Second Opinions: The 4:30 Date Window Might Actually Be The Best Date Window
I don’t make the news, I just report it.
Although it doesn’t seem to happen as frequently nowadays, the date window – no matter where you put it – is something that seems to reliably arouse anything from mild dislike to indignation on the part of those who think of themselves as serious watch enthusiasts.
Sometimes the dislike amounts to little more than an emotionally uncharged preference. I don’t like sugar in my morning cup of joe but if the guy at the bodega happens to put a teaspoon in, it’s not a deal-breaker. I’d rather he didn’t but I’ll still drink it, and so it is with many folks and date windows. The date window certainly is something which, if sales figures are any indication, are preferred by many, maybe even most, watch customers, despite the fact that the enthusiast crowd is a bit more on the fence. But the date window certainly hasn’t kept watches like the Rolex Submariner or the Omega Seamaster – or the SKX007 Seiko Diver, for that matter – from becoming perennial favorites.
What really seems to bug enthusiasts a bit more than just a date window, is a date window with an eccentric placement, and nothing seems to generate more ire that a 4:30 date window. Why this is the case, I don’t know. The date window has to go somewhere and while a 3:00 position is the most common, it’s not necessarily the ideal place to put a date window, depending on the movement and dial design.
To illustrate my point, consider how the date complication actually works. At its simplest, it is – well, pretty darned simple. The numbers, from one to 31, are printed on a disk that has gear teeth running around its inner circumference. The date wheel is indexed – that is to say, moved forward one increment – once per day, around midnight, by a finger on a gear turned by the hour wheel. You can make things more complicated by having an instantaneous switching mechanism but the basic principle is still the same.
Now, you cannot actually move the date window around all that much, depending on the movement. The size of the date wheel is determined by the size of the movement and the date disk in, say, an ETA 2892A2, is much the same no matter which watch the movement ends up in. Of course, you may see different typefaces used but the position stays fundamentally the same and if the disk is printed so that the numbers are oriented correctly at 3:00, then as sure as God made little green apples, you are going to have a date window at 3:00. You cannot move the date window closer to or further from the center of the dial, either, because its distance from the center of the dial is built into the movement itself, so if you want the date window nearer to, or further from, the edge of the dial, you basically have to make the whole watch bigger or smaller. A honkin’ big case with a smaller movement that has the date window too close to the center of the dial for visual balance is thus, and with some justification, a pet peeve of many enthusiasts.
By default, the majority of date windows are at 3:00. The nice thing about the date window at 3:00 is that you can have one that’s high and wide enough to accommodate both single and double-digit numbers. The downside is that the other thing that would like to be at 3:00 is the 3:00 hour marker. While there are a number of solutions to the conflict, none of them are perfect. One is to simply use the date window as the 3:00 marker, although depending on the size of the watch this may mean cutting off part of the actual hour marker, which is slightly awkward-looking. Omitting the hour marker entirely may or may not be possible depending on the size of the watch and the layout of the movement.
Another common solution, though less frequently seen, is to put the date window at 6:00. This preserves the symmetry of the dial better than a 3:00 date window, but it also means you generally have to have a date window that’s higher than it is wide, which is not ideal for legibility. The same issues, in terms of placement or omission of an hour marker and the date window, also apply here. One advantage the 6:00 date window does have is that although the aspect ratio is challenging from a legibility standpoint, it also makes for a more harmonious substitute hour marker than the 3:00 date window. You pays your money and you takes your chances.
Here’s where I think the 4:30 date window really shines.
The best-known watch to use one is probably the Zenith El Primero, in which the advantages and disadvantages of the placement are obvious. The advantages relative to placement at 3:00 or 6:00 are that there is no hour marker to get cut off, and you can still have an aspect ratio that allows you to comfortably fit both single and double-digit dates. The only downside is that at 4:30, the date window cuts off the 22 and 23 minute markers, but as this is only an inconvenience if you are trying to set the time between 22 or 23 minutes past the hour, it seems a fair tradeoff. It’s worth noting that with the EP, there is nowhere else you could put it without it cutting fairly drastically into one of the chronograph subdials, and if you put it at 12 you would both cut off the 12:00 hour marker, and cut into the Zenith logo.
Seen in this light, the 4:30 date window seems much less a poor design choice and much more an excellent design choice, born perhaps of necessity but which preserves legibility better than any other option, and which, moreover, keeps the dial design both balanced and dynamic. I’m a fan.