Timekeeping
By Jason Heaton
on 5.27.14
Photo by EY/GP

Most discussions about watches and their value begin and end with the movement: Swiss versus Japanese, in-house versus outsourced, finishing and complications. But in reality, the movement is only part of the story. All too often overlooked in these discussions is the humble watch case, which can be equally artful, interesting, and difficult to produce. Often, it can make up more of the value of the watch than the motor inside.

MORE TIMEKEEPING LESSONS: How to Own a Mechanical Watch | How to Read a Watch Bezel | How to Buy a Vintage Watch

Design and Materials

The case has two simple functions: protect the movement from dust and moisture and fit nicely on a wrist. Early versions were merely pocketwatch cases with wires soldered on each end through which a strap could be attached. There was little attention given to aesthetics outside of perhaps some engraving. But as the wristwatch gained popularity in the Roaring Twenties and Jazz Age, watch cases quickly became objects of beauty in and of themselves. This was the era of the Cartier Tank, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso and the Gruen Curvex, Art Deco watches with slim rectangular cases.

In the 1950s the sports watch came into its own; dive watches and chronographs necessitated larger cases and rotating bezels. By the ‘60s and ‘70s, case-making had matured to the point where almost any shape was possible. Heuer released the innovative square Monaco, OMEGA turned out countless wacky bulbous shapes and the space age inspired some fantastical creations from brands far and wide.

Materials have played an increasing role in watch cases as well. Steel, gold (solid or plated) and platinum are the stalwart metals, but in the mid-70s, titanium emerged as a superior choice for timepieces designed for rough duty. IWC and Seiko were pioneers of that metal, driven largely by the needs of military divers, who required anti-magnetic and highly corrosion-resistant timepieces for their underwater work. Bremont, which has always hardened its steel cases in the same factory where Rolls-Royce does the same to its jet engine turbines, recently released two new watches using proprietary steel and titanium alloys from its new partner, Boeing.

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RADO pioneered the use of scratchproof ceramic in the 1970s and many brands use it today in various forms, including the groundbreaking OMEGA Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon, which is entirely made from ceramic, from dial to bezel to case. IWC uses ceramic cases for its Top Gun Pilot line, giving the watches a sinister, tactical look that serves well beyond the material’s durability. Most recently, carbon fiber has seen a boom in popularity as the tools and methods for its forging and machining have become more refined. Audemars Piguet has produced many of its Royal Oak Offshore sports watches in both forged carbon and ceramic, including the white ceramic Offshore Diver that debuted at SIHH this January.

Then there are the truly alternative case materials, from the ancient alloy, bronze, which is enjoying a renaissance in popularity, to a Richard Mille that is made entirely of transparent sapphire. At BaselWorld, Linde Werdelin debuted a watch, the Oktopus Moonlite, whose case, which the brand is calling “Alloy Linde Werdelin” or ALW, is rendered in an entirely new material that is colorless, half the weight of titanium and twice and hard as stainless steel. Materials have gotten so exotic and watch companies so good at using them that they are almost taken for granted. But these materials still require great skill, expense and tooling to craft into a watch case.

What to Expect: High-End and Mid-End

At the high end of the market, impeccable finishing is expected on both movement components and the case. Brands like Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin are part of a long tradition of case finishing that comes at a price. Connoisseurs of those brands know what to look for in the subtle bevels and contrasting polished and brushed surfaces and lovely curves of lugs. Rolex has long been admired for its expertise in case building, and not only for durability: while not as refined as a Patek, Rolex cases are known for their perfect brushwork, tight tolerances and fine bevels.

Linde Werdelin, aside from its innovation in materials development, has also become something of a master in unique case finishing. The LW cases are extremely complex to begin with, full of stark angles and skeletonized lugs and bezels. They’re also designed to accept the clip-on digital instruments the brand sells for diving and skiing, adding yet another layer of complexity. Then there is their Oktopus Moon Tattoo watch, which has an entirely hand-engraved case based on a tattoo motif.

Next time you strap on your watch and wind it up, take a moment to admire the bevels, the sharp angles and curvaceous lugs.

In the middle of the watch market, things get interesting. The dirty little secret of the watch industry is that many cases of mid-priced watches are made in Chinese factories even if the watch bears the Swiss Made label. To be labeled “Swiss Made” a watch must have a certain percentage of its cost derived from Swiss components and labor. Given the high cost of goods and labor in Switzerland and the low cost of the same in China, a brand can have a Swiss workshop put a Swiss movement into a Chinese case and still call it “Swiss Made”. Margins are the reason many mid-priced Swiss watch brands go to China for cases; it’s not that Swiss or German cases are hard to find, but an overall lower cost allows more money for swelling marketing budgets. And Chinese cases are getting better all the time — consumers most likely won’t know the difference. It’s fashionable to pick on Chinese made goods, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with a Chinese-made case. However, if it’s sold under the illusion that it’s all made in Switzerland, it’s a deception worth avoiding.

Then there’s the reverse: watches that use lesser movements inside of Swiss-made cases. Most mid-priced watches — those in the $1,000 to $3,000 range — make use of outsourced Sellita, ETA or Miyota movements, which can be had for a couple hundred bucks. These movements can be bought off the shelf and adjusted for accuracy fairly easily. Add a custom winding rotor, some rudimentary machine finishing, and a display case back, and the movement becomes fodder for ad copy and owners who crow about quality, paying little attention to the case the heart beats inside of. While these movements are often fine timekeepers, they lean toward uninteresting. The real jewels in this price range of watches come from those brands that make their own cases.

One example is JeanRichard. A couple of years ago, the brand reinvented itself, shifting from higher priced offerings with in-house movements to using mostly outsourced calibres to provide watches at a more affordable price point. While this may seem like a step down, in many ways, it makes the brand more attractive. The old JR calibres weren’t terribly interesting in their own right — just automatics and handwound movements with few complications. The new line is built around the cases, not the movements. And they are fine cases, made from multiple components that fit together with tight tolerances and that are extremely well finished. Sure, the movements are off-the-shelf Sellita motors, adjusted and lightly decorated, but for $3,000, you get a watch wholly “made in Switzerland”, not just “Swiss Made”, with expert case finishing and build quality.

Next time someone says, “that watch is overpriced for one that uses an ETA movement” or goes on about an in-house movement, ask him about the case. Does he know who made it, what went into the materials, the finishing, assembly? Next time you strap on your watch and wind it up, take a moment to admire the bevels, the sharp angles and curvaceous lugs. See how the interplay of brushed and polished surfaces catches and reflects light. And notice how the bezel meets the case and the case meets the bracelet. Sometimes the true beauty is skin deep.

Clockwise from Top Left: Seiko 5, Rolex Submariner, Patek Philippe Nautilus, Omega Speedmaster Professional, JeanRichard Aquascope, Heuer Carrera, Linde Werdelin Oktopus Moonlite, Audemar Piguet Royal Oak