Small Seconds Hands Must Die!

hate small seconds hands

They were there first, they went away, and now they are back with a vengeance. A few short years ago they were so obscure I didn’t know why they ever existed, or why anyone liked them. The latter is still a mystery, because I hate small seconds hands, and maybe you should too . . .

Circa watch company

For the first four decades of my life, every analog watch I’d seen had three hands emanating from the center axis. Generally speaking, as some, like the Cartier Tank, omit a seconds display altogether.

The first time I truly noticed small seconds was when someone on a forum mentioned Circa Watch Company, makers of vintage-look quartz pieces. Many were quite handsome, but most had the seconds on that separate low little sub-dial. It seemed a twee affectation, one that repulsed me.

Bunn Special railroad pocket watch movement

Pocket watch fans may already know the practical history. Rather than recapitulate, I’ll dare to link to the HoDinkee article from whence I learned it. (tl;dr – The small seconds hands went in the spot where the part of the gear train going the right speed lives. Central full-dial size seconds hands came later, as an extra complication.)

Right away, we have a few reasons to hate the small seconds hand on modern watches.

1. It’s Obsolete

A seconds hands subdial at the bottom of a watch was an evolutionary step – that we’re well and truly past. Innovation fixed it. There is no benefit to it. It’s merely a stylistic holdover for truly hidebound archaists and other anachronists.

2. Small Seconds Hands are Small

Most of these sub-dials can be eclipsed by a ChapStick tube, many by a pencil eraser. They’re incredibly small. The conventional three-hander performs the same function using the whole dial for better visibility and resolution.

Small is only tolerable if the hand’s sole use is proof of operation (I suspect that most second hands serve mainly as analog “power on” indicators). If taking patient pulses or, say, correcting spacecraft course, it should be clear that for dial usability, bigger is better.

hate small seconds hands

3. Small Seconds Hands Are a Put-On

Yes Virginia, that authentic historical touch on a modern watch is probably only skin deep. If not an in-house movement, a modern three-hander movement has been bastardized with extra parts and complexity to achieve the look of simpler, outdated tech.

I’m not one to talk of mechanical objects having soul or character, but this retrofit is dishonest, inauthentic and pretentious. It’s a lie, and a stupid one at that. It’s like faking a limp or a stutter, adopting a Mockney accent. This shunning of true design and function is technological slumming that should make anyone hate small seconds hands.

Jaeger-leCoultre Reverso steel something

Extra effort and expense are required, making this is as loathsome as expensive designer jeans with contrived tears, or the metrosexual that primps for an hour to get that tousled bedhead look. It’s just a terrible waste to achieve something that shouldn’t be desirable in the first place.

Wait, why is this considered desirable again? I can only guess . . .

History, authenticity, etc. – See: above. In the instances of reasonable vestiges of brand styling cues or the like (hello Panerai) and honest outmoded design, some leniency may be afforded.

Vacheron Constantin Malte on wrist

Different – This has to be it. On the benign side, interest in something less mundane. On the darker side, it’s the vanity of some bragging right, a distinction to be smug about. Falling for a marketing ploy does not make you smart or special. Even the humble collector should beware this trap. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters,

The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns. And continued novelty costs money, so that the desire for it spells avarice or unhappiness or both. And again, the more rapacious this desire, the sooner it must eat up all the innocent sources of pleasure and pass on to those the Enemy forbids.

Looking busy – The plain three-hander is too plain for some. Chronographs busy up the look, but add to price while largely being masturbatory complications. They also handily muck up legibility. The small seconds sub-dial fills in some negative space with symmetry, at least on one axis. Of course the symmetry on the other axis is ruined, so this is a compromise at best.

TAG Heuer Carrera Chronograph - small seconds hands that just spins

I suppose there might be something about the small seconds hand minimizing the visible jerkiness of less smooth hand sweeps, as some get hung up on that. On the quartz front, it squelches complaints about the second hand not ticking at the indices.

Nonetheless, even a traditionalist like myself must hate small seconds hands on the modern watch as insincere Luddism. They are twee, tiny, generally impostors, and the benefits are highly dubious.

RGM Watch Company Model 222-RR boxcar with small seconds hand

I once saw a movie where a modern character time-traveled back to the Wild West with his ’80s Mercedes. It got a flat tire. The locals, unaware of the spare in the trunk, remedied this by installing a wooden-spoke stage coach wheel. He was not impressed.

