Automatic Watch Movements: A Complete Guide for Beginners
We here at soldcorp.com have always said that the heart of a watch is its movement. Watch movements refer to the internal components that allow it to function and tell time. Watches are intersections of fashion and functionality. Without a good solid movement, you would just be left with a bracelet that serves no other purpose.
There are several types of watch movements to consider. The main ones are self-wound mechanical, automatic, and quartz. In this article, we will cover the automatic movement in depth. We will go over how it works and consider its pros and cons. Then, we will provide you with some examples in case you’re interested in buying one to see for yourself.
Automatic Watch Movements: How do they work?
First off, let’s talk about what an automatic movement actually is. Automatic watch movements are a subset of mechanical watches. Mechanical watches refer to watches that do not use a battery to power the watch. Instead, they use a system of gears, springs, and cogs to keep the watch running and to allow it to keep track of the time. The two primary subsets of this type of watch are hand-wound and automatic. To learn more about the specifics of the engineering behind mechanical watches, visit our article about manually wound mechanical watch movements. In this post, we will expand on those ideas in the context of automatic watches and focus on what makes them different.
Unlike the hand wound watches in that article, which require that the user wind the watch by twisting the crown, automatic watches wind themselves. This is why automatic watches are also called self winding watches. Here’s how it achieves this:
Most of the internals are the same as their manual counterparts. It just has one extra feature. There is a metal weight inside the watch that freely moves around and rotates as you wear the watch on your wrist. This is called the rotor. As you naturally move your hands throughout the day, the rotor spins and spins around and around. This winds up the mainspring, allowing it to store energy. From there, the mainspring slowly unwinds and releases that energy to keep the internal gears turning. The rest is the same idea as all mechanical watches.
The very first automatic watch movements can be traced back to the 1770s in Le Locle, Switzerland. A horologist by the name of Abraham-Louis Perrelet invented a self winding pocket watch. By using a pivoting weight in the movement, Perrelet’s pocket watches were able to automatically wind up as the owner walked around with it in their pocket. This is the same basic idea as modern automatic wristwatches. Note: If you ever wondered why Swiss watches are considered so historic and legendary, see just how long they’ve been innovating in this industry.
It was a British watchmaker who made the first self winding watch to be worn on the wrist. John Harwood, after looking at children moving on a see-saw, realized he could use motion to keep a watch wound. His idea materialized, and he made a functioning automatic watch. In 1924, he received a Swiss patent for his work. Perrelet and Harwood’s legacies live on today with each and every purchase of an automatic watch.
Things to Know Before Buying One
There are some facts you should be aware of before buying an automatic watch yourself.
Automatic Watch Movements with Hand Winding Option
Many automatic watch movements also have a hand winding option. You may be thinking to yourself, “What if I don’t wear the watch every day? Will it stop working?” The answer is yes. If you do not wear the watch for a while, it will stop telling time as the mainspring is unwound and has no energy. The solution is that many automatic watches also have the option of hand winding. If you find that your automatic watch no longer runs, just turn the crown to provide energy to the mainspring. You will also have to re-adjust the time manually according to the owner manual’s directions. Once you get used to it, this process is quick and easy.
However, some automatics will not have the option of hand winding. This is why you should research the details of your watch’s movement before purchasing. It’s important to know if it has this feature or not. If it doesn’t have manual winding and it runs out of energy, the fix is pretty simple. Just wear the watch as you normally would and move your hand around a little bit extra. Maybe do some jumping jacks to turn it into an exercise. Or just move your hand around while sitting if you don’t feel like doing all that. Admittedly, it’s not the most elegant solution but, hey, it works.
It is also important to know the power reserve of your automatic watch. This is the length of time it will run without being worn or being wound by hand. A good number to shoot for is at least 40 hours. This way you can stop wearing it for a while without needing to wind it when you pick it back up.
Automatic watches are typically thicker. That extra rotor takes up space. This causes the watch case to usually be a little thicker than a manual version. You can see an example of what the rotor looks like above. For many people, the slight difference in case thickness is no big deal. The convenience of an automatic watch outshines that small flaw.
All mechanical watch movements are intricate and delicate works of craftsmanship. Over time, they will degrade and get worse. This is why you should try to be gentle and careful with such pieces. However, watches are meant to be worn and enjoyed instead of sitting in a protective case. If you use the watch as intended, some water or dust will inevitably enter the case. To keep the movement in peak condition, you will need to service your watch. The servicer will clean the internals, oil it up, make any adjustments, and run some tests during a routine service. If it’s in bad shape, they may have to replace some parts.
This process takes time, as watch repairers will have lots of watches to take care of. It also costs money. It’s hard to give a general price estimate since it depends on the model, what complications are included (chronograph, day/date, perpetual calendar, etc.), and the condition of the watch. Part replacements can get pricey. Research local watch repair shops and make sure they have good reviews and are trustworthy. Just like car mechanics, you don’t want them telling you to replace a part that is working fine so they can upcharge you.
A general rule is to get your watch serviced roughly every 5 years. It may be less than that if the watch was somehow damaged or saw really heavy use, like being worn underwater often. It may go longer than 5 years if it was only used lightly in normal circumstances.
The big advantage of an automatic movement is its attention to detail and level of craftsmanship. Mechanical movements have a lot of working parts that make them complex to make, even if there are cheap ones out there. This is what draws many watch enthusiasts to mechanical watches over battery powered ones. They appreciate their long, storied history and intricacy. Nowadays, automatic movements are more popular than hand wound movements because of their convenience. As long as you wear the watch, you will never have to worry about winding. This makes them easier to own, especially as daily watches.
