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Know Your Watches: Mechanical Watches

by Jonathan Fairfield
8 January, 2013
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About the author

Jonathan lives and works in Thailand as a writer and English Teacher. He is fanatical about football which makes it all the more strange that he should support Stockport County. In addition to watches, Jonathan has a passion for fitness and nutrition and writes for a blog on the subject.

Mechanical watch movement close up

Know Your Watches is a new series which explores and explains the many different types of watches available on the market, and which often confuses even the people who are supposed to be selling them. Armed with the information provided in this series you should be able to convince people that you’re something of a horology buff at your next sophisticated soiree.

What Is a Mechanical Watch?

A mechanical watch movement features a series of moving parts that are wound manually. The main concept behind a mechanical watch movement is the watch’s mainspring that transmits energy as it gradually unwinds. The energy that is then generated is transmitted to a selection of gears that powers a weighted wheel, known as the balance wheel. As the balance wheel moves back and forth, this drives a device called an escapement, which enables the watch’s wheel to continuously move forward a small amount at a time with each swing of the balance wheel. This then moves the hands of the watch and it is because of this that you hear the ‘ticking’ sound that is synonymous with all mechanical watches.

Most mechanical watches will typically work for around 40 hours on a power reserve, although some can work for as long as ten days following one ‘winding’ of the watch. In order to prolong the life of a mechanical watch it needs to be serviced periodically. Despite the need to wind up a mechanical watch, a mechanical timepiece is capable of keeping accurate time.

A Brief History of Mechanical Watches


Constant Girard developed the world’s first wrist watch

It was during the 15th century that the first spring powered clocks started to appear. By the beginning of the 17th century, the first pocket timepiece was introduced to the world and it was during this time that the term ‘watch’ was first used. One of the main problems with the earliest mechanical watch and clock movements was that they were terribly imprecise and could vary by as much as 15 minutes in a single day.

It wasn’t until 1675  when a Dutch Scientist called Christiaan Huygens developed the world’s first balance wheel and spring assembly, which is still found in some of today’s wrist watch mechanisms. This saw the accuracy of wrist watches improve to around 10 minutes per day.

During the next century various developments in clock and later watch making was happening throughout Europe. In 1721, another major technological breakthrough occurred when George Graham succeeded in improving the accuracy of the pendulum clock to just 1 second per day. The work by Graham was then refined further by John Harrison, a master carpenter and self taught watch and clock maker. By 1761, Harrison had built the world’s first marine chronometer that featured a spring and balance wheel escapement. His achievement was recognised by the British government at the time who awarded Harrison a prize totalling over £1,000,000 in today’s money for creating a clock that could accurately keep time even on-board a rolling ship that was at the mercy of the high seas. On one particular voyage to the West Indies Harrison’s chronometer kept time to within one fifth of a second per day, which at the time, was nearly as accurate any pendulum clock on land.

Of course of these advancements in the improving the accuracy of pendulum and mechanical clocks filtered its way down to pocket watches and then eventually wrist watches. 1780 saw Abraham Louis Perrelet invent the world’s first self winding mechanical movement but it wouldn’t be for more than 80 years until the world’s first wrist watch would be created by Patek Philippe of Patek Philippe & Co in 1868. Philippe & Co went on to be pioneers of the perpetual calendar, split seconds hands, chronograph, and minute repeater watches.

Cheaper materials and improvements in mass production meant that by 1876 even ordinary workers were able to own a pocket watch for the first time. Just four years later the concept of a wrist watch was developed by Constant Girard of Girard-Perregaux, who produced over 2000 of the wrist watches, primarily for German Naval officers, which also signified the first important commercialization of mechanical wristwatches.

Fast forward to the 1970’s and manual wound mechanical watches had started to become less popular following the development of the automatic watch movement.

Why Do Connoisseurs Love Mechanical Watches?

Even today, for many traditional watch lovers there is something magical about having to tend to and manage your own mechanical watch. Whilst the latest digital offering from Casio or Swatch will not only offer convenience but will also keep time better, mechanical watches are now almost so brilliantly unnecessary that many enthusiasts can’t help but love them.

Today, mechanical watches could be described as one of the most complicated (not to mention expensive) fashion accessories ever made. Yet whilst a quartz watch offers functionality, it’ll never have that unique balance of aesthetic pleasure, precise engineering and dazzling craftsmanship. And of course it is the feat of engineering that is so interesting to scrutinise and study and which for many collectors will undoubtedly turn into an obsession.

Buying a Mechanical Watch

On the face of it, buying a mechanical watch is just the same as buying any other watch. However, to truly understand what exactly you’re getting for your money, it would probably be beneficial to learn a little about watch makers and their movements and why they can vary so much in price.

If you do want to purchase a mechanical watch then consider things like the watch’s mechanism, its case and its face. Essentially, all watch movements are the same. The components do the same job and fulfil the same roles. But what makes one movement stand out from another is its composition.

Almost all mechanical watch movements use jewels or constructed rubies as bearings to help keep the watch’s moving parts from wear and tear away through constant use. Jewels undoubtedly add to the price of the watch and whilst some watch makers add more jewels for commercial purposes or advertising, some use more jewels for functional reasons in secondary mechanisms.

Adjusting a movement also adds to the price of a mechanical watch and is another reason why they tend to be so expensive. Because the parts are so small and so complicated, its position when it is worn on your wrist, as opposed to it laying on a flat surface, means that every time you move, the watch’s movement also moves ever so slightly, which affects the way the watch keeps time.

Some mechanical watches are adjusted to a number of different positions in order to reduce the variations in which it is able to keep time. Again, this all adds to the price. The other final factor that affects the price of a mechanical watch is its finishing. Custom polishing, decorating, small tweaks of each tiny part of the mechanism is not only expensive but absolutely crucial and is an incredibly complex operation.

How to Start Your Mechanical Watch Collection

Seiko Men’s 5 Automatic SNKA21K Silver Stainless-Steel Automatic Watch with Blue Dial available for less than £100

So by now you should hopefully know at least a little bit more about mechanical watches. You’ll know that aside from being unique and for the most part, examples of precision engineering and craftsmanship at its finest, they are normally very expensive. Despite this, it is still possible to buy a mechanical watch even if you only have a relatively small budget. Searching online or by visiting some of the leading watch forums is ultimately the best place to start for used mechanical watches that cost less than say £1000.

Price can also vary greatly for new mechanical watches. Whilst it’s not uncommon for prices to top six figures, the cost of some brands can drop as low as double digits. For example, Japanese watch maker Seiko sells a wide range of mechanical watches for less than £100.

Inevitably, hand wind watches are much harder to find at lower prices. Just by browsing on any watch forum you’ll find plenty of pictures from watch brands such as Breguet, Breitling, Omega and IWC that are probably as far away as you could imagine from what is generally considered affordable.

The Girard Perregaux Opera 3 costs a cool $5.32 million

Having said that, appreciating these fine timepieces will almost certainly become more of an interest the more you browse. However, be warned – collecting mechanical watches might start off as a simple hobby but it can quickly develop into a full blown addiction that will be hard to kick, and expensive to run!

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Jonathan Fairfield | Website

Jonathan lives and works in Thailand as a writer and English Teacher. He is fanatical about football which makes it all the more strange that he should support Stockport County. In addition to watches, Jonathan has a passion for fitness and nutrition and writes for a blog on the subject.

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