Other Watchy Bits: What is a tool watch?

The definition of a tool watch

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.

What is a tool watch?
The YEMA Superman 500 is the latest iteration of a dive watch design conceived in the 1960s. It has a locking system to protect the bezel from accidental movement under water. A reconceived 2.6mm sapphire crystal, coupled with a 2.2mm thick multiple-gasket screw down crown, also provides the watch with 500m of water resistance. Its high contrast dial and Grade A Super-LumiNova make it highly legible, even in harsh conditions @calibre321


What is a tool watch?
The Aquastar Deepstar has a column-wheel chronograph movement and a specially designed bezel which works in conjunction with the French Navy’s dive tables. It allows the wearer to time decompression stops and plan rest intervals between dives. It is water resistant to 200m, and is equipped with a special gasket system that permits the chronograph function to be actuated while submerged @calibre321

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.

What is a tool watch?
The Longines Spirit Zulu Time is outfitted with the calibre L844.4 movement. It is chronometer certified for the highest level of accuracy and employs an anti-magnetic, silicon balance spring. Its “jumping hour” GMT hand can track a second time zone, and in conjunction with its bidirectional, 24-hour ceramic bezel, it can also track a third. The special beat rate of 3.5 Hz extends the power reserve to a full 72-hours. The watch comes with a screw down crown, 100m of water resistance, and is treated with Super-LumiNova for nighttime legibility @calibre321
What is a tool watch?
The back of the Farer Exmoor Field Automatic is inscribed with the motto “ON LAND AND WATER.” Through its screw down crown and flat sapphire crystal, this field watch boasts a dive watch-worthy 200m of water resistance. It is equipped with integrated crown protectors and a high contrast, easily legible dial with Grade A Super-LumiNova. The case is also fashioned from marine grade stainless steel, using higher levels of chromium and molybdenum which increase the strength and anti-corrosive properties. It’s Sellita SW221-1 comes specially equipped with an anti-shock system @calibre321

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.

The Vostok Amphibia may well be the quintessential tool watch–often referred to as a “beater.” Typically it retails for less than $200USD. Yet it comes with an automatic movement. Designed by the Soviet Union in 1967, it demonstrates a mastery of inexpensive innovation, employing a compression-style method of case construction whereby the deeper one dives, the more pressure is applied to the case and thus the tighter the seal becomes on the gasket. Out of the literally hundreds of models available, the one above features a full lume dial and a friction operated bi-directional elapsed time bezel. Most are also equipped with an ultra-thick acrylic crystal @calibre321
What is a tool watch?
A functional Vostok Amphibia from the late 1970s, running on its original 18-jewel, 2209 calibre–a movement with a golden screw balance, Breguet-style hairspring, and two in-house shock protection systems @calibre321

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.

Trench watches were originally altered pocket-watches, with the addition of soldered wire lugs. The new design was purpose-driven, as pocket watches were not convenient for soldiers involved in trench warfare (source).

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.

What is a tool watch?
The Marathon GSAR is an excellent contemporary example of a military tool watch. It adheres to strict specifications (Military Standard W-46374G) and is issued to military personnel, police forces, and search & rescue units around the world. The 41mm Arctic Edition above was designed specifically for those deployed in the polar regions, where a combination of snow, ice, and sun glare can make visibility difficult @calibre321


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.

What is a tool watch?
Seiko dive watches, like this SPB147, are famous for their applications of LumiBrite–a proprietary paint, free of radioactive substances, that stores light energy and releases it slowly in the dark, over time. Other luminous substances include Swiss Super-LumiNova and tritium gas tubes @calibre321

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.

What is a tool watch?
The Canister Fieldmaster combines the functionality of a field watch with that of a 200m diver. It has a highly legible dial, a thick easy-grip bezel, and robust construction with a workhorse movement. It also retails for less than $300USD @calibre321

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.   

What is a tool watch?
Microbrands, through their lower production costs, have revolutionized the tool watch space over the last decade–taking risks with design and materials. The RZE Ascentus is a titanium GMT dive watch, employing Seiko’s affordable NH34A. For only $569USD you get 200m of water resistance, full GMT functionality, unique styling, and a proprietary UltraHex coating which makes the watch resistant to scratches and corrosion @calibre321


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.

What is a tool watch?
This Whitby Arrow Pilot Watch harkens back to the Second World War with its highly legible Type B Flieger dial. Tool watches don’t come much more purpose-driven than that @calibre321


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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6 thoughts on “Other Watchy Bits: What is a tool watch?

    1. I know watches are supposed to be used, and I do use them…but I also can’t help but baby a lot of them. I guess it’s time to get a watch I’m not too worried about, but I don’t even know if that’s possible 😁

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