Style / World of Watches (WOW)

The Conversation: Exhibition Casebacks Are More Than “Window Dressing”

In this 14th instalment of The Conversation, the editors of Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia discuss the virtues and drawbacks of the exhibition caseback.

Jun 04, 2024 | By Ashok Soman, Ruckdee Chotjinda & Daniel Goh
Montblanc 1858 Geosphere caseback

You might recall a famous scene from the 1923 silent film Safety Last where the great actor and stuntman Harold Lloyd dangled from the side of a New York skyscraper, at one moment hanging on for dear life on the hands of a clock. You almost certainly know this image, even if you do not know the film or Lloyd, and as a watch-loving person – as you certainly must be – you might have wondered how in the world was the actor able to grab hold of the clock’s hands. Were they not shielded by glass or something? Depending on your age and how strong a grip watches have on you, you might have even wondered that before thinking about how this scene was shot.

Indeed, in ages long past, one might adjust a watch by turning the hands themselves, as you might also have noticed from films and other depictions and recreations of the past. Movements, all mechanical back in these periods, were a little better protected but not by much. The clockwork was protected by doors, through which servicing was done, and the largest ones were walk-in (or climb-in) engines. Pocket watches were much the same, with the movements of key-wind and key-set watches needing to be accessed directly to, well, wind and set them. The invention of the keyless works by Adrien Philippe (of Patek Philippe) in 1843 went a long way towards resolving this issue, and other advances in winding and setting the time generally made watches safer and easier to use. That is to say, the machine itself was less at risk of unintentional damage from handling and from the influence of the outside world.

Thus, the importance of the sapphire crystal protecting the dial of your watch from the elements cannot be overstated. The hands, or whatever the display style might be, are how we tell the time and the crystal is thus transparent in its virtues. So far, so clear but when it comes to the caseback, things get murky real quick. Take for example this question: what information, if anything, are enthusiasts trying to gain by having what amounts to a sapphire crystal window over the movement? The comparative value versus the dial is objectively lower, and not by degrees but orders of magnitude. Most mechanical watches and virtually all quartz ones reflect this fact. Look no farther than Rolex and G-Shock for evidence, if any is required. The aforementioned advances in watchmaking made accessing the movement for anything other than servicing unnecessary and undesirable, from a purely objective machinist standpoint.

Cartier Tank Louis Cartier Bangkok Edition

And yet, watch industry executives constantly remind us – in person and in various brand advertisements – that no one buys watches these days for purely timekeeping reasons. Your watch, despite the seconds it tracks so assiduously, does not improve your time management prowess. Well, the smart watch certainly might, and the emphasis on display real estate, which also doubles as the user interface, tells the story. Ah, but those troublesome watch insiders whisper ever so loudly: a smart watch is not a real watch. It is only real timepieces that dare to thrill you with their frenetic kinetics, or so the exhibition caseback implies. Is this really what all true watch enthusiasts demand?

The editors of WOW Singapore and Thailand roll up their sleeves and talk it over, with a special guest appearance by the editor of WOW Malaysia.

Ashok Soman (AS): Happy mid 2024! And we find ourselves with yet another watch fair around the corner. It has got me thinking about trends again…my least favourite topic. In preparation for this relatively stomach-churning process, I went trawling through my cache of old ideas that seem really cool but probably are not. Long story short, seems like tradespeople are trying to build a narrative around exhibition casebacks again.

Montblanc 1858 Geosphere Chronograph 0 Oxygen The 8000 limited edition

Ruckdee Chotjinda (RC): In fact, I’ve just completed my Watches and Wonders Geneva registration last night. Time flies indeed!

AS: Oh the nightmare of the registration photo! Seeing is not always worth something and I do not get why these badges need our mugs on them. By the same token, I really do not get why we need to see every calibre out there, but that means I might indeed be partial to talking about the dearly beloved exhibition caseback. Some observers think that now that Rolex is getting into it – in a more significant way than it has before – that others may go the opposite way. Good news I think because quite a number of movements could do with a bit more modesty.

