How do mechanical watches work

Did you know that the first mechanical clock was built back in 1275 in England?

Mechanical watches today are a classic to have, and although they may not be as precise as quartz watches, wearing a mechanical watch is more than just a fashion statement. They represent a history of craftsmanship and development and take a lot of time and precision to build, hence their higher price tag.

With the advent of quartz watches during the so-called, ‘Quartz revolution’ in the 1970s, a lot of people turned their backs on the mechanical watch, pointing towards the quartz type and exclaiming: “This is the future”. The crisis affected the sales of mechanical watches, and just as everyone thought that that the traditional watch is doomed, one of the greatest watchmakers in the world – George Daniels, decided to prove them otherwise. He wanted to demonstrate that mechanical watches are better than quartz because they don’t need batteries, so he invented the co-axial escapement mechanism for better efficiency and accuracy of the mechanical watch.

With more and more people looking for vintage watches, whether out of nostalgia, or appreciation for fine craftsmanship, or hopeless romanticism, the mechanical watch lived through its Renaissance in the 1980s, as its production rose with 17% in 1988.

Watch aficionados today are willing to pay anywhere between 3000 EUR and 500 000 EUR for a mechanical watch. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch industry (Switzerland produces 90% of the watches worldwide) – the exports of mechanical Swiss watches have tripled between 2000 and 2013.


So what makes mechanical watches so fascinating?


Keep reading if you want to learn more about the magic behind those ticking hands.

Fun Fact: The first wrist mechanical watch was created in 1812 for the Queen of Naples. 

How does a mechanical watch operate?

A mechanical watch uses a special mechanism to calculate the passage of time and does not need battery power to produce energy, as opposed to quartz watches.

The first essential task when creating a luxury mechanical timepiece is to secure the source of energy. The internal mechanism of a mechanical watch is called the movement, also known as the caliber. It ultimately acts as a powerhouse moving the hands of the watch, as well as powering any additional functions (complications) that the watch might have, such as a dual time zone, chronograph, or an annual calendar.

The mechanical movement is driven by a mainspring, which should be wound periodically, through the crown, to keep an accurate track of time. The spring is a thin piece of metal, usually about 14 inches long coiled up into a spiral, which is inside a mainspring barrel. When the clock is wound up, the spiral of the mainspring gets tighter and as the clock runs, it will release the tension and energy to the next component, thus creating a fascinating mechanism to measure the hours and seconds of the day.

Types of mechanical movements


There are two types of mechanical watch movements – manual and automatic. 


The manual watch movement is the first and oldest type of movement, since the invention of mechanical watches (in the form of pocket watches) in the late 15th century. The hands of any mechanical watch move through the energy from the mainspring, which moves gears that would then move the hands. However, due to the loss of energy over time, mechanical watches with manual movement need to be wound up to tighten the mainspring and have it do its magic all over again. With the rise of automatic watches, mechanical watches were less and less desired, and naturally, their production fell drastically. Nowadays, only a very conservative and collectible (a.k.a. expensive) watches will have a manual movement. (a.k.a. expensive) watches will have a manual movement.


Manual movement


The automatic watch movement is used in most mechanical watches today. You do not need to wind them, as they self-wind while on your wrist, through the kinetic energy released by the natural movement of your hands. However, if the watch has not been worn for some time, you will still need to wind it up.


The first self-winding pocket watch was invented in 1770 by the Swiss watchmaker Abraham Louis Perrelet, where the mechanism was designed so that the mainspring is powered by the energy from the movement of the wearer’s body.


The true revolution in automatic watch making came after World War I, when technological advancements allowed the mass manufacturing of automatic wrist watches. The movement of the hands could produce much more kinetic power, as opposed to pocket watches, which are carried in coats and suits.

Automatic movement


There is a common misconception that an automatic movement does not belong to a mechanical watch. To make it easier for you, just remember, if a watch does not need batteries to operate, then it is a mechanical, no matter whether you need to wind it up every day or it gets wound automatically.


What is the main difference between a mechanical and a quartz watch?

Since the invention of the quartz watch, most of the timepieces today are with a quartz movement. Quartz movement requires batteries to power the watch and is the most accurate movement ever produced. Mechanical watches, on the other hand, do not require batteries and may lose a few seconds per day.


The easiest way to tell the difference between a mechanical and a quartz watch is by watching the movement of the hands. The hands of a mechanical watch would move in a smooth sweeping motion, whereas those of a quartz watch will move in even, individual ticks.

Quartz Movement


In today’s modern, digital, smart and AI world, you name it, a mechanical watch is considered a rarity and a piece of art. The intricate movements and craftsmanship put into each and every tiny piece of the mechanism, which works under the laws of physics make it a preferred accessory to connoisseurs.


Have you ever owned/wanted to own a mechanical watch? If so, share in the comments below the model of the watch, we would love to hear it.

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