It’s a common tale of woe. You are walking around the house – innocently enough – when, all of a sudden … SMACK! You nick your watch on the outside of a doorjamb. You look down to find a streak of white paint spread across the surface of the crystal. As your heart rate rises, you think to yourself, “I’ve done it now, this is the end of the line.” With trepidation, and not a lot of confidence, you begin scratching away at the white mark with your fingernail. Slowly but surely, it disappears. Crisis averted, for now. This is just one of many situations that can arise over the life of wearing a watch with an acrylic crystal. If you’re a vintage watch lover, then you are quite familiar with this. If you have an intellectual interest in becoming a vintage watch owner (or collector), the idea of owning a watch with an acrylic crystal may be giving you pause.
About a year ago, I went over to a local watch store, as I’m wont to do. In fact, if I’m ever in close proximity to a store that sells watches, there is a 90% chance I am going to pay a visit. Mind you, this does not mean I am always buying a watch, but merely browsing, talking shop with the staff, and trying things on. In the days when certain watches were still in shop windows and display cases, it was a lot more fun.
So on this particular day, I had come in to check out a certain watch that was available with an acrylic crystal. I asked one of the members of the staff to take it out of the case for me. We began chatting about it loosely, trading horological factoids and what not. I asked what her thoughts were on the watch, to which she replied, “This is a great watch but, because of the crystal, it is not suitable for daily wear.”
I found that to be rather interesting, but ultimately not surprising. It reminded me of a period of time, early in my days of watch “scholarship,” when I was quite skeptical when it came to the acrylic crystal. I tended to avoid it, in favor of the more “durable” sapphire. Ironically, the majority of my watch collection (however small it may be) is made up of watches with acrylic crystals. As my interest in watches expanded, I came back around to it and realized that, despite its occasional bad rap (stemming almost exclusively from a fear of scratches), it is far and away my favorite, if given the choice.
Many people ultimately shy away from acrylic because they prefer a watch they don’t have to think about, or one they don’t have to baby. Interestingly enough, that is exactly how I think about the acrylic crystal. To me, it is rugged, durable, and lasting. So, whether you are a staunch acrylic defender, or a sapphire steward, I want to walk you through some of the reasons I find it to be so very appealing.
To begin, let’s talk about what acrylic is. Acrylic (polymethyl methacrylate) is a highly durable and impact-resistant plastic. It’s sometimes referred to as “acrylic glass” and was synthesized independently by several different labs in the late 1920s. It’s transparent and thermosetting (you can heat it until it’s pliable and mold it, and it solidifies once it cools), and it’s known under a number of different trade names. “Plexiglass” was one of the first (courtesy the folks at the German firm, Röhm & Haas AG, who came up with the name in the early 1930s), but over the years, it’s been marketed under a number of different trade names, including Perspex and Lucite. It was used heavily during WWII for airplane windows, canopies, and turrets. Its benefits include high optical clarity, dimensional stability, and a lightweight nature. Given that it is a type of plastic, it is also less apt to shatter than conventional glass.
Nowadays, when we think of the acrylic crystal, we think vintage tool watches. But that is far from a complete picture. It is actually a neat intellectual exercise to think that certain watches that represent luxury and success were fitted with what amounts to a piece of plastic over the dial. Staple Rolex models such as the Datejust and the Day-Date utilized acrylic crystals for years, and I doubt many would consider those to be tool watches. Ironically, it was the Datejust Oysterquartz that broke from the mold as the first in the Crown’s collection to consistently feature a sapphire crystal.
Sapphire is definitely the most commonly used crystal in high-end watchmaking today. It is favored due to its higher level of hardness. On the Mohs scale, sapphire registers a level nine in terms of overall hardness, while acrylic tests at a three. The hardness of a particular material essentially refers to its resistance to scratches. It is on this point where sapphire wins the day. Unless you take a diamond and drag it along the surface of a sapphire crystal, it is unlikely you will ever see a blemish on it. Of course, there is always the rare exception (more on that later). With its high tolerance to scratches, however, comes an even higher susceptibility to shattering. This is where the acrylic crystal has sapphire’s number.
For this thought exercise, I have chosen two vintage watches with acrylic crystals to use as illustrations: a matte dial Submariner and a solid yellow-gold Rolex Day-Date. One is unabashedly a tool watch, and the other an iconic status symbol, and yet, the crystals are the same. Both of these watches are aspirational pieces for me, and while they occupy different spaces in terms of style, they are both capable “one watch, goodbye” watches. The modern iterations of both of these pieces sport sapphire crystals, so why would I rather wear the older, less technically capable, and scratch-prone versions?
Well, for one thing, scratches tell stories. I know that it is a sort of played-out adage, but it is nevertheless true. The acrylic crystal picks up hairline scratches like crazy. The first one will bug you, no doubt, but with each subsequent addition, you will start to remember the occasions that created them. After a while, the crystal will be filled with battle scars, cloudy spots, and bruises. All of this is evidence that the watch has been well worn. But what if you don’t want scratches? Well, the acrylic crystal allows for that too. You see, there are a variety of polishing compounds on the market designed to remove these blemishes, and they are quite inexpensive. They have an almost toothpaste-like consistency and, with a small cloth, you can apply the compound to the watch, rub it in, and take those light scratches right off.
