A watch movement is literally the group of components contained within a watch that keeps the time. Within each watch lies a complex set of gears, jewels and plates that make up the movement. That movement, developed over the course of centuries, achieves the epitome of time-keeping accuracy and forms the heart and soul of the modern watch.
There are two main types of watch movements. Mechanical, and quartz. See below for an introductory discussion of each class.
Mechanical watches are the oldest of the three, and are often broken into two distinct groups: manual and automatic. Most people have seen one laying in grandpa’s jewelry box, but in fact they generally remain the finest watches that exist. They require a certain expert craftsmanship that cannot be duplicated with modern factories and machines. They require, to some extent, the touch of a human hand in both their manufacture and their use.
As far as you’re concerned, they require more maintenance than other types. In the case of manual mechanic watches,they require winding in order to provide the energy to power the watch. That can be accomplished through several different mechanisms as far as the movement is concerned, but what you need to know now is that when owning a mechanical watch you must expect that you’ll have to wind it frequently. How often depends on the watch, but it is a must. This may seem incongruous in the modern world but it’s really no different than charging your phone. Expect it. If you want the best watch on earth, chances are you’ll have to wind it because mechanical watches are among the finest quality examples of craftsmanship that exist.
Animation showing the escapement slowly unwinding.
The reason for this is because mechanical watches work on the old school principles of gears, stored energy and the release of that energy essentially in the same way as mechanical grandfather or any other type of clocks work. We wind them up and then they slowly wind down. In the process of winding your watch, energy is stored via a spring or other means that is slowly released through the movement thus powering the watch.
This sounds simple, but it was an incredibly difficult to perfect process; as late as 1707 an entire British Naval fleet misjudged their inaccurate mechanical clocks and wrecked themselves on the shores of a group of islands thinking it was England simply because their clocks were inaccurate. This led to an 18th century version of the “X-Prize” where Queen Anne offered a huge amount of money to anyone that could invent a clock that could handle the rolling of a ship and still keep perfect time. It took decades before an Englishman named John Harrison achieved it, though sadly the British Parliament gave him a hard time and took decades to pay up. They did in the end, but his findings changed the clock world dramatically.
Exploded view detailing the mechanical movement gear train.
Thanks to John Harrison, today we have watches on our wrists that can handle not only ships pitching but our constant movement thorough our day and yet still keep perfect time. But remember, it took 300 years of development to achieve accurate, portable time-keeping.
The first category of mechanical watches is manual. Manual watches are simply those that need to be wound by hand. The user operates the crown and generally will both set the time and wind the watch once per day or two.
The second category of mechanical watches is automatic. This is a truly ingenious idea that involves the very movement of the human body itself to provide the power. The automatic movement is nearly identical to a manual watch. Instead of hand winding when the watch winds down, the energy from the movement of our wrist swinging as we walk and work is harnessed and transferred thusly winding the watch constantly.
Here is a really neat video from ORIENT showing the automatic movement:
But it didn’t end with just gears and springs. Eventually came the revolutionary quartz movement. Thanks to mass produced ultra-cheap quartz watch movements that have flooded retail stores worldwide, they have become a ubiquitous part of daily life available in Walmart’s and high end jewelry stores everywhere.
You can normally spot a quartz movement from a mile away, instead of the smooth sweeping hands of a mechanical watch, they tick away flitting from one second to the next with lurching, jerky precision. (note: this is not true in absolutely all cases, but a good general rule). But precise they are. Quartz watches use the power of science to keep time with the utmost accuracy. They are commonly considered among the most accurate watches available. (Note: atomic watches that sync with GPS satellites, vintage Bulova Accutrons are two examples of more accurate watches).
Quartz watches operate on the concept of crystal vibration. Inside a quartz watch is a tiny, nearly perfect quartz crystal. When energy is applied to it, it vibrates in a predictable known way. That allows it the watch a perfect way to keep time. Known resonance means known time. So even if you recoil at the thought of slapping a Timex on your wrist, the fact is, it’s going to be accurate as all get out simply because it works on a quartz mechanism. $5 plastic watches have made the world go round for decades, even though a watch that costs thousands is nicer to the discerning observer.
Watch movements are very complex and fit certain specific needs, so when you shop for a watch you should be cognizant of what you need from that watch rather that just go out looking to buy a nice timepiece. You need to ask yourself if you want a prized possession that you will have to wind up every so often but can prize as a magnificent piece of craftsmanship or do you want simplicity and just want to have the battery replaced periodically and throw the watch away when it breaks. Or for the person that really doesn’t want to mess with anything at all and just needs to know the time, should you choose a watch that winds itself and you never have to bother with maintenance at all? Well, the answer is that it’s entirely up to you.
If you want a watch, even a high-end watch, that is low-maintenance yet reliable, automatic is for you. If you want a watch to be proud of, then a very fine hand-crafted mechanical watch is for you. If you want a “fire and forget” utilitarian watch that just keeps the time very well, then go for quartz. It’s all about what you value, and what pleases you.