The Ultimate Guide To Watch Movement Types

Sep 21, 2021

Category: Style

When buying a car, one of the main things to consider is the engine. Opting for a four-cylinder over a V8 suggests that you’re more concerned with fuel economy than power or performance, and vice versa. And when shopping for a watch, one must make a similar sort of consideration. But unlike cars, watches aren’t powered by engines, they’re powered by movements. A watch’s movement not only keeps the watch running, it also keeps track of the time and controls any other complications the watch may have. These minuscule machines come in various forms, and keeping track of them can be rather confusing. That’s why we’ve come up with the ultimate guide to watch movement types to help you sort your quartzes from your mechanicals.

While variations exist (which we will discuss later on), there are essentially three main categories of watch movements today. They are mechanical, which is sometimes referred to as manual-wind or hand-wind, automatic, which is technically a form of mechanical movement, and there is quartz, which is your garden-variety battery-powered watch. You’ll notice that we didn’t mention smartwatches. Well, that’s because smartwatches aren’t really watches — they’re computers. And since smartwatches are not watches, they don’t have movements, they have processors. OK, now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s get on with the business of defining all of the major types of watch movements.

Mechanical

Wind Up

The oldest extant watch movement is the mechanical movement. It’s been around for an incredibly long time, with the roots of its technology stretching back to the mechanical clocks of the 14th century. Today, nearly all mechanical watch movements are based around a design known as the Swiss lever escapement that came about in 1754. Despite the name, the escapement was actually invented by an Englishman, Thomas Mudge, and it earned its moniker over many years of use by the formidable Swiss watch industry. The Swiss lever escapement is the beating heart of a mechanical movement, and it’s what makes mechanical watches tick… literally.

Put in the simplest terms, a mechanical watch works by releasing regulated amounts of stored energy from a wound spring to drive a series of gears that move hands at predetermined increments. Going into more detail, here are the steps and mechanisms involved. First, to get a mechanical watch running, you have to wind the crown — hence why these watches are also known as “hand-wind” or “manual-wind.” Winding the crown winds a long, thin piece of coiled metal called the mainspring, which is stored in a toothed cylinder known as a barrel. The mainspring can only be wound in one direction, and it is essentially the battery of a mechanical watch. Once wound, the mainspring unwinds to release its energy through the barrel, with the barrel’s toothy edges sending that power through a connected system of gears known as the wheel/gear train.

At the end of the gear train is the escape wheel, the first part of the Swiss lever escapement we mentioned earlier. The escape wheel interacts with one end of a pallet fork, which forces it to move just one tooth at a time. The other end of the pallet fork interacts with the balance wheel, which holds inside of it a small coil known as the balance spring. The pallet fork keeps the spring-driven balance wheel rotating back and forth at a specific speed, and it’s this oscillation that keeps time in a mechanical watch since the rate of oscillation is fairly constant. The constant beat rate allows the motion works (another series of gears) and the gear train to move the watch’s hour, minute, and seconds hands at the appropriate levels to measure time.

Mechanical watches are not as accurate as more modern timekeeping technologies. Even the most accurate mechanical watches are only accurate to within ± one or two seconds per day. So why own a watch that’s powered by centuries-old technology? Well, there are a few reasons. One is the craftsmanship and know-how involved in creating such a movement, with the intricacies and complications of mechanical watch movements being the main driving force behind the high prices of the most expensive luxury watches. There’s also the inherent cool factor in wearing a tiny machine on your wrist that requires no electricity to do its job, along with the implicit romance of incorporating such a historically significant piece of near-ancient technology into your wardrobe.

Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical

A modern (but thankfully not too modern) descendant of the Hamilton field watches worn by American soldiers in WWII, the Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical is the definitive field watch on the market today. With a conservative case size of 38mm, classic military-derived styling, and rugged construction, it’s a traditional bare-bones timepiece that gives you everything you need and nothing you don’t. And while Hamilton makes a variety of Khaki Field watches with all sorts of movements, nothing beats the experience of an old-school hand-cranker in this iconic watch.

