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The Types Of Watch Movements And How They Work

The Modena 889 self-winding automatic watch.

Just saying “mechanical” or “quartz movement” feels like a throwback, right?

In today’s wired world of smartphones and other smart devices, mechanical and quartz analog watches—without incoming text alerts or heart monitoring apps—should have gone the way of the VHS. Despite this new technology, the “non-smart” wristwatch is still with us and, based on current data, selling better than ever.

Why is that? If you ask department stores and big-box discounters, analog watches are considered an accessory that lets the wearer compliment their look without overpowering it. But if you ask a watch retailer or manufacturer, odds are you’ll hear how in today’s world of built-in obsolescence it’s refreshing that watch movements work in largely the same way they did when they were invented 300 years ago.

THE MOVEMENT – IT’S WHAT’S INSIDE THAT COUNTS

Movements (sometimes known as “calibers”) are the engine that powers the hands, subdials, and complications on the watch. But what powers the movement? The answer depends on the movement type. Quartz watches use a battery powered, quartz-controlled oscillator to keep time by breaking each second down to 32768 oscillations. The movement of choice for most mass-market fashion brands, quartz watches are known for their amazing accuracy and lower prices.

But for those who prefer a bit more authenticity with their timekeeping, mechanical watches are where it’s at. The concert piano to a quartz watch’s electric keyboard, mechanical watches reflect a legacy of precision and ingenuity in every movement.

Automatic movements are often highlighted with an exhibition caseback.
The Luciano 371A from the Legacy Collection.

MECHANICAL MOVEMENTS – MANUAL VS. AUTOMATIC

At the heart of all mechanical watches is a mainspring, the thin ribbon of metal or high-tech composite whose unwinding powers the watch movement’s gears, wheels, and levers. The difference in terminology comes from whether the mainspring is “manually” wound when the wearer turns the watch’s crown or wound as the wearer moves their wrist, causing a rotor to “automatically” wind the mainspring. As mechanical movements deliver this power and control without batteries, they often boast a “power reserve” that stores energy and keeps the watch running long after it’s been wound. Many watch brands feature the typical 36-48 hour power reserve, but there are some that can run a full 8 days between windings.

Automatic movements like the one in this Executive 133 keep your watch wound every wear.
The Executive 133 from the Legacy Collection.

SO… QUARTZ OR MECHANICAL?

The line between quartz and mechanical is largely preferential, though it’s easy to understand why watch purists prefer the art and tradition of mechanical movements. Watches are accessories nowadays—they’re fashion statements and they’re worn to tell your story. Or, to quote an old watch lover’s adage, “The least important reason to get a watch is to know the time.”

Watch buying comes down to the “how” of craftsmanship as opposed to the “what” of keeping time. That dedication is apparent in the prevalence of exhibition case backs and skeletonized movements, showing off the inner-workings of these mechanical movements. But some differences are more apparent: put any quartz watch next to a mechanical and see how the second hand ticks second-by-second as opposed to the fluid sweeping motion on a mechanical movement.

So which watch is right for your wrist? It depends on what you’re looking for. As we said earlier, quartz watches are often chosen for more fashion-forward accessorizing, making them the engine of choice for stylish brands and licensed products. Their lower price means that they make the perfect touch of flair without blowing your budget, whereas mechanical movements are more conversation-starter than accessory. Gearheads relish the intricacies of their watches and love sharing their knowledge with anyone who’ll listen, making a mechanical watch the go-to for serious wrists around the world.

No matter where you land on the mechanical vs. quartz debate, the right watch is out there waiting for your wrist. It’s only a matter of time until you find it.