Types of Watches: The Ultimate Beginners Guide

If you’ve ever looked for a watch online or in a jewelry store, you may have been surprised by all the different types of watches available. 

With so many options, it’s essential to know the differences between them to make a good purchase.

So, what are all the different types of watches? 

The main types of watches are digital, analog, mechanical, quartz, smartwatches, dress watches, casual watches, tool watches, fashion watches, and luxury watches. 

All the different types of watches can be categorized by their anatomy and attributes. They can also be classified by their style, the activity for which they were made, and their price. 

In this guide, I will go through all of these categories and provide the information you need to find the best watch for your needs. 

Types of Watches by Anatomy and Attributes

The attributes of a watch can vary drastically.

Here we’re going to look at the attributes used to categorize different types of watches.

Many of these can make one watch look very different from another and, as we’ll see later, combine to make specific watch styles.

Type of Watch Displays

The most immediately identifiable attribute of a watch is its display. There are a few different types of displays.

These are analog, digital, hybrid, and touch screen. 


Analog displays are the oldest type.

This is the traditional format of a set of clock hands in the center with numbers or markers, called an index, laid out in a circle around them.

This format dates back to the creation of the first mechanical clocks in the 14th century. 

Watchmakers also developed a tactile analog display for the blind that allows them to read the time with their hands. There are a few different types.

The traditional type has hands with numbers laid out around it in braille.

The newer Bradley timepiece uses tiny steel balls that move around the dial and case. These provide the hour and minute.


Digital watches provide the time in numerical digits. These are formatted with two digits for the hour and two digits for the minutes.

The most common type is the electronic digital watch, though there are mechanical versions too.

The mechanical versions use rotating discs that spin to display the time in a digital format through a window on the dial called an aperture.

Hamilton, formerly an American watch company, pioneered the electronic versions in the early 70s.

Their Pulsar line (now Pulsar is a brand owned by Seiko) was the first to show the time displayed on a small LED screen in the digital format. 

These early designs were battery drainers, though. They only displayed the time for a few seconds after the wearer pressed a button on the side.

As technology advanced, digital watches moved from LED to LCD screens, allowing the time to be displayed constantly. 

Digital watches became hugely popular in the 80s and 90s.

Japanese companies, like Casio, went beyond offering only the time by adding unique functionality. A great example of this is their iconic calculator watch. 

Touch Screen Display

Touch screens have been on watches since the 80s.

Casio introduced the AT-552 Janus in 1984. This watch allowed users to do calculations by writing the numbers on the watch’s crystal with their fingers. 

Of course, we’ve come a long way since then.

Today, touch screens are the display choice of smartwatch manufacturers. These displays are like our smartphone displays.

They use capacitive screens that transfer a small electrical charge in the user’s finger when they touch it. The screens can sense where the user is touching as they interact with it.

Hybrid Displays

Hybrid displays are an effort by watch companies to combine display types in one watch. Some watches have a traditional analog display and a digital display incorporated. 

These are useful for displaying two time zones at the same time. They can also display day, date, or activity tracking info digitally, with the time in analog.

Hybrid watches also combine analog displays with touch screens. Manufacturers have started overlaying transparent touchscreen displays over analog ones.

Brands like LG and Kiaros have developed a line of watches that combines both displays. 

Types of Watch Movements

Another part of a watch’s anatomy that helps to categorize it is its movement.

The movement of a watch is the motor within it that allows it to keep time.

There are two main types of watch movements, quartz and mechanical. Mechanical movements can either be manual or automatic. 

Quartz movements

Quartz movements use batteries and send an electrical charge to a quartz crystal. The charged crystal vibrates, and the vibrations are used to keep time.

Quartz movements became popular in the 70s. The first quartz watch was introduced by Seiko in 1969 and led to a shakeup in the watch industry.

Today, quartz movement watches are very popular. You can find them in both cheap and expensive watches.

Quartz watches can be mass-produced, they’re very accurate, and they don’t need much maintenance. You only need to change the battery every once in a while.

Quartz watches can have either analog or digital displays. Manufacturers have also made advances with these movements to make them more convenient.

Some brands make solar watches that use light to power the watch. Others have created radio-controlled watches that ensure the time is always accurate. 

Mechanical Movements

Mechanical movements have been around for centuries and are more appreciated by watch collectors.

These movements rely on a complex internal motor made up of springs, gears, and jewel bearings. The movement gets its power from winding an innerspring, called the mainspring.

