To a newcomer, deciphering the world of timepieces can be an intimidating endeavor, and identifying the different types of watches presents a particular challenge. What distinguishes, say, a dive watch from a pilot watch, a quartz watch from a mechanical watch, a dual-time watch from a world timer? What are all those subdials and scales on the dial for? Do I need to change the date on my watch, and if so, how often? In this rundown of the various types of watches, we strive to answer the big questions (and/or link to another article that does).
Quartz vs. Mechanical vs. Automatic
While watches vary widely in their styles, genres, and capabilities, they all fall into one of two major categories based on the type of movement inside them. Generally, with a few notable exceptions that we’ll touch upon, a watch is either “mechanical” or “quartz.” Mechanical watches further subdivide into two basic types: manually wound (or “hand-winding”), in which the user needs to periodically wind the watch via the crown to keep it working; and automatic (or “self-winding”), in which the movement’s mainspring is perpetually wound by an oscillating weight that swings with the natural motions of the wearer’s wrist. On the other hand, a quartz movement (as explained much more thoroughly in this article), replaces the mechanical movement’s traditional mainspring barrel with a small battery whose electrical charge passes via an integrated circuit into an oscillating tuning-fork-shaped crystal made of quartz. The crystal vibrates at 32,768 times per second — much faster than the 3 or 4 times per second offered by most mechanical oscillators — to drive the hands at an incredibly precise rate, making for a watch that is accurate to -/+ 5 seconds per month; mechanical movements, in comparison, are considered accurate if they can achieve a few seconds of deviation per day.
Quartz watches (which can offer either analog or digital timekeeping displays, the latter including Casio’s G-Shock models, as above) are more accurate, more affordable, and more widely available than mechanical ones, though mechanicals have the benefit of being more rooted in historical tradition, and thus better examples of watchmaking as technical art than quartz watches.
Over the years, watchmakers have developed variations on both major types of movements, some of which combine aspects of both. Japan’s Citizen Watch Co. introduced its first Eco-Drive calibers — quartz movements with rechargeable batteries powered by any light source, from natural sunlight to a lamp on a nightstand — in 1976; Eco-Drive remains a core proprietary technology for the brand today. Seiko, the Japanese company credited with making the first quartz movements in the 1960s, introduced the first Spring Drive movement, something of a hybrid between quartz and mechanical, in 1999. A Spring Drive movement uses a fast-rotating “glide wheel” rotor, electromagnetically regulated by a quartz oscillator, to drive the gear train at a high level of precision. Spring Drive movements are exclusive to Seiko, and are found in both Seiko and Grand Seiko watches, like the Grand Seiko "Snowflake" edition above.
In 1960, Bulova introduced the Accutron Spaceview 214, which took its numerical designation from its movement, Caliber 214. The Accutron technology replaced the balance wheel with a tuning fork, powered by a one-transistor electronic oscillator, to drive the timekeeping functions. This system ensured an oscillation rate of 360 hertz — nearly 150 times faster than that of a mechanical, balance-wheel-driven timepiece — and promised an accuracy to just one minute per month, an unprecedented precision level that inspired the name Accutron, for “Accuracy through Electronic.” In 2020, Accutron spun off from parent brand Bulova and introduced a new, proprietary electrostatic caliber as the modern descendant of the original transistorized Spaceview caliber; the Spaceview 2020 (above) is powered by electrostatic energy generated from the motion of the wearer’s wrist, with fast-rotating twin turbines affixed to two electrodes that power two tiny motors that drive the hands and are synchronized through integrated circuits for an accuracy of +/- 5 seconds per month.
One of the most popular categories of watches, for many years running, is the dive watch, a type of watch that can trace its lineage roughly back to the early 1950s and some of the pioneers of the genre that emerged during that era, like the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms (above), Rolex Submariner, and Zodiac Sea Wolf. The quest to make a watch that would be waterproof enough for sailing, swimming and, eventually, scuba diving goes back much further than that, of course: Rolex introduced its trendsetting, waterproof Oyster case in 1926, Panerai made its first Luminor for Italian navy frogmen in 1936, and Omega launched the Seamaster, its waterproof, dressy “naval officer’s watch,” in 1948. However, the vast majority of today’s dive watches adhere to the template established in the mid-20th Century, an era that saw the rise of diving as both a recreational hobby and a professional pursuit.
