A Guide to Watch Movements

By J. Daly, Dublin, Ireland

April 16, 2021

The movement of a watch is arguably the most critical component as it is what makes them “tick”. As the source power for the device, a watch’s movement usually fits into the mechanical or quartz categories. Mechanical watches are driven by a collection of gearwheels, springs and other parts and are represented as automatic or manual pieces.

Quartz movements on the other hand are made with electrical circuitry, requiring a battery to function. While quartz movements are more accurate and use a long-lasting power source, mechanical watches are often prized by collectors due to the inherent difficulty in their construction. Choosing the type of movement in a watch comes down to personal preference and so in this short guide, we look at the different movements and their individual characteristics to help you choose your next watch.

Manual

A manual movement is mechanical and powered by a tightly coiled mainspring. This type of movement is less commonly used today as it must be hand wound to keep it in power. When winding a manual watch, it should be wound until there is a feeling of tension or tightness on the crown but winding past this point risks damaging the movement. 

The kinetic energy from winding the crown is transferred to the coil-shaped mainspring, which stores the energy by getting tighter and tighter. Mechanical watches are far more expensive than battery-powered ones because they are much more labour intensive to build.

Automatic

An automatic movement is also mechanical, however this movement type is wound and kept in power by the free spinning of a rotor weight. The automatic movement eliminates the requirement for daily winding unlike the more traditional manual movement. 

This is achieved by the half circle-shaped rotor weight attached to the movement which swings freely in 360 degrees during daily activity while the wrist moves. The rotor is connected by a series of gears to the mainspring and as it turns, it winds the mainspring and gives the watch power. The rotor is equipped with a clutch that will disengage it from winding when the mainspring is fully wound.

Quartz

On the other end of the spectrum are the battery powered and extremely accurate, quartz technology movements. These devices nearly bore the end of the mechanical watch altogether when they first introduced to the market in 1969. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and today it is instead an affordable alternative. A quartz watch battery usually won’t need to be changed or replaced for a number of years which adds convenience and accuracy to timekeeping. 

In these movements, the quartz crystal executes the same function as the balance wheel in mechanical pieces. By vibrating when electricity is applied, it can supply power to the stepping motor which converts electrical pulses to mechanical power.

Skeleton

Skeleton movements are essentially mechanical movements which can be either manual or automatic. While mechanically constructed movements are built from layered plates, often obscuring the moving parts within, a skeletonised movement has been tailored to expose those parts. 

The functionality remains the same as can be found in other mechanical movements, but it is the aesthetics of the skeleton design which gives them their unique appeal.