Fine mechanical engineering and sports don’t usually go well together. However, some brands have made testing their watches in extreme conditions an art form. Let’s talk about watches and sports.
Quartz and Mechanical
A distinction should be made between watches with a quartz movement and those with a mechanical movement. Some brands focus on outdoor activities, like Tissot with their T-Touch models. There is little to fear from shocks and other extreme conditions in those cases. For watches with a mechanical movement, however, things are very different. Some parts need to correspond and “work” with each other within the smallest tolerances. A bump or shock can seriously disrupt the inner workings of your mechanical watch. So, if you want to be on the safe side, go for a quartz timepiece if you play (extreme) sports.
Wait, There’s More
If a watch is put to the test at NASA for use during extravehicular activity (EVA), you can use it during a game of golf, right?
There is obviously quite a difference between playing golf and an astronaut traveling through space. A watch is a tool or instrument for an astronaut, whereas it’s probably a luxury item for the golfer. Even if a watch has been tested to withstand extreme conditions, it’s really being tested for extraordinary situations that might occur at some point. When you play a game of golf, however, you take a swing multiple times in a row. This means you will repeatedly expose your watch to “danger.” Some statistics could be brought to the table here, but it should be sufficient to say that these fine mechanical watches aren’t built to be assaulted non-stop during sports.
Golf, Tennis, Sailing
So, why do brands want to be associated with sports like golf, horse racing, tennis, sailing, etc? Each of these is a sport that could easily damage your precious watch. Richard Mille, for example, developed a watch especially for Rafael Nadal (RM027) and Omega sponsors and shows us golfers like Rory McIlroy wearing their watches. And why does Rolex have a Yacht-Master range of watches? Many sailors don’t even wear watches for their own safety.
Sure, the Richard Mille is capable of handling the impact it gets when Raphael Nadal hits a ball with his tennis racket, but few know the real impact this has on the watch’s accuracy. It is all about marketing their products to the right target audience, not about the watches being the perfect product for wearing during a game of tennis or golf; it is about prestige.
What About Diving?
When it comes to sports, shocks are mechanical movements’ worst enemies. But what about water? Can I dive with my watch if it says it has a water resistance of 200 meters?
Sure you can, but don’t get confused with the water resistance ratings. A watch that says it is water resistant to 30 meters can’t necessarily handle being 30 meters underwater. It has more to do with pressure, and since 30 meters equals just 3 BAR of pressure, you really shouldn’t take it in or even near the water. Only watches that are rated 100 meters or more should be taken into the water (~ 10 BAR). For real diving purposes, do your homework and make sure the watch meets the requirements for your specific tasks. Everything rated at 300 meters (~ 30 BAR) or more should be fine for most diving activities.
So Why Is It Tested?
It is understandable if you might be a bit put-off by the contents of this article. But try to think of it like this, would you put your fine classic racing car in 24 hours of Le Mans without any technical engineers or enough spare parts to keep it running in case something breaks down? No. You should cherish your mechanical timepiece, even if it was tested and certified for use on the Moon or seen on the wrist of a famous tennis player. It doesn’t make sense to put your (expensive) timepiece at risk like that.
It does make you wonder why brands put so much effort into testing their watches though. Brands like Rolex, Omega, TAG Heuer, and Panerai have a large set of tests that their watches need to withstand before they leave the manufacturer. Watches are subjected to drop tests, shock tests, water resistance tests, anti-magnetism checks, and more. In some cases, brands even use a large hammer to hit a watch and see what the effects are.
In the end, it is all about being certain that a watch will perform during normal daily use. Testing these watches under extreme conditions simulates the wear and tear that accumulates over the years in a single testing moment.
In all of my collecting life, I’ve only dropped a watch a handful of times; twice, things went bad. The first was a drop from about 70 cm onto a wooden floor. The watch’s accuracy was still good, but the bracelet snapped because some screws had broken off. I noticed this after a few days when the watch suddenly dropped off my wrist when I was driving due to these broken screws. Things could have been much worse if it hadn’t dropped on the soft carpet of the car.
The other time was a watch that had been certified for use by NASA and I dropped it from about one meter onto the floor (again, wooden). The mainspring snapped, which meant the watch had no power reserve anymore seeing as it couldn’t be wound. The watch required a complete service and a new mainspring.
Just think about what extreme sports could do to a watch.