A watch movement (also known as a “calibre”) is the engine of a watch that acts as the powerhouse to make the watch and its functions work. This internal mechanism inside the timepiece moves the hands and powers any complications such as a chronograph, annual calendar or a dual time zone. Driving all of the timekeeping functions, the movement is the essential component in a watch and keeping accurate time; a watch would not function without it.
There are countless different movements that are created by watch manufactures utilizing proprietary innovations, but each of these movements will fall into one of two categories—quartz or mechanical.
An easy way to differentiate a quartz from a mechanical movement is by looking at the second hand. On a quartz watch, the second hand has the tick-tick motion that moves once per second while mechanical watches have a smooth, sweeping seconds motion.
Quartz movements are very accurate and require minimal maintenance aside from battery replacements. They tend to be low cost since they are battery powered and have few moving parts. Quartz watches aren’t as desirable to most watch enthusiasts because they lack the technical craftsmanship and engineering that mechanical timepieces have. Quartz movements in fine Swiss watch brands are designed to comply with their strict quality standards.
How a Quartz Movement Works
A quartz movement utilizes a battery as its primary power source and is typically the type of movement that you will find in your standard, no frills watch. To create power in quartz watch movements, a battery sends an electrical current through a small quartz crystal, electrifying the crystal to create vibrations. These vibrations keep the movement oscillating and drive the motor to move the watch hands.
Mechanical Movement Mechanical movements are often chosen over quartz movements for luxury watches because of the level of quality and craftsmanship of mechanical movements. Skillfully created by expert watchmakers, these movements contain an intricate series of tiny components working together to power the timepiece. Although the general design of mechanical watches hasn’t changed much in centuries, technology has allowed for more precise engineering and a greater attention-to-detail.
How a Mechanical Movement Works
Unlike quartz movements, a mechanical movement uses energy from a wound spring, rather than a battery, to power the watch. This spring stores energy and transfers it through a series of gears and springs, regulating the release of energy to power the watch.
Differences Between Mechanical Movements
There are two types of mechanical movements found in luxury timepieces today, manual and automatic, each with unique characteristics. Although mechanical movements are the preferred movement, the type of mechanical movement comes down to personal preference.
Considered to be the most traditional movement, manual movements are the oldest type of watch movement. Manual-wind watches that we carry are often loved for their beautiful display of the watch movement, which can usually be seen through the case-back. These movements are often referred to as “hand-wound movements” because they have to be manually wound by hand to create energy in the watch’s mainspring.
How a Manual Movement Works
The wearer must turn the crown multiple times to wind the mainspring and store potential energy. The mainspring will unwind slowly and release energy through a series of gears and springs that regulate the release of energy. This energy is then transferred to turn the watch hands and power the watch’s complications.
Winding intervals for manual-wind watches will depend on the power reserve capacity of the movement, which could be 24 hours to five days or more. Some watches will require daily winding while others only needs to be wound approximately every eight days. Many manual wind watch owners are simply in the habit of winding their watch before they put it on.
The second form of mechanical movements are automatic. Often referred to as “self-winding”, automatic movements harness energy through the natural motion of the wearer’s wrist. Watches with automatic movements are very popular because the wearer doesn’t have to worry about winding the watch daily to ensure constant operation. As long as the watch is worn regularly, it will maintain power without requiring winding.
How an Automatic Movement Works
An automatic movement works largely the same way that manual movements do, with the addition of a metal weight called a rotor. The rotor is connected to the movement and it can rotate freely. With each movement of the wrist, the rotor spins, transferring energy and automatically winding the mainspring.
Watches featuring an automatic movement will still require winding, but dramatically less than a manual watch. If the watch is worn every day, it will maintain timekeeping functions without winding; but if the watch hasn’t been worn for an extended period of time, it will need a quick wind to garner initial power. A great alternative to hand winding automatic watches is to use a watch winder, which will keep the watch fully wound when it’s not being worn.
Automatic Watch FAQ
Though many are built to last more than a lifetime, fine automatic watches are subject to a variety of everyday stresses, from dings to magnetization or contact with rain and perspiration. Below are answers to the most commonly reported issues with mechanical movements.
"I dropped my watch and now it doesn't run."
When a watch is dropped, a sudden impact may cause an axle of one or more wheels to break. Most commonly the balance staff, the axle of the wheel that makes the tick-tock noise, breaks. The balance staff will need to be replaced in conjunction with a complete maintenance.
"My automatic watch stops after I take it off."
This is a typical occurrence with an automatic watch and may be an indicator of a few problems. An automatic, or self-winding, watch requires a certain amount of physical activity of the wearer to wind fully. If the wearer is not sufficiently active, the watch does not build up enough power to run. In rare cases, it could be that the mainspring has become worn, which sometimes happens after a few years. This is corrected by replacing the mainspring and conducting a complete maintenance.
"My watch was running fine for many years, and now it is running slow and stopping."
A watch is a finely tuned mini-machine. Similar to an automobile's engine, lubricants must be replaced periodically, usually every 3-5 years, to maintain optimum performance. A complete maintenance should correct this.
"My watch is running very fast."
This could be for a few reasons. Over time, the internal lubricants in a watch movement may migrate to the hairspring and cause it to stick. It could also be from dropping the watch, in which case the hairspring is out of adjustment. Lastly, the watch may also have been exposed to a magnetic field and become magnetized.
"I put on my automatic watch and it is running slow."