No sooner had this thought given me cause for some smug self-satisfaction than a piece of copy came my way that gave me hives…well not literally but when I see commentary that suggests, even with all the winking and nodding in the world, that a quartz watch should have a display back, I am struck by recollections (hand-me-downs for sure) of the quartz crisis and what the landscape looked like in the 1990s.

Daniel Goh (DG): Just to jump in here, I disagree with all the negative commentary that quartz watches get. I think the invention of the quartz movement was an (important) historical component in the evolution of the watch industry. Sure, most of the quartz movements aimed to be cheaper to manufacture but is that not a natural part of every industry? Like how watchmakers also moved from making every component by hand in barns during winter months (according to Swiss watch lore) to industrialised production lines for mechanical watches.

Caseback view of the Franck Muller Grand Central Tourbillon Flash

RC: So, Daniel, are you team exhibition caseback all the time or just sometimes? What are your criteria?

DG: Good question. I think for me it depends on what the watch is trying to achieve. At the more affordable levels, an exhibition caseback is always good, regardless of the level of finishing or even the type of movement as previously mentioned with the Paulin or Seiko 5 because it really helps to generate interest in these little machines we put on our wrists. Conversely, if a watch is say a field watch, or a dive watch with historical provenance for that matter, it does not fit the purpose of the watch to put a sapphire crystal on the caseback.

RC: Oh … you touch on a subject that is dear to my heart there. I was quite shocked when IWC gave their 2013 Ingenieur line a sapphire crystal caseback. I was like … oh, no. No, no. Two refreshes and 10 years later, the caseback is now solid once again. Outside of special purpose watches like that, I have been generally partial towards exhibition caseback, but these days I am quite indifferent. Most watches with very well-finished movements seem to come with one anyway, and I am not going to ask the manufacture to close that window to beauty.

Cartier Tank Louis Cartier Bangkok Edition

DG: I, on the other hand, used to love exhibition casebacks because I get a window into the heart of the watch. But these days, just knowing the movement is there and just knowing the level of finishing on it is good enough for me, so it does not matter to me whether it is an open or closed caseback, what matters is the reasoning behind the choice. Sometimes I do wonder if this is because, due to my job, I am privileged enough to have seen so many beautiful watches and movements practically every other day. I am dying to know the perspective from the average joe watch buyer. If you, our dear readers are reading this, feel free to drop us an email, facebook message, Instagram DM whatever to tell us your thoughts.

AS: For the purposes of this story at least, I shall be the (sort-of) naysayer, and I have mighty forces behind me…I speak of course of the great titan of the closed caseback, Rolex! Ok seriously though, given that Rolex has a commanding market share (the dominant player in watchmaking for watches above CHF3,000), the fact that it never went in for the display caseback says a lot. Maybe it is the strange Britishness of Rolex that makes it so shy. I am reminded that the late George Daniels, that paragon of English watchmaking, wrote in his book Watchmaking that proper gentlemen did not trouble themselves with the innards of clocks nor the hows and whys and the whatnots; that was for tradespeople. My how times have changed!

RC: Yes, you brought this up once. Was it in an interview or in a book of his?

AS: A book for sure, which I sadly do not own but will be happy to receive (if anyone relevant is reading this: hint!). He was just expounding on the history of appreciating watches, which in the era of the pocket watch was quite different. This is pretty interesting because it is documented (not well) that Bovet made exhibition caseback pocket watches for China back in the old 19th century (when all those fine gentlemen were making mischief in the mysterious Orient). These would have to have been glass, perhaps of the mineral variety; we shall have to ask Bovet for more information.

RC: That is interesting to know. Thanks. I would chalk that up to evolution then, cultural and technological.

AS: There are practical reasons, lest we forget, that showing off the movement took awhile to catch on. To get right to it, sapphire crystal was required because everything else was just too fragile; there is also the matter of rubber gaskets and all the water-proofing work that would have been done in the 20th century. I suppose that all those fine Geneva watches with positively baroque finishing would have been prefect to go into cases that maximised visibility.