The ubiquitous elements include a lockable bezel with a numbered scale that rotates in only one direction, which allows a diver to safely keep track of his time underwater; a robust, water-resistant case with a screw-down crown; a legible dial with large numerals and/or markers, treated with luminous material for an easy reading of the time in the dark depths; and a durable strap that can both withstand prolonged immersion in water and keep the watch securely fastened to a diver’s wrist in the event of unexpected pressures or obstacles. Some dive watches, like the Omega Seamaster Diver (above) and Rolex Sea-Dweller, are also equipped with a built-in helium release valve, which regulates built-up pressure inside the watch during the decompression phase of saturation dives, in which divers spend long periods inside a diving bell under high levels of pressure.
Most divers’ watches are constructed in the style pioneered by the Fifty Fathoms and its immediate successors in the early 1950s, but a handful use the so-called “compressor” or “super compressor” design, a type of complex-structured dive-watch case, patented in 1956 by the Swiss firm Ervin Piquerez and used by watch brands including IWC, Tissot, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Girard-Perregaux, and Longines (whose Legend Diver model is featured here) from the late 1950s through the 1970s. The compressor case was designed to increase its strength and integrity as it descended deeper underwater, with external water pressure on the caseback compressing its O-ring gasket. Its rotating dive-scale bezel, operated by a second crown, is situated under the crystal rather than outside the case.
With the advancement of aviation in the early 20th century came a corresponding need for watches that could be used reliably in an aircraft cockpit, whether simply to track time or to make complex calculations in those early days before flight computers, radar, or GPS. (The first men’s wristwatch, technically, was a pilot’s watch, made by Louis Cartier for his friend Alberto Santos-Dumont, a pioneering balloonist.) As the science of flight turned more toward warfare in the 1930s and ‘40s, the style of pilot’s watch that we still refer to as flieger (from the German word for “flyer” or “pilot”) became dominant. Perhaps most famously represented by IWC’s Big Pilot’s Watch (modern example above), the essential features of flieger watches — also abbreviated “B-Uhren” (Beobachtungs-Uhren, or “navigator’s watches”) include a large matte-finished case; a black dial with large, luminous numerals and a triangle with two dots at 12 o’clock for orientation in flight; a big, diamond-shaped crown for easy gripping by a pilot’s gloved hands; and a heavy, sturdy leather strap that could be worn over a flight jacket. In addition to IWC, several German watch manufacturers are known for their flieger-style pilot’s watches, including Laco, Stowa, and Wempe.
As commercial aviation grew in the wake of World War II, and long-haul international flights became an essential part of doing business, different types of pilot’s watches, more complicated than the flieger, started to emerge. One was the Rolex GMT-Master (covered in more detail below), with its dual-time functionality that allowed a pilot to track the time both at his point of departure and his destination. Another iconic (and, for some reason, rarely emulated) pilots’ watch was the Breitling Navitimer, released in 1954. The Navitimer, named for a portmanteau of “navigation” and “timer,” incorporated both a chronograph function and a bidirectionally rotating bezel with a slide-rule scale that a pilot could use to make mathematical conversions and vital calculations — like fuel consumption, distance traveled in miles and kilometers, and climb and descent rates — right on the wrist. While its slide-rule function would remain a rarity (and an anachronism in the electronic age) the Navitimer’s chronograph capabilities have become an element of various other pilot’s watches, as have the dual-time functions of the GMT-Master and its stylistic offspring.
While their strict stylistic parameters are somewhat difficult to define, dress watches can basically be thought of as any watch you’d want to wear while dressed up, in an office environment or for an elegant outing, while simultaneously being a watch you definitely would not want to wear for physical work or engaging in any kind of sports or recreation. While they can be complicated (like many examples from Patek Philippe, A. Lange & Söhne, Vacheron Constantin, and Breguet, brands whose entire output might be considered “dress”), dress watches are very often recognized as having clean, simple dials; small and relatively thin cases, frequently in precious metals, that can slide understatedly beneath a shirt cuff; and leather straps rather than metal bracelets or rubber straps.