Purchase: $625+

NOMOS Club

Since the technology that powers them is the oldest of all watch movement technologies, manual-wind watches tend to skew classic or vintage-style when it comes to their design. But that’s not the case with this offering from German brand NOMOS Glashütte. The Club is a wholly unique design that’s casual, sporty, dressy, and thoroughly modern. Even the movement, while hand-wound, has an air of modernity to it as it’s NOMOS’s own in-house Alpha movement, which the brand first debuted in 2005.

Purchase: $1,550+

Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional

Need proof that mechanical watches can handle anything? Well, this one went to the moon. Yes, the Omega Speedmaster Professional — also known as the Moonwatch — is the world’s most famous mechanical watch thanks to the role it played in 1969’s moon landing when astronaut Buzz Aldrin wore it on the surface of the moon. The chronograph has had continuous involvement in NASA space exploration ever since, and the latest version of the watch houses a coaxial Master Chronometer movement for the first time, showing that there’s still plenty of room for innovation in mechanical watch movements.

Purchase: $6,300+

Automatic

Rotor Motors

As we stated earlier, automatic watches are a type of mechanical watch. They operate using the same mainspring barrel, gear train, and Swiss lever escapement as their hand-wound brethren — so we don’t need to go over how all of that works again (you’re welcome). The only difference between automatic and mechanical watch movements comes down to how they’re wound. While a mechanical watch must be wound with its crown, automatic watches are wound automatically while you’re wearing them. They do so by way of an oscillating weight, called a rotor, that is attached to the mainspring with a pinion. The rotor’s pinion contains tiny ball bearings that allow it to freely and easily spin around the movement whenever you move your wrist. This spinning winds the mainspring, which keeps the watch running for as long as you’re wearing it (and for however long its power reserve lasts after you’ve taken it off, usually a day and a half to two days).

Automatic movements have also been around for a long time. Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Perrelet is believed to have invented the first type of self-winding watch movement in 1776, but it wasn’t until Rolex’s invention of the Oyster Perpetual movement in 1926 that we got the free-spinning semi-circular rotors that are still in use today. And it wasn’t until the 1940s that those rotors used ball bearings — an innovation from Swiss watch brand Eterna.

Automatic watches suffer from the same accuracy problems as mechanical watches since, again, they are mechanical watches. They also are thicker than manual-wind watches, as their cases need to accommodate the extra space required for the rotor. But because you don’t have to remember to wind them as often, automatic watches are more popular and provide for an easier wearing experience than do mechanical watches.

Tissot PRX Powermatic 80

One of the hottest trends in watchmaking at the moment is integrated bracelet steel sports watches. The style flourished in the 1970s and ‘80s before going out of fashion for 30 years, but now it’s back with a vengeance. And one of the best examples of the resurgent style is this Tissot. The watch features an elegant waffle dial, a thin (for an automatic) retro profile, and superb finishing on its integrated bracelet, but the real story may be the movement. Powering the PRX is the Powermatic 80 movement, a high-tech wonder that’s laser-regulated and boasts an 80-hour power reserve.

Purchase: $650+

Oris Big Crown ProPilot Big Date

Oris is one of the few historic Swiss brands that hasn’t been gobbled up by a corporate conglomerate. The 117-year-old brand remains independent, and that means they get to do things their own way. And their own way is frequently the right way. Just look at this pilot’s watch. A modern twist on the classic style, the Big Crown Pro Pilot transforms the pilot watch from an aviation tool to a striking and contemporary everyday timepiece that will serve you just as well on the ground as in the air.

Purchase: $1,900

Rolex Submariner

Arguably the only watch other than the Speedmaster that can legitimately lay claim to the title of “World’s Most Famous Watch” is this, the Sub. The quintessential dive watch is arguably the most mimicked watch in history, with its near-perfect design and proportions influencing nearly every sports watch released from its 1954 debut until today. And since the beginning, the Sub has been powered by one of Rolex’s “Perpetual” automatic movements. Even now, the Submariner remains unsurpassed as the ultimate automatic watch for many enthusiasts.