DG: Speaking of this, I wonder what other concessions brands have to make in order to have an exhibition caseback? I am sure in terms of water-resistance, they either have to over-engineer the caseback with that sapphire insert to still stay waterproof, especially anything above 100m of water resistance?

AS: Well, the short of it is that exhibition casebacks add height to a case and water-resistance is at the heart of it. So, if you want an exhibition caseback, you have to accept that you are introducing a potential point of failure to an otherwise happy case. This is related to what the Seiko Epson chaps told Ruckdee too; it is not only water-resistance that is negatively impacted. In order to overcome this window to multiple possible disasters, casemakers are obliged to beef things up and do whatever else is necessary, so that a return trip to the manufacture for any given watch does not become necessary.

Cartier Tank Louis Cartier Bangkok Edition

RC: Now that you have said that, I would not need, say, a slim Cartier Tank Louis Cartier with hand-winding movement to have an exhibition back because its presence would change the proportion of the case in a negative way. I think the current models also have mineral crystal above the dial, not sapphire! Not sure why, though.

DG: In this regards, I think sometimes the watch industry can be quite fickle in their reasoning for including exhibition casebacks. On the one hand, they go to great lengths to include one to show off the beautiful finishing of their movements; on the other hand, I have heard from the watchmakers at Montblanc that they are one of the few brands that also finish the inside of the barrel (that houses the mainspring), which no one except (maybe) another watchmaker will ever see.

RC: Well, what can I say, these products (and brands) operate in a realm of their own when you think about it. There are certainly more instances of whimsy and romanticism than many other industries. I am saying this in a loving way, of course, not as a complaint. I think we all love a good story. And it is even better when the story is backed by a strong product.

AS: Journalists, collectors and enthusiasts frequently talk up the virtues of the exhibition caseback, mostly I think because we just have to ogle the calibre like horological perverts. On that point about Cartier, I think the Tank mainly illustrates that opting out of the display caseback lets you stay slim and maintain the proportions that you desire. On the other hand, Piaget and Bulgari have done just fine (and perhaps a bit better than) with the display caseback. To be fair, those brands accept a lot of risk in terms of build quality and they are not doing anywhere near the volume that Cartier is.

DG: Besides the proportions, is there an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” element with closed casebacks? Like for example I love watching the tourbillon function but more and more I find myself asking for a tourbillon that does not show on the dial. And also, I love how vintage watches with solid casebacks can still blow me away when watchmakers open them and I finally see the fantastic movement inside.

RC: That wanting to have the tourbillon but not needing to see the tourbillon part is a sign of experience or maturity, whichever sounds less elitist. I will want to see my tourbillon though if I had the means to buy one in the future. But for that vintage watches part, I think it is the sense of discovery, because you wanted to be surprised by what you see inside.

Chronoswiss Open Gear Tourbillon Underworld

AS: Of course, vintage watches will not have exhibition casebacks…but then again, it is the display caseback that lets collectors avoid the dreaded curse of the dedicated engraving. As in, having one’s name engraved on the back because the conventional thinking is that the value drops when one does any sort of personalisation of this sort. The contemporary exhibition caseback neatly makes that a moot point… unless it is Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, where you can happily have both a solid caseback and a display one. How about that for having one’s cake and eating it too?

RC: There are very few display ones in the current Reverso collection. I think the line-up right now has either a solid caseback or the second dial? Come to think of it, I never had a Reverso with a solid caseback in my lifetime. They were with either two dials or an exhibition caseback.

AS: The whole point of the original Reverso was to protect the crystal so I suppose that is on point, so to speak. Still, this is one area where an exhibition caseback might be needed because there are so few form watches with form movements….most Tank models use round calibres, for example. Ditto for Bell & Ross and just about all brands that bank on automatic movements.

RC: Hmmm …. Interesting. I did not think about movement shapes the whole time that we were writing the above paragraphs. I was thinking solely about finishing and such. And, you know what, reading what you both put out above, I can come to think of an instance where I disagree with an exhibition caseback: when the movement is significantly smaller than the case! It looks funny to me. It feels like we (the maker and the buyer) are faking something or engaging in some kind of make-believe.

