Watch Movements 101: When Art Meets Function
August 1st, 2019
Watches have a language all their own. A watch movement, sometimes called a caliber, is the heart of a timepiece, the engine making it all work. There are three different types of movements: manual, automatic, and quartz. Each has distinct characteristics and benefits that distinguish them from one another.
First, the Basics
A manual movement works something like this:
The knob on the side of the watch that winds up, known as the crown, creates energy as the coil-shaped mainspring gets tighter and tighter; the mainspring houses that kinetic energy that’s then transferred by the gear train to the escapement, which meters out energy into regulated parts. A balance wheel uses the energy to beat back and forth at a constant rate, and at certain intervals, the dial train transfers energy to the watch hands and the minutes tick on.
One other cool thing to note: Jewels that absorb heat well and are very hard act as brakes at points of high friction to help improve performance and accuracy.
Which Watch Movement Is Which?
Both manual and automatic movements are mechanically operated; this means that they run with only gears and springs. These beauties have a storied history, with over 600 years of craftsmanship, expertise, and refinement. Dating back to the sixteenth century, manual watch movements are the most traditional and are a favorite among collectors. Manual movements require daily winding, unless the watch has a power reserve complication, like several timepieces available from Longines.
Just like watches with manual movements, automatic watch movements have crowns, but they also have a rotor, or a half circle–shaped metal weight. This rotor is attached to the movement and can swing 360 degrees. Connected by a series of gears to the mainspring, the rotor gives a watch its “energy” as the user moves their wrist throughout the day.
An automatic movement even has a clutch that will prevent over winding. This self-winding technology means hand winding isn’t necessary unless the timepiece sits too long.
A quartz watch movement is the most accurate option currently produced, and brands like Omega Watches offer some stunning examples.
But unlike a mechanical movement, a quartz relies on a battery for energy. The energy from the battery is carried via an integrated circuit between the various parts of the quartz movement, which gets its name from the quartz crystal that vibrates when electricity is applied to it. The quartz vibrates at a rate of 32,768 per second. These vibrating pulses are sent to a stepping motor that doles them out to the dial train, which finally advances the watch hands. As such, a quartz movement “ticks,” whereas manual and automatic varieties appear to have more of a sweeping motion.
The Pros and Cons of Each
When it comes to choosing a watch movement, it really comes down to preference.
Certainly the quartz has many explicit benefits: they’re the most accurate at timekeeping, they offer excellent durability, they don’t require a lot of maintenance (batteries typically last 12-24 months), and are generally less expensive than mechanical options. Michele, for instance, has several beautiful timepieces at very reasonable price points.
Watch connoisseurs, however, consider the daily winding required of manuals to be a satisfying daily ritual; plus, no battery in some ways means less work and these classics can last a lifetime. Brands like IWC Schaffhausen make both manual and automatic watches with a timeless look.
Automatic watch movements offer a bit of a happy medium: They don’t require daily winding with regular wear, and whereas a manual tends to be more delicate and slim, automatic movements skew thicker because of the rotor. A high-quality automatic is nice and hefty in your palm.
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