Is this not what the small seconds hand today is all about, taking more effort than necessary to achieve an inferior and outdated way of doing things? Well, those people were from a different time, but what is the excuse for today’s madness? Are all these people that fail to hate the small seconds hand on modern watches time travelers from the past . . . on the internet?

28 comments

  1. So your saying you sorta don’t like them? πŸ˜‰ jk – I usually don’t like them either, but I do love my Christopher Ward C1 small seconds. It’s a huge small seconds dial (comparatively!). If you like symmetry, be forewarned: don’t look at that particular watch. The logo is at the 9, but I love it. Great read – thanks!

    1. I have a distaste for the revival for the reasons stated. Search engine optimization requires a terse ‘slug’ that doesn’t really allow for nuance though i tried to be fair and not manufacture controversy. That would be what Jack Baruth calls the simplistic ‘sucks and rocks’ dichotomy. This site is about truth, and this is my subjective truth. I’d love to hear a rebuttal.

      The C1 Grand Malvern Small Seconds is interesting in having the ‘small seconds’ take up the bulk of the dial’s lower half. My pet peeve with it is more the single numerical index at 12 o’clock. I might be too practical, but reducing the number index feature to a ‘this side up’ sign annoys me.

      Now Panerai and the placement of the sub-dial at 9 o’clock, that would drive me nuts. That’s where the shirt cuff covers the watch for casual glances. Yeah yeah, pocket watch movement back in … wait, 1956? Is that right? The small seconds wasn’t a thing for them on before then? Say my brief googling is wrong on that.

  2. Other than that small seconds are small these are all arguments against any traditional watch.

    Only one of my watches has small seconds, but it’s a damn good looking watch with the ETA/Unitas 6498, designed from the beginning to be small seconds, and one of the most robust, reliable, accurate movements available.

    The bigger issue is execution. Small seconds and a date is too much. Also, many small seconds movements (e.g., Peseux) were designed for 36mm and smaller watches, and look silly in larger watches with the seconds register pressed up against the center of the watch. The Unitas works well because it was not designed for smaller watches, and will not even fit in a watch under 41mm.

    1. There are objective advantages to the mechanical watch, namely durability and reparability. The more numerous subjective advantages are fairly known entities. The only argument for the small second hand of which I know is that is distinctive or retro. Maybe in the case of slender hour and minute hands, it keeps the seconds hand out of the way to avoid confusion?

      The original Datejust (ref. 4467) of 1945 already had the now-conventional central second hand, so there is a technology mismatch in addition to aesthetic concerns in pairing small seconds and a date window.

      Poor placement, scale, or other stylistic mishaps are extra concerns. The small sub-dial interrupting other lines was forgivable back when it was absolutely necessary, but why now? Those Swatches above look like Venn diagrams. I’m fine with outdated technology when there is a reason, but I don’t know the reason. I suspect that you can get a slightly slimmer case with a simpler honest small second movement?

      1. The objective advantages you cite are hardly objective advantages. A G-Shock Tough Solar square is going to be more durable and arguably as repairable as any mechanical watch. Sure the replacement parts for a G-Shock require a modern supply chain, but a post-apocalyptic blacksmith is not going to be making a modern hairspring either.

        If you do care about durability and repairability, the most durable, certainly most repairable mechanical movement ever made happens to be the small second ETA/Unitas 6497/6498.

        On subjective aesthetics you can tell me something like a Stowa Marine Original 41MM is not an attractive watch, but that is incorrect. The versions with center seconds look pedestrian and boring by comparison.

        I will say that small seconds has to be done right, and Swatch did not do it right.

  3. Cornogaddeon and having to wash out some medical equipment once a week has given me a fresh appreciation for an easy to see second hand, chronographs, and the chronograph function on a Casio. I’ve got a “lefty” Invicta chronograph with a 50mm case and a big yellow second hand and it is fantastic for observing the twenty second rule when washing hands.

    1. Perfect example of when a second hand will really be used. It may be infrequently, but it should be up for the job when needed.

