In the early 1960’s a trend started to reveal itself amongst discerning Special Forces soldiers. On trips to Southeast Asia, SF guys began to acquire Rolex watches at the PX’s and at jewelers across the Pacific Rim. At the time, there was simply no better way to quickly spend your hard-earned combat pay.
This trend became a tradition, and for good reason. Fifty-five years later a huge number of our Special Operations Forces brothers are wearing a variety of high dollar automatic watches in operational environments. The question is this: Why would our country’s best unconventional warriors be defaulting to mechanical, automatic movement powered time pieces, and passing over their modern, battery powered counterparts?
Modern timepieces are technological marvels. It’s easy to find a “watch” with all the bells and whistles of a GPS device, that also monitors your heart rate, tracks your sleep and movement patterns, and quietly uploads the aforementioned metrics to the cloud.
This is appealing for a variety of physical training reasons, but when keeping time counts, you will see me with an analog watch on my wrist. When I am operational, I need a watch that I don’t have to think about. One that does its job without being prepped, charged, synced, or inspected. I need a watch with a work ethic like mine.
Reliability. Durability. Value. These are the three simple but powerful reasons that overpower the typical advantages of a digital watch’s precision and functionality. Digital watches are packed with tiny batteries, sensors, and circuit boards. The guts of a mechanical watch are its movement, the precision springs and gears that serve as the watch’s engine.
While limited in technological functions, the core automatic movements of mechanical watches are built to function in VERY adverse situations. They never run out of batteries because they have none. High quality movements withstand electromagnetic interference, shock from explosive blasts, and impacts much better than circuit boards. When initiating a time fuse on a demolition charge, I want to know my watch won’t die while I wait for the explosion.
While that may be an important yet extreme example, the more routine scenario of not having to carry an additional power cord routinely comes in handy. As a world traveler and sometimes international mischief instigator, I can tell you that not having to find an outlet or an adapter may come in handy when having to bed down the for the night in an unexpected urban location.
Mechanical watch building has been continuously refined and improved for more than 100 years. Components in mechanical movements tend to be chosen for their ability to endure time itself, and the materials used to construct the cases and displays can be nearly invincible to scratches or breakage.
The marriage of modern metallurgy and materials science with simple, classic design has given us things like sapphire crystal, and cases made from titanium and ceramic. These are incredibly resilient to scrapes and breakage. I’ve shattered pretty much every commercially available digital wrist watch at some point in my life. Although often touted for their toughness, empirical observation says that they simply aren’t built to last. Conversely, I am on my seventh year with my Rolex Submariner - what is perhaps the go-to standard in high performance mechanical wrist wear.
I have abused my “Sub” like a rented pack mule every single day of the seven years I’ve owned it, which includes trips to four continents. It still passes muster as a timepiece for a t shirt and daisy dukes, or as a handsome dress watch. It does the latter quite well, with a perfect crystal and a scratched but lustrous stainless body. There’s a reason that Rolex employs an army of metallurgists.
Perhaps the most storied of Swiss watchmakers, Patek Philippe, reinforces the idea of long lasting quality with the idea that you never truly own one of their watches, you are simply the caretaker for the next generation. Automatic watches, if given regular and minimal maintenance, are heirlooms. They have intrinsic value and charm to almost all people. They carry stories and monetary value that a digital watch will never have. In my line of work, having an extra 10k on your wrist is never a bad proposition, but even budget automatics have worth in building relationships and establishing rapport. Unless you want to get in with an Import racing crew, your white G-shock isn’t going to buy you much “wasta”.
At this point I presume you might be asking, “So, Doug, what should I buy? I don’t have 10k to drop on a mint Rolex Submariner, but I’ll buy your premise.” Here are the things to shop for:
- A quality case. Look for Stainless Steel (durable and strong, but heavy) or Titanium (light and durable, but typically expensive)
- A non-domed sapphire crystal. They’re almost totally scratch proof and non-domed are much less likely to shatter from a point impact.
- A quality movement. This is perhaps the most important thing to look for. Not all automatic movements are created equal, and many manufacturers sell watches with features at a great price by shorting you on a quality movement. Certain modified Seiko watch movements that feature a hacking (stop when you pull the stem) movement are nice, but Miyota and ETA movements are the gold standard in autos.
- A good pressure rating. Don’t buy a watch that isn’t rated to at LEAST 100m. You may think you don’t need that kind of waterproofing, but I have found that to be the bare minimum for ACTUAL water proofing in real world conditions.
- A date window. I know everyone thinks they don’t need it. I know you’re all like, I have a smart phone, I never forget what day it is. Trust me, this is a non-negotiable for me. I have a hard time adjusting to a watch without a date dial, and I have been places where even my trusty burner Nokia ran out of juice. After a week on the move, it’s easy to forget simple stuff, and if your mind is occupied with more important information you might just really like knowing the date at a glance.*
- Rotating bezel. These are simple watches. You’re going to want to have an improvised timer. The rotating bezel is hands down the best way to make an automatic work for you.
One thing worth noting is that the more functions you cram into an automatic, the larger it gets. I have had a variety watches in case sizes from 38mm to 54mm. For a while in the mid 2000’s there was a trend where you simply could not get a watch big enough. The classic watchmakers never succumbed to this short lived trend, and for good reason. I think 42mm is the biggest watch I am comfortable with, and I vastly prefer the 40mm size body. Smaller watches have a more limited selection of bands, but they are also less likely to hang up on things in your day to day life or restrict wrist movement. They’re also a bit more reserved in their statement.
The advent of the smart watch has revolutionized the information available to us at a glance, but it hasn’t changed the needs of those of us who push the envelope and live hard and fast at the ragged edge of civilization. My smart watch may keep me motivated to meet my “intensity minutes” or to stand up every 42 minutes, but it will ALWAYS be out of juice or inoperable when needed above 14k feet, under an ocean, or on any sort of remote expedition where carrying an extra battery is weight in food you can’t bring to eat. I won’t sit here and sell you on a certain brand. Enjoy doing the research yourself. There is a ton of history to devour and knowledge to absorb. I will however, tell you that every adventurer owes themselves a quality automatic watch. Don’t take my word for it, just scroll through a who’s who of people with a “Die Living” attitude and you’ll see one on their wrist.