It is easier than ever to buy great watches for men. There’s more information about watches in the form of thriving communities on the internet and Instagram. New, covetable pieces launch with alarming regularity. There is near-universal acceptance of the idea that buying a vintage men’s watch is as smart a choice—stylistically, financially, and spiritually—as buying one fresh off the assembly line. And there are simply more doors and stores and webshops and IG accounts where you can buy your next grail.
But it’s also for precisely those reasons that buying a watch can feel harder than it’s ever been. How am I supposed to choose between a Datejust and a Speedmaster? What counts as a good investment? Do I really need to know the difference between quartz and mechanical watches? For the beginner, it can often seem like there’s just too much information about years and references and movements to make a smart call.
We’re happy to say: that’s not really the case. Yes, buying a killer watch should be a little daunting—but only because you’re spending a not insignificant amount of your hard-earned money, not because it’s hard to figure out what you like, or why you like it, or whether you’re being scammed on your way to securing it.
So GQ has assembled this guide to buying watches. If you’re looking for your first, we’ve got you covered. And if you’re just looking for your next—well, we’ve got that, too.
The First Choice You Have to Make
From a 30,000 foot view, watches can be broken down into two broad categories: dress and sports watches. Or, as a brand like Rolex calls them: classic versus professional pieces. There are exceptions to each category, but dress watches are typically slim in profile, made with fine materials, and usually outfitted with a leather strap. A sports watch, meanwhile, usually comes in steel with a matching steel bracelet, rubber band, or a fabric strap. (Like the military-born NATO strap—but more on that later.)
The greatest variation comes within the sport watch category. There’s a reason these watches are known as “professional” in Rolex parlance: they are designed to aid specific vocations. Within sports watches, there are dive, pilots, and field watches as well as those made for racing and navigating the open sea. Richard Mille makes luxury sports watches that look like cool gadgets, cost ten times as much as their predecessors, and are light enough to be worn by Rafeal Nadal during the French Open. The idea of what constitutes a sports or dress watch is constantly changing, though. The Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso was originally designed for polo players, but is now a red carpet fixture for folks like Jay-Z. So don’t take these distinctions as rule of law—just go with the watch that appeals most to you.
What’s Under the Hood?
There is no greater dividing line in the world of watches than the one separating quartz and mechanical movements. Mechanical watches are the apple of watch collectors’ eyes. The intricately made pieces rely on a series of wheels, gears, springs, and other doodads to keep accurate time. Quartz pieces substitute almost all of that with a small crystal made of—you guessed it—quartz, which manages to do the work of many different mechanical bits entirely on its own. In fact, the quartz crystal is a more natural timekeeper, keeping much more accurate track of hours and seconds than its mechanical counterparts. Consider that the balance wheel—the primary component of timekeeping in a mechanical watch—typically works at a rate of somewhere between 18,000 and 36,000 beats per hour. A quartz crystal vibrates 235,929,600 times per hour.
Because of an abundance of the naturally occurring quartz crystal and the lack of expertise it takes to build a watch with one, these battery-powered watches are much more affordable. Brands like Swatch and Timex rely on quartz to make nearly all of their sub-$200 pieces. But, you would be smart to argue, if these watches are more accurate and more affordable, why would I bother with a mechanical watch? Add a “groovy” somewhere into that sentence and you’d sound a lot like a watch customer in the early ‘70s, a time period now known in the watch world as the Quartz Crisis. Quartz was so popular when it first emerged that it nearly decimated the Swiss watch industry, putting a thousand Swiss watchmakers out of business. But serious collectors today prize mechanical watches for the same reason audiophiles keep buying vinyl, and fashion heads love handmade clothes—these watches take great skill to make, and there’s a real person behind them rather than an assembly line. In other words: they have soul.
Not all quartz watches are inexpensive, though. The advantage of a technology like quartz is that it can allow brands to keep costs down while still using luxury-caliber materials. Cartier, for example, makes an entry-level version of its iconic Tank Solo in solid pink gold for “only” $5,450 by using a quartz movement. Plug a mechanical movement in the same watch and the price goes up to $8,500.
There’s also an important distinction with mechanical watches: Whether they’re automatic or manual (and/or self-winding). Self-winding watches are what they sound like: the watch’s crown must be cranked, which in turn coils the main spring that serves as the movement’s power source. An automatic watch includes a rotor—often a thin weight that naturally spins around the movement when a watch is worn—that tightens the main spring. Which you prefer is a matter of taste: some collectors find manually winding to be meditative while automatic is considered much more convenient.
