Historical Horology: What Is A Regulator Watch?



This is a question I’ve had bouncing around in my head a good bit as of late. This is primarily due to the number of new models we’ve seen this year carrying the regulator name (as well as an upcoming hands-on review we’ve got in the works). So, I thought others may have the same question, and it was worthwhile to cover it.

Simply put, it’s a watch that has all of it’s time registers separated. We’re used to having the seconds hand broken out to a subdial, but the splitting of the hour and minute hands is something rather uncommon these days.  You’ll also find that many of these models have the hours on a small sub-register, with the minute hand occupying the prime central location, indicating on the main dial. This is largely due to a relic of horological history.


Back when you had workshops full of watchmakers building watches (or even just one or two), you’d often find a centrally located clock that followed this layout, with the large minute hand taking up visual importance. This allowed the watchmaker to regulate the watch on their bench against the time displayed on the central regulator (and now you know where the name comes from).

In these days of machine-driven, automated regulation, something like a regulator clock being used to fine-tune individual watches is certainly anachronistic. However, it did gift us with an intriguing style. For some folks, focusing in on the minute of the hour is a more important function, which makes this style of some appeal. You also have quite a variety of looks available to the style – some symmetrical, others asymmetric – meaning you can very likely find one (modern or vintage) that’s to your particular preferences.


While there aren’t exactly a lot of models out there on the market with this style, there are a handful. And, should you find yourself in possession of one, knowing a bit of the history will certainly help you answer the inevitable questions you’re going to get.

As to the day-to-day utility of a regulator watch? Well, that particular question will be answered in an upcoming review.  If you’d like to explore this topic a bit more, you might find this thread over at WUS of interest.