracelet of the watch are made out of. Some cheaper, lesser quality watches, are made of other materials, like a chrome-plated brass, which can look like stainless steel in certain lighting but doesn’t have the same durability.
An example of a watch with a chrome plated brass case is the Vostok Komandirskie. It’s such a cheap watch, it’s almost justified in its cheap materials to help keep the costs low (read more about how they make watches like Vostoks so affordable).
But some manufacturers cheap out on materials and STILL charge an arm and a leg for the watch, that’s a big no-no from me.
Cheaper watches will sometimes use plastic parts inside the movement of the watch. These plastic parts will wear down faster and you’ll have to take them to a watchmaker, to have them replaced, more often than if they were metal parts.
It’s little things like this that separate one watch from the next and are important to consider when buying your first mechanical watch.
2. Watch Straps and Bracelet – Quality and Fit
NOTE: A watch ‘bracelet’ is what we call any metal band for your watch. A ‘strap’ is a watch band made from a material like leather, nylon or rubber.
How Important is The Bracelet or Strap a Watch Comes on?
While there are lots of things you SHOULD look out for when picking out a watch, the strap is not one of them.
Watch straps that come with watches, especially affordable ones, tend to be extremely cheap and can often be considered disposable.
Let’s take watches like the Seiko 5, for instance. Great watches, but the bracelet it comes on is horrible. I replace them almost immediately, as soon as I get my watch.
People often obsess about making sure they get a watch that has just the right watch strap.
This is one of the least important parts of a watch, as a watch strap can almost always be replaced very easily using nothing but a cheap spring bar tool. You won’t even need to go to a jeweler. It takes all of about 10 minutes to swap it out yourself.
Most watch straps are relatively affordable. You can find good ones for as little as $20, depending on the type of strap you’re looking for. This can change the look and feel of the watch completely. And they’re usually so affordable, you can have a bunch to mix and match.
Metal Bracelets and Finding the Right Fit
Now, the one exception to the rule about ignoring watch straps completely is if you’re looking for a watch with a quality metal bracelet.
I’ll explain why.
While watch straps are easily replaceable and interchangeable, metal bracelets often curve to perfectly fit the case of a watch. This makes it so that the curve needs to be a very specific shape to fit any particular watch.
For most watches, there aren’t a huge variety of metal bracelets with a curved end link to fit the case perfectly.
When it comes to metal bracelets, the one that comes with the watch is usually the one you’re stuck with.
Keep in mind, that in watches under $200, you rarely find a decent bracelet that comes with the watch. Even the Seiko SKX, a highly regarded watch by most, is known to have an extremely flimsy and low-quality bracelet.
It’s not until watches in the $300-$400 and up price range that you start to see watches with some decent bracelets.
How to Determine a Quality Metal Watch Bracelet
There are a few things we look for to determine how good the quality of a metal bracelet is.
- Endlinks – These are the links that hold onto the spring bar and are closest to the watch.
- Are they solid or hollow? A hollow end link is usually found in cheaper watches. They’ll have a looser and rattly feel, as they’ll wiggle around a bit whenever you move your wrist. Theoretically, they’ll also loosen up over time and could potentially break, though I haven’t ever had that happen personally.
- Links – The links are the metal pieces that make up the bulk of the watch bracelet.
- Like end links, you want to determine if they’re solid or hollow. Solid bracelet links will be much more durable in the long run and usually have a heavier, heftier feel, that makes the watch feel much more substantial when you wear it.
- Bracelet links can also be folded, like those seen in Seiko 5 models, and they tend to feel just as cheap as hollow end links. A folded bracelet link is one that has a folded piece of metal, and metal inserts slipped inside of it to help keep its shape. Not a fan, but you get what you pay for, and this is usually the standard for affordable watches.
- Clasp – The final thing that determines the quality of a metal bracelet is the watch clasp.
- This is the buckle that connects the two ends of the bracelet to each other. This is what gives you a feeling of ‘security’ when it’s on your wrist, or lack of security, in the case of a cheap clasp.
- The sign of a quality clasp is easily spotted when you open it up. What we’re looking to determine is if the clasp is milled or stamped.
- A milled clasp is manufactured from a solid block of steel and carved from there. This is often (but not always) the sign of a quality clasp. Cheaper clasps, on the other hand, tend to be stamped.
- A stamped clasp is one made from a piece of sheet metal that is literally stamped into the shape of a clasp. These will likely deform and possibly break over time.
- You also want to look at the actual deployment of the clasp. Does it have a clasp lock that locks into place and feels secure? Does it have buttons on the side to deploy it? These are usually the signs of a decent clasp, as cheaper clasps will usually just have one piece, in the shape of a ‘flip lock’ that you just spring open with your thumb, and can feel a bit less comfortable to activate than a push-button deployant.
