Explained: Nurse Watches with a Sweeping Second Hand

After months of getting ready, you’re finally ready for nursing school. All those months of research, test-taking, acing your exams, and picking the right programs… and now the real fun is about to begin.

Maybe no one told you – but nursing school is expensive! And you have to buy so much of your own equipment. Your list is going to have scrubs, lab coats, nursing shoes, and… a watch with a sweeping second hand.

Is that a normal watch or a special watch?

Let’s take a look at what kind of watch the instruction manuals mean in order to set you up for success – both in the classroom and with a patient.

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For Nurses, a sweeping-hand watch is just a normal analog watch

The bottom line is this: “sweeping hand” has had many definitions over the last few centuries (which we will get into later). In the context for nurses, it means a regular old-school watch that looks like this:

A Sweeping-Hand watch is one with a center-mounted seconds hand that sweeps (or ticks) across the hour markers

This is what I mean when I say “old-school watch.” That would be too vague to write in the requirements manual, so they wrote “sweep-hand watch.” This is to differentiate it from a digital watch, a smartwatch, or a watch with an offset-seconds hand.

The red seconds hand on the Timex Weekender “sweeps” across the hour markers. In fact, it ticks across them – in a sweeping motion.

Should my Watch Sweep, or should it Tick?

“Sweep-Second Hand” has multiple definitions, because the term evolved with advancements in watchmaking technology. Only one definition is useful for nurses – the rest are for watch enthusiasts/collectors.

Sweep-Second Hand (definition 1):

a hand marking seconds on a timepiece mounted concentrically with the other hands and read from the same dial as the minute hand

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Mounted Concentrically vs Not Concentrically

As you can see from the diagram, the watch on the left has a “small-seconds subdial,” while the watch on the right has a “normal seconds hand.” The definition’s use of “concentrically-mounted” is to differentiate these two.

This definition is also used in order to tell you to avoid smartwatches, digital watches, and watches without a seconds hand at all. It’s all about counting pulses and respirations!

Historical Note:
Prior to the 1930’s, all watches (mainly pocket watches) had small-seconds subdials like the watch on the left. Watches with centrally-mounted seconds hands are a relatively new innovation. That’s why the watch on the right is a sweeping-hand watch: it sweeps over the face of the watch.

This is the definition that nurses should use.

Sweep-Second Hand (definition 2):

An automatic watch with a seconds hand that glides at 5-8 times per second; in contrast to a quartz watch that ticks once per second.

This is almost certainly NOT the correct definition for nurses to use, even though it’s a more common way to talk about watches today.

Here’s what a gliding-seconds watch looks like:

Rolex watches have a gliding “sweep” at 8 beats per second

Automatic Watches: Rolex watches are expensive examples of automatic watches – that means that the mechanism inside is NOT a battery but by teeny-tiny mechanical components such as gears, springs, and levers. It’s pretty fascinating when you get into it, but very superfluous for nurses needing a simple watch to tell the time.

The result is the gliding sweep of the seconds hand: 8 times per second for Rolex and luxury watches, and 6 times per second for more affordable automatic watches. The downsides are that they only run for 40-80 hours when you stop wearing them, and they gain or lose 10 to 40 seconds per DAY.

Quartz watches – your typical Target or Walmart analog watch. It’s powered by an inexpensive battery and quartz crystal and ticks once per second. They can run for months or years on one battery, and are very cheap to replace. Affordable options are very accurate, and lose 10 to 40 seconds per MONTH or per YEAR.

Sanity Check:
Which watch sounds like it’s more utilitarian for nurses – an inexpensive quartz or a maintenance-heavy automatic?

I know – there’s two definitions, and this is such a convoluted way for the manual to describe “an old-fashioned watch.” In fact, there’s no shortage of examples of nurses determined to fit both definitions, and you may be one of them.

This is definition of “Sweep” is the one that we use in our article on Watches with Sweeping Seconds Hands. However, that article is NOT intended for an audience of nurses – this article IS.

Both Quartz and Automatic watches are “sweeping-hand watches” that nurses can use if the seconds hand moves on the same arc as the minutes and hours hands.

So Do Nurses Need an Automatic Watch, or is Quartz (battery) okay?

But the fact of the matter is that QUALITY automatic watches are EXPENSIVE. You’re already spending a small fortune on other nurse essentials – a watch doesn’t have to cost a lot for it to do it’s job.

As a nurse, my life is in your hands – I want you to have a reliable timepiece, not a flashy automatic. You can find some for under $100, but they’re going to have major problems (losing time or cheap quality) or be unsuited for nursing in other ways (hard to read, not waterproof, etc.)

The one exception:

This Orient Ladies’ Automatic is the only readily-available sweep-hand watch (both concentrically-mounted seconds AND automatic) that I could find that was under $100, from a reliable brand (Orient is owned by Seiko – a very reputable Japanese watchmaker), and had a legible dial.

If you’re determined to follow ALL the rules to the letter, do yourself a favor and get this watch. I think it’s overkill though – a proper quartz watch will do the trick. This one should survive routine hand-washing, but I wouldn’t soak it – even with 50m water resistance, it’s still only a dress watch.

To better understand, let’s take a look at some watches that DO NOT fit the sweep-hand criteria for nurses, and why.

Watches that DON’T fit the Sweeping-Hand Criteria for Nurses


Apple Watch Series 5 – does not fit the criteria

Some smartwatches might work for veteran nurses, but students should steer clear – they don’t follow the sweeping-hand rule. They don’t have hands at all – just digital displays!

Watches without a seconds hand

G-Shocks are amazing watches, but most of them don’t have a seconds hand. This CasiOak is missing an important feature for timing pulses – the sweeping seconds hand.

Digital Watches

Watches like this Timex Ironman are great quality timepieces – but they don’t fit the criteria of a sweeping seconds-hand watch. They don’t have hands at all.

Watches with Seconds Subdials

The Orient Bambino is a beautiful watch to wear after your shift – but notice the positioning of the seconds indicator at the bottom. You’re not going to be get an accurate reading of when the hand hits the 30-seconds mark with such a tiny subdial! It lacks a centrally-mounted seconds hand.

Conclusion: Watches with a sweep for Nurses

A watch may seem like an outdated accessory, but many professions rely on a quick glance at the wrist to tell the time, or count elapsed seconds. Nursing is one of those professions that needs a reliable timepiece.

When you read the requirement for a “watch with a sweeping seconds hand,” there’s no way in hell it refers to an automatic watch. For a true tool automatic, you’re looking at $400-$700 out of pocket. That’s ridiculous!

Instead, you’re going to want a reliable quartz watch that will let you easily see where the 30-second mark is.

And by the way, your instructors aren’t going to go around checking your wrists. If they do, you can get a better answer from them (maybe point them to this article). Otherwise, you’re safe with a sub-$100 watch for quite a while.


Now I’m not a nurse, but I do know watches. If I were starting a nursing career tomorrow, I would buy a 200m diver’s automatic watch like the Orient Mako (though that option may be too large for females’ wrists).

Personally, I find that it’s too easy to accidentally count the ticks of a quartz seconds hand instead of to just stop counting when the hand glides to a 30-second stopping point.

However, you’ll get used to it – it’s an easy skill to acquire. What’s more important is to find a watch that makes your life easier, not harder. You don’t need to spend a fortune on a watch – save that money for a decent stethoscope.

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