Automatic watches must be wound to start the watch running, either by manually winding at the crown or by wearing the watch for a sufficient amount of time to wind the mainspring. When worn regularly, most automatic watches should function normally and continue to run for approximately 36 hours after being removed from the wrist. If the watch is fully wound and still runs slow, this is an indicator that it is due for maintenance. Most manufacturers of automatic watches recommend movement service approximately every 4 to 5 years, depending on the degree of wear/usage.
"When I wind my watch, it never stops winding."
This happens in true manual-wind watches and indicates that the mainspring has broken. Automatics have a clutch so you can feel when the watch is fully wound. The mainspring must be replaced along with a complete maintenance.
"The crystal on my watch keeps fogging up and I can't see the dial."
The internal gaskets, which make a watch water resistant, may require replacement or the watch may have been exposed to moisture while the crown was not properly closed. The crown, crystal and back gasket should be replaced in conjunction with a complete maintenance. The watch should be serviced as soon as possible, or other internal components might get damaged. It is important for wearers of water resistant timepieces to be aware that water resistance is not a permanent feature and requires regular periodic service to be maintained.
"The calendar changes at noon."
The hands are 12 hours out of alignment. Reset the watch manually by advancing the time by 12 hours.
"The chronograph second hand does not set back to '0'."
This may be corrected by a simple manual re-setting of the chronograph hands. Over time, mechanical chronographs will require adjustment. When chronograph hands do not reset to zero, or 12 o'clock, it typically means the watch is due for its regular period maintenance.
Quartz Watch FAQ
Quartz watches, while not as delicate as mechanical movements, are not to be underestimated as they require their own servicing needs. Below are answers to the most commonly reported issues with quartz movements.
“What do I do if my watch has stopped running?”
The first step is to see if the battery needs to be replaced. Most watch batteries are designed to last about 2 years. However, some quartz watches are designed to have extended battery life, which can last up to 3 or more years. (Most of these watches do not have second hands). A watch service technician will check the battery and the condition of the contacts.
“The second hand ticks back and forth in one spot and the watch does not run.”
This may indicate the watch is functioning electronically, but the mechanical portion is not due to a problem with the internal gearing. Quartz watches have insufficient power to push through obstructions like mainspring-wound watches. In this case, the watch movement most likely needs to be serviced. Although there are numerous conditions that cause this malfunction, it is usually corrected by complete maintenance.
“My watch runs fine when I don't wear it, but it stops when I put it on.”
This is somewhat of a common problem and could be because the electronic circuitry has a defect. One of the factors causing this to happen can be explained using the principles of basic physics. Expansion occurs when there is an increase in temperature. In this case, the electronic circuit may have a bad contact or defect within. When the watch is off the wrist at room temperature, all of the contact points and circuits function properly. However, when the watch is worn, body temperature causes a slight expansion and the circuit connection to break. This results in the watch no longer functioning. The circuit will need to be replaced in conjunction with a routine maintenance.
“My watch always stops at midnight.”
The watch is most likely stopping due to a problem with the calendar trip mechanism. You should bring it in for service.
“The second hand skips several seconds at a time.”
This is a battery end-of-life indicator (EOL). Watches with this feature have electronic circuits that detect when the battery voltage is getting low. Their circuitry makes the second hand move forward erratically to alert the wearer that it is time to replace the battery. Installing a new battery should restore the second hand to advance normally.
“I use my chronograph often and the battery life doesn’t last more than a year.”
Using the chronograph function often or leaving it running constantly will considerably shorten battery life. It is important to understand that more battery power will be required to enable all of the numerous functions, more so than for basic timekeeping. It is not advisable to run the chronograph/stopwatch function continuously. In fact, some electronic chronograph/stopwatch functions will stop running automatically if left running for extended periods of time. To conserve battery power, it is best to stop the chronograph function when the timing feature is not being used.
“I've had the watch for a year. Should I replace the battery just to be safe?”
With many of today's quartz watches having an end-of-life (EOL) feature, it is not advisable to replace the battery until it is absolutely necessary. Opening the case presents the possibility of compromising the factory seals, resulting in the need to perform water-resistant maintenance before it is required.
“How long does a battery last?”
This depends on the age of the watch and the type/ number of functions (i.e., stopwatch chronograph applications, alarms, second hand, etc.). A battery should last for at least 1 year in analog watches and digital styles.
“The alarm worked fine until the battery was changed.”
Several factors can cause this problem. The most common explanation is that the alarm contact spring is not in the correct position. The watch may need to be sent to the service center. Other possible causes may be the case back was installed incorrectly or there is a problem with the alarm contact plate. The watch will usually need to be sent for service.
The Digital Display
“The display on my digital watch has turned black and the numbers can no longer be seen.”
This usually happens when a digital watch has received a severe shock or has been dropped. The digital display, a very thin sandwich of glass filled with a conductive fluid, has become either contaminated or cracked causing air to leak and damage the conductive fluid. This can be a very expensive repair and, depending on the value of the watch, replacing it may be the most economical alternative. Higher-end digital watches must be sent to the manufacturer's service center.
“The digits in my digital display do not show complete numbers or letters.”
The contacts connecting the digital display with the circuitry of the watch have been damaged by a shock, or the contact points are corroded. This prevents the section(s) not displayed from receiving necessary voltage to ignite the display segment. In less expensive digital watches, the repair can cost as much as a replacement watch. If the customer wants the watch repaired, it will need to be sent to the manufacturer's service center. Higher-end digital watches can be repaired at a reasonable cost compared to buying a new watch, but they must also be sent to the manufacturer's service center.
“The hands work but the digital display doesn't, or vice versa.”
Analog/digital combination watches are really two watches built together. It is possible that one will malfunction leaving one part working. Watches with a digital feature must be repaired by the manufacturer's service center.