What About Smartwatches?
Similar to quartz, the dawn of the smartwatch was also supposed to deliver the final blow to the mechanical watch industry. But while the Apple Watch is actually the most popular wrist watch in the entire world, thanks mostly to its fitness capabilities including a heart rate monitor, it hasn’t done much to kill its mechanical counterparts. Yes, you can choose some nice, quite expensive bands and materials for your Apple Watch, but the device itself remains fundamentally the same. Like quartz before them, the explosion of smartwatches have confirmed what many collectors already knew: the point of a watch is no longer to get the most accurate time or count steps, but to appreciate the craftsmanship and beauty of a piece. That’s not to say that people can’t appreciate both: Super collector and Golden State Warriors Krazy Glue Draymond Green, for instance, loves a ceramic Audemars Piguet Royal Oak for tunnel walks and his Apple Watch for workouts.
How Much Am I Going to Spend?
The good news? You don’t have to shell out a ton of money for a watch. Some of GQ’s favorites—and some of the coolest, most important pieces in horological history—don’t cost much more than a medium-fancy dinner. The also good news: you can shell out a ton of money for a watch and still get something that’s absolutely worth your money. You can think of watches as falling into four general tiers:
Affordable: Let’s call this the sub-$500 tier. The cheapest watches typically come with a quartz movement, which you now know all about. But you can find a killer automatic leather strap watch from Timex for under $300—we particularly dig the collaborative pieces the brand puts out with Todd Snyder—like…clockwork. And you can’t talk about affordable watches without talking about Seiko: just like Rolex, the Japanese brand is vertically integrated, meaning it owns every part of the production process—and can therefore deliver great quality at a lower price. That’s how it manages to turn out both super-legit high-end pieces (under the Grand Seiko label) and gentler-on-the-wallet options (check out the “5” series.)
Less Affordable: Anywhere from $500 to three grand, to generalize. Now, you’re getting a serious piece of machinery—a mechanical watch with real craftsmanship behind it. That might mean a smaller upstart brand, like Autodromo; it might mean an updated classic from Longines or Oris or Hamilton. This is also the tier where you’re likely to find watches from fashion designers—Gucci, Tom Ford, and the rest.
Luxury: As you ease past the $3,000 mark, you’ll start to see genuinely iconic pieces from the brands that come to mind when you think “watch.” Entry-level Rolexes. Omega’s legendary Speedmaster. Lots of stainless steel, and even a little gold. (The iconic Cartier Tank sits in this category.) You’ll start to see “complications,” too: more advanced features like chronographs.
Mega-luxury: This is the heavy stuff. Gold and rose gold and platinum. Diamonds! Minute repeaters and perpetual calendars and all the crazy complications watchmakers can think to stuff inside a case. These are the pieces you’ll pass along not just to your kids, but to theirs.
The Beginner’s Guide to Watch Brands
This may be the hardest decision you make in your watch buying journey. There are a wide swath of brands to choose from: Massive corporations and tiny, independently operated ones; expensive ones and cheap ones; brands that move slowly to perfect what they have and others intent on placing a stick of dynamite alongside the entire idea of what a watch is and what it should do. Here’s a selection of the best brands and what they’re broadly known for..
- Rolex: The Crown is likely the most popular of all the Swiss watch houses. Watches like the Submariner, GMT-Master, and Daytona are bonafide instant heirlooms.
- Tudor: Tudor was originally designed as something like a diffusion line for Rolex, but a major relaunch in 2009 certified the Black Bay, with its signature “snowflake” hands, as an exemplary starter mechanical watch.
- Patek Philippe: No watch brand is more synonymous with elegance and industry-defining advances. If Rolex is the epitome of the daring outdoorsman, Patek Philippe is its tuxedo-wearing, cigar-smoking, other half.
- Audemars Piguet: The brand behind the Royal Oak, which consistently pops up on the wrist of design fanatics and celebrities.
- TAG Heuer: In 1985, Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG) acquired watch brand Heuer and kept its most famous pieces: the Autavia, the Carerra, and the Monaco worn by Steve McQueen in Le Mans.
- Timex: The brand reliably balances great watches with mellow price points—and has made great use of collaborations over the past couple of years, with the likes of Todd Snyder, Noah, and Engineered Garments.
