An important step to finding the right luxury watch is to first have a solid understanding of the components that make up a watch. It’s no secret that watch-focused terminology can be confusing and overwhelming. This is in part because many watch terms are either rooted in other languages or are vague and non-descriptive.
While watches come in all sorts of shapes, styles, and sizes, they all share a fundamental structure. And once you have a good grasp of basic watch architecture, you can make better decisions when shopping for a fine timepiece. In this guide, we break down and explain all the major parts of a luxury watch.
The case is the main component of a watch. It houses almost all other parts of the timepiece. Watch cases are available in a wide range of shapes and materials, and they define the style of the watch.
The most common case shape is round, but watch cases can also be square, rectangular, oval, cushion, tonneau (which is French for “barrel”), asymmetrical, and so on. The most common material used to make watch cases is stainless steel but they can also use gold, titanium, platinum, ceramic, bronze, or a mix of materials.
The back of the case (the part that sits directly on your skin) is often referred to as the caseback. A solid caseback is fashioned entirely in metal and many watch brands use this space to engrave symbols, logos, or text. A display caseback, sometimes called an exhibition caseback, is fitted with a transparent crystal window to allow a view of the movement inside.
The watch dial, also known as the watch face, is a plate that displays the time and any other indicators. Dials can range from time-only dials (which only feature hands to tell the time) to time and date dials (which include a date display) to more complex dials (which can include a variety of other indicators).
While most luxury watch dials are analog, some high-end watchmakers offer dials with digital displays too. There are also “ana-digi” dials, which combine a mix of digital indicators and analog hands.
Not only do dials come in a variety of colours, materials, and finishes, but they also feature different styles of hour markers and hands, which can help further define the style of the watch. For instance, thin hands and baton type hour markers are commonly found on classic watches while sports watches typically have oversized hands and large hour markers.
Some dials also include subsidiary dials (also known as subdials, registers, or counters), which are areas on the dial that can display a variety of functions such as an additional time zone, a small seconds hand, the date/day/month, and so on.
A complication is any function on a watch that does more than tell time. For example, calendar indications, chronographs, additional time zone displays, moon phases, alarms, power reserve indicators, and others are all considered complications. The more complications a watch has, the more information a dial has to display.
Some dials include apertures — better known as windows — which are openings in the dial that can display a variety of functions such as date/day/month, moon phase, day/night indication, and so on.
The hands (or handset) sweep around the dial to indicate the time. The terms “three-hander” or “two-hander” describe time-only dials, where the former will have hands for the hour, minute, and second while the latter will only include hour and minute hands. Some watches include extra hands to display other functions. Popular hand styles include Mercedes, broad arrow, alpha, straight, Dauphine, Breguet, sword, and others.
Hour markers, also known as indexes or indices, are positioned around the dial to denote the hour. There are many types of hour markers, but the most popular ones include stick, baton, tapered, circular, triangular, Arabic numerals, Roman numerals, or a mix of all them.
Lume refers to luminescence on a watch. Some dials include several components (such as hands and hour markers) coated in luminous material so that the watch face glows in the dark. Modern watches typically use photoluminescent materials, which require a charge from a light source before they glow in low light.
Some common brand names for luminous materials used on watches include Luminova, SuperLuminova, and Chromalight. Conversely, vintage watches relied on continuously glowing radioluminescent materials such as radium and tritium.
The crystal refers to the glass-like piece that covers the dial. Some watches also have a crystal component on the caseback so you can see the movement inside the watch. Most high-end watch brands use synthetic sapphire crystal since this material offers better resistance to scratching and shattering than other materials. Sapphire crystal is also ultra-transparent, which gives a clear view of the dial.
Vintage luxury watches were typically fitted with acrylic/plastic crystals, which are prone to scratching but those scratches can be easily buffed out. Some collectors appreciate the “softer” look of an acrylic crystal found on vintage timepieces over the sharper style of modern sapphire crystal. Some watch brands still use acrylic crystal on vintage-inspired watches. You may come across names like Perspex, Plexiglass, and Hesalite, which are all simply brand names of acrylic/plastic crystals.