Adding to the convenience, automatic watches do not need to be opened up very often. A quartz watch, which uses a battery, will typically need a new battery quicker than an automatic will need a service. Basically, an automatic watch has all the same pros as a manual watch, but with the added ease of use that comes with the self winding rotor.
It’s not all sunshine, though. A really good automatic movement is considerably more expensive than a quartz watch. Depending on your budget, an automatic watch may be out of the question. There are definitely some decent automatic watches for cheap, but they will not be the most accurate or reliable. This is why we typically say to stick to quartz movements at the cheapest price points.
One of the reasons for this is cost of ownership. We said that a typical quartz watch will need its battery replaced more often than an automatic will need to be serviced. However, a battery replacement will be far cheaper and quicker than a service. If you spent about $100 on an automatic watch, it may be hard to justify spending another $100 or so to get it serviced 5 years down the road. You may just be better off getting a brand new one.
Another con is accuracy. If you do decide to buy a cheaper automatic watch, you will likely be compromising on accuracy. An automatic watch may lose as much time in a day as a cheap quartz watch will lose in a month. Some people do not like the regular adjusting of the time that comes with owning a mechanical piece. All this being said, the choice is yours. There are many brands that offer fairly decent automatics for a fair price. If you find yourself drawn to the old school, impressive engineering of automatic watch movements, go ahead and get one.
Models with Automatic Watch Movements
Now that you know all about automatic watch movements, here are some examples you can get today. We will focus mostly on more affordable models since that is our point of attention here at soldcorp.com.
Seiko is a storied Japanese brand that makes really reliable automatic movements. The Seiko 5 line is vast with many different models and designs to choose from. Some have self winding and some do not so make sure you pay attention to that. Here are some of our favorites.
- Size: 42.5mm shown
- Hand-Winding Option: Yes
As part of the Seiko 5 line, there is the 5 Sports series. These are sportier watches with bolder designs. They come with a rotating bezel and day/date display. Seiko has fitted these watches with their Hardlex crystal to protect the dial. It may not be quite as good as sapphire crystals, but it is a sturdy close second. This model does indeed have a self winding option in addition to the automatic. We like having both because it is easier to wind up when the watch runs out of energy from lack of use. There are so many colors and variations to choose from, so shop around and see what you like.
- Size: 38mm shown, other options available
- Hand-Winding: No
This Seiko 5 is the SNKL23. It is not as sporty as the model above. Rather, it is simple, elegant, and timeless. As you can see, the dial mentions something about “21 Jewels.” This refers to the number of jewels present in the watch’s automatic movement. Watchmakers place jewels throughout the internals of the watch to reduce friction between moving parts. This watch has 21 of them. At 38mm case width, this is a nicely sized watch for nearly all wrists. At just around $130, this watch is an impressive bang for your buck. Many of these versions of the Seiko 5 will not have a self winding option.
Other Seiko 5’s
One thing we love about all Seiko 5 watches is the transparent case back. This allows you to see the automatic movement with the rotor in action.
- Size: 40mm
- Hand-Winding: Yes
This Invicta Pro Diver is a pretty clear homage watch to the Rolex Submariner. They feature very similar designs, yet this Invicta is less than 1% of the price of the Rolex at just $86. Obviously, the Rolex is the better overall watch with a better automatic movement, but this Invicta is clearly better value. This dive watch contains a workhorse Seiko NH35A movement, which does include a self winding capability. It has a unidirectional, 120 click bezel for seamless timekeeping underwater. At a 40mm case width, this watch fits right in the sweet spot for dive watches in our opinion. We love the “Mercedes” hour hand and the cyclops date display, apparent nods to the Rolex.
It does have a mineral crystal instead of sapphire, meaning it won’t be as scratch resistant. However, at this price point, you can’t really expect super high end materials. The overall build quality is still solid. This watch genuinely seems like it should cost more and is one of the best value dive watches on the market today. It is also offered with quartz movement which is even cheaper, just in case you’re interested.
- Size: 40mm
- Hand-Winding: Yes
The Boderry Voyager field watch offers an impressive spec sheet for just $97. It has a sapphire crystal, titanium case, and screw down crown for better water resistance. The titanium makes this watch extremely strong while maintaining a light weight. This, coupled with the nylon strap, makes this watch a very comfortable daily wear. As it is a field watch, the time is easy to read at a glance, making it functional. There is a day/date display at 4 as well. Explore the various color patterns and see which one works for you.
- Size: 40mm shown, 35mm available
- Hand-Winding: Yes
The Tissot PRX is a highly popular watch with a loyal following. Fans love the seamless integration of the stainless steel band with the case. When on the wrist, this creates a sleek and elegant look. It also features a see through case back to allow you to gaze at Tissot’s Powermatic 80 movement. The 80 stands for an impressive 80 hours of power reserve. The brushed stainless steel look adds to this watch’s dressiness. It has a beautiful and detailed dial that maintains this watch’s sense of subtlety and refinement. It is more expensive than the other options on this list, but it really does live up to the hype.
In conclusion, automatic watch movements are an industry staple for a reason. Enthusiasts love them for their complexity and heritage. The average consumer loves them for the convenience of self winding and the longevity. A good automatic watch can very easily outlast the original owner if taken care of.
Even if you’re like us and you don’t like to spend too much on a single watch, it’s good to have an automatic in your collection. Don’t get us wrong, we absolutely love quartz movements for their modern comfort. But an automatic will elevate your watch game and can bring some serious enjoyment. And as we have shown, it doesn’t have to cost too much.