Timekeeping
By Jason Heaton
on 2.4.14

The mechanical watch as a legitimate tool — a diver’s underwater timing mechanism, a doctor’s pulsometer, a driver’s tachymeter — is a subject we cover often. But there’s a common and pressing question lurking behind this wrist-based piece of kit: has the advent of digital devices made mechanical watches irrelevant as tools? Two watch experts debate.

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Point

by Shane Griffin

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For years and years, mechanical watches served not only as everyday timekeepers but also legitimate tools: a diver’s underwater timing mechanism, a doctor’s pulsometer, a driver’s tachymeter. The list goes on. However, when the battery-powered watch came to be in the 1970s, it wasn’t long before these tools could be produced more cheaply — and made to do their jobs more efficiently. With the smart phone putting a highly accurate clock at the tip of your fingers, who actually needs a watch, let alone a mechanical one? Growing technology has shifted mechanical tool watches from the “need” category far into the “want” category, rendering them mere gimmicks.

Let’s face it, if you’re a serious diver, why risk your $7,500 Submariner — which only helps with elapsed time, by the way — when you can use a $250 Suunto that accounts for air or NITROX, calculates decompression stops, and even connects to your computer where you can keep a dive log? Since digital quartz watches have evolved to pack in all sorts of functionality, diving with a mechanical watch seems inadequate and potentially risky. I’m sure the “old school” divers will claim that the new technology is superfluous and unnecessary, to which I say, why not go all the way? What’s with the wetsuits and tanks? They should be using wooden barrels as diving bells instead of these fancy rebreathers and stab jackets!

Since digital quartz watches have evolved to pack in all sorts of functionality, diving with a mechanical watch seems inadequate and potentially risky.

Since I’m not much of a diver, I’ll veer away from that subject for now. But I could pick examples of replacements for just about any tool watch — a doctor’s pulsometer, any number of heart monitors; a driver’s tachymeter, radar. See how easy this is? These complications and functions can still do the job, no doubt, but they’re completely outworked by cheaper alternatives. For every person that legitimately utilizes “tool” functionalities on mechanical watches, there are probably a dozen others that don’t even know how to use it.

I would also say that mechanical watches in general aren’t necessary and have become pure luxury items. Skyrocketing prices of quality mechanical watches support that sentiment: it wasn’t all that long ago that a brand new Rolex Explorer II could be had for THREE figures! That’s not an exaggeration; a reference 1655 could be bought new for under $1,000 in 1982. Rolex is probably the most obvious example, but similar jumps in prices can be seen from many other watchmakers. It’s no mistake. Watchmakers know full well that watches have largely become status symbols and have priced them accordingly. So, when a diver criticizes a new dive watch for having “weak lume” or a “busy dial”, I immediately wonder why he or she is using such an expensive luxury watch when diving, or, if it’s a non-diver, why the hell he or she cares if the watch isn’t perfect for diving.

Yes, I am a watch guy, but I’m just trying to keep things in perspective. That new pilot or dive watch may not be the utilitarian epitome of its design category, but so what? Do you like how it looks? Get it. Do you not like how it looks? Don’t get it. It’s that simple. But please don’t write it off because you’re not sure you’d be able to read the time while corkscrewing in your F-16 during night bombing runs, because the only thing you’re flying is a desk. Enjoy mechanical tool watches for what they are: modern representations of antiquated tools.

Counterpoint

by Jason Heaton

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As someone who typically finds himself out in the wilds wearing a watch, I feel qualified to counter the assertion that mechanical tool watches are mere gimmicks. I have dived, climbed, skied and hiked in all conditions with more mechanical watches than I can count, and I have always considered them vital companions on these adventures. But personal sentimentality aside, I base my argument on two main points: technology and psychology.

Despite the advent of dive computers that track depth and no-deco times and multifunction watches with altimeters, heart rate monitors and barometers, there is still room for the mechanical analog watch as a backup device. The most obvious argument is the one many defenders of traditional watches trot out: batteries fail, electronics go haywire. The battery in my Suunto Vector lasts a year if I’m lucky. In below-zero conditions? All bets are off. Yes, mechanical watches can fail too, but it’s typically not as immediately catastrophic as when a digital display goes blank. As the saying goes, “two is one, one is none”, meaning that carrying only one instrument without a backup is as good as not carrying one at all should it fail. Believe me, it happens, and I always wear not only a dive watch but also a mechanical depth gauge when I dive.

But the mechanical watch need not only be a backup. There are still things a good old analog watch can do better than state-of-the-art digital gadgets. Here’s an example. A digital dive watch, which is an indispensable instrument to be sure, does a terrible job displaying elapsed time for anything other than a diver’s total time underwater. One of the most effective ways to navigate underwater is to determine how long it takes you to swim from one point to another. Set the bezel on your Submariner as you begin your swim along the reef. When the air in your tank or your prescribed no-deco time means it’s time to turn for home, you can note the elapsed time, reset the bezel and count on roughly the same amount of time to swim back to where you started. Try that with a dive computer.

The most obvious argument is the one many defenders of traditional watches trot out: batteries fail, electronics go haywire.

To cite another, more terrestrial example, consider the mountaineer hunkered in his tent or embarking on his dark alpine start, protected from the elements under layers of down and fleece and wearing bulky gloves. Should he need to check the time in the dark, activating a pushbutton backlight on a digital watch requires removing a glove. Should the glove be lost, his hand is exposed to the elements, possible frostbite, and on to possible worse fate. The luminous, easy-to-read dial of an analog watch, which also has the advantage of being less susceptible to extreme cold than the battery-powered counterpart, is a far better suited tool for simple timekeeping. Don’t just take my word for it. Countless modern-day mountaineers and polar explorers, from Sir Ranulph Fiennes to Mike Horn to Ben Saunders, have relied on mechanical timepieces, as much for their better reliability in harsh conditions as for psychological reasons.

Because yes, there is something reassuring about wearing a sturdy watch assembled by human hands, and in using age-old mechanical technology to tell time while facing danger and uncertainty. This unites a watch’s owner with a tradition of tool watches, a connection that ties Louis Bleriot’s 1906 Zenith to Felix Baumgartner’s. When the going gets rough, I’d rather see the reassuringly calm sweep of a mechanically driven seconds hand, powered by my own body movement, than a cold digital display telling me my time is almost up. This may be an intangible asset of the mechanical watch, but no one can deny the importance of morale and psychology to the adventurer.

And yes, many mechanical tool watches have gotten very expensive. But there are plenty of other options from smaller brands that fill the gap for the less pecunious who still don’t want to wear CBP (Cheap Black Plastic) on their wrists.

It would be ludicrous to suggest that one should forgo a dive computer or digital altimeter in favor of only wearing a mechanical timepiece, but I do believe there is room for both. The mechanical tool watch is as relevant today as it ever was, though in a different capacity. Few people might wear these watches for their designed purpose, but as long as a watch company purports to build tool watches, they are obligated to build them according to their stated purpose; for the few who still push watches to their limits, this toughness and capability is value enough. Long live the tool watch.

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