The way this spring is wound divides manual watches further.


A manual, or hand-wound movement, has to be wound by the wearer.

The watch is wound by turning the knob, called a crown, on the side of the watch case. Most must be wound daily to keep them running.


Automatic watches are still wound, but the wearer doesn’t need to do it by hand.

These watches have a small plate attached to the movement that spins when the wearer moves their wrist. This plate, called a rotor, winds the watch.

COSC Chronometer Certification

In the watch industry, there is a unique certification Swiss movements can receive for their accuracy.

The certification is given by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC). It certifies both quartz and mechanical watch movements. 

The watch movement goes through a series of tests to get certified and is judged on its performance.

If it passes, it is considered a chronometer grade movement and receives the certification. The results and certificate are provided with the watch when you buy one. 

Types of Watch Complications 

The final defining part of a watch is any complications it has.

In most situations and subjects outside of watches, the word complication is considered a negative thing. With timepieces, it’s the opposite.

Complications are the extra things a watch does apart from telling the time. A wristwatch can have many complications or none. Below are some of the common ones.

Date and Day-Date

Probably the most common complication you’ll come across is the simple date display. These usually show the date in a small cutout, called an aperture, on the dial. Some also include the day of the week. 


A chronograph is a stopwatch function incorporated into a regular watch. You can track something with the stopwatch, and the normal timekeeping function continues.

Usually, there are two buttons, called pushers, on the side of the watch case. These start, stop, and reset the chronograph.

Many chronograph watches also have a tachymeter scale going around the outer edge of the dial or on a bezel. With a tachymeter, you can calculate speed, distance traveled, and productivity.

Check out this post to learn how more about using a tachymeter.


With a GMT complication, you can determine the time in another timezone.

The name comes from Greenwich Mean Time. This is the time in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. Knowing GMT allowed sailors and pilots to have a standard baseline time as they traveled the world. 

These complications usually have a fourth hand and 24-hour indices around the dial or on a bezel. A GMT function is read in 24-hour military time, with 12AM being the 24th hour.

The fourth hand can be set to any time zone you’d like, while the primary set of hands are set to another. If the GMT watch has a bezel, it’s possible to track a third time zone too. 

Moon Phase

Moon phase complications show the moon phase on any given day through an aperture in the watch dial. Sometimes they show the phase with an additional small hand. 


A tourbillon is a rotating cage in the watch’s movement.

It was designed to stop positional errors, a slight timekeeping variation. It arises when the watch is in the same position for a long time.

By rotating, the tourbillon cancels out these errors. Typically, a tourbillon is displayed in an aperture on the dial. 

If you want to learn more, check out this post about watch complications.

Types of Watches By Style and Activity

A second way of classifying watches is by their style.

The style of watch you wear usually goes with what you plan on doing while wearing it. Different timepieces are better suited for certain situations, outfits, or activities. 

Knowing what type of wristwatch to wear with a suit, for example, will help you buy a watch that doesn’t look out of place. 

It’s important to know that style and activity classifications tend to blur together a bit, though.

One style, like a dive watch, for example, can fit into many categories. Also, a sport or dress watch might be considered a casual watch, depending on the owner.

Much is in the eye of the beholder, and there are few hard rules. 

Dress Watches

A dress watch is best suited for formal or business attire. These are elegant timepieces with classic designs.

They tend to have roman numeral or bar indices rather than Arabic numerals on their dials. They are also thin, so they slide under the cuff of your shirt easily. 

For men, a dress watch will have a simple dial with no complications, apart from maybe the date, and either a metal bracelet or leather strap. The idea is that it should be understated and not call attention to itself. In a formal setting, a large gaudy watch would look unprofessional.

Women can get away with a more fashion-forward watch at business or formal functions. Many brands sell women’s bracelet watches that are elegant and fit formal attire nicely. 

Sports and Tool Watches

The definition of sports watches is hard to nail down. Generally speaking, though, a sport watch is built to be worn while doing recreational activities.

They tend to be durable, water-resistant enough to swim with, and easy to read day or night. They are usually shock resistant too.

Today, many watches that people consider sports watches are tool watches.

Tool watches are made to be used for a specific purpose or activity. They have attributes and complications that help the wearer perform tasks apart from simply knowing the time.

Tool watches date back to an era before modern technology when the wearer relied on them in what might be life or death situations. The most popular tool watches are dive, pilot, racing, and field watches. 