Purchase: $8,100+

Quartz

Crystal Power

Quartz watches are your average, run-of-the-mill, battery-powered watches. But there are more interesting things going on under the hood than you might think. At the heart of a quartz watch is an actual quartz crystal, meaning that these relatively modern electronic machines are actually crystal-powered miracles straight out of a fantasy novel. Quartz is piezoelectric, meaning that when an electrical current is passed through it, it will change shape. And if the quartz is cut into a tuning fork, then it will vibrate at a very precise and constant rate when a current is passed through it. Quartz timekeeping technology was invented in the 1920s, but it was Seiko who invented quartz timekeeping in a watch with the Seiko Astron in 1969. Here’s how it works.

A battery sends electrical impulses to the tuning fork-shaped crystal, which is housed inside a metal cylinder called a regulator. Almost all quartz watches are programmed to cause their crystals to oscillate at a rate of 32,768 Hz — a number which when halved 15 times equals 1 Hz. And that’s exactly what the movement of a quartz watch does. A series of flip-flop circuits reduces the oscillation rate from 32,768 Hz coming out of the crystal to 1 Hz by the time it reaches the seconds hand. There’s then a gear train (remember them?) that drives the rest of the hands. This flip-flopped once-per-second oscillation is why the seconds hand on quartz watches ticks just once per second, while the seconds hand on a mechanical watch has that characteristic smooth sweep where it ticks around 8 times per second.

Because there is far less variation in the oscillation rate in an electronically-regulated quartz crystal compared to a balance wheel, quartz watches are considerably more accurate than their mechanical counterparts, with accuracy rates varying from 15 seconds per month to less than five seconds per year. They are also easier to mass-produce and are generally far more affordable as a result. So why aren’t watch enthusiasts usually into quartz watches like they are into mechanical? Well, one common complaint is that quartz watches have “no soul.” Because they’re battery-powered and mass-produced, they are lacking the romance, tradition, and craftsmanship that mechanical watches are known for.

Luminox Pacific Diver

When most people think of quartz watches, they probably imagine $10 plastic watches with an LCD screen that you can pick up in a drug store. But not all quartz watches are cheap and disposable. There are plenty of quartz watches that are well worth your time, and Luminox makes a bunch of them. Maker of some of the toughest watches in the world, most of Luminox’s watches are powered by quartz movements because they can take more of a beating. And the Pacific Diver, with its Swiss quartz movement, CARBONOX bezel, and tritium gas tube illumination, can certainly go toe-to-toe with more expensive mechanical dive watches.

Purchase: $695

Longines Conquest V.H.P. GMT

For anyone who doesn’t think quartz has any place in traditional watchmaking, we’d like to turn your attention to Longines. The nearly-200-year-old heritage Swiss brand is as classic as classic gets, yet even they can see the value in quartz. Not only that, but they’ve spent significant R&D innovating new quartz movements. This GMT has a unique in-house quartz movement that not only is accurate to within ± five seconds per year but also can instantly adjust to a new timezone using the “Flash Setting” that incorporates the flash from your phone.

Purchase: $1,350

Breitling Aerospace EVO

Yes, there is such a thing as luxury quartz watches. Grand Seiko makes some. So do Omega and Cartier. Rolex used to (dear Rolex: please bring back the Oysterquartz). And then there’s Breitling, who not only makes luxury quartz watches, they make a luxury quartz icon. The Aerospace, with its recognizable ana-digi layout, first debuted in 1985 as a then-futuristic interpretation of a pilot’s chronograph. The modern version is more high-tech than ever, with titanium construction and Breitling’s chronometer-certified SuperQuartz chronograph movement.

Purchase: $4,375

The Innovators

Defying Classification

Not every watch movement fits into the bucket of mechanical, automatic, or quartz. There are a number of brands that are proving that innovation in watch movements is still alive and well. Discover the most significant among them below.

Accutron: Hamilton invented the first electronic watch with the Ventura in 1957, which used a battery in place of a mainspring to power a balance wheel. Hot on its heels was Bulova in 1960, who introduced the more successful Accutron movement that replaced the balance wheel with a tuning fork that oscillated at 360 Hz and made a distinct hum. Accutron watches fell out of favor with the rise of quartz watches in the 1970s, but in 2020, Accutron returned in a new guise as an independent brand launched by Citizen, the current owner of Bulova.