- Cartier: What makes Cartier special is the way it approaches watches with a jeweler’s eye, turning out elegant square-shaped pieces like the Tank, the off-kilter Asymetrique, and the ooey-gooey Crash.
- Breguet: Founder Abraham-Louis Breguet is responsible for the very first wristwatch (created for the Queen of Naples in 1810). Today, Breguet churns out high-horology pieces that are designed to show off technical mastery.
- Omega: Omega makes the only watch approved for in-flight use by NASA: the Speedmaster model, which accompanied Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission and remains NASA’s preferred timepiece.
- IWC: IWC is best known for designing watches for the British Royal Air Force in the ‘40s, and it still produces the Big Pilot to this day.
- Seiko: These watches are extremely durable, highly collectible, and rarely cost more than a few hundred dollars. No other brand checks all those boxes—there’s a reason Seiko inspires a collecting community all on its own.
- Grand Seiko: Grand Seiko, created in 1960 as a Japanese alternative to the dominant Swiss watch industry, is the wing of Seiko that specializes in extremely fine, elegant, and luxury-class timepieces.
- Jaeger LeCoultre: Want an OG sports watch with a reversible dial originally engineered for polo players in the 1930s? Try Jaeger LeCoultre’s iconic Reverso. Want a watch beloved by former president and alarm-function admirer Lyndon B. Johnson? JLC’s Memovox will do the trick.
- Zenith: Zenith’s claim to watch history comes from its invention of the first automatic chronograph watch (meaning one that wouldn’t require to be wound everyday). Today, a refined version of that movement still sits in many of Zenith’s models, including the very handsome Chronomaster.
What Is a Chronograph? A Watch Glossary
The specialized terms for parts and complications you need to know.
Crown: The twisty knob on a watch’s side you use to wind it (and to change the date).
Pusher: An external button that can trigger a watch’s complications.
Bezel: The circular piece around the watch’s face that holds the crystal in place.
Crystal: The domed piece of crystal that protects the watch’s face.
Lug: The pieces that extend from the watch’s case and connect to the bracelet.
Hands: The things that tell the time.
Movement: The complex assemblage of parts that actually powers the watch.
Complication: Any function a watch serves beyond telling the time: date, alarm, chronograph (stopwatch), perpetual calendars that provide the month and day of the week, repeaters that chime out the time, and moonphase indicators are all known as complications.
Tourbillon: In extremely basic terms, it’s a rotating cage that houses key parts of a watch’s movement, which counteracts the tiny-but-real effect that gravity can have on a watch’s accuracy. Now that we wear watches on our wrists, where they’re continually moving, rather than placing them in our pockets, the tourbillon is more about aesthetics and manufacturing showmanship than function.
GMT: A type of watch that allows you to tell the time across multiple time zones, using an extra hour hand (and sometimes a rotating bezel). Rolex’s GMT-Master is the most famous of these.
Skeleton: A “skeletonized” watch is built to show off its inner workings, revealing the movement and any other complications.
Tropical: The term of art for the once-black dial on a vintage watch that has, thanks to time, sunlight, and a weird kind of paint used in the ‘60s, faded to a chocolate-y brown color. Since only a handful of watches used that paint before the brands corrected the error, the presence of a tropical dial significantly increases a vintage watch’s value.
Chronograph: A fancy term, basically, for stopwatch: a chrono is any watch that has the ability to measure time on subdials. Legendary chronographs include watches like Omega’s Speedmaster or Heuer’s Carrera—pieces initially designed for racecar drivers. You probably don’t need to measure time by the second now, but that shouldn’t stop you from lusting after a Rolex Daytona that can.
Watch Size Matters—Just Not How You Think
When the analog wristwatch became a common accessory for men around the 1920s, watch sizes were dainty: around 26 to 32 millimeters, measurements one would only find in the lady’s section today. But in the ‘40s, brands like Rolex started to size up: 1945’s Datejust came with a 35mm case, and in 1959 a Submariner arrived in 40mm. Those became pretty standard sizes for dress and sports watches.
Until the ‘90s, that is, when watches exploded, along with the Hollywood hunks of that era who wore them. As action stars like Arnold Schwarznegger and Sylvester Stallone brought supersized mid-40s millimeter Panerai and Audemars Piguet pieces into the limelight, the public followed. Think of the bulky Casio G-Shock digital watch and gaudy Franck Mullers—they are as ‘90s as Tamagotchi keychains.
