Tool watch is a term often used in the world of horology, but if you are new to watches and watch collecting, its definition can be nebulous and murky and potentially controversial—if you are speaking to the wrong person. In simplest terms, a tool watch has at least one function, beyond timekeeping, for which it was designed. A dive watch, for example, is often equipped with a rotating bezel to track elapsed time while under water. A chronograph has one or more sub-registers that can be actuated to like a stopwatch. It may also work in conjunction with a tachymeter scale to calculate speed over distance.
However, this limited definition would include almost any watch complication, meaning that pulsometers, perpetual calendars, minute repeaters, alarms, and planetariums would also be considered tool watches. And a GMT watch, which only keeps time—albeit in more than one time zone—would technically not qualify. Nor would, say, a field watch.
As such, when we used the term tool watch, we are referring to more than just a function. We expect that complication to be accompanied by a degree of hardiness. We want it to take a beating–or to at least be able to take a beating—and still come back for more.
For this reason, I suspect that few people would consider the Vacheron Constantin 57260, despite holding the record for complications (it has 57 and costs approximately $10 million), to be a tool watch. Whereas you may find yourself hard-pressed to argue that the Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical, a simple three-handed, time-only watch ($525USD), is anything but a tool watch.
In fact, we can trace the genesis of the wristwatch, at least for men, back to the First World War and the humble trench watch. In which case, it might also be said that the tool watch is the progenitor of all contemporary wristwatches.
So, to answer the question, perhaps a tool watch it is better defined as a timepiece whose utility and durability is of greater importance than its existence as a fashion item that keeps time. That’s not so controversial, is it?
But wait. There’s more.
Characteristics of a tool watch
While a tool watch might also be a thing of beauty, its form should be subject first to its function. It should keep reliable time, and in some instances impeccable time (as is the case with a racing chronograph, for example). As a tool, it must also be reliable and easily serviceable should it break down. It should have a certain level of resistance to environmental threats, such as water, magnetism, shock, and extreme variation in temperature. It should, of course, be legible under harsh conditions, which may involve an adequate application of luminosity.
And…wait for it, a tool watch should be available at a price point that does not hinder the wearer from using it for its appointed task under fear of damage. In other words, it should be able to take a ding or a scratch without causing apoplexy and financial ruin—or worse, keep you from using it as the tool it was designed to be.
So, is a Rolex Explorer a tool watch ($7500USD)? If you use it as one, absolutely. What about an Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona 40 in 950 Platinum ($75 000 – $120 000USD)? Probably not. Oh, it was designed to be. And it most certainly would be up to the task. The calibre 4131 inside runs with a proprietary Chronergy escapement and a vertical clutch column-wheel mechanism which is made of nickel-phosphorus. It’s highly resistant to magnetic fields. So is its Parachrom hairspring. It’s also guarded against temperature changes and sudden shocks. And it carries the Superlative Chronometer certification. But it is hard to imagine someone actually wearing it in the open cockpit of a race car hurtling 200 miles an hour down a straight away through the debris and detritus of a two vehicle crack up against the outer wall. Heck, it’s difficult to imagine someone wearing it to change tires in the pit.
Don’t get me wrong, there are expensive tools out there. But in the case of watches, some—and perhaps the most innovative and capable among them—have removed themselves from the realm of tool watches simply by their astronomical costs. Because the truth is, tools are used by mere mortals. Some watches are not.
So, whether they be dive watches, chronographs, regatta timers, or pilot watches, the proof of the pudding…is ultimately in the tasting. You can measure a tool watch by what is does, not by what it was meant to do.
About the author
Brent Robillard is a writer, educator, craftsman, and watch enthusiast. He is the author of four novels. You can follow him on Instagram.
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