Regardless of how good a watch looks from the outside, it all comes down to how well it tells the time. Its movement, also known as its caliber is its beating heart – the engine that keeps your timepiece ticking. Movements come in several different varieties: some are battery-powered, some are mechanical, some must be wound by hand, and others are powered by the movement of your wrist. Most high-end movements (both quartz and mechanical) are manufactured in Switzerland by either watch brands themselves or by large-scale movement makers like ETA, Sellita and Valjoux. Japan and China also have their own movement-making industries. Here we break down the basics….
Working together: what makes up a mechanical movement
There are two types of movement: mechanical and quartz. Let’s start with mechanical. Generally speaking, mechanical movements are highly sought-after as they champion the centuries-old tradition of fine watchmaking. For a skilled watchmaker, it’s painstaking work to assemble all the tiny moving parts that power a mechanical movement. There’s the mainspring, a coil of metal that stores energy by winding tighter and tighter. This feeds the gear train, a system of gears which in turn powers the escapement (the circular disc with teeth). The escapement then powers the balance wheel, a weighted wheel that oscillates at a constant rate thanks to the delicate balance spring. It is normally one oscillation per fraction of a second to move the watch hands and essentially keep your watch ticking. The speed at which a watch ticks is measured in either vibrations per hour or hertz. Most high-end mechanical watches of today beat at a frequency of 28,800 VpH (4Hz). High-beat watches tick at 36,000 VpH (5Hz) or higher.
Most watch brands source their mechanical movements from suppliers like ETA in Switzerland. However, some of the higher-end houses with vertically integrated production boast the capacity to develop their own movements. These are known as proprietary or ‘in-house’ movements and are hugely prized by watch buyers and collectors. Brands such as Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Zenith have mastered the art of movement-making, many with patented technology.
In-house movement – Oris ProPilot X Caliber
Helping hand: what’s a manual mechanical movement?
Mechanical movements themselves can be broken down into two types: automatic or hand-wound. Hand-wound movements, as it says on the tin, are powered by the wearer manually turning the crown to wind the mainspring. This is watchmaking in its most traditional form — and many die-hard watch collectors enjoy the satisfaction of winding their watch every morning. Once fully wound, your watch will keep ticking for a set number of hours, normally between 35 and 45 hours, although it’s a good idea to get into the habit of winding your hand-wound mechanical watch every day. Think of it as part of your daily routine.
Autopilot: understanding automatic mechanical movements
An automatic watch is pretty much the same as a hand-wound mechanical movement, the only difference lying in how its mainspring is powered. Automatic movements contain a rotor, a metal semi-circular disc that spins as the wearer moves their arm. It’s the spinning rotor that automatically tightens the mainspring, doing all the hard work for you – so whenever you go for a stroll or run for a train, you’re also winding your watch. The first self-winding mechanism was invented for pocket watches in 1770 by Abraham-Louis Perrelet, and today they are the most common movements found in luxury timepieces.
But automatic watches do need to be wound by hand every now and then. If you haven’t worn your watch in a while (and therefore haven’t been moving around in it), an automatic watch will eventually stop or reach the end of its power reserve, and will need to be manually wound to get it going again. When you take off your watch, it will continue working for the specified amount of time listed in the watch’s manual (normally 35-45 hours).
Battery power: getting to grips with quartz
In essence, a quartz watch is a battery-powered timepiece that sends electrical currents via a microchip circuit through a small piece of quartz crystal. This makes the crystal vibrate at precisely 32,768 times a second, which regulates a stepper motor that in turn moves the watch hands. The upside of quartz watches is they are more accurate, reliable and cheaper than mechanical movements. In fact, when quartz technology first emerged in the 1970s, it completely derailed the traditional watch industry – a period of uncertainty that is dubbed the Quartz Crisis. During this time, quartz-powered watches made in the USA and the Far East (think Timex and Casio) were the height of cool as old-school mechanical watches drastically fell out of favour. An estimated 900 traditional Swiss watch brands went bankrupt, and two thirds of the workforce lost their jobs in the watchmaking sector. It was a bleak time for horology but, as we now know, the watchmaking industry bounced back. These days, quartz watches are seen as cheaper alternatives to mechanical watches, but by no means as replacements.
Catch the sun: solar-powered watches
You may have also come across solar-powered timepieces from the likes of Tissot. These watches have solar panels hidden under the dial that is used to recharge the battery. Roger Riehl introduced the first solar wristwatch, the ‘Synchronar’, in 1968, and since then brands such as Seiko, Citizen and Casio have showcased the technology. They’re accurate, easy to maintain, and are seen as an environmentally-friendly choice. Similarly, there are Eco-Drive movements, developed by Japanese watchmaker Citizen during the 1970s, which can generate energy from any light source, whether natural or artificial and store it in the watch’s power cell.
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