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Understanding Watch Movements: Manual, Automatic and Quartz

December 07, 2020

When you walk into a watch store, you're probably focused on the glimmer behind the glass cases, and we don't blame you. That's deliberate, you know, the halogen downlighters positioned right over the table where you try on that shiny watch. Incidentally, it's also the absolute worst environment for taking great photos of watches in, but fighting the endless river of Instagrammers who don't know this would be too taxing. So, instead, let's take a look at the machines inside the shiny watch cases that keep the hands ticking and the date wheel in the right position.

What Are Watch Movements?

Batteries power some objects; mechanics powers others. 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:

  • Manually-wound movements
  • Automatically-wound movements
  • Quartz movements

Manual and automatic movements are both mechanical movements made up of an assembly of cogs (called wheels or gears), springs, levers and any assortment of other parts as required. Quartz movements also have wheels in them, but the way they measure time's passing is very different.

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

Manually-Wound Movements (Mechanical)

Manually-wound watches have been around for centuries, with the first watch suitable to be worn being made in the early 16th Century in Germany. Some sources quote Peter Henlein as the maker of the first watch, known as a clock-watch, although this is not 100% confirmed.

Like nearly all mechanical watches (regardless of the movement), a manual watch features a crown that's usually on the side where you adjust the time. In a mechanical movement, the crown generally serves two functions. One is changing the position of the hands, and the other is winding the mainspring of the watch. This mainspring sits in a cylinder called a barrel and stores power as elastic energy. 

To stop the mainspring releasing all that energy in one go (and subsequently pinging off into lower orbit) the watch uses a regulating system called an escapement assembly. This assembly is made up of a balance wheelhairspring, a 'T'-shaped lever and an escape wheel.

Power is transferred from the mainspring to the escapement assembly via the going train, which has wheels connected in different ratios. Because these wheels are various sizes to each other, they can move two hands at two different 'speeds', one wheel (the centre wheel) will perform a full rotation once per hour, the third wheel connects to the fourth wheel, which completes one rotation per minute. In nearly all watches with a lever escapement, the fourth wheel is connected directly to the escapement wheel, which is a crucial part of the escapement assembly.

The balance wheel is allowed to oscillate freely with the aid of a thin spring called a hairspring, which is attached to the balance wheel at one end and an anchor point at the other. The spring expands and contracts as the balance wheel swings one way to the other, ensuring that the balance wheel oscillates (without the hairspring, the balance wheel would spin uselessly).

Underneath the balance wheel is a pin sticking out called an impulse pin. As the balance wheel swings, the impulse pin makes contact with the end of the lever. The other end of the lever has been shaped to resemble a lopsided 'T' with a prong at each end. Each of the prongs holds a jewel. As the impulse pin strikes the lever, the opposite end of the lever moves to allow the escapement wheel to advance. In doing so, the jewel at the opposite end moves to block the escape wheel from spinning any further, and so the process is repeated several times a second. Without the lever, the escapement wheel would turn really quickly until the mainspring's power was depleted.

A set of motion works underneath the hands is set at a ratio so that it converts the 1-hour rotation of the minutes hand to a 12-hour rotation required by the hour hand. 

In a manually-wound watch, you're required to wind the mainspring and keep power flowing through the watch. Manually-wound watches often have a power reserve to inform you of when the watch needs rewinding.


Automatic Watch Movement (Mechanical)

An automatic watch movement is the next step in the world of mechanical watches; however, there is some crossover. An automatically-wound watch still has all the same components as a manually-wound piece. It still has the mainspring, going train, escapement assembly and the motion works of the manually-wound piece. You can even wind an automatic watch yourself, and we recommend doing this if the watch has stopped. The beauty of an automatic watch, though, is that you don't need to wind it at all if you wear it regularly.

Automatic watches began in the 18th century with Abraham-Louis Breguet, who devised a system of winding a pocket watch with the motion of the wearer. The winding system looked and functioned differently from the ones we see today, comprising of a swinging lever connected to the mainspring. A modern example of this winding system exists in Moritz Grossmann's Hamatic watches. 

The modern-day system seen in nearly all automatic watches (excluding the aforementioned) was developed by English watchmaker John Harwood and improved upon by Rolex.

An imbalanced piece of metal called a rotor swings freely, and a set of gears connects it to the mainspring barrel, which in turn winds the mainspring. To protect the mainspring from being overwound, a specially-designed clutch is used to disconnect the mainspring from the rotor when it's at full power reserve.

Rolex has been making automatically-wound movements for decades. It denotes its self-winding movements with the term Perpetual written on the dial. It's been refining this system and making it more efficient since it first patented it in 1931, since then, it's made very few watches that aren't automatically-wound such as the first Daytona, the Cellini Prince and the OysterQuartz.


Quartz Watch Movement

Quartz watches are the last of the typical watch movements that you're likely to see. They do have some mechanics in them, they still need wheels to operate the hands and any extra functions, and they often have a date window. This is pretty much where the similarities end however, as the power storage and regulation devices are entirely different in a quartz watch.

After centuries of mechanical movements, the idea of a battery-operated watch was first devised in the mid 20th century. In 1969, Seiko introduced the world's first commercially available quartz wristwatch, the Astron 35SQ, development took 11 years and involved Seiko's primary subsidiary, Epson. A consortium of 16 Swiss watch manufacturers had also been working on a quartz regulator watch. However, they weren't quite ready in time to beat Seiko to market (they did display the world's first prototype quartz watch, the Beta 1, in 1967, though). Rolex, Omega and even Patek Philippe would use the production version of the Beta 1 (called the Beta 21) in their watches.

Quartz has the advantage of accuracy, affordability and ease of production on its side. Even the very first quartz watches were more accurate than any mechanical watch produced today can muster. Whereas a modern Rolex is accurate to within +2/-2 seconds per day, a quartz watch is accurate to within +0.2/-0.2 seconds per day, thanks to their quartz regulator.

Quartz watches use a battery to store electrical energy. The battery sends electricity to a quartz crystal (hence the name), which then vibrates at over 32,000Hz. Special circuits count the number of vibrations and translate them into a regular interval of one second. The dial motor interprets these pulses and in turn advances the hands on the watch in that familiar tick.

Quartz watches are generally easier to make thanks to advanced industrialisation. They are therefore cheaper to produce, less labour-intensive and way more accurate than a mechanical movement, which is seen as a luxury these days.


Finding the Right Watch Movement For You

Each movement has its 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!