The majority of watches have hands to tell the time: hours, minutes, and seconds. There are also a plethora of complications that add extra hands to the dial, for example chronograph and GMT ones. While I could write an entire article about these additional hands, I’m going to focus on the principal hands of a watch. The ones that actually help us read the time. There are different ways to tell time—e.g., digital, using discs—but we will focus on the traditional way using hands. A watch hand is a direct heritage of the first time-telling devices, notably the sun dial and later the clock towers which, for a long time, only comprised one hand.
While doing my research on this topic, I came across over 20 types of hands. I won’t go over all of them and instead focus on the types of hands typically found on modern sports watches. Just like dress watches were adorned with baton-style hands that are thin and long and therefore elegant, sports watches have bigger hands that make telling the time easier when doing…sport activities such as diving, hiking, and cycling. It feels as if there were more types of hands in the past and now brands focus on just a few. Not because they can’t get creative but because these particular handsets work.
Although generally found on dress watches, baton style hands (also called stick hands) work great on sports watches too. They are by far the simplest of all handset designs we’re going to cover here. They are basically straight and have a square tip. They are true classics as they are both elegant, versatile, and easy to read. It almost feels like that they constitute the standard by which other types of hands were designed over the course of centuries. A good example of baton/stick hands can be found on the Rolex Datejust. A variant called pencil hands comes with triangular-shaped tips.
Definitely synonymous with sports watches, sword hands come with a sword-shaped hour hand that gets thicker toward the tip. The minute hand generally looks like a thick baton-style hand. These handsets can be bound on field watches and divers alike and they make it easier to first read the hour and then the minute. The hour hand tends to hit the hour markers while the minute hand tends to run all the way to the minute track. MONTA uses Sword hands for their legality and classic look. They have the benefit of being easy to read and versatile enough work with a great variety of dial designs.
Generally found on field and pilot watches, syringe hands look like baton-hands to which a thin pointy end was added, hence the name. They are generally accompanied by fully-graduated minute tracks. A good example of a modern use of syringe hands are the Sinn pilot instrument watches. These hands were designed to provide the most precise time reading experience since their thin ends can perfectly point at a minute hashmark on the minute track. They also have a classical aspect that was inherited from on-board instruments in yesteryear fighter jets. This style of hands is still popular and this is most likely due to their legibility. Source: www.pinterest.com
Alpha hands are historically found on pilot watches like IWC. From a design perspective, they resemble sword hands in that the hour hand has a wider section that protrudes out. In the case of Alpha hands, the wider section is closer to the stem making the tip of the hands taper down. Unlike Sword hands where the minute hands sometimes look like a stick hand, both the hour and minute hands of an alpha handset come with the same shape. Alpha hands are usually paired with Arabic hour markers making reading the time at a glance very easy. (Imagine flying an airplane and having to check the time—it has to be a quick operation!)
As their name might indicate, cathedral hands get their inspiration from the structure of stained glass windows in cathedrals. Although less common in the 21st century, there are a few brands known for still using cathedral hands as they evoke watch design from yesteryears. Two brands that come to mind are Oris (and the Pointer Date collection) and Seiko (that uses cathedral hands on the Alpinist collection.) A bit like syringe hands, cathedral hands have pointy tips making reading time to the precise minute easy.
Although made famous by Rolex in the Submariner and Explorer collections, Mercedes hands are said not to have been created by Rolex, and they have nothing to do with the car manufacturer. Or at least we think so. The hour hand just happened to look like the logo found on Mercedes cars. It is said that the tripartite construction represents sea, land, and air, three environments for which Rolex has created watches. Besides the history—or not—Mercedes hands are very legible and have become a true classic. This particular construction of the tip of the hour hand allows for a large amount of lume to sit comfortably on the hand, making it easy to read in low-lit conditions.www.ssongwatches.com
Just like Rolex has Mercedes hands (or not,) Tudor came up with its own hour hand design. The minute hand is of the pencil style while the hour hand has a diamond-shaped section towards the tip. Just like the Mercedes hands, adding this large section makes distinguishing the hour hand from the minute hand easy and it allows for a large portion of lume to be added. Besides homages and replicas, no other brand uses these types of hands because they are so uniquely connected to Tudor.
Arrow-shaped hands are definitely sporty and therefore it is no surprise that they were made popular by Omega and the Speedmaster. This handset comprises an hour hand that tapers down toward the tip and finishes with an actual arrow. The minute hand either also has the same design but thinner or uses a pencil style of hand. These hands make reading time easy, whichever design the minute hand comes with. Arrow hands can be found on many types of watches but mostly everyday sports models.
Last but not least, diver hands are a particular style of hand that is only found on divers. But this doesn’t mean a dive watch cannot come with arrow or sword hands (because they do.) What makes a diver handset unique is that the hour hand is generally much smaller (sometimes ironically tiny) compared to the large and stubby minute hand. This particular design comes from necessity: divers need to track minutes and not hours, hence making the minute hand much easier to read. A good example of diver hands can be found on Doxa timepieces.
All of the hands mentioned above are true classics. They have been used for decades and they are the most commonly used hand designs. There are many other types of hands we could have touched upon, although they are rarer. A good example are the Breguet hands that were created by the brand for the brand, and although they now can be found on other models, they are not common outside of the brand. They look unusual and very classic, so much so that they cannot be used for many types of watches. I would say that the types of hands mentioned in this article, on the opposite side of things, are versatile and age well.
Handsets play a crucial role in our experience of reading time on a watch. There are many designs because they are different use cases and different traditions, some of which have been around for centuries. Looking at hands from old pocket watches, we can see that things have evolved and that generally, brands put simpler looking hands on their watches. That is due to the fact that back in the day, dials only came in two colors: black or white and that were made of enamel. There was room then to make hands look different and unique.
Nowadays, dials come with different textures, finish, and colors. Hands are no longer the center of attention and no longer constitute an area in which watch designers can be wild. This doesn’t mean that new types of hands do exist, because they do, but they are not as popular as the aforementioned styles of hands. I focused on classic designs that can be found on thousands of models from hundreds of brands and this for a good reason.Featured image: www.chrono.fr