Of course, there’s a huge difference between mechanical and quartz movements. Read more about the different types of movements, here.
But even when comparing one mechanical movement to another, there are many differences between each other.
Some movements are much more durable and can survive the shock of being dropped, physical activities and sports or swimming.
Some are more fragile and will stop working the first time you sneeze (kidding, mostly).
Some movements can survive years and years without ever needing to be taken to a watchmaker for a service, like Seiko’s 7S26, which has been around for decades.
Some movements need to be serviced every few years. This can easily run you a couple of hundred dollars each time. (Read more about watch servicing here)
As mentioned earlier, cheaper movements often have some plastic parts inside, which will wear down quicker and need to be replaced sooner than their metal counterparts
Not to mention, each movement varies slightly in terms of how accurately they keep time, additional complications like a day or date features and additional features such as hacking or hand winding,
Are Watches with High Beat Movements Worth it?
Different calibers of movements also have a different beat rate. Some lower end mechanical watches beat at 18,000 or 21,600 beats per hour and some high beat movements can beat up to 36,000 beats per hour, or more.
The beats per hour (BPH) will determine how often the second-hand ticks. A higher BPH will have a smoother sweep of the second hand.
For your first mechanical watch, I wouldn’t concern yourself with this at all. All mechanical watches sweep much more often than quartz and that’s one of the biggest appeals for me, whether it’s a low or high-beat movement, I love the smoothness of it.
4. Quality of Finish
This is again, one of those things that you likely don’t even pay attention to until you’ve owned at least a couple of different mechanical watches.
The finish is what we call how well the manufacturer polished and brushed the surfaces of the watch. It’s one of the things that can really make a watch look more expensive than it actually is when done right, and much cheaper if done poorly.
It’s one of the reasons watches from Seiko and Orient are so highly regarded. Their attention to detail and levels of finish are usually done superbly well when comparing their watches to other watches in a similar price range.
While it doesn’t have the best finish, part of the reason watches like the Seiko 5 are so popular is because their finish is done well enough that it makes the watch look more expensive than it actually is.
Simply put, lume is the “glow in the dark” paint on the watch.
Don’t get me wrong, plenty of great watches don’t have any lume at all, as its traditionally a thing seen mostly in sportier watches.
But it’s still something to consider.
The lume is charged up in direct light and will be seen when it’s dark.
Watches with better lume will take less time to charge up, glow brighter and glow for longer.
Again, you’re not going to get excellent lume on a cheap watch, but the Seiko SKX is known for having pretty decent lume for its price (I swear I’m not a Seiko shill – I just happen to think they make some really great bang for your buck watches).
6. Water Resistance
Water resistance rating is the rating a manufacturer uses to describe how protected a watch is against water, or if it is at all.
To decide the level of water resistance you need, you’ll first want to determine if you plan on swimming in your watch, or not.
I’ve made a list of my favorite dive watches if you plan on doing lots of swimming or diving with your watch, especially, as these types of watches are made specifically for this purpose.
Even if you don’t ever plan on swimming with your watch a little bit of water resistance can go a long way into feeling more secure when wearing it.
For diving with a watch, 200m of water resistance is the bare minimum. If you do plan on any casual swimming with your watch on, I suggest finding watches with 100 meters of water resistance and up.
50m water resistance is more than adequate for washing your hands, getting caught in the rain and maybe the occasional swim. Though some have mentioned swimming in their watches with 50-meter water resistance, I don’t recommend it, unless it’s a watch you wouldn’t mind potentially damaging.
30-meter water resistance pretty much means you should avoid getting it wet at all costs, though washing your hands, getting caught in the rain and general light splashes will most likely be fine.
Any water resistance rating lower than 30 meters and you’ve got yourself either a really cheap watch or an extremely old, vintage watch. Either way, I’d avoid getting them wet at all costs.
7. Brand Reliability
Branding isn’t everything. Just because a brand is well-known, doesn’t always mean you’re going to get a quality product.
But it is nice to know when you’re buying a watch from a brand that generally makes reliable timepieces and have good warranties and/or customer service.
Though most of the customer service these days is usually done through the online retailers you buy them from, that extra little bit of added security can make you feel at ease about your purchase.
Different brands also offer different levels of quality control at different price points. Seiko is notorious for having amazing watches, but their quality control for watches like the SKX line, in particular, isn’t that strict. It’s why you’ll occasionally find one with a misaligned chapter ring or slightly misaligned date wheel. This doesn’t mean their watches are bad, just something to consider, and always double check your watch before you take off all the tags and plastic, just in case you need to exchange it.
