Watches in Depth - Mechanical vs Electronic ¶
Not too long ago I wrote an FAQ on watches and watch technology for the benefit of our readers and clients. What I sought to do was spread some of the more advanced knowledge of watchmaking and the watch market that the average person, through no fault of their own, may not know about. The Swiss watch industry is a fascinating and immensely complicated realm of study – I don’t profess to be an expert, because I know enough to know that I know nothing in the grand scheme of things. What little I do know I am happy to share with our clients so that they can perhaps gain some of the passion I have for fine watches.
In the spirit of my original FAQ I have decided to begin a series of in-depth blogs on specific subjects – different complications and their variations, the engineering and mechanical work involved in a movement, how a watch is serviced, and other topics for people who wish to learn more about luxury watches. Consider these blogs the advanced course in watch knowledge.
Watches in Depth – Part I – The Mechanical versus the Electronic
The most basic distinction that can be made between watches is whether they are mechanical or quartz. Today’s market is heavily skewed towards quartz or electronic watches – after all, they are inexpensive, accurate, reliable and can be produced in huge numbers through mass production. Mechanical watches, on the other hand, are the mainstay of the traditional Swiss luxury watch industry and have become a symbol of luxury and fine engineering, but things haven’t always been this way.
A mechanical watch is a watch that uses a movement driven by a wound spring. Two main types exist – the manual wind (usually just called “mechanical”) and the automatic. A manual wind needs to be rewound by hand to run, and can run anywhere between 30 hours and 30 days between windings. Most manual wind watches have a power reserve of between 40 and 70 hours, 40-odd being the most common. That means you need to wind them daily or every other day. As you get into the higher end of the watch industry you will see watches with 7, 8 or 10 days power reserves by having multiple mainsprings to power the movement. An automatic is the same basic technology as a manual wind with the addition of a weighted winding rotor and a series of gears and a clutch. The rotor spins when you move your arm, which turns the gears, which winds the mainspring. The clutch stops the winding once the mainspring is full to prevent over-winding. It’s the most popular form of mechanical movement in the market today as it is a low-fuss option – wear the watch daily and you will never have to wind it manually.
A mechanical movement always uses the same basic mechanical principles, whether in an inexpensive Swatch or a top-tier Patek Philippe. The mainspring is wound up and slowly releases the stored energy through an escapement (most commonly a “Swiss lever escapement” or the more recent “Coaxial” system employed by Omega). The escapement uses a balance wheel which oscillates at high frequency – spinning back and forth on a hair-thin spring between 18000 and 36000 beats per hour. The balance and escapement regulate the flow of power from the mainspring into the gears of the movement. From the escapement a series of reduction gears translate the beat of the balance into seconds, minutes and hours which are displayed on the dial by the hands (which are connected to the gears through a series of pinions that slot through the dial). On top of that you add you complications, whatever they may be. For example a calendar (date) has a gear that rotates once every 24 hours before engaging an advancing mechanism to click the date over instantly. Every complicated watch is built over this basic system of timekeeping, and the various complications are driven by the same geartrain as the time (aside from a few unique movements that use separate movements for separate functions).
Because a movement features many moving parts, lubrication is required. Think of a watch movement as a tiny engine – it requires oil and bearings to keep everything moving smoothly and with minimal wear. The bearings in a watch are most commonly jewels – tiny synthetic ruby (corundum) discs that are placed at the pivots of moving gears and levers. Tiny amounts of fine synthetic oil are needed to keep everything lubricated – too little and the parts wear out from friction, too much and the movement seizes up from excess drag. The tiny tolerances and minuscule moving parts make any watch movement a feat of fine engineering, one that most people completely take for granted. You have to have realistic expectations of performance and durability considering the delicacy and complexity involved. If you get infuriated because your watch is off by 5 seconds a day, or you constantly abuse and drop your watches, then I wouldn’t recommend a mechanical movement.
Quartz movements emerged in the late 1960s as an entirely new form of timekeeping. Ironically it was developed by the Swiss, ironic because it nearly killed the entire Swiss watchmaking industry once the Japanese got a hold of the technology and mass produced it. Mass produced electric watches began with the Hamilton 500 calibre in the 1950s (with development beginning in the mid 40s). Designs like the 500 series were a mechanical – electric hybrid, featuring a magnetically driven balance wheel powered by a battery, rather than a mainspring. It was very similar to a traditional mechanical movement, aside from the lack of a mainspring.
The first truly electronic movement was the Bulova tuning-fork design, the Accutron, which used a tiny tuning fork vibrated by an electrical current to power the movement. Quartz took this principle further – a quartz crystal has an electric current applied, which makes it vibrate at a specific frequency, which is used by an electronic circuit to determine the timekeeping. The whole movement is totally electronic with only a few gears to turn the hands
Quartz was developed in the 1960s in a joint venture between Rolex, Patek Philippe, Omega and 13 other brands. The Beta 21 calibre was more accurate than any mechanical movement and required less maintenance, but was expensive to develop and manufacture and early example had teething problems. It occupied the top of the watchmaking world, being the most precise and most advanced technology available, and quartz watches at this time didn’t come cheap. But this was about to change - the Japanese, notably Seiko, took the technology and simplified it: soon quartz was cheap, accurate, reliable, and mass produced. Inexpensive mechanical movements became obsolete nearly overnight and the Swiss industry went into freefall in the early 1970s as the Quartz Crisis took hold.
It wouldn’t be until the 1980s that the industry would begin to recover, after a long period of attrition and the loss of many companies, by re-introducing mechanical watches as a luxury item compared to the cheap and ubiquitous quartz movement. Today mechanical watches are firmly established as the high-end of watchmaking, with quartz being mostly relegated to more inexpensive watches (and some ladies designs in the haute gamme sector). Even a high-end quartz watch is stigmatized as being “cheap” in comparison to any mechanical watch, a product of decades of clever marketing from the Swiss industry that has worked hard to re-establish mechanical movements as the top tier of watchmaking. Quartz is an excellent technology and a very reliable and rugged choice for daily use, but it doesn’t have the distinction and cachet of mechanical timepieces.
A significant portion, if not the majority, of watches from Swiss luxury brands over 1000$ today are mechanical, generally automatic calibres from major suppliers like ETA and Selitta. Then you have the manufacture (in-house) calibres from major luxury brands like Alpina, Frederique Constant, Rolex, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Zenith and many others. The variety of mechanical movements available on the market is staggering, but all share the same basic principles that date back 100 years (or more). A mechanical movement doesn’t guarantee the watch is a luxury timepiece, but most luxury watches are mechanical.
Stay tuned for more in-depth articles on watchmaking and watch technology to come in the following weeks here on the Baily Blog.