Hand-Wound Mechanical Watch Movements: A Complete Beginner’s Guide
Watches are more than just fashion pieces. They are proof that form and function can in fact be combined. The functional aspect of a watch is clear. It tells time. If you have a watch, there’s no need to pull out your phone to know what time it is. In order to achieve this, watches employ a variety of timekeeping tactics. Watch movements refer to the internal workings that make it operate and tell time. Thus, the movement can be thought of as the heart of the watch itself.
There are several types of watch movements. In this article, we will go in-depth through mechanical watches and provide some examples. We will discuss how they work as well as their pros and cons. More specifically, we will focus on manually wound mechanical watches and save the discussion on automatic watches for another day.
Importance of Knowing About Watch Movements
When buying a watch, it is important to understand the details of its movement. A watch is not something you can just neglect for years and expect it to work like new. A watch needs to be serviced, especially if it has a delicate mechanical movement. Spending just a little bit of time taking care of your watch will yield great results, giving it the strength to serve you well for years and years to come.
Another reason to research watch movements is so you can buy a model that reflects you and resonates with you. Are you someone who values intricate craftsmanship and engineering? If so, then the mechanical movement is for you. The point is that the movement is what makes the watch, so pay attention to it.
Manual Mechanical Watch Movements
We begin our exploration with the classic, O.G method: the mechanical movement. This is how watches and clocks have been telling time for centuries now. Mechanical watches utilize a complex system of gears and springs to keep track of the seconds. The main component that keeps the watch ticking is the mainspring. When the watch is wound up by the user, energy is stored in the mainspring. It then slowly releases that energy as it unwinds, turning the system of gears it is connected to.
The gears lead to the balance wheel. This part oscillates back and forth rapidly (usually 21,600 or 28,800 beats per hour). Since the oscillations are constant, this is how the watch steadily keeps track of time. The escapement, or escape wheel, helps keep the balance wheel moving and connects the internal parts to the hands of the watch. By pushing the gears connected to the watch hands, the escapement allows us to actually read the time on our watch face through the moving second, minute, and hour hands.
There are some terms to be aware of regarding mechanical watches. The accuracy, measured in seconds per day, refers to how off the watch is from the actual time. For example, a watch may tend to add 10 seconds to the time over the course of a day. Another important term is power reserve. This refers to how long the watch will continue running on its own after being fully wound.
There are some important tips to consider when it comes to owning a manually wound mechanical watch.
- Do not overwind the mainspring. As you wind your watch by twisting the crown, you will eventually feel some resistance. Once you do feel that, stop winding the watch. At this point, the watch is fully wound and going further could damage the mainspring.
- Do not wind the watch while wearing it. Winding the watch while wearing it puts things at a bit of an awkward angle. Since it is at a weird angle and harder to twist the crown while on your wrist, you may be putting extra pressure on the internals. Over time, this may lead to quicker wear and tear. It may seem like no big deal, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. This way, you extend the watch’s lifespan and reduce the chance of needing expensive repairs.
- Get it serviced. During a service, the servicer will disassemble the movement and clean each and every part. No doubt, some dust will have gotten inside even if you were clean with it. They can also remove any scratches you have gotten over the years if you want. They will test the watch’s accuracy and condition before giving it back to you. The specific service interval depends on the watch and how it was taken care of, but around every 5 years is a good average figure.
This all may seem pretty complicated, and it is. That’s what keeps mechanical watches popular and sought after even today. The biggest advantage of mechanical watches is their attention to detail and artistically engineered components. Enthusiasts of fine craftsmanship will definitely appreciate well built mechanical watch movements. Mechanical watches with a transparent case or case back are very popular because they allow you to see the beautiful movement in action. If a watch has extra complications, like a date display or chronograph, the movement becomes even more complex and appreciated.
Other pros include longevity. Mechanical watches that have been properly taken care of can be passed down generations and become a priceless heirloom. They also have the advantage of being a status symbol for people who like to show off a little (we won’t judge). In addition, mechanical watches have a sweeping second hand. Instead of jumping rapidly once a second, a mechanical watch’s second hand moves according to the BPH of the balance wheel. A high-end luxury mechanical watch will have a second hand that beautifully glides across the watch face, passing the second markers with grace. This adds a touch of luxury and premium feel to the watch.
One of the most obvious cons of a manually wound mechanical watch is that it must be, well, manually wound. Different models will have different power reserves. You should usually shoot for a piece with at least 36 hours of run time before needing to be wound. This way, you can wind up at the start of each day and forget about it. Some like the feeling of winding a watch so it may not even be a con at all. The other obvious disadvantage is the price. Craftsmanship sure isn’t cheap. For some, a high price means status symbol. For most of us, the high price of a really high-end mechanical watch means unattainable and out of budget.
Like we said above, mechanical watches need to be serviced every now and then to keep the elaborate internals in tip-top shape. This costs money and time. However, it’s not too bad since you only really need service about every 5 years or so. The other glaring con to mechanical movements is their accuracy. A lower end mechanical watch may only be accurate within roughly 30 seconds per day, which is not very good. After just a week, you may be a couple minutes off the actual time. More expensive models will be far better than that, within about +/- 5 seconds per day. This is good, but still nowhere near quartz watches.
We will cover three manually wound mechanical watches at three different price points.
The Timex Marlin is one of the cheapest hand wound mechanical watch movements out there. This model is fairly small at 32mm wide, so its perfect for those with small wrists or those who want an understated piece. It has a leather strap and simple, silver dial that creates a sleek and simple look. Usually, we would say to buy a quartz watch if this price point is your budget. They dominate this bracket for a reason. If you want an affordable mechanical though, this may just be the best. Coming in at just $209, this is great for buyers who want to experience their first mechanical watch on a budget.
Hamilton is a Swiss watchmaker with a rich history of making airline pilot watches. The Khaki Field is a renowned model that harkens back to Hamilton’s military history. It features an old-school, timeless dial that is easy to read and functional. It has a NATO nylon strap giving it a casual and rugged look that is supposed to be comfortable on the wrist as well. Adding to its functionality, the power reserve is an impressive 80 hours long. The mechanical movement is probably one of the best you can get for under $500.
One of the most iconic timepieces of all time, the Omega Speedmaster is known for being worn during the Apollo missions to the moon. It comes with a chronograph complication meaning it also functions as a stopwatch. Like we said, extra features make the already complicated mechanical movement even more so. With a 50 hour power reserve, 42mm case size, and an iconic look, this watch deserves its fame. It’s not cheap, though.
Conclusion to Mechanical Watch Movements
Overall, mechanical watches are timeless works of wearable art. They have been with us for centuries, and they are stubbornly holding on to their spot at the top of the watch world. Mechanical watches dominate the high end luxury market due to their beautifully crafted internals. They have their flaws, yet buyers are still drawn and mesmerized by them. It’s easy to see why they are still considered status symbols of luxury even with newer technologies being released. Sometimes the old way of doing things is the best way.
Read more about the history of mechanical timepieces here and see how they survived through the times.