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How many watches do you actually need?

You like mechanical watches, but you're not a collector. In that case you need to think hard about the one nice watch that you will buy

The Orion Ref. 301 and the Grand Seiko SBGW231. (Instagram)

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How many watches is too many watches? This is a question that I grapple with quite often. If you are a watch collector, chances are that you have a fair few in your watchbox, but then, how many of these do you actually wear? And now that we’re asking questions, let’s not stop there, but also ask, how many watches do you actually need?

The thing is, there isn’t an easy answer to that question. You may have as many watches as the days of the week and rotate them diligently. But things never work out that way. Such a neat breakup doesn’t factor in the reality that we are human beings, not robots. And this means what we choose to wear on our wrist is often driven by emotion. You buy a new watch, and your honeymoon period with your timepiece may last weeks, even months. Or, after years of owning a set of watches, you may decide that there is just one watch (or two) that conforms to your aesthetics (and your sense of comfort) in the fullest possible way, and so it ends up getting the most wrist time.

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By now, we all know how important the aesthetics of ‘wearing a watch’ is to the whole experience. That’s the reason why even modern smartwatches try their best to mimic the fit, finish and looks of a normal wristwatch. Take the latest Apple Watch, for instance. With the new Series 8 and Ultra models, it seems clear that the tech company’s design ethos is pushing the Apple Watch to look as close to a normal watch as possible. These new models look less like the lifeless rectangular slabs of yore: The use of an interactive crown (one that you can rotate, no less), the choice of an always-on display, and myriad watch faces that look like classic watch dials all contribute. 

The Apple Watch Ultra, with its more premium pricing, uses a titanium case, has 100m of water resistance, a sapphire crystal on top, up to 36 hours of battery life and plenty of tech that can actually be useful if you have an active lifestyle. I chalk that up to Apple providing a little extra that transforms the Apple Watch into a tool watch. Over the next few years, I won’t be surprised if flagship smartwatches become more and more like regular watches in terms of the build quality and looks. They will, of course, remain wholly digital. 

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Back in the world of real watches, let’s return to the question of watches that you actually need. You’ll find plenty of YouTube videos that talk about the “three watch collection” or the “five watch collection”. For me, the ideal number is two, and the categories, based on one’s lifestyle, are dress watches and everyday watches. And my personal favourites are dress watches.

A dress watch, as the name suggests, is meant for formal occasions, like a wedding, or a business meeting. Depending on your profession, you may even need to wear a dress watch to office every day. Basically, this is your nice watch: small, thin, unobtrusive but elegant, classically finished and minimal. Some purists insist that such a watch should be purely handwound mechanical, and not even include the second hand. In the real world though, it’s more than ok if your watch has a date display, or is an automatic, or even quartz! 

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For the longest time, most wristwatches were basically dress watches by design, and the platonic ideal of the dress watch would be classics like the Cartier Tank, the Patek Philippe Calatrava, the Rolex Datejust, the original Omega Seamaster, the JLC Reverso and so on. The specs and looks remain the same even in the affordable end of the spectrum, whether it is the HMT Janata, or Timex Marlin, the Orient Bambino, the Seiko Presage line and even, at a pinch, the Junghans Max Bill

I feel that the greatest value resides in the middle tier, somewhere between the super expensive and the very affordable. To me, two models that immediately jump out in this category is the Nomos Orion Ref. 301 and the Grand Seiko SBGW231. Both are classics of the genre, and what’s even more impressive is how the German and Japanese manufactures both outdo the Swiss at their own game with brilliant design, finish, build quality and superlative manually wound in-house movements.

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You could trace the lineage of both the 301 and the SBGW231 to the Patek Philippe Calatrava. While the Nomos piece references the small seconds version, the Grand Seiko is of a piece with the central seconds version. Both watches, however, hew to the principles of their own tradition. For Nomos, this means mastering the finer points of minimalist Bauhaus design, beautiful case design, a fantastic movement, and a look that works as well for a weekend night out as it does in the boardroom. For Grand Seiko, the value proposition lies not just in the movement, but also in the level of artistry it brings to every aspect of watchmaking, from the sharp-as-knife hands to the zaratsu polished case, and the crisp, creamy, off-white dial. 

Dress watches, in general, are for grown-ups, people who have moved beyond merely flexing their possessions, gravitating towards a watch that will reward close attention, that will tell the time accurately, and one that will look stylish as hell while doing so.  

Handwound is a column on watches and watchmaking.

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