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Complications: How Do Automatic Watches Work

For some reason, the option of three variants seems to permeate throughout various industries both in and out of the realm of watches – even surfacing within ancient texts and fables from years past. Some claim the number “3” as a magical number – marking these very texts and tales as evidence throughout history. With this in mind, you may be wondering where we’re going here. Well, when it comes to watches, three types of movements encompass this diverse world: quartz, automatic, and manual. And if you’ve ever spent some time researching for a future purchase, odds are one of these three movements presented themselves to you in some way, shape, or form. The problem? Some unwary buyer’s don’t fully understand what sets each movement apart, or at the very least how each movement allows the watch to keep on ticking.

It’s here where we decided to tackle the most complicated of the three movements – automatic – found in the majority of higher-end luxury watches these days. From the name itself, you might be able to determine the nature of this movement. But how, exactly, does the automatic nature of this movement work? More importantly, what’s separates these handy timepieces from their brethren and what are the best practices for maintaining such a timepiece? Well, it starts with understanding the difference between a manual and automatic watch, outlined below, before pressing onward to the more detailed intricacies of this wrist-worn feat of human engineering.

The Basics

Manual vs. Automatic

To begin, it’s imperative to understand that both automatic and manual movements are considered mechanical movements. Meaning, these watches run based off a power reserve – compiled of various gear, springs, and rotors that work in conjunction with one another to keep things ticking. As opposed to their Quartz relatives, mechanical watches don’t require a battery to function. Needless to say, there’s a bit more TLC involved with mechanical watches in relation to those powered by a quartz movement. Automatic watches utilize the natural movement of the wrist to generate and store power to function

Getting back down to business, after conducting a little research you’ll soon discover that manual mechanical watches make up some of the earliest expressions in the industry – dating back to the 16th century – and mostly found in high-end luxury watches today. Also, as the name might suggest, manual watches need to be wound in order to generate power for the watch to function – done by turning the crown located at the 3 o’clock position on right-handed watches and the 9 o’clock position on left-handed watches.

On the other hand, automatic watches separate themselves from the pack in that they utilize the natural movement of the wrist to generate and store power to function. These days, it’s safe to say that most mechanical watches available on the market are in fact automatic in nature. Also known as “self-winding,” these timepieces don’t require any batteries or repetitive winding of the crown either – just good old habitual use and natural movement. It’s also unsurprising that the majority of these movements come from Switzerland or are built in-house by renowned legacy brands such as Rolex or Omega.


It's All In The Wrist

Before diving into the functionality of how an automatic watch works, we must stress the importance of what’s called the power reserve as you’ll inevitably encounter this wording when researching your first automatic watch. Basically, what this verbiage references is the amount of time it takes for a fully wound watch to unwind (stop ticking) when not worn. From here, we’ve found that most mechanical watches boast a power reserve between 36 and 42 hours, though some can offer reserves up to 72 hours in certain cases.Mechanical watches are powered by an internal mainspring that in turn rotates the gears than then move the hands on the dial face

As for functionality, mechanical watches are powered by an internal mainspring that in turn rotates the gears than then move the hands on the dial face (This is, of course, a very simplified explanation of how a mechanical watch functions). From here, a self-winding watch (automatic) boasts a small mechanism that winds the mainspring. More specifically, this weight (or rotor) oscillates on a pivot in conjunction with the random motion of the wearer’s arm to put tension on the attached winding mechanism. This continued circular motion of the rotor then winds the watch’s mainspring in the same manner rotating the crown would do so for a manual watch. The key here, however, is to remember the old cliche – if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Meaning, the watch’s power reserve will run out when not worn for an extended period of time. At which point, you’ll have to initiate the power reserve by manually winding the watch as you would a non-automatic mechanical option.


Keeping It Wound

Just like any prized piece of tech or intricate gear item, your automatic watch will without a doubt treat you as well as you treat it. So if a high-ticket item is on the docket for purchase, we strongly advise keeping the watch wound and in excellent condition from the moment it’s purchased. First things first, though. You’re going to have to manually wind things up to get the watch functioning properly. That’s because the mainspring will most likely be completely unwound when the watch is first purchased. To expedite this process, it’s recommended you wind the crown clockwise between 30-40 times to completely wind the mainspring. Once this occurs, the natural movement of your wrist should be enough keep everything ticking along nicely.

Finally, the key to automatic watch maintenance is keeping the watch wound when not worn. Therefore, don’t forget the typical power reserve of an automatic watch – allowing for one to maybe two days of dormant activity. In this case, especially if this won’t be the last automatic watch you plan on purchasing, keeping a watch winder on hand is never a bad idea. This way, you can not only keep these automatic timepieces fully wound but put them on display in a design-friendly manner. Whatever you decide, remember to cherish these timepieces for their intrinsic value – understanding the engineering feats involved in the mechanical aspects behind an automatic watch.

12 Best Automatic Watches Under $500

Not all automatic watches have to break the bank. For proof, check out this list of 12 automatic timepieces under $500 and pick up one of your own.