Around about the mid-1970s came the now exceedingly popular “sport luxury” category of dress watches, pioneered by legends like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus, which introduced elements like integrated bracelets, bolder case and bezel configurations, visible screws, and eye-catching dial textures into the genre. Today, numerous watch brands best known for dressy, luxurious timepieces for men and women offer a luxury sport watch in this style, like Chopard with its Alpine Eagle (above).
Field watches, among the most straightforwardly utilitarian of timepieces, derive their design and functionality from early 20th century timepieces worn by soldiers and other military operators “in the field,” hence the umbrella term. While they will vary in their design elements and details, field watches (earlier models were also called “trench watches,” a reference to their usage in the trench warfare of World War I) are recognizable for a handful of elements that are mostly omnipresent: clean, highly legible dials with few if any superfluous subdials, outside of a small seconds display; luminous hands and numerals; big, readable hour markers (mostly Arabic numerals, occasionally indexes; the "purist" version of a field watch dial has a 12-hour scale with an additional 13-24-hour ring for military time); and a general sense of toughness and reliability while being understated in both size and design (the smaller and lighter the watch, the less burden on a soldier already loaded with gear). The Hamilton Khaki Field (available with an automatic or a more period-appropriate manually wound mechanical caliber) and the Bulova Hack Watch (above, named for its mission-specific hacking seconds function), both inspired by timepieces used by actual soldiers during wartime, are among the most popular examples of the style today. Check out some of our favorite field watches here.
Any watch with a date window can technically qualify as a calendar watch, as it is capable of displaying the most basic information in a calendar, i.e., the current date, but most watch enthusiasts envision something with a few more bells and whistles. One step up from the simple date display are watches with both the day and date indicated on the dial — the most famous example, as in many categories, coming from Rolex, whose Oyster Perpetual Day-Date not only defined the genre but became so popular after its release in 1956 that it was worn by numerous U.S. Presidents and is today nicknamed “The President.”
The so-called triple calendar is one notch above the day-date in complication, displaying the day, date and month in a specific arrangement of windows, subdials, and/or analog hands. It is the simplest type of calendar complication, requiring adjustment at the end of any month of a shorter duration than the default 31 days. The triple calendar might also include a moon-phase display and can be combined with other complications, as in the Longines watch pictured above.
Edging up the scale in complexity, we next come to the annual calendar, a complication first built into a wristwatch by Patek Philippe in 1996. As per its name, an annual calendar is designed to be manually adjusted by its wearer only once per year. Its movement compensates for the individual lengths of all the 30-day and 31-day months; only at the end of February, which has either 28 or 29 days depending on the leap year, does the watch’s owner need to move the date forward to the 1st of March.
The most sophisticated (and expensive) type of calendar watch is the perpetual calendar, endowed with a mechanical “memory” that enables it to display the time, day, date, month, and often the moon-phase, accurately for many years. The complex movement in a perpetual calendar, like that in the Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris Perpetual Calendar, pictured above, compensates for the length of every month, including February in both leap years and non-leap-years, meaning that it should not need adjusting until the year 2100, which is the next annum in which the Gregorian calendar’s leap-year cycle is disrupted: it will be the first year since 1900 that is exactly divisible by 100 but not by 400, and thus not a leap year.
Chronograph watches, quite simply, are watches equipped with a stopwatch function that can be used to measure elapsed times. (They should not be confused with chronometers, though many watches can qualify as both; we break down the details here.) Most modern chronographs use a center-mounted hand to count the elapsed seconds; subdials or “totalizers,” to tally the elapsed minutes and/or hours; and pushers or buttons on the side of the case to start, stop, and reset the chronograph hands. Originally, chronographs were equipped with a single pusher (“monopusher” or “monopoussoir” in French) to operate all the stopwatch functions, and some chronograph watches are still designed in this vintage style. Breitling invented the more common two-button chronograph design in 1923. Most chronograph dials are either bicompax (with two subdials) or tricompax (with three subdials, like the Zenith Chronomaster Original, above).
