Time is perpetual and something that is only measured by man. To many, it is perhaps unthinkable to imagine a world without time. After all, if we lived without time, we wouldn’t celebrate birthdays and in turn, wouldn’t be gifted that beloved wristwatch for a special milestone year.
Oftentimes, the movement on the first wristwatch you receive – regardless of whether it’s quartz, automatic, or hand-wound – is unimportant as it’s more about the sentimental value. But it is still valuable to know the difference between these different types of movements.
During the Christmas season of 1969, Seiko introduced the first quartz watch to the international stage: the Astron. In some ways, it was a gift to the watch industry, though it was certainly a mixed blessing. It was an incredibly simple, accurate, and reliable timekeeping piece of technology that not only guaranteed top-quality performance, but was also offered at an extremely affordable price. Quartz timepieces solved one of the major problems that still exists in mechanical watches today: accuracy.
These watches are battery powered, and since they use so little electricity, the battery can often last several years before it needs replacing. Quartz watches work in a very different way to mechanical watches. While they still have gears to count the seconds, minutes, and hours, the gears are regulated by a tiny quartz crystal instead of an oscillating balance wheel. This technology negates the effects of gravity.
Quartz is a relatively common earth mineral. The battery inside a quartz watch sends electricity to the quartz crystal via an electronic circuit. The crystal oscillates at a very precise frequency. The circuit then counts the number of vibrations and generates regular electric pulses, specifically one per second. These pulses can either power an LCD display or they can drive a small electric motor, which powers gear wheels to turn the clock’s second, minute, and hour hands. While quartz watches are precise, the romanticism of pure mechanics is somehow lost; it’s not dissimilar to the advent of the electric car.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, mechanical watches have long been sought-after male accessories. For many passionate collectors, mechanical watches are no longer just accessories, but more items of infatuation. Mechanical watches have the romanticism that quartz watches lack. When a mechanical watch is open, or if it has an exhibition case back, observing the ballet of mechanical gears in action is something special. This is in large part only fully visible in watches that are hand-wound.
Traditional hand-wound movements are certainly fascinating, but they require constant interaction with the wearer. A large number of today’s hand-wound watches feature a power reserve that informs the wearer when they will need to wind the watch again, but this wasn’t always the case. There are some contemporary watches with extremely large power reserves such as Panerai’s eight-day power reserve timepieces.
Of course, there is also a downside to having a manually-wound wristwatch. Constantly breathing life into the watch via the crown is pleasant in some ways, but it can also become rather tiresome, especially if you have to unscrew the crown, wind your watch, and then screw the crown down properly again. This is where automatic movements seem comparatively useful.
Automatic watches make up the large majority of mechanical watches sold today, but what is the difference? All mechanical watches have a mainspring, which stores the energy needed to power the watch. In a hand-wound watch, energy is stored in the mainspring by rotating the crown. Once that energy is depleted, this action is performed again. Automatic, or self-winding, watches have a rotating weight that winds the watch using the natural motion of the wearer’s wrist. This weight is connected to the winding gear mechanism and when it rotates, it transfers energy to the mainspring.
Self-winding watches have been around for many years, but perhaps one of the most famous automatic movements is the Rolex Perpetual movement. Rolex improved upon the first automatic movements, adding a centrally-mounted weight that rotates 360 degrees. The movement also increased the amount of energy stored in the mainspring. So, while they weren’t the first to make an automatic movement, Rolex’s ‘Perpetual’ movement was quite revolutionary.
However, this isn’t the only kind of self-winding mechanism available today. There is another that is just as famous: the micro-rotor. A typical automatic watch tends to be relatively thick due to the sizeable rotating weight. The micro-rotor, on the other hand, is nicely integrated into the movement rather than on top of the movement, which not only makes for a thinner watch, but also makes it more aesthetically pleasing. These movements are mostly found in higher-end luxury watches today, such as Laurent Ferrier or Patek Philippe, though if you are into vintage, Buren and Universal Genève also made quite reasonably priced examples.
All in all, while quartz movements are more accurate and more accessible, I think majestic mechanical timepieces with all their screws, barrels, and gears are much cooler. Moreover, mechanical watches don’t require any battery changes or charging, unlike a quartz timepiece or an iPhone for that matter.