  4. Now I begin hate small seconds, except for PANERAI watches. Since Panerai have nothing (cannot do much) for dials.

    1. I did say I afford Panerai some leniency, despite my confusion about when they actually began having them.
      At some point Jack Baruth wrote an article about automotive design cues that outlast their original purpose, as they become brand/model styling cues. The title was something about why do BMW electric cars have plastic fake kidney grilles, but I can’t find it.

  5. You’re a muppet 🀣

    All watches, by those arguments, should be made redundant. Perhaps, maybe three hand quartz watches can stick around.

    Chronographs, especially mechanical chronographs, are a complete waste of time, resources and money. Who needs a chronograph these days? Especially a bulky auto or handwound piece?

    And don’t get me started on dive watches! No diver worth their salt uses a mechanical, analogue dive watch! They are completely useless for modern dive applications.

    Then there are pilot watches… don’t even get me started on how useless they are now…

    I think only quartz three handers, at the absolute maximum, should be acceptable these days. I mean, we do have smart watches now that do everything, even order our dinner.

    But if we want to be edgy and cool, let’s wear a Timex or something.

    I don’t have any small seconds in my collection… yet. But I do have a couple of chronographs and divers… I clearly don’t know what I’m doing…

    Don’t worry… article read with a grain of salt and responding with tongue firmly in cheek.

    1. I kind of like the spinny clicky bezels despite not really using them much. Otherwise I unironically agree.
      When I finish the l Rotate watch kit, I’ll opine on the 9 o’clock position of a small seconds subdial.

      Of course for a non-hacking watch, and/or a wearer that doesn’t take pulses or otherwise care about sub-minute increments, it really is all very moot. It could be a pinwheel that spun. It only matters that it shows that the watch is indeed running.

  6. I appreciate the discussion, and will offer a few friendly comments : ) I like the sub-second hand on vintage styles such as the “Dirty Dozen” – inspired watches. I love my automatic watch, but I also have a quartz watch with sub-second hand, without date or other complications, that is always ready to go. The small sub dial makes the quartz movement less noticeable. Good news: there are lots of watches, so get what you like, and your smart phone has a stopwatch function : )

    1. Small seconds on a vintage styled watch are much more understandable than on a modern one. Along with smaller case size and filligreed hands or script on the dial, it is one of those styling cues that screams vintage to the average Joe. It’s totally weird on the Bulgari Octo Finissimo, but presumably jibes with the ultimate thinness purpose.
      As one that has come to find the stop-and-go of a quartz second hand distracting, I’d agree that the small subdial minimizes this. Conversely, it diminishes the “is this thing running?” aspect on a mechanical watch. Do any small seconds hack? The paradox is that seconds/minutes alignment is a lost cause, which should annoy those who demand such things, but the impossibility of it frees me of the concern.

  7. So it’s an outdated style, obsolete tech, and not optimally useful. this could be a concise critique of mechanical watches as a whole. Maybe what youre looking for is an Apple Watch?

  8. Shouldn’t that be “Roman Numerals Must Die”?

    I dislike large seconds but I understand a lot of people love them. So? Any watch with small seconds (and Arabic numerals) is my kind of watch.

    1. I’m fine with Roman numerals in most instances. It is funny that Ferrari used to use them on their gear shift levers though. They can’t be said to be technically obsolescent, although calling them a retro affectation is rather justified.

  9. An entire article on why one person hates small seconds. Oscar, I’m really sorry that millions of watch lovers have different opinions than yours.

    1. No need to apologize. Other people are equally entitled to their opinions, but I think my argument has firm ground. I made my argument, and an opinion is not an argument.

  10. By (some of) that argument the small seconds hand on the ETA 6497/6498 is a good thing. The problem with center seconds mechanical movements is that “Extra effort and expense are required, making this as loathsome as expensive designer jeans with contrived tears, or the metrosexual that primps for an hour to get that tousled bedhead look.” Just to get that obnoxious huge center sweeping second.

    Some people think the slower velocity due to the shorter second hand makes time more mellow.

    1. The referenced movement is so damn big already that any additional complication is indeed best avoided. I’d agree that the slow linear speed of a small second hand tip has a very lethargic appearance. It seems to take a good several seconds for the motion to even be recognizable.

  11. I don’t need seconds but I do need a watch. A carpenter needs a cheap unbreakable watch. Then you get old and cant see and need a legible cheap unbreakable watch. A smart watch is not very clever for the world of construction. Don’t get me started with people too busy on the phone to get on with the job.

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