A chronograph with a flyback function (known in French as a “retour-en-vol”) enables the user to stop, return to zero, and instantly restart the elapsed-seconds hand to begin timing a new interval — distinguishing it from a standard chronograph in which stopping, returning to zero, and restarting each require a separate push. Because of the complexity of this mechanism, most flyback chronograph watches are on the pricey side, but Frederique Constant offers one for under $5,000 (above). Related to the flyback, and often referred to by its French name, rattrapante (for “catch up”), a split-seconds chronograph is equipped with not one but two elapsed-seconds hands, one positioned directly above the other while the chronograph is switched off. Both hands are started and returned to zero simultaneously via a pusher. A second pusher allows the split-seconds or rattrapante hand, usually the one underneath, to repeatedly separate from the upper hand to record split times and then be instantly returned into its position under the other, still-moving hand (i.e., it “catches up”).
Adding even more visual and technical interest to chronograph watches are the additional scales that many of them include on their dials and/or bezels. One of the most common is a tachymeter (or tachometer), a numerical scale on a watch’s dial or bezel that is used in conjunction with the moving chronograph hand to measure an object’s speed over a predetermined distance. It is often used to determine miles or kilometers per hour and is thus a common feature of watches whose design is inspired by automobile racing. The Omega Speedmaster (above), which was the first watch to put this scale on the bezel rather than the dial of a chronograph, is among the most popular tachymeter watches.
A pulsimeter, or pulsograph, is a calibrated scale used to record heart beats per minute; watches equipped with this type of scale are classically known as “doctor’s watches.” A telemeter (as found on the Tissot model pictured above, reviewed here) is used to measure the wearer’s distance from an event based on the difference between visual and audible phenomena; in layman’s terms, the scale can be used with the chronograph seconds hand to determine how far away a thunderstorm is based on the amount of elapsed time between a flash of lightning and a crackle of thunder. Check out some of the most popular chronographs here.
A watch that allows a traveler to keep track of the time in two or more time zones simultaneously is one of the most useful types of timepieces in our interconnected modern world. Travel watches generally fall into two categories, GMT watches and world-timers. The former is a watch that allows its wearer to read the time in (at least) two different time zones simultaneously (GMT stands for Greenwich Mean Time, the system of timekeeping based on the calculation of mean solar time from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London). Most often, they do so with the use of a second hour hand and a 24-hour scale on the bezel or dial. The main hour hand can be adjusted to point to the local time while the wearer is abroad, while the additional hour hand, usually designed to be distinct from the main one, points to the time at home, or “reference time,” on the 24-hour scale whose numerals correspond to the world’s time zones as established by the Greenwich Meridian. A GMT watch whose 24-hour bezel is rotatable can add a third time zone reading via the main hour hand. The style trendsetter for the modern GMT watch, and still one of the most popular models, is Rolex’s GMT-Master, introduced in 1954 and designed with the input of TWA airline pilots; its influence can be seen on many examples of the genre, like the Tudor Black Bay GMT featured above. To discover some of our favorite GMT watches, click here.
While a GMT watch allows for a view of two (in some cases three) time zones, a world time watch is designed to display the time in all 24 of the world’s time zones at once. Usually this style of watch combines a 24-hour scale that rotates around the dial, in concert with the hour hand, once a day, with an outer bezel inscribed with the names of 24 world cities, each representing one of the major time zones. The wearer can set this “city ring” to the local time while traveling and can read the time in any other time zone by seeing where the cities align along the 24-hour scale. We showcase some of our favorite world time watches here.
The tracking and recording of time has always been inextricably linked with the mysterious motions of heavenly bodies — primarily those of the sun, around which Earth revolves, and of the moon, which in turn revolves around the Earth. In moon-phase watches, watchmakers throughout the years have expressed their fascination with the moon, both its romantic and scientific aspects, in creative and innovative ways. While not regarded as one of the most utilitarian watch complications in the 21st Century, a moon-phase can add both beauty and a touch of astronomical flair to a watch dial. Originally developed for early sailors to predict the tides, it replicates the waxing and waning of the moon, usually with a rotating disk with two small moons whose portions become visible as the disk moves behind a shaped aperture, displaying whether the moon is at its full, half, quarter, or new phase. Check out our list of noteworthy moon-phase watches here.
Skeleton watches — also called “openworked” — are watches in which the dial-side and caseback crystals are transparent and in which the movement has had much of its non-essential components removed so only the “bare bones” of the movement construction is visible. Aficionados of skeleton watches appreciate their open-air architecture and dramatic play of light and shadow, which is often used to highlight intricate engraving and other aspects of the watchmaker’s art.