I’d like to give off my recommendation for brands that I feel are reliable, but even within certain brands, there may be certain watches that I think just aren’t up to par with the rest, and don’t want to give you incomplete info. Maybe in another article.
Finding the right size watch for your wrist is one of the most important things, but also one of the most difficult when you’re first starting out.
I suggest first measuring your wrist. Here’s how:
- Take a string, wrap it around your wrist where you think you’ll be wearing your watch. Generally just above your wrist bone (toward your forearm) is a good spot, but everybody has their own preferences.
- Tie it around, not too tightly. Your wrist will contract and expand as the temperature rises and falls, if you ate more salt than usual that day, etc. so it’s best to leave a tiny bit of extra room.
- Mark one end of the rope to the other where they meet on your wrist.
- Measure the rope where you marked off.
Now that you have your wrist size, you can use the dimensions of the watch to determine if the watch is the right size for you.
It’ll mostly be up to personal taste. Some like larger watches, some prefer smaller. You’ll learn what you like over time.
But my general guideline when picking out the right size watch for your wrist is: always make sure the lugs never go past your wrist.
How can you tell without trying it on? Let me explain.
The lugs are the pieces of the case that stick out at all four corners, on the bottom and top.
The watch strap or bracelet is connected between the lugs.
If you find out the lug to lug distance (the distance between the bottom lug to the top lug), you’ll want the width of your wrist to be no greater than that.
For example, the lug to lug distance of my Steinhart Ocean 39 is about 45mm. Using a caliper on my wrist, my wrist measures about 54mm. I’d never want a watch with a greater lug to lug distance than 54mm.
Any bigger and the lugs would hang over the edge of my wrist, making it more uncomfortable to wear, and making it look like an oversized clown watch. We don’t want that!
Finally, one of the last things to consider when purchasing your very first mechanical watch is the complications.
Complications are any additional features the movement has, such as a day or a date display, chronograph, etc.
Some complications can get very expensive, like a moon phase or perpetual calendar, so you’ll likely never see those in an entry-level model, but day and date features are common in even the most affordable watches.
Keep in mind, though, additional complications can mean additional work for you, the wearer.
Having a day and date feature, for example, is another thing you’d have to take time to adjust each time you go and set your watch. If you only wear one mechanical watch and wear it regularly, this won’t be a problem, since it’ll keep powering the movement each day you wear it, and likely never stop running, and risk having to reset the time.
But once you have a rotation of watches and start to swap between them, having to constantly adjust the time and additional complications can become a bit of a nuisance. I don’t mind watches with a date, but I tend to avoid buying watches with a day window, for this reason, since I have so many watches in my collection.
Of course, when buying anything, price is always a factor. Now, I’m not here to give you financial advice, or tell you what you should do with your money, that’s up to you.
With that said, I suggest you never buy a watch that you can’t afford to buy outright. Watches are a luxury item, and as much as I love them, we don’t really need them.
In my humble opinion, you should never put buy a watch with credit, or any watch that will put you into debt. It’s just not worth it. There are plenty of awesome watches that won’t break the bank, and just because a watch is less expensive, doesn’t mean you’d enjoy it any less.
The final thing to consider when buying any mechanical watch is the value.
Are you getting a good watch for the money? Is the watch you’re looking at actually worth the price you’re paying, or are there better watches out there in the same price range?
Now, don’t get me wrong, value isn’t the only thing to consider when putting one watch up against another. You might have a personal connection to a watch that isn’t as good of a ‘deal’, but that doesn’t make it any less special to you. Just another thing to consider.
What’s the best First Mechanical Watch to Get?
For your first mechanical watch, you want something that’s not too expensive, but still a good value for the money you’re spending.
You want something that’ll give you a sense of whether or not you like wearing a mechanical watch an
If you’re like me, you love finding the best value at any price point.
When I was first getting into mechanical watches, I spent over a month researching which was the best for the money, and preferably under $100.
The watches I came across were the Seiko 5s. Seiko 5 is Seiko’s entry level line of mechanical, automatic watches.
But just because they’re ‘entry level’ doesn’t mean they’re bad.
They’re very well built, have a robust movement that Seiko makes themselves (rare at this price point), they have a variety of different styles and best of all, they’re extremely affordable!
The two I currently own, and two of my favorites, period, are the SNXS79 and the SNK355.
There are a few more models that I find the most beautiful, such as the SNKL23, SNKL45, and the SNX111, though as more people find out about these models, they’re getting harder and harder to find, and also more expensive.
Honestly, no matter which one you end up going with, you can’t go wrong.