Everything You Wanted To Know About Mechanical Watches And Never Dared To Ask

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Since Quartz watches and lately Connected watches slammed the market, people got more and more interested in mechanical watches. They represent state of the art watchmaking and like a car, a mechanical watch would be worthless without its engine, called movement. Many people see how it looks like but do not have a clear understanding on how this works. The aim of this article is to provide you with a general understanding of the mechanical watch principles. So probably you will finally have the answers to your questions.

Manual vs Automatic, What Does It Means?

Very often you see the denomination of Manual or Automatic watch. This refers to how the watch gets its power to work. If it is a manual watch, it means you need to use the crown to wind it up, at least once a day or once every 2 days if you wish to maintain precision.

If the watch has an automatic movement, it means you have a rotor, that helps the watch to power up. The rotor is a semi-circular weight that is mounted on the movement. It’s also known as the oscillating weight. The rotor swings through 360° thanks to the movements of the watch on the wrist. Through a series of gears, the movement of the rotor winds the mainspring which supplies the watch with mechanical energy.

Watch trends show that people tend to prefer automatic watches as they do not need to bother winding up the watch. Some people are still very passionate about manual winding watches as they think it generates a special relationship with the mechanics of their watch.

What Is A Complication?

A watch complication is any function that exists in addition to telling time (displaying hours, minutes and seconds) on a timepiece. These watch complications enable special functions that are performed and displayed on the watch to enhance or simplify your life. typical date-display chronograph may have up to 250 parts, while a particularly complex watch may have a thousand or more parts. Watches with several complications are referred to as Grandes complications. Although there is no ‘official’ definition, one common definition is a watch that contains at least three complications, with at least one coming from each of the groups listed below:

Watches-complications-list

Obviously some complications are easier to accomplish than others. Let’s not forget that hours, minutes and seconds are complications as well. They might sound easy to accomplish but providing precise time across the years do remain a challenge and an accomplishment for a watchmaker. Other complications are truly lifetime achievements. One good example is a Perpetual Calendar.

perpetual-calendar-illustration

Displaying the date for a watch does not seem a big deal. But displaying it correctly represents a true challenge. Why? Well because some month have 30 days and others 31. February is a mess. In some years, called leap or bissextile years, it has 29 days and in others common years only 28. Why such a sophisticated organization? Most are purely political and others religious.
We should be “thankful”to the Ancient Romans for our modern calendar. At that time, the annual calendar had only 10 month equally with 30 days (precisely 29.530589 days in average) as it was following a Lunar calendar. We can see the Roman influence as some month are named in honor of Ancient Roman gods like Janus (January) or Mars (March).

Of course it would have been too easy for our Watch-maker to present a calendar as it would simply be a 30 times revolution of 24h. But thanks to politics and some good religious strategy, things got complicated. Each Perpetual Calendar might contain different components or specifications but in general they all have a disk or wheel that will take 4 years to accomplish a full turn and this will mark the bissextile years. Most of the timepieces with such mechanism will give the day and date precisely until 2100. And in that year they all shall get a manual manipulation as that year is not a bissextile one. Only IWC has a “Grande Complication” that will allow the mechanism to deliver a exact date until 2400. And since then, the Perpetual calendar or Quantième Perpetuel represents one of the biggest achievements for a Brand.

Are There Real rubis or jewels in each watch movement?

Watch-movement-rubies-jewels

What we call jewels in a watch movement are hard synthetic stones (generally composed of corundum and aluminium oxide) that are fitted at high friction points such as the centre of a rotating wheel. In early days, the jewels were genuine rubies but given now the high price of ruby and thanks to technology, modern watch movements use synthetic jewels. They are naturally translucent but we color them artificially as a reminder of the original precious stone.

The Main Components Of A Mechanical Movement – Key elements

Mechanical watches can seem very complex and some of them are very sophisticated with several complications. But to simplify the understanding of such mechanics, let’s say there are 5 basic elements:

  1. Energy
  2. Wheels
  3. Escapement
  4. Balance wheel
  5. Time indication

1. Every watch needs energy to work

mainspring-barel-mechanical-watch

In order to provide energy to the mechanical watch, you need to activate the winding crown (for a manual movement) or shake your wrist in order to move the rotor around (automatic movement). The mainspring stores the energy provided by the watch user that will be delivered by the barrel to the wheels. This is a coiled strip of metal that stores energy when wound and gradually releases energy as it unwinds. A lot of research was done on the mainspring in order to facilitate the energy stockage and the fluidity of delivery.

2. The Wheels transfert the energy through the watch

Watch-wheels-details

the different wheels will be able to capture the energy from the barrel and transfert it to any parts of the movement in order to make the watch work. The wheels or gears allow the watchmaker to bring the energy to where he will need it. With complex movements, this is a crucial ressource.

3. The Escapement helps delivering a continuous amount of energy

Swiss-Lever-Escapement

The escapement is a very important element of the watch, otherwise the energy collected would be waisted. Also, this is the piece that divides time into equal fractions. At regular intervals, the escape wheel releases the energy supplied by the wheels to the lever. Synthetic ruby pallets on the lever reduce friction between the lever and the escape wheel as they come into contact. The familiar ticking of the watch is in fact the sound of these pallets striking the teeth of the escape wheel. This type of escapement is called a Swiss lever escapement and is still widely used. In recent years, many innovations have been made to the escapement, often building on the properties of modern materials such as silicon.

4. The Balance wheel or the Master Controller

Balance-wheel-watchmaking

This is the regulating organ of the watch, and is often referred to as the heart of the movement because it “beats” between 5 and 10 times a second. The balance wheel is assembled with the balance spring, one end of which is attached to the balance wheel. Each time the balance wheel swings in one direction, the “in-out” movement of the balance spring brings it back to its centre position.

5. Time indication or the watch dial

wheel-train-watchmaking

This is the part that display time thanks to hours and minutes indicators and also thanks to very important pieces called the watch hands. In order to display time properly each hand is treated separately. There is a canon pinion for the minutes hand, a hour wheel for the hours hand and there is a fourth wheel carrying the seconds hand.

Rolex-perpetual-Dayjust

So now you know more about mechanical watches than you did before! Mechanical watches are masterpieces of Swiss ingenuity who have been crafted for centuries and still amaze watch aficionados from all over the world. Once you understand the wonders hidden within the watch case, you can truly start enjoying your watch.

Arsène Wargas

Info sourced by the author for luxuryactivist.com. All content is copyrighted with no reproduction rights available. Images are for illustration purposes only. 

Arsene Wargas

Arsène is a young yet very passionate Parisian author. He is passionate about luxury watches and joined Luxury Activist team since 2015. While working in PR and marketing he loves to share his passion for luxury Swiss watch-making. He contributes in a regular base with articles around watch brands, history and new launches. Follow Arsène on his social networks.