The polishing compound seeps within the acrylic surface, where the myriad hairline scratches are found, and acts as a binding agent to rid the crystal of such scratches and imperfections. This is particularly handy when curing boneheaded mistakes. I am talking mistakes like trying to clean your watch crystal with a nail file. I mean … who would do such a thing? That was a purely fictional example, but just know that if you did do that, you would really scratch the crystal. Like I said at the top, there are also instances where you errantly knock your wrist into a wall and take the paint off. While the damage to your watch will look bad, you will find a few rubs with your fingernail will do the trick.
The acrylic crystal has also stood the test of time. All of those military Submariners that you go crazy for saw time on the battlefield in elements you couldn’t subject your watch to if you tried, and they did it all with an acrylic crystal. The Day-Date is fondly referred to as the President because it was on the wrists of such former U.S. presidents as Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. At the time each of them wore it, you better believe it had an acrylic crystal.
In addition, one of the main criteria for NASA when selecting the watch that would go to space was that the crystal needed to be shatter-proof. Omega delivered the Speedmaster, equipped with an acrylic crystal (although it is referred to as Hesalite). The advantage of acrylic over sapphire or mineral glass is that it tends to crack, rather than shatter, so if the watch gets a nasty bang, you don’t have little shards of glass floating around the inside of the spacecraft.
I spent years worrying about the value of my watch, and its “fragile” acrylic crystal, before finally seeing the light. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. I tend to envy people who occupy the space outside of this watch hobby, but still appreciate the watches they own on a personal level. Case in point, I grew up fawning over my father’s Submariner. He wore that thing everywhere, doing everything. He wore it in the gym, on the lawnmower, and in the garden. For him, his watch was a tool. When he bought it, it cost $ 150, and despite the skyrocketing value, he still thinks of it as a $ 150 watch. Does the crystal have scratches? Sure it does, but it holds up to intense scrutiny and still manages to effectively tell time.
It was through seeing that that I picked up my own watch-wearing habits. One of my most worn watches is, likewise, a Submariner with an acrylic crystal. It was built to be a tool, and I have used it as such. You see, you can drop a watch with an acrylic crystal on the ground, and it won’t shatter. There is real peace of mind to be had from that.
Some things that I think about when buying a new watch are legibility and how reflective a particular watch’s crystal is. Many brands will apply an anti-reflective coating to a watch to aid in protection against direct sunlight. With acrylic, such application is not needed. Inherent to its composition is a high clarity and resistance to UV rays. The acrylic crystal is like looking into the clearest waters, with the dial beneath ready to greet you.
Then there is the weight. Acrylic is light. Vintage watches are lighter than modern watches, and much of that has to do with the crystal. With the proliferation of vintage-inspired watches, there has also been a steady increase in the development of domed or boxed sapphire crystals. The purpose is to somewhat emulate the effect of acrylic, while offering a harder, more scratch-resistant alternative. You see, on the acrylic crystal, there is this subtle shaping around the outside edges, domed, or boxed. Given that the crystal sits raised above the dial in this way, you get amazing distortions.
None of this is to say that sapphire is bad, or lesser, or anything of the kind. I completely understand the shift away from acrylic. Things like patina and scratches were incidental, unintended effects of the creation of a watch. A brand sets out to make a watch, and the watch they produce is what they deem to be perfect and complete. They don’t make it with the idea that the white markers will turn brown, the dial will oxidize, and the crystal will get scratched. With the use of sapphire, ceramic, and newer (less radioactive) luminous compounds, watches are able to remain as they are for all time. I own watches with sapphire crystals, and there is a similar comfort in knowing I can ram it into a doorjamb without fear of a scratch.
Like I mentioned earlier, there are always exceptions. Just a few months ago, as I was completing my nightly ritual of staring at my watch for 10 minutes before bed, I noticed something. On the sapphire crystal, toward the bottom of the dial, was a light, but long, hairline scratch, unnoticeable from some angles, but unmissable from others. I don’t personally wear diamonds, so I have little idea where this came from, but as you can tell, it bothers me to this day.
It was then that my love for the acrylic crystal was cemented. You see, a sapphire crystal may never get a scratch, but when it does, there are no compounds to remove it. A scratch is a permanent fixture. The acrylic, on the other hand, takes to scratches in a more romantic way. Sure there are the occasions where a scratch or a nick is too deep to buff, but even then, amidst the field of battle scars, they still fit in.
If you take anything away from this, I hope it is a sense of fearlessness (insofar as you can be fearless in regards to wearing a watch). I remember the words of that watch store employee often when I am wearing a watch with an acrylic crystal. In the end, the proof is in the pudding. Many a watch has seen many a thing through that distorted plastic glass and lived to tell the tale. There’s no better reason to put one on and tell your own.
Photos: Kasia Milton