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Understanding Watch Movements: Manual, Automatic, and Quartz

November 11, 2020

When you waltz into a watch store, you're probably too focused on the glimmer behind the glass cases.

Gold, silver, stainless steel, titanium, diamonds, heat-treated sweeping hands that pop on a white dial.

All of the flair and artistry that goes into making a watch look beautiful, elegant, rugged, or sleek stands out to the common shopper. For some, it's what's on the inside that really counts.

Watch movements are what make timepieces tick, and understanding the different kinds can help you make better-informed purchasing decisions.

What Are Watch Movements?

Some objects are powered by batteries, others by mechanics, and the same is true for wristwatches.

Some companies market their movements in different ways, but when you boil it down, there are three distinct forms of watch movements:

  • Manual movements
  • Automatic movements
  • Quartz movements

Manual and automatic movements are both mechanical movements with tiny moving parts integrated into the body of the watch. Quartz movements are electrical, though, and quite different.

Each has their own advantages and drawbacks, and sometimes it comes down to personal taste, but we'll look at all of these in more detail.

Manual Watch Movement (Mechanical)

Being the oldest type of watch that began in 15th-Century Europe, a manual winding watch is a mechanical movement.

Like many analogue watches (regardless of the movement), a manual watch features a crown that's usually on the side where you adjust the time itself.

Rotating the crown also winds the watch movement and sends it into motion.

There is a mainspring that is twisted tighter and tighter as it stores kinetic energy.

The mainspring then transfers that kinetic energy to the gear train and then to an escapement which regularly pushes that energy out in intervals.

That intermittent release of energy then moves the balance wheel back and forth. After a certain number of movements from the balance wheel, the dial train, which is another series of gears, transfers the energy to the hands of the watch.

This mechanical watch movement gives manual watches that distinctive sweeping second-hand motion.

Another point to keep in mind is that mechanical watches use jewels, usually synthetic rubies, to act as bearings in the gears.

The more jewels used, the more accurate the movement of the watch will be.

Therefore, watches with higher jewel counts are considered more valuable.

Automatic Watch Movement (Mechanical)

An automatic watch movement is the next step in the world of mechanical watches.

However, there is some crossover.

Automatic watches are believed to have begun in the 18th Century. The movement works almost exactly like the manual winding watch movement discussed before except there is an additional rotor involved.

The rotor is a half-circle metal object that is attached to the movement and swings in 360 degrees freely with simple movements.

By putting a watch on and walking around or turning your wrist, the rotor swings around and winds the mainspring and stores kinetic energy.

From there, it usually works exactly the same as a manual mechanical movement.

It's possible (and even common) to have both a rotor and a crown on an automatic watch, though.

While the movements of your wrist will wind an automatic watch, you often will still have a crown for self-winding purposes.

You may not wear a watch every day, or you may own multiple watches and switch them out depending on your outfit or how you feel. If that's the case, then you can still wind the crown to keep the movement running and staying accurate for days on end.

How long an automatic movement will last before the energy reserve is depleted depends on the watch, though. In general, a lot of typical and easily obtainable watch movements will last around 24 hours, but many high-end and luxury watch movements, such as a vintage Rolex Datejust can last upwards of 48 hours or more.

This comes down to the design of the mechanical movement itself or the quality of the parts used.

Luxury watch brands, such as Rolex, are vertically integrated, meaning not only do they make their own movements but they make their own parts for the movements.

Other watch companies are able to save a buck or two by purchasing their movement parts from subcontractors or sometimes even purchasing the whole movement itself. That way, they're able to pass those savings to you as the customer.

Quartz Watch Movement

Quartz watches are the last of the so-called typical watch movements, but they're not mechanical whatsoever.

After centuries of mechanical movements, the idea of a battery-operated watch floated around in the mid-20th Century.

Seiko introduced the first commercially available quartz watch movement at the end of 1968 with the Astron 35SQ.

From there, there was something of a "Quartz boom" in the 1970s and onward.

Quartz watches are a little simpler than mechanical watches in that there is a battery that stores the energy rather than a mainspring.

The battery sends electricity to a quartz crystal (hence the name), which then vibrates and sends the electrical current to a stepping motor.

The stepping motor then sends electrical pulses to the dial motor, which in turn advances the hands on the watch in a steady interval.

Due to this reliable system, quartz watches are actually much more accurate than any mechanical watch. Until the battery runs out, they will theoretically tell time accurately until the end of time.

So you may wonder why mechanical watches tend to cost so much more than quartz watches.

There are a lot of factors that come into play, but the bottom line is that mechanical watches are much more labour-intensive and often use much higher quality parts.

Finding the Right Watch Movement For You

We looked at all of the main watch movements today: manual, automatic, and quartz.

Each one has their own pros and cons, and many of the details come down to subjective personal preference. But if you are shopping around for a new high-end luxury watch, hopefully, you now have a better idea of what you're buying.

Watches are beautiful timepieces that can last you your whole life and be passed down to future generations. Sometimes, though, it's what's on the inside that counts more.

If you're interested in learning more about various watch movements or want to see what we have available at Watches of Wales, contact us right away!