Your watch hands are the time eyes…

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Switzerland has probably the most refined and sophisticated watch-making industry of the world. For centuries, Swiss brands reinvented time, or at least the way we can read time. but one thing many watches have in common, it is their “hands”, basically the little long, thin elements that allow you to measure the hours, minutes and often seconds directly on the dial of your watch. French called then needles “Aiguilles” because of their shape. Italians call them lancette, Portuguese will say Ponteiros or German will call them uhrzeiger. In english we say hands.

Rolex-watches

What is the hand of a watch?

A Watch hands are indicators, usually made of a thin, light piece of metal, very variable in form, which moves over a graduated dial or scale. Watches usually have three hands showing the hours, minutes and seconds. The earliest watches had only an hour-hand. The English horologist Daniel Quare is believed to have introduced the minute-hand about 1691, though it did not come into general use until the early 18th century.

The body is considered the main element of a watch hand. It is the part that goes from the center to the extreme part of the hand. In the center, there is a hole, commonly called the center hole. In this hole a vertical pivot is placed in order to connect the hands to the Sprocket of the respective time wheel. The hand continues to the counter-weight. This part of the object has the role to bring balance and stability to the hands, especially the seconds hand as it is very long. Sometimes you can also find a counter-weight in several watches for aesthetics reasons only.

The hours hand is the smallest of all. It is the indicator of the hour, so it takes 12 hours to accomplish a full revolution of the dial. The hours hand travels 0.5 degrees per minute, around 30 degrees per hour.

The minutes hands is longer than the hours hands. It displays the minutes on the dial. It is often considered as the big hand. It travels around 6 degrees per minute, which is 12 times fasters than the hours hand (makes sense).

The seconds hand, also called Trotteuse, a french reference to the horse walk as the hand is always traveling non stop. It displays the seconds on the dial and it is not present in all watches. Most of watches have only 2 hands, hours and minutes. When a watch has a seconds hand, it is usually the longest of all 3. As the second hand displays seconds passing by, it travels by 360 degrees every minute. accomplishing a full revolution of the dial by that time. Very often, it has a different color or different shape as it is a very living element in the watch aesthetics.

Some watches also have only one hand, the hour hand. This is an aesthetic design decision that makes the watch look very original. You can read our full review about them here.

Why watch hands turn from left to right?

It sounds as simple as natural, but why do you think every watch hands turn from left to right and not the opposite? Good question and probably you never really wondered why as it seems natural that way. It is what we call “Clockwise”. Even if the first mechanical watch was invented in the 13th century, it was the Egyptians who invented the clockwise direction some how. In deed Ancient Egypt invented the solar clock. In the Northern hemisphere, the sun raises East, gets at the summit of the day plain south and then sets in West. This movement of the sun around the solar clock stick, gave the hours placement in the dial, so when the first mechanical watch was invented, watch-makers kept what they always knew to be clockwise. From left to right.

A few hands for several shapes

Despite the fact, hands seem to be a very simple element in a watch, it stands for design, precision and probably it is the most “seen” part of the watch as you identify what time it is. So for this reason, watch-makers tried to create different shapes, designs, materials in order to give a precise identity to each watch.

Watch-hands-types-1 Watch-hands-types-2 Watch-hands-types-3 Watch-hands-types-4 Watch-hands-types-5 Watch-hands-types-6 Watch-hands-types-7

Here is also a historical hands shapes from Omega. Most of the names became standards afterwards. Of course every year we see watch-makers bringing more and more new exciting designs, it is all about the quality of details.
Omega-hands-shape

How can we see time in the dark?

The hands of a watch are useless if you are in the complete dark as you cannot see them anymore. That’s why the majority of luminous watches today use SuperLuminova, Luminova, Lumibrite, etc. These are proprietary compounds which, after “charging” from a source of light, emit an afterglow for several hours.  These compounds have largely superceded the use of radioactive paint, due to radiophobic regulations. And the use of luminescent materials is an old story, coming from China. Some Chinese artists realized that some sorts of Jade or Oysters could react to light and become luminescent in the evening or during sudden darkness. These materials tended to absorb light and then release it step by step until being completely dark again.

It was in the 18th century that Mr John Canton, an english physicist, invented a process by combining oysters shells and sulfur in order to obtain a powerful luminescent substance called the Canton’s phosphorus. One century after, Swiss watch-makers started using a phosphorescent paint in watch dials and hands. This allowed a small consequent innovation in which you could see time in the dark. It was also a considered innovation for diving watches, in which visibility conditions under water.

rolex-submariner

An interesting fact since the application of phosphorescent paint in the hands, it is the idea of making the hands very visible, so the hours hand often takes a different shape, like in the picture above. This is what we call the “Mercedes hands “.

aiguilles-mercedes Mercedes-hands

The function of this specific shape is dual. First the Mercedes shape allows a better visibility, especially in the dark. Second, it allows to apply a large amount of luminescent paint and the central structure remains surface tension at its minimum in order to avoid cracks. This shape is a modernization of what we used to call hands with bees wings or also cathedral hands. See below.
Aiguilles-cathedrales

So as you can see, a qualitative watch has endless details that make the difference with a cheap bad watch. We can always discover more and more about the ingenuity of watch-makers as we cannot stop innovation.

LA

Cartier-Ballon-bleu

Info sourced at Bellesmontres.com, Watch-making dictionary, Kronometric.org, Wikipedia, Watchalyser, Watchwallpapers, TheWatchObserver, Photobucked.com and Ofrei.com.  All content is copyrighted with no reproduction rights available. 

Sebastien Eich

Sebastien Eich is passionate about Swiss watch-making and throughout the years he gathered a tremendous amount of knowledge about the beautiful art of creating a watch. Based in Switzerland, the mother land of watch-making, he has exclusive access to Brands and events. He shares all of it here for the great pleasure of sharing.