AS: I think this entire back-and-forth could be dominated by the issue of small movements in massive cases, which was one of the downsides of the big watch trend that ruled the roost in watchmaking for the last 20 years or so. This is especially so because the offenders span the gamut of brands, from the most modest to the highest of the high. It remains a relevant and decisive point for me, when it comes to pulling the trigger on a watch. To be blunt, a movement that is too small for the case, and is there for the world to see, will immediately be struck off my list. I will say that if the movement is hidden behind a closed caseback, I am willing to overlook the mismatch between case and movement; this is especially true when this mismatch is not evident dial-side. I admit to a level of hypocrisy here because I will also make excuses for brands with form watches that use (necessarily) smaller-than-ideal round movements so that they can go with the most conventional automatic winding system.

Back on that point of only showing off something that needs to be shown off, the form movement is as good a moment to make good on having the exhibition caseback in play since it is both unusual and shows a certain commitment on the part of the brand. Especially if the brand has gone to the trouble of having a micro-rotor and finishing things up nicely! As mentioned, finishing is a no-brainer and can also show off innovation…or perhaps a traditional approach if the brand wants to keep the tourbillon bridge-side. Just seeing a bunch of brands turn their movements inside out to put the tourbillon dial-side is sometimes painful! To say nothing of those that engineer their chronographs just to show the column wheel dial-side too.

DG: Just to add onto this point, I think the same can also be said for technical innovations right? For example Omega’s Speedmaster Super Racing. Without the exhibition caseback no one would be able to see their new Spirate balance, which they spent a considerable amount of resources to develop. Or in the same vein, most people would not be able to see exactly how a co-axial escapement differs from the regular Swiss lever one.

AS: It certainly gives brands the chance to engage the public and explain their innovations. To return to quartz here, as far as innovation goes, Spring Drive is a good reason to have an exhibition caseback, but as opposed to that bit about co-axial and all the silicon developments, Grand Seiko always makes it a point to cover up the quartz regulator! Here, it is as Ruckdee says, all about finishing.

On that note, to stay with innovation for a bit – or rather to build on Daniel’s point – the display back shows off a mechanical movement’s ability to be antimagnetic without the need for a soft iron inner case. Well, IWC Ingenieur aside there in consideration of Ruckdee’s point. Regardless, I always thought that Blancpain hit a home run with its dive watches by daring to put display casebacks on. Certainly not traditional, but this aesthetic touch speaks directly to the silicon escapement parts that make it impossible to magnetise the movement and to advancements in build quality. As a kicker, the brand gets to merge its tool watch DNA with its fine watchmaking aspect: Blancpain calibres are wonderful to look at (machine-finished to be certain but still lovely). Dive watches are thick boys, famously, and the Fifty Fathoms is big in all kinds of ways, but the brand does not need an inner case here so no loss in going for the display caseback.

Bulova Accutron II

DG: Just a thought: if the casebacks are used predominantly to showcase all these interesting points of a movement, i.e. finishing, technical innovation, will there be a misconception then that when a brand chooses to use a solid caseback, even for legitimate reasons, consumers will think that there is nothing interesting about the movement and thus the brand chose to cover it up?

RC: More good points there. Panerai comes to mind because I have a Luminor on my wishlist. While I have zero doubts about the brand’s integrity, I would prefer to see the movement used in the specific model of my interest, on the website if not through the caseback. I cannot say I will not feel more confident when I do. However, the current state of uncertainty is not a dealbreaker for me because I am buying it for the case design, not the movement.

AS: Once more, I call upon the Jolly Green Giant…it is a brave soul who would suggest that Rolex calibres are less than excellent just because they are hidden away behind a solid caseback! There is also Montblanc, which has been making hay with its closed casebacks and the colourful engravings there. This is all a result of new laser engraving technology that gives the metal itself colour! And, to finish my Blancpain point, that brand puts a premium on its technical savvy as far the dive models are concerned. The display caseback is the justification but in no way affects the proposition of a Submariner, in my opinion. That veers into the power of branding though, and is outside the purview of this effervescent threeway.

