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A Guide to Automatic Watch Movements

These days we all take timekeeping a little bit for granted. With a variety of electronic equipment and our watches to help us we can easily access the information we need. Naturally this wasn't always the case and for a long period of human history people had only the sun to guide them. Merely watching the movement of the sun was not a very accurate means of telling the time and so as society became more complex a better means of telling the time was required.

The first devices were the shadow clocks used by the ancient Egyptians. These utilised the shadow cast by the sun to illustrate the time on a dial but were clearly problematic at night and on cloudy days. Water clocks were then developed. Here a measured amount of water in a container would pass through a hole in a given amount of time just like the movement of sand in an hour glass, another innovation credited to the Egyptians. It wasn't until the 13th century that the first mechanical clocks appeared. These functioned via a series of cogs that were made to turn by a falling weight. Such devices had to be constructed in a tower and offered poor accuracy but timekeeping took a big step forward when Galileo made an important discovery.

Mechanical Movements

In the 16th century it was Galileo who first noted that a pendulum always took the same period of time to travel back and forth regardless of how heavy it was, the length of the pendulum or the distance travelled. His observation revealed that there was a way to measure an exact period of time with a moving object and that as this object was in motion it could also be used to harness power in the form of potential energy. It was this principle that was to enable the development of mechanical clock and watch movements. A pendulum could both regulate the movement of the parts and harness the energy of the swing to move the hands of the display.

The only issue with this otherwise ingenious development was the fact that friction and air resistance would eventually cause the pendulum to stop swinging, thereby stopping the clock. A means of storing and then releasing the energy of the swing over a long period of time was required. The solution was the inclusion of a spring which when wound tight would store the potential energy and then release it to power the movement of the cogs or gears. The precise timing of that movement was enabled by the pendulum regulating a see-saw mechanism called an escapement. Watches were clearly too small to accommodate a pendulum and so a small balance wheel which turned one way and then the other was utilised instead. Mechanical watch movements work on exactly the principles today. A spring stores and then releases energy to the gears. The gears want to turn all the time but must be regulated to move at the required intervals. The escapement prevents them from moving until it, in turn, is nudged by the balance wheel. If that is still as clear as mud here is a video guide to mechanical watch movements which sould help!

Further Development

Mechanical movements have remained largely unchanged but precision engineering and new materials have enabled improved accuracy, lighter watches and increased reliability. Jewels are used as the bearings in the movements. These were once natural rubies but are now generally synthetic rubies which are durable and slick, offering a low friction surface. Sapphires, garnets and diamonds may also be used. The majority of movements have 17 jewels but higher grade models and those with certain complications may have more. A complication is a function beyond the simple display of hours and minutes.

Mechanical watches are remarkably accurate but they will gain or lose a few seconds every day. This is because a balance wheel swings due to the force of gravity and that force will vary at different altitudes. The components of the watch are also affected by changes in temperature and will expand on warm days and contract in cooler conditions. These changes are minute but are enough to make a difference over the course of days, weeks and months.

Automatic Watches

Far greater accuracy can be achieved with a quartz movement but today mechanical watches are treasured for their heritage values, beauty and the brilliance of their construction. Many people still favour mechanical movements to the more accurate quartz models but mechanical watches must be wound up periodically or they will stop. Typically a mechanical watch will run for around 40 hours having been fully wound. If you are liable to overlook winding your watch but value mechanical movements then an automatic watch could be the perfect solution.

An automatic watch is essentially a mechanical watch with a self-winding mechanism. A rotor in the form of a half disc of metal weighted at the edge, spins when the watch is in motion and transfers the kinetic energy produced to the spring. The watch is kept in motion when worn on the wrist. Just like a mechanical watch, an automatic timepiece will eventually stop if you don't wear it and so these models are most appropriate for those with only one watch or where the automatic piece is to be used as their primary watch. If an automatic watch stops it can easily be restarted and reset but if it boasts complications like a calendar these can require a lengthier process to reset. It is possible to purchase a watch winder which will keep the watch in motion when you are not wearing it but these are costly accessories that are unnecessary for most watch owners.


An automatic watch will only keep time with the same level of accuracy as a mechanical watch and so the advantage of these models is the convenience of not having to remember to wind them. There is no danger of automatic watches over-winding themselves and breaking as the movements feature a clutch mechanism which causes the mainspring to slip rather than tighten when it is fully wound.

A Matter of Personal Choice

The type of watch you wear is matter of personal choice. You may value the beauty and heritage of a mechanical watch, the additional convenience of an automatic watch or the greater accuracy of a quartz watch. At Watch Hub our fabulous range features many examples of each style and we are sure that you will find exactly the right watch for you at the right price in our comprehensive collection.

Watch Hub - Wed Nov 22 14:33:11 GMT 2017 [web3]