Just because a watch is “digital” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s battery-powered. The term only refers to the type of display — in contrast to analog. Watches with digital or analog displays (or “ana-digi” hybrids) can be driven by any kind of movement, and long before quartz was common watchmakers were making mechanical watches with digital displays, resulting in some unique looks that have the added benefit of exceedingly easy to read.
The technical principle is more or less the same as familiar, traditional watches that use hands to point to stationary numbers around the dial. The difference is that the hands have been replaced by rotating discs, and watch designers often chose to display the numbers within windows (like how the date is typically shown on most modern watches). Using this design, the minutes are easy to read in a widened aperture, but the hour needs to be more clearly and precisely indicated. Therefore, the solution is a complication that causes the hour display to “jump” ahead each hour. You will sometimes see vintage watches with this kind of display called “direct read.”
The “jump hour” complication is now uncommon and therefore usually relegated to relatively high-end watches (an elegant example is here, and a more avant-garde example is here). The mechanism works simply by storing up energy that is then released on the hour to drive the gear forward. This system of discs and apertures gives watch designers a range of creative possibilities. Those below are each examples of different approaches, but yet others will use a digital display for the jumping hour combined with an analog minutes hand, for example. Best of all, there are many vintage examples from relatively unknown Swiss brands, often for some reasonable prices.
Tenor Dorly Direct-Read Digital
What We Like: This is a downright funky watch design from a more or less unknown brand called Tenor Dorly. It dates to around the 1970s and uses a Swiss automatic movement in an interesting two-tone, tank-like case. In the center of the dial are hours and minutes, and the date is displayed at 6 o’clock, much as on many traditional watches, but it all comes together as something quite avant-garde, Art-Deco, and cool. Then there’s that crazy steel bracelet that really will make you feel like you’re in The Jetsons.
From the Seller: This is a very large 36.5mm x 33mm in stainless steel with gold accents. The movement was just cleaned and is accurate.
Elgin Direct Read “Golf Ball”
What We Like: While it features a traditionally round case, this Elgin jump-hour watch is unique and interesting for a couple of reasons. First is its digital display, but it also has that unusual “dimpled” face from which it obviously get’s its “Golf Ball” nickname. It runs on a manual Elgin 717 movement with a 31mm gold-filled (10ct) case and dates to the 1950s.
From the Seller: All original except the crown. Its movement has been recently cleaned and oiled, and we have installed a new-old-stock crystal.
Lord Elgin “Direct Reader” Jump Hour
What We Like: From 1957 and in the same series as the “Golf Ball” above is this unusual Elgin jump-hour watch model that was made famous because of its association with the singer Elvis Presley. Elvis seemed to like funky, off-beat watches and cutting-edge tech, as he’s also known for wearing watches like the Hamilton Ventura. This example is powered by the American-made Elgin 719 manually wound movement and features a gold-filled case measuring 26mm wide — which will wear larger than it sounds due to its squarish silhouette.
From the Seller: Our head watchmaker has it winding, setting, and jumping just as it did in 1957.