My Affordable Plastic Watch Is Better than Your Expensive Luxury One

Plastic gets a bad rap, but sometimes it’s the best material for the job.

casio gshock watches
Gear Patrol

So you just bought a shiny new luxury watch made of stainless steel, with beautifully contrasting polished and brushed finishes. While most people don’t open the caseback where usually only a watchmaker would look, you’re not most people. There, surrounding the delicate clockwork mechanism, you find a ring made of — gasp — plastic? Are you horrified?

Don’t be. The use of plastic is a documented phenomenon in watches that cost well into four figures. And while it might not fit your romantic image of age-old Swiss craftsmanship, it’s there for a reason: someone decided it’s the right material for the job.

“Synthetic polymers [plastics] are irreplaceable in society and do many, many important things,” says Dr. Frank Bates, Regents Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota. “Windmills would not exist without thermoset plastics,” Bates says. "When you need an artificial hip, you're going to be very happy high-density polyethylene is around."

While disposable products give plastic a bad rap, it’s in fact terrifically suited to products that are intended to last forever.

It’s easy for a layperson to come away with only a crude idea of what plastic is. The word itself is an oversimplification. Plastics, plural, are an entire family of materials that combine polymers (particularly long, repeating chains of molecules) with other components to achieve a variety of effects. They can be lightweight like Styrofoam cups, flexible like grocery bags, hard and heavy like bowling balls, resistant to extreme kinetic force like a bulletproof vest — but they’re durable no matter what form they take.

No watch brand better illustrates the way these properties can dovetail with the making of a great watch than Casio. Take the G-Shock 5600 series. It’s lightweight and comfortable on the wrist, with a pleasing texture. It’s probably one of the most comfortable watches I’ve ever worn, and I’ve worn hundreds of watches. And while G-Shocks are known for being comfortable, they’re famous for being basically indestructible.

casio gshock on wrist
Polyurethane is a plus when durability is desired, as in the case of the Swatch, Nixon and Casio watches above.

Need proof? YouTube has a bevy of videos featuring G-Shocks surviving drops from helicopters, bunny-hopped upon by BMX bikes and other unspeakable torture tests. The G-Shock DW5600E-1 holds a Guinness World Record for surviving a pass under the wheels of a 27.5-ton truck, and models of all stripes can be seen on the arms of active duty soldiers in photos released by just about every branch of the US military.

Overall design and other technologies beyond fantastic plastic contribute to G-Shock’s renowned toughness, but when it comes to being a featherweight and shrugging off punishment, no so-called “premium” material like titanium or ceramic could do the job half as well as plastic — while being affordable to boot.

a performance fleece jacket
gore text swatch material sample above and tumi goretex waterproof textile below

Cheapness is one of plastic’s greatest strengths, but also a chief reason watch collectors tend to sneer at it. Fortunately, many companies have found an easy solution, one which happens to be more accurate too: call it something else. The waterproof-but-breathable Gore-Tex? Tumi’s “ballistic nylon”? Those Italian-made “acetate” sunglasses? Your comfy fleece jacket? Almost any athletic wear? Despite the differences in their branding and the details of their physical characteristics, they’re all part polymer.

“Plastics aren’t going away,” Dr. Bates says. And that’s true in more than one sense. It’s impossible to imagine a modern life or economy without plastic, but they also take virtually forever to decompose. As a result, single-use plastics like polyethylene shopping bags, polystyrene cups and straws pile up in landfills and pollute the oceans. “There are problems, and they’re very visible,” Bates says. “We need to figure out how to deal with that stuff, but it doesn’t detract from the incredible technology that goes into producing them."

plastic watches
Plastic plays into not only fleece, Gore-Tex and Tumi’s ballistic nylon (composite image above) but also Swatch and G-Shock watches (directly above).
Zen Love

Ironically, while disposable products give plastic a bad rap, it’s in fact terrifically suited to products that are intended to last forever. The same longevity that makes plastic so problematic in landfill-bound bubble wrap makes it excellent for a watch designed to last decades. That plastics are also affordable shouldn’t necessarily be equated with “cheap,” as in low quality; it makes them even more impressive.

The G-Shock, which embraces its unabashed ruggedness, has earned plenty of respect among watch enthusiasts of all stripes. But when plastic rears its head in luxury applications, protecting a delicate mechanism or performing other feats no other material could manage, the hemming and hawing begins. In both cases, however, the same question applies: don’t you want the best?

A version of this story appears in Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today
Matthew Stacey

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