Tool Watch – A Rough Guide

tool watch - Ball Engineer III Hurricane Hunter

“Are you ready to fly into a hurricane?” Ball asks, promoting their new Engineer III Hurricane Hunters (above). Well, no. I have a hard time not freaking out during turbulence on a commercial flight. If I did fly into a hurricane, I’d be more worried about the plane’s instrumentation going on the fritz than whether or not my “tool watch” was about to crap out. But I get it . . .

A miniaturized timekeeper that can withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is both mucho macho and muy romántico.

Even if you never leave the comfort of your own home (as per pandemic diktat), a tool watch says you could. You could go anywhere! Do anything! Big wave surfing, desert traversing, stunt plane puking, underwater exploring. The world is your [Rolex] oyster!

Tool watch - Sinn UX EZM 2 B GSG9

How mission focused and hardy does a tool watch have to be to qualify? That’s a mostly arbitrary distinction.

There are plenty of watches that have a tool watch vibe that aren’t particularly tough. There are plenty of tough watches that look like they’ve never been outside. And there are rugged looking watches that can withstand forces that no deep sea diver, fighter jet pilot or jackhammer operator will ever experience.

Separating the wheat from the chaff requires a basic understanding of the genre, starting with . . .

Tool Watch Types

Rolex Explorer

We could divide the tool watch genre by case use. In truth, a good tool watch should be able to withstand the rigors of pushing the edge of the envelope in the air, on the land, and on or under the sea.

From that perspective, activity-specific dial markings and complications are the only differences worth obsessing over (e.g., a stopwatch for measuring your progress through Everest’s kill zone or a rotating bezel for keeping track of your underwater air supply). Saying that, there are functional standards and at least one major difference: the movement.

Camo G-SHOCK in the wild

If you want a truly indestructible tool watch, a battery or solar-powered digital watch is the way to go (e.g., any G-SHOCK or Citizen Promaster). These plastic fantastic digital dynamos don’t have any moving parts to break and they’re not terribly expensive (except for the ones that aren’t plastic and are expensive). A battery-powered quartz watch offers the next least chance of your tool watch going tits up when the chips are down.

After that, we’re talking mechanical watches – watches running off tiny gears and springs and other bits and pieces. Which is why creating a mechanical tool watch has been a bit of a bother since wristwatches first appeared. Protecting all those parts against water, dust, shock, vibration, humidity and magnetic interference required some serious technological innovation.

These days, we don’t expect any modern watch to stop working after hand-washing, vacuuming the house, visiting Disney World (in August) or playing tennis. A “proper” tool watch can do all that with two hands tied behind its caseback – providing it’s equipped with the following capabilities.

Water Resistance

Vaer dive watch - tool watch

Obviously enough, a dive watch needs to be water resistant. We live in a planet that’s 71 percent water, an element that takes many forms, many of which can destroy a watch. So water resistance is also a tool watch non-negotiable. Ah, but how much water resistance is enough for tool time?

The water resistance rating system is a bit confusing. Vaer.com’s take on the numbers makes it easy to understand. (I’ve added an ATM-to-meters conversion, rounding down to commonly advertised values)

1 ATM (10m) – Essentially no water resistance
3 ATM (30m) – Covers splashes, not steam or submersion
5 ATM (50m) – Handles quick submersion and showering
10 ATM (100m) – Covers swimming and submersion
10 ATM + Lock Crown – Functionally waterproof
20 ATM (200m) – Waterproof to limits of the deep diving
30 ATM (300m) – Waterproof at depths of oxygen toxicity
100 ATM (1000m) – Pretty much just showing off

Bottom line: a tool watch with 10 ATM (100m or 330ft.) of water resistance equipped with a watertight screw down crown is safe for all water sports short of deep diving: diving into a pool, falling off a jet-ski or surfboard, and recreational scuba. Fast flowing mountain stream? Snow pile? No problem.

[Note: a 10 ATM rated watch is not guaranteed to protect your watch from the steam and the chemicals particular to showering.]

Shock resistance

Victorinox on wrist

Shocks, jolts and vibrations have been a bugbear for mechanical wrist watches since such things existed (watches not bugs or bears). “Shockproof” used to be a thing – but only in the public’s ad-fueled imagination. (In the same way that watches used to advertise themselves as “waterproof.”) Shock resistance is a thing. To make that claim a watch must conform to ISO 1413:

It is based on the simulation of the shock received by a watch on falling accidentally from a height of 1m on to a horizontal hardwood surface. Shock resistance is tested by applying two shocks (one on the 9 o’clock side, and one to the crystal and perpendicular to the face) delivered by a hard plastic hammer mounted as a pendulum; a 3kg hammer with an impact velocity of 4.43 m/s delivering approximately 30 Joules of energy. The watch must keep its accuracy to +/- 60 seconds/day as measured before the test.

IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Shock Absorber XPL

Watchmakers use a range of materials and designs to conform to the standard; including silicon hairsprings, protective “cages” and “shock absorbers.” Thanks to these technologies most tool watch makers don’t even mention shock resistance.