The bezel is the frame around the dial that sits on top of the case to hold the crystal in place. While most bezels are round (because most watch cases are round), there are other bezel shapes, including square, rectangular, oval, octagonal, tonneau (also known as barrel), and more.
Some bezels offer additional functionality to the watch if they are marked with scales and/or rotate. Some prevalent examples of functional bezels include 60-minute unidirectional rotating bezels found on dive watches, 24-hour marked bezels found on GMT watches, and tachymeter marked bezels found on chronograph watches.
Along with finish and functionality, bezels can be crafted from various materials. Some bezels match the metal of the case while others are fashioned from a contrasting metal, such as on two-tone gold and steel watches. There are also bezels made from aluminum or ceramic, which are typically found on sportier watch models. Some bezels add a decorative touch to the watch, such as those that are fluted, gem-set, engraved, or decorated with an intricate pattern.
The winding crown, or simply the crown, is the knob, typically positioned on the right side of the case, that sets the watch and winds up the movement inside mechanical watches (not quartz watches). In some instances, the crown can also be positioned on the left side. There are also wristwatches with the crown placed on top of the case at the 12 o’clock position, similar to a pocket watch.
Depending on the watch, some crowns simply pull out of the case with a gentle tug to adjust the time and/or date while others need to be unscrewed from the case before pulling the crown. Screw-down crowns offer better water-resistance.
In addition to the crown, some watches include additional buttons on the case, called pushers, to operate various functions. The most common type is chronograph pushers. A typical chronograph watch has two pushers flanking the winding crown, where the upper one starts and stops the chronograph hand while the bottom one resets the chronograph hand back to zero.
Lugs are protrusions on the watch case used to secure the band to the watch case. A good majority of watches have two lugs protruding from the top and bottom of the case. These lugs can be long or short, straight or curvy, wide or thin, plain or gem-set.
Some watches have hooded lugs (a.k.a. shrouded lugs), which include one horizontal bar on each side to fasten the band to the case. Other watches, such as those with integrated bracelets, avoid lugs all together for a seamless link between bracelet and case.
A watch can come fitted with a metal bracelet, ceramic bracelet, leather strap, rubber strap, or fabric strap. Collectively, these are known as bands.
Bands are held on the wrist by clasps, which fasten both ends of the bracelet or strap together around the wrist. Clasps come in a variety of styles from simple tang buckles (also known as pin buckles) to elaborate folding deployant clasps for added security.
Some clasps also feature a clever micro-adjustment system to allow the wearer to shorten or lengthen the band by a few millimetres for optimal comfort.
High-end watches typically feature gaskets, which are rubber rings used to create airtight seals to prevent water or dust from entering the watch. These are generally hidden from plain sight and tucked under the crystal, caseback, and winding crown. Since gaskets can wear out after a while, which compromises the watch’s water resistance, it's common to have gaskets replaced during a watch service.
The movement, sometimes called a caliber, is the engine of the watch, which is housed inside the case beneath the dial. This is the mechanism that powers the watch, moves the timekeeping hands, and controls any other functions that a watch may have.
Watches with mechanical movements, whether automatic or manual, are typically more expensive than ones with quartz calibers — even though quartz movements are more accurate and practical than mechanical ones.
Mechanical movements require more time, skill, and craftsmanship to produce (particularly if the watch boasts plenty of complications) and are thus, generally the preferred option of both luxury watch brands and enthusiasts.
While Swiss watches with Swiss-made movements are considered the gold standard, other countries, like Germany, France, Japan, and a few others, also make their fair share of fine timepieces and excellent mechanical movements.
Manual (or hand-winding) movements are the oldest type of mechanical movement. Manual-winding movements require the wearer to regularly wind the watch via the crown to keep it running.
Automatic (or self-winding) movements are also mechanical movements, but they don’t require hands-on winding. As long as an automatic watch is in motion (like when on the wrist), it will continue to run, thanks to a swinging rotor that continuously winds the movement.
Quartz (or battery-powered) movements rely on a battery for power. These are the most commonly used calibres in watches. About 90 percent of watches are quartz-powered. A battery will typically last anywhere from two to four years.