In recent years, though, as vintage watches have boomed, the trend has swung back to slightly smaller models (think 38mm). Now we live in a much more diversely sized present where a collector can chase vintage Rolex, colossal Panerais, or even wrist-eating Richard Mille watches that measure in at nearly 50 millimeters. There is constant debate around what the “proper size” is among collectors—and many brands do seem to have settled in around the 40 to 41 millimeter mark—but like everything else when it comes to watches, the choice is ultimately yours.
Watch Straps: Everything—Literally, Everything—You Need to Know
You created a budget, sorted through countless brands, landed on a model you like, cleared the Sophie’s Choice of vintage and modern, chose a color that suits you, and in some cases went so far as to decide the exact size down to the millimeter that would fit best—you didn’t think we were done here yet, did you?
Of potentially equal importance to everything else is the watch band keeping that watch on your wrist. The bracelet/strap will have an effect on the look and comfort of a watch, and like nearly everything else in the watch world, is freighted with a labyrinth of information and decisions to make. Watch straps and bracelets are most easily broken into the following categories:
A bracelet specifically refers to any metal band on a watch (as opposed to a rubber or fabric strap). Every major brand has its own distinct take on bracelets.
Rolex, which uses four different designs, is the most precious about its bracelets. Let’s set aside the Pearlmaster, which accompanies only the most high-end Rolex watches, and focus on the most commonly used trio: the Oyster, the Jubilee, and the President. The Oyster is the original Rolex bracelet and the one most people are likely familiar with. The three-link bracelet is designed to be super durable and comes on most of the brand’s sport models, i.e. the Submariner, Daytona, and Explorer. The Jubilee, a five-link style that forms a cross-crossing X-pattern, was introduced in 1945 as a more elegant option. The President appears only on the Day-Date model (which is why the piece is known as the President watch) and the ladies’ Datejust. While other brands, like Omega, offer some bracelet flexibility, Rolex is steadfast about keeping the bracelet it designates for a piece only on that specific piece.
Rolex isn’t the only brand with signature, recognizable bracelets, though. Patek Philippe’s Nautilus and Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak both come with distinctly designed integrated metal bracelets—as in, they can’t be swapped with any old bracelet. That these are some of the most popular and desirable watches in the world is no coincidence: in recent years, as wardrobes have taken on permanent Casual-Friday status, sportier watches with metal bracelets have floated to the top of most collectors’ wishlists. (Fun fact: these bracelets, plus the ones Rolex uses, were all designed by Gay Frères, which Rolex acquired and brought in-house in 1998.)
While traditional sport watches come with metal bracelets, the sportiest pieces are often paired with a rubber strap. Rolex makes their own—and calls it the Oysterflex—to put on watches like the Yacht-Master and some versions of the Daytona. Nearly all of Richard Mille’s watches come on rubber. These are pieces designed to endure the elements, whether that means taking the Yacht-Master out into the actual sea where it may be splashed with salt water, or playing tennis with a rubber-strapped Richard Mille on.
Rolex is so strict about its strap/bracelet pairings that companies have sprung up to circumnavigate the sanctioned rulings. Those deadset on customization can turn to Rubber B, which makes rubber straps that fit on different Rolex watches.
The NATO strap, which was designed in 1973 for members of the British Ministry of Defence, is an inexpensive, durable, and often colorful addition to a watch. Everything that made it a great strap for those going into combat makes it a good option for civilians, too.
The way the strap attaches to the watch by looping through both spring bars (the pieces that keep a strap attached to a watch) pays immediate dividends. First, it keeps the metal of the watch from rubbing against your skin and is designed to sit snugly on the wrist without much movement. Second, because the strap goes through both spring bars, if one breaks, the watch won’t go flying off your wrist.
The bund strap is a fat leather pad with loops that your watch inserts into—think of it the same way you might a case for your iPhone. The style’s origins are odious, though: it was first issued to members of the air force fighting for the Federal Republic of Germany (known as Bundesrepublik, hence its name) in WWII. The pad was designed to keep metal made uncomfortable from flying through very hot or very cold conditions from touching the skin directly. But the strap came back into style in the ‘70s for purely aesthetic purposes. Paul Newman loved a bund strap, as did Steve McQueen and Robert Redford, making it a swaggering, super-masculine choice. Be warned, though: it’s also an extremely polarizing option that inspires strong feelings both for and against.