The less common albeit more legible “Open Heart” watch, like the ones produced by Frederique Constant, Raymond Weil, Tissot (above), and Hamilton, is sort of a partial skeleton watch in which the mostly solid dial has a cutout aperture that partially exposes some elements of the movement for a dynamic effect, such as the oscillating balance.
Patented by legendary watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet (founder of today’s Breguet brand) in 1801, the tourbillon was a practical horological invention that is today held up as an example of elite horological technology; watches equipped with tourbillons are highly prized and almost invariably pricey. Taking its name from the French word for "whirlwind," a tourbillon is a device designed to compensate for the ill effects of gravitational pull on a watch movement's accuracy by placing the balance and escapement inside a rotating cage that makes a 360º revolution every minute. While its gravity-defying functionality is less important in a relatively mobile wristwatch than in a mostly stationary pocket watch (for which it was historically intended), the tourbillon's balletic motions make a luxury watch come to mesmerizing life when it is displayed through a dial aperture, as it is in the vast majority of timepieces that include it today, including the H. Moser & Cie. x MB&F Endeavour Cylindrical Tourbillon, seen above.
Occupying the highest echelon in terms of both technical complexity and horological artisanship, and commanding stratospheric sticker prices even higher than those of many tourbillons, are chiming watches, best exemplified by the most common example (if such a description can even be used for a type of watch that only a handful of top manufactures can even produce), the minute repeater. A timepiece that chimes the time audibly on demand, the earliest minute repeaters were pocket watches that served as a practical method of alerting its wearer of the current time in the dark in the 18th and 19th Century, before the widespread adoption of electric lighting or luminous details on watch dials. Definitively regarded as more a luxury today than a tool, a minute repeater has an independent chiming mechanism with two small hammers striking coiled metal gongs, generally activated by a slide on the side of the case, to produce different tones for the hour, quarter hour, and minute. The most sophisticated of these chiming watches might also include a grande sonnerie, and/or petite sonnerie: the former perpetually strikes the hour every hour and the hour plus the quarter-hour at every quarter, without any need for the wearer to activate it with a slide; the latter strikes the hour every hour, and the quarter-hour (but not the hour) every quarter, also independently of any activation by the wearer. Sometimes the chiming functions are even coordinated with moving, elaborate dial animations called automata, like the Jaquet Droz Bird Repeater above.
Other Watches: Rare Complications
As we’ve seen, the types of watches on the market today are diverse indeed. Occupying the most niche corners of the market, and offering unconventional appeal are some of the following rare styles and complications. Regulator watches are watches whose dials sport a large central minutes hands and separate subdials for the hours and minutes — a design that originated with the regulator clocks of the 18th and 19th centuries, which were used as references to check the accuracy of pocketwatches. The regulator dial can be “dressed down,” as in sportier, rugged pieces like Alpina’s Alpiner Extreme Regulator, or “dressed up” in more artistic executions, as on Louis Erard’s collaborative timepieces with Massena LAB, above.
When can a watch be both digital and mechanical? When it indicates its hour by numerals on an instantaneously jumping disk rather than a traditional hand. This is the hallmark of the so-called jumping-hour watch, which often pairs the numerical hour with a retrograde minutes display, i.e., one in which the hand snaps back to zero each hour on the hour to begin tracking another 60-minute interval on an arc-shaped scale. A notable modern example is from the Bulgari-owned Gérald Genta brand, whose Arena Bi-Retro model, as per its name, features retrograde hands for both the minutes and seconds.
Practical yet perplexingly rare is the mechanical alarm watch, which was popularized by Vulcain’s Cricket, introduced in the 1940s and still a flagship of the brand's product line today. The movement of such a watch is usually equipped with an independent hand connected to.a notched cam and operated by an additional crown, which can be set to activate a hammer that strikes a membrane for a vibrating buzz that reminds the wearer of an event. After being alerted by the sound and vibrations, the wearer can then switch the alarm off with a pusher. Jaeger-LeCoultre's Memovox and Tudor's Advisor are other well-known examples of mechanical alarms.