Ball – with its three anti-shock systems – is an exception. As is IWC, with their new Big Pilot’s Watch Shock Absorber XPL (above), shock resistant to 30,000g.

Magnetic Resistance

OMEGA Aqua Terra Apple Store

Back in the day, magnetism could affect a mechanical watch’s metal parts (including the main spring), destroying its accuracy, requiring degaussing. These days, magnetic fields are everywhere: vacuums, computer screens, microwave ovens, dishwashers and more. Modern wristwatches (e.g. all OMEGAs) are designed to remain impervious to magnetic fields.

In other words, an “extra” amount of magnetic resistance is largely or completely unnecessary. Never mind. Some tool watches go above and beyond standard magnetic resistance, just in case you hang around a CAT scanner or other scientific device. Or fly a plane (which is lousy with magnetic field-producing instrumentation). Or simply want a greater level of confidence.

IWC Ingenieur by Gerald Genta

Aside from ye olde IWC Ingenieur (above), the first Rolex Milgauss (1000 gauss) set the anti-magnetic standard. The modern official anti-magnetic standard requires resistance to a field strength of 4,800 A/m (amperes per meter), maintaining accuracy to +/- 30 seconds per day. If you want a tool watch with this extra protection, look for a timepiece that meets or beats ISO 764.

Luminosity

BR 03-92 DIVER FULL LUM lume

While there is no international standard for horological luminosity a “proper” tool watch should be luminous AF (the technical term). You never know when you’ll be sent on a nighttime raid on Taliban fighters, dive beneath the visible light spectrum, fall into a crevasse or wake up in the middle of the night wondering how much sleep you have left.

There are two basic types of glow-in-the-dark mechanical watches: those equipped with luminous paint and those boasting tritium tubes (which glow for around 25 years in any lighting condition). Super-LuminNova is the largest provider of the former, while only a few watchmakers offer tritium illumination.

If a brand doesn’t specify which grade of Super-LumiNova it uses and/or show its watches luminosity in its advertising, that’s not a good sign. If a watch’s entire dial is illuminated, carry on.

Tool Watch – Poseurs Need Apply?

1971 Steve McQueen tool watch TAG

For most of us, a tool watch is as much about style as it is about capability. And just as well. Much like driving a car that can go 200mph at 200mph, you’d be an idiot to put a proper tool watch to the ultimate test. But people do.

Some of us like these people, maybe even fantasize about being them. We’re attracted to watches that they’d wear. We’re grateful to watchmakers catering to this “need” and we’re happy to pay for the privilege of buying one.

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10 comments

  1. If Robert Redford was a poseur back in the 70s because he wore a Doxa dive watch on a leather bund strap, count me in…In a world of dive computers and G-Shocks, we’re all buying mechanic and automatic tool watches because we like them, and there is nothing wrong with that.

  2. As the term is one I never encountered before reading this site, I am still unclear on what ‘tool watch’ really means. I’d always heard the term ‘sports watch’ which admittedly refers as much to style/formality as capability.
    Is that the difference, that a tool watch is designed for one or more abusive condition? The name doesn’t really make sense to me. I’d think a tool watch is one of those silly slide rule ones or tachymeter or pulse reader or such gimmick.

    1. Not as gimmicky as you’d think. Tool watches are designed with a specific purpose or function in mind. The obvious one is the dive watch, but it is definitely a category that goes back. Railways need timepieces that were overengineered and precise to a fault. When a reliable seconds hand was being developed and improved on, watches with that feature were marketed to doctors, and designed with doctors in mind. GMT watches were designed with pilots and frequent travelers in mind. I think we take it for granted that clocks are built into everything now.

      1. I meant so say gadget, usually indicating a single specific function, in terms of complications. Presumably they all initially arose from need and only later became vanities. But today most of these things are essentially gimmicks.

        1. True, but there the aesthetics are fantastic too. Raymond “Red” Reddington wouldn’t look as suave if he traded in his Rolex GMT for an Apple Watch.

  3. When you say “tool watch” do you mean we’re supposed to be on the lookout for Hodinkee writers?

    I’ll see myself out. Adios!

  4. “A miniaturized timekeeper that can withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is both mucho macho and muy romantica.”

    As an Spaniard this sounds odd to my ears.

    We would say “muy romÁnticO”. A Timekeeper is a “Temporizador”, which is a masculine word in Spanish, so is románticO, not románticA.

    The comma above the “á” is called “tilde”. “Romántico” is a “esdrújula” accentuated word, so a “tilde” is required.

    Thank you very much Mr. Farago for this blog and your previous TTAC. Your thoughts and philosophical musings about the unconscious reasons of this little harmless madness we enjoy collecting watches obsessively are highly interesting.

    I am eagerly waiting for your thoughts about you watch collecting habit and its relationship with you being a son of Holocaust survivors. Very interesting subject.

    I collect and wear (cheap) Divers (but certified Divers, nonetheless) and G-Shocks because I have the psychological need (rooted in my infancy and youth) of perceiving myself as a “though persona”. My special eccentricity is that I always -always- wear two wristwatches, one digital (usually a G-Shock) and the other an analog one (usually a Diver). Double watch-fun and functionality given the fact we have two wrists.

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