DG: That is a good point, but yes, I think branding deserves its own separate “Conversation”.

AS: The exhibition caseback is a form of branding for some! I mean, when it first appeared, in the 1990s probably, the late Gerd R. Lang just wanted to indicate that the engine inside the watch was mechanical. He was the sort of watchmaker who never cared for quartz and found it soulless so, when he introduced the sapphire crystal display caseback properly in contemporary wristwatches, it was to honour mechanical movements.

RC: Gerd Rudiger Lang, who founded Chronoswiss?

AS: Indeed yes, the very same! The exhibition caseback then went on to become a branding tool and a way to up price points of course. I think Lang would not be unhappy to learn that the many watchmakers who work for decades to polish bridges, to cite just one example, finally get to show their work. And maybe charge for it too. Certainly, the celebrity watchmakers who emerged – first from the AHCI and now of course extending to the likes of Rexhep Rexhepi – would probably never have done so without the display caseback. The world would be a poorer place if the Dufour Simplicity had to cover up all the wonderful work – although Dufour himself was making a point about simplicity and subtlety in the amount of work and dedication required.

DG: In this regard, could not the same be said for the question of the display caseback on quartz watches? If the brand places emphasis on their quartz movements and things such as Spring Drive technology, the transparent caseback is a great way to honour these movements as well. Unless you are a brand like the revived Accutron which displays their electric movement technology dial-side.

RC: I like that particular Accutron you are referring to. I think it can be both a conversation piece and a wearable lesson in wristwatch history. Frankly, I have a better chance of buying that watch with the electric movement shown dial-side than the version with a regular dial that hides the movement.

DG: I guess as a conversation piece it works best dial-side because as you mentioned, you wear your watches with the caseback facing your wrist and not the sun…

AS: That reminds me of that old joke about watch bores who would like nothing better than wear their watches back to front…

RC: I remember seeing some photographs online. It was a thing, right? People outside of the collecting circles must have thought that we are all a bunch of crazy nerds, which we are. So, to conclude this article? Ashok, some final thoughts?

Grand Seiko SBGP017

AS: Crazy nerds indeed! It bears remembering that, as Daniel noted, quartz was a great leap forward in timekeeping and the elitists out there are, at least in part, bemoaning the fact that it democratized wristwatches. The real problem is not the looks of quartz but the fact that it is cheap. On the other hand, it is also worth remembering that there is an emotional and aesthetic value to watchmaking, quite apart from precision timekeeping – quartz is nothing next to the atomic clock. There is something to see, and understand based on what you see, in mechanical watches; everything electrical is invisible to the human eye. Watching a quartz movement reveals nothing about how it works, in other words. But human time requires human hands, and human eyes too…and so the exhibition caseback is probably here to stay. It is one reason that I own a Rolex with just such a caseback, even though it was wildly unpopular back in its day.

RC: Brilliant. Daniel?

DG: For me, on the question of casebacks, I stick to my stance that regardless of finishing, the choice of closed or open rests solely on purpose; if there is a good reason to show or hide a movement. Most times, brands do have a reason for this anyway; it is just that the reason is not often publicized. It has to be discreetly coaxed out of the watchmakers as evidenced by Ruckdee’s conversation with Grand Seiko. Unfortunately, not everyone gets the opportunity to do this and it rests on us as Editors of our respective magazines to uncover this interesting information and put them on “display”.

RC: Very well said. I like this Spider-Man moment. What is the line again? With great power comes great responsibility? Thank you both for your time this morning. And I look forward to doing more great things with you two west of our longitude in April.

AS: And that is a wrap, and possibly the first in a long-running menage a trois (hopefully)! We are indeed going west! If you see us in Geneva, dear readers, say hi!

DG: Thank you both for the invitation! It is always great to speak to fellow enthusiasts and geek out over something that most would consider quite insignificant.

This article first appeared on WOW’s Spring 2024 issue.

For more on the latest in watch reads, click here.

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