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 . . .
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.
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.
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a modern three-hander movement has been bastardized with extra parts and complexity to achieve the look of simpler, outdated tech.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.
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.
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.
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.
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?