Dive Watches

A dive watch is designed to operate at 100 meters or more underwater. Dive watches feature a screw-down crown and a 60-minute bezel with markers every five minutes.

The bezels are designed to rotate only counterclockwise and allow the diver to monitor the time passed. 

Dive watches are constructed out of corrosion-resistant material. The cases are made of stainless steel or titanium, and they have rubber or NATO straps or a steel bracelet.

The bands and bracelets that come with them may also be longer, so they can be worn over a diving suit. 

Many watches might have a dive watch style or some common characteristics.

A genuine dive watch, though, has an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification.

These watches meet particular standards and must pass a series of tests to get certified. These tests ensure it’s reliable underwater, antimagnetic, and shock-resistant. 

Dive watches date back to the 1920s.

Rolex’s founder convinced swimmer Mercedes Gleitze to wear the new Rolex Oyster on her swim across the English Channel.

The publicity stunt was not only great PR for Rolex, but also popularized watches designed for diving.

Today, many dive watches take design cues from the Rolex Submariner. 

Pilot Watches

Photo: Achim.gucker, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A pilot or aviation watch was developed as a tool watch for airplane pilots.

Pilot watches tend to be on the large side, with most having black dials and white Arabic number indices. They also have illuminated hands and indices so they can be read at night.

The idea is that they are super easy to read. 

Pilot watches tend to have large crowns, too, so they can be adjusted while wearing gloves.

Some also have chronographs and slide rule bezels for performing calculations. They sometimes include GMT complications. 

These watches have an important place in history.

The first timepiece developed for a pilot to wear was the Cartier Santos. Before this, pilots used pocket watches.

Pilots found it difficult to check a pocket watch while flying, so Cartier developed a dedicated wristwatch for them. 

It wasn’t the very first wristwatch developed for men, though. Girard-Perregaux and Waterbury Clock Company were both selling watches for men before the Santos.

But the Santos was the first for pilots specifically. Pilot watches eventually became a fundamental tool for the pilots of both world wars and NASA astronauts. 

Racing Watches

Racing or driving watches were developed as tools for car racing.

These watches have high contrasting, easy-to-read dials. They usually have chronographs and tachymeter bezels for calculating speed too. 

Racing watches must also be able to withstand heavy vibrations associated with auto racing.

They are made of either stainless steel or titanium. They also tend to have a racing motif or a flashy design.

Many come on either a metal bracelet or a rally strap, a strap with holes punched into it.

Watches and racing have gone hand in hand since at least the 50s, but no brand more so than Tag Heuer.

The company developed the iconic Monaco model in 1969. Tag Heuer became forever associated with motorsports when Steve McQueen wore one in the film Le Mans.

Field Watches

Field watches are tool watches used by the military and outdoorsmen.

Like a pilot’s watch, field watches typically have contrasting dials and indices. Most also have 24-hour military time laid out on the dial.

These are rugged and durable watches. They’re made of steel or titanium and are usually water-resistant beyond 30 meters. They look best with a fabric NATO or leather strap.

They’re traditionally on the smaller side, under 40mm, so they don’t get in the way.

These watches also usually have a movement with a hacking feature. This stops the second hand so the time can be set precisely. 

Field watches have been in use for well over a hundred years. They were adopted by the military in WWI out of necessity.

Soldiers needed to synchronize their movements on the battlefield. They found that wristwatches, rather than pocket watches, were more ideal for battle situations. 

Today, they are a staple in the watch collection of most collectors. They’re simple, versatile, and reliable. 

Casual Watches 

Casual watches are a kind of catch-all category. They are simple everyday watches that fit casual outfits.

They aren’t necessarily made for any specific activity, though they can be durable or have some complications.

Casual watches are great for swapping out bands to switch things up or match an outfit. 

What you choose as your casual watch comes down to preference.

Really, most of the timepieces we’ve talked about above can be worn with casual outfits. Field and dive watches are commonly worn as daily drivers or everyday watches. 

One thing to keep in mind is that casual watches tend to look out of place with formal clothes. It’s always easier to pull off a casual look paired with a dress watch than a formal look with a casual wristwatch.

But hey, James Bond wore a Rolex Submariner with a tux, so it’s up to you. 


A smartwatch relies on installed software and downloaded applications to function. For this post, I am including activity trackers here as well.

Smartwatches are continually evolving to offer more and more functionality. 

