If you are considering the purchase of a new watch for yourself, or as a gift, you will need to decide whether to choose one with a mechanical movement or the automatic alternative. In this short article the differences between each type of watch are summarised to help you make the best choice for your circumstances.
A mechanical watch is named because the outer case contains a mechanical movement of the type that were first used in clocks for centuries before being adapted for watches.
When you wind a mechanical watch you are winding a main spring in the movement and it’s this that provides the energy to operate the other workings of the movement that keep the time. An escapement turns the rotational movement you created when winding the watch into the back and forth movement of a pendulum (as in a grandfather clock), or a balance wheel in a watch. It is this part of the watch that regulates the time. Gears connect the escapement to the hands of the watch in the display on the face of the watch.
There are two types of mechanical watch, automatic (sometimes called self-winding) and hand wound.
The natural movement of the arm and wrist of the watch wearer winds the main spring of an automatic watch. This movement causes a rotating weight called a rotor to move back and forth; it’s this movement that winds the spring. Automatic watches have the ability to build a reserve of power, normally around 36-hours worth, that keeps the watch working when it is not being worn, at night-time for instance. However, if this reserve power is allowed to run down the watch will need to be re-wound manually and re-set before being able to tell the time again. An increasing number of people, especially collectors who may have many watches, use an automatic watch winder to ensure the power reserve is maintained when the watch is not being worn. This allows them to choose the watch they wish to wear each day without the necessity of re-setting it.
Although quartz crystals have been in regular use for many years to give an accurate frequency for radio transmitters, receivers and computers, they only became a common source of energy for watches in the 1970’s. Quartz is silicon dioxide and has a quite miraculous quality that allows it to generate an electrical charge on its surface when compressed or bent.
A quartz watch needs a battery to power it and it’s the energy from this that makes the quartz crystal begin to ring or oscillate. The output of the oscillator is then converted to pulses suitable for the digital circuits in the watch. This in turn creates continuous one-second pulses that drive a tiny electric motor that is connected to standard gears to drive the hands. A quartz watch doesn’t need to be wound and works without intervention until the battery dies, which typically is two or three years after purchase or last replacement. Once the battery is replaced the watch returns to life.
Mechanical or quartz, which is best?
As you can read from the above, both types of watches have benefits, but for the watch aficionado there is only one winner. There is no disputing the fact that a quartz watch is more accurate than a mechanical watch, will require less servicing and generally be more reliable than its more ancient relative. It should be said, however, that a good quality mechanical watch that is well maintained and cared for can last for centuries so it is hardly unreliable!
However, for lovers of fine watches, the craftsmanship and inherent beauty of a mechanical movement watch will always win out against a quartz watch. The ancient art of watch making is embodied in the creation of mechanical complications and most of us can afford a couple of seconds a day slippage in our everyday lives.