At the heart of the new Accutron is the new Accutron movement — but there are no humming tuning forks in this one. Nor are there any batteries. The movement combines some elements of automatic and quartz watches to create something new. Powered by a rotor, the Accutron movement houses two turbine-like electrostatic generators that generate static electricity (obviously). This electricity is stored in a power cell that releases the energy to a quartz crystal-regulated electrostatic motor that drives the seconds hand to a perfectly smooth sweep. Accutron movements are rated to be accurate to within ± five seconds per month, equal to a mid-level quartz movement.

Unique Escapements: While most mechanical watch movements use the Swiss lever escapement, some brands have found ways to innovate beyond the nearly-300-year-old tech. For example, Omega uses a coaxial escapement. Invented by British watchmaker George Daniels in 1976, the coaxial escapement replaces the pallet fork with a tri-palleted lever that separates the locking function from the impulse. This makes for less friction in the escapement, which theoretically improves performance and increases service intervals.

Coaxial escapements are certainly innovative, but they’re really not terribly different from a Swiss lever escapement. But one escapement that is is Frederique Constant’s Monolithic escapement. Unveiled in 2021, the Monolithic escapement replaces 26 total parts of a mechanical movement, including the balance spring, balance wheel, and pallet fork. In their place is a single thin piece of silicon fitted with two adjustable weights that functions as the movement’s escapement. The silicon escapement vibrates at 288,000 bph, which is ten times the rate of most Swiss mechanical movements. While yet to be tested in the wild, the Monolithic movement will allegedly be more accurate and require less maintenance than a regular mechanical movement.

Spring Drive: As the creator of the quartz movement, Seiko is no stranger to watch movement innovations. And in their continued pursuit of perfection, the brand released the first watch with a Spring Drive movement in 1999. Spring Drive is best described as a hybrid of a mechanical and quartz movement. It looks nearly indistinguishable from a mechanical movement and utilizes many of the same parts, including a mainspring and gear train. But instead of a traditional escapement, Spring Drive incorporates a unique regulating system. A rotor called a glide wheel transfers energy from the gear train to a quartz crystal, causing it to vibrate. The vibrations are fed through an integrated circuit that controls an electromagnetic braking system that in turn controls the speed of the glide wheel. The controlled frequency is such that the seconds hand sweeps perfectly smooth and silently, and Spring Drive movements are rated to be accurate to within ± 15 seconds per month.

Accutron Spaceview 2020

When the original Accutron Spaceview debuted in 1960, it was intended as a display model for stores to showcase the inner workings of the electronic tuning fork movement. But the watch proved so popular that Bulova soon put it into production, creating an icon in the process. Sixty years later, the reboot had no such backstory. The revived Accutron knows that people want to see the fascinating whir of its kinetic-powered twin turbines driving the world’s first electrostatic movement.

Purchase: $3,450

Frederique Constant Slimline Monolithic Manufacture

One of the most impressive small watch brands in the world, Frederique Constant has shown tremendous proficiency when it comes to their ability to manufacture their own movements — especially at their relatively low price points. With in-house tourbillons and perpetual calendars, FC was already putting many larger Swiss brands to shame, but the Slimline Monolithic Manufacture is taking things to a whole new level with its silicon oscillator escapement that vibrates at ten times the rate of a typical Swiss mechanical watch.

Purchase: $4,795

Grand Seiko “Snowflake”

While Grand Seiko’s SBGA211, or “Snowflake” as it’s known by fans, wasn’t the first of the Japanese luxury brand’s watches to house a Spring Drive movement, it is almost certainly the best-known. The poster child for Spring Drive, the Snowflake captures nearly everything that makes Grand Seiko special in one watch. The beautifully finished dial that’s inspired by the natural world of Japan, the exquisitely finished titanium case and bracelet, and of course, the silent perfectly smooth seconds hand sweep from the Spring Drive caliber within.

Purchase: $5,800

The 60 Terms Every Watch Lover Should Know

When discussing watch movement types, a lot of watch nerd jargon invariably gets tossed around — that’s just the nature of the subject. So if reading through this guide had you scratching your head at some of the terminology used, then do yourself a favor and check out our glossary of 60 terms that every watch lover should know.

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