These watches run the gamut from basic functionality to complex feature-packed models.

Low-cost activity trackers usually provide the time, a pedometer, and a timer.

More advanced models offer heart rate and blood oxygen sensors. These are used to provide a slew of data, such as calories burned, sleep quality, and stress levels. 

Many smartwatches are paired with a mobile phone via Bluetooth technology. This allows the watch to receive notifications and incoming calls.

Dedicated standalone models with their own SIM cards have been developed, too. These can provide a lot of this functionality without pairing with a smartphone.

Manufacturers have developed high-end models that can be considered more formal.

Most smartwatches on the market, though, are geared towards fitness enthusiasts. Rubber straps and plastic cases are the norms. They tend to look better with casual or gym wear. 

One big downside of smartwatches is that the technology is changing rapidly. This means that a watch that is state of the art today is obsolete in a few years.

Smartwatch manufacturers expect buyers to continually upgrade when new models come out. 

Price and Quality Categories

A guide about the different types of watches available wouldn’t be complete without talking about price and quality.

The price spectrum ranges from super cheap to tens of thousands of dollars. I like to divide these up into four separate categories.

Let’s talk about each before wrapping up.

Very Low Cost and Very Low Quality 

The saying “you get what you pay for” usually holds true in the watch world.

Though there are some exceptions, as you’ll see in a bit, super cheap low-cost watches are of poor quality.

Online retailers have been inundated with watches manufactured with low-quality materials. These tend to come with equally low prices. 

If you take a chance with one of these watches, don’t be surprised if they break or stop working.

In fact, I would expect that.

A cheap watch is a disposable item, not one that will last years.

For only a bit more money, you can get a low-cost wristwatch from a brand with a reputation for making timepieces that will last. 

Low Cost and Good Quality

This is the category that this website covers: affordable, good quality watches.

Watches in this category are made by manufacturers with a solid reputation in the industry. They provide proven quality for the price. 

The key to this category is value for the money.

There are a lot of low-cost watches on the market that provide excellent value. You don’t need to drop $200 on a basic quartz watch to get one that will last.

Brands like Timex and Casio are great examples of proven brands with plenty of models under $100 and even $50. 

You can also find affordable mechanical movement watches in this category for well under $500.

Fashion Watches: Same Quality, Higher Cost

Fashion watches are those from clothing and fashion brands. The category also includes brands that create very fashion-forward and on-trend watches.

For these watches, fashion brands license their names to the manufacturers that produce them. These include Michael Kors, Coach, Tommy Hilfiger, and Emporio Armani. 

Many of these watches are manufactured using inexpensive materials.

This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. What gives this category a lousy reputation among watch collectors is that they are expensive for what you get.

You get a $50 watch in most cases, but pay three or four times that for the name on the dial. 

Luxury Watches: Higher Cost and Higher Quality

Luxury watches are not the topic of this website, but they make up a meaningful category in the watch world.

If you ask someone on the street to name a watch brand, most likely they’ll say Rolex, a luxury watchmaker. 

There are many watch manufacturers dedicated to the luxury market. Watches in the luxury category can demand prices of $20,000 and more.

But what makes them so expensive?

There are a few characteristics of a luxury watch that drives demand. The first is the material they use.

Many use high-quality chronometer level in-house movements. They also use better metals like premium steel, platinum, and gold.

The watches have superior finishing, and the brands have very high quality standards. 

At the upper end of the luxury market, there is also scarcity driving prices.

Many of the most exclusive watchmakers produce only a limited number of watches each year. The low numbers help to keep prices high.

Next Steps

Now that you know how to categorize all the watches available, you’ll be able to narrow your search a bit.

You also have an idea of the watches that might fit you and your lifestyle. 

When thinking about the type of watch you’d like, keep in mind that many people don’t just have one watch. They have a few in their collection to fit their style and the activities they do. 

Also, just because a watch was made for a specific activity doesn’t mean you have to do that activity to wear one.

The majority of people that own a dive watch never dive further than the deep end of their pool. The vast majority of people that have pilot watches will never fly a plane.

Finally, like anything else you wear, most of the time you’ll choose a watch because you like the way it looks. 

If you like the look of a watch or you love the brand on the dial, buy it (watch snobs be damned).

You’re the one that’ll put it on every morning, so get one that makes you happy when you wear it. 

To help you narrow things down more, check out my affordable watch buying guide

It will help you make sure you get the most value for your money.