So Where Do I Actually Buy a Watch?
Purchasing many of the watches covered here—particularly those that can be had for a few thousand dollars and under—can be as easy as hitting Add to Cart. Hodinkee has turned itself from watch blog into watch shop, stocking new arrivals and best sellers from big and small brands alike, a grip of slick vintage options, and a reliable drip of its own coveted limited edition collaborations with the likes of John Mayer. Tourneau and Wempe are ever-reliable options, as is Watches of Switzerland.
But it’s always worth it to head to a multi-brand watch store, or an authorized dealer for your brand of choice, in person. That’s because you’ll want to try on whatever you’re buying—and because you can’t just log onto Rolex.com and opt for two-day shipping.
One thing you’ll learn as your tastes begin to run toward the luxury watches of the world (we’re sorry; this is definitely going to happen) is that buying gets a touch more complicated. Basically: when it comes to the most popular watches for men on earth—your Rolexes and Pateks and APs—scarcity is the name of the game. Dealers only receive so many pieces from a new release, and they have to decide which loyal customers will get the opportunity to buy one. Which means that, if you want to work your way up to buying the big boys, you should start now: find a dealer you like, and buy with him or her as you build your watch collection. That way, when that bonus check clears, you can stroll on down to the shop (or fly to New York) for pick up secure in the knowledge that a higher power (a watch dealer with ready access to Submariners, say) is looking over you.
One Essential Tip for Finding a Killer Vintage Watch
Maybe you just want your Royal Oak now. Or maybe you want a LeCoultre Reverso that’s picked up a few character-adding dings on its reversible face. Or maybe you want a Rolex, but don’t quite have new-Rolex money. Lucky you: the vintage watch market is frothier than it’s ever been. And if you’re the kind of person who loves raw denim for the way it breaks in, or doesn’t trust a wallet until it’s good and broken in, you’re going to want to go vintage.
Our advice: find a dealer you love. They’re all on Instagram now, and most of them tend to specialize in specific brands or styles—start by plugging in hashtags for the pieces you’re interested in, and see who pops up. Dig into a site like Chrono24 to start doing some research—you’ll want to familiarize yourself with different models and references, or specific editions of each piece. And when you’re ready to pull the trigger, take your time. As Tropical Watch founder Jacek Kozubek told us: “If you feel uncomfortable, step away.” The right watch is waiting for you.
There is absolutely no shortage of celebrity style watch inspiration, and there’s another dose every week. There are, of course, the classics who have helped shape modern watch tastes: the James Bonds, Paul Newmans, and Steve McQueens of the world. Each of these guys are so impactful that watches (unofficially) bear their name.
The very first James Bond movie, 1962’s Dr. No starring Sean Connery, left such an impression on the watch world that collectors now hunt down the exact Rolex 007 wore. The particular piece preferred by Bond aficionados is the reference 6538, better known as the “Big Crown” because of the large winding knob on the side of the case. But over the years, Bond’s worn several different watches; he switched over to Omega in the early ‘90s when Pierce Brosnan became an MI6 agent and helped introduce the world to the Seamaster Diver model.
And if you’re picking watch collector north stars, you could do much worse than Paul Newman. The actor’s love of car racing made him a natural collector of watches made for drivers, like the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. He famously wore two: one so famously associated with him that the design is now known as “the Paul Newman” Daytona and another that recently sold for just over $5 million at auction. The other momentarily held the record for most expensive wristwatch ever sold when it was purchased for $17.8 million.
Among modern collectors, there is maybe no one more impactful than John Mayer, who’s made a name for himself by snapping up previously underappreciated models. Drake is never afraid to go for it and Kevin Hart is the shining example of finding one brand that works for you (Patek Philippe, in his case).
Watches are hardly immune from the realm of celebrity influence, either. Models can live or die on the wrist of a celebrity. Rolex’s “exotic dial” Cosmograph Daytona models were underloved until Newman started popping up everywhere in his. Mayer similarly pumped up the value of a green-dial Daytona that had been available for retail prices up until the moment he showed his off to Hodinkee. So paying attention to celebrity watches may benefit not just your style but your investment as well.
Photographs by Martin Brown
Styled by Jon Tietz
Grooming by Rachel Leidig at Art Department