What Is A Mechanical Watch? (A Guide to Winding Watches)
The mechanical watch movements might not be as popular as they used to be, but they deserve a lot of appreciation.
After all, it is this movement that ushered in watches and clocks as we know them today, so they do have a lot of skin in the game.
That said, what is a mechanical watch – and what makes them special compared to other kinds of movement?
The mechanical watch is powered by energy stored inside a tightly wound balance wheel. The balance spring converts kinetic energy from the movement of the wearer's hands, storing that energy into the mainspring to be sent into the watch. When the mainspring fully unwinds, the watch starts losing power and cannot keep time anymore.
That is not all there is to a mechanical timepiece, though. Split further into the manual and automatic watch, find out more about how the mechanical watch works below.
How do mechanical watches work?
The basic working principle of mechanical movement has been addressed above.
Depending on the kind of mechanical watch, there are a series of differences in the working principles of these watches.
For starters, let's see how the automatic movements differ from the traditional manual mechanical movement based on how they both work.
The watch industry was built on the backs of the manual movement, so we might as well talk about it first.
A manual mechanical movement watch is powered by winding the crown before it is worn. The mechanical energy from winding the crown is converted into potential energy in the watch's mainspring, which is gently released to the watch's hands.
In most cases, you have to wind the manual mechanical watch daily as its power reserve is not usually for more than a few hours at a time.
Instead of relying on manual effort to wind the watch, this movement relies on the watch being worn regularly to keep it working. How does that happen?
An automatic watch consists of a weighted rotor that spins anytime the wearer wears the watch. The spinning movement of the rotor transfers energy to the mainspring, which winds the watch automatically.
The mainspring sends impulses to the watch between 18,000 to 36,000 times every hour, so it needs to stay wound to keep the watch working.
The automatic movement is not the typical watch because it does not have a battery like the quartz watches but also does not require manual winding like the manual watches.
What parts are present in a mechanical watch?
Unlike the quartz watch, there are a series of tiny components that makes the watch tick – no pun intended.
These components – and the engineering that goes into making sure they all work together – are the reason why most mechanical timepieces come with a hefty price tag when compared to their quartz mechanism counterparts.
Here are the most important parts of the mechanical watch that are needed for the mechanism to work at all:
Almost every traditional watch comes with a crown. In most cases, the crown enables the wearer to interact with the watch's inner workings. But that is on modern watches alone.
For mechanical watches, the crown can also be pulled out to a certain length to wind the watch again.
Thus, the crown is an important part of the manual mechanical watch to set the watch and start it. Depending on how tightly wound the mainspring is, the watch can keep a power reserve that keeps it running for some time.
A mechanical watch is not complete without this component.
Some refer to it by other names, some of which are hairspring and balance wheel. Note that they are not the same and should be treated independently.
The mainspring receives energy from the winding of the watch or movement of the wearer's hand, depending on what kind of mechanical watch we are dealing with. When the mainspring is fully wound, a barrel enclosure prevents it from losing the stored energy all at once.
Once wound, the mainspring will begin to gently unravel in a move that sends power to the watch hands, causing them to work and tick.
Thus, the mainspring can be said to be the power source of the mechanical watch and determines the power reserve that it can manage.
The dial train could also be referred to as the wheel train or the gear train.
We will get to why this part can have those names, too, in a moment.
For starters, the name implies that the dial train controls the movement on the dials.
The dial train is located close to the mainspring barrel, which makes sense since it needs the energy (stored in the mainspring) to drive the watch. Thus, the functions of the second, minute, and hour wheel relies on the accuracy and precision of the dial train.
At the same time, there are a lot of interlocked gears that move with the energy received from the mainspring to power the watch. This train also moves those gears, making it the gear train.
So, where did the wheel train naming system come from?
Every mechanical watch comes with a center wheel, third wheel, and fourth wheel, which are also a part of this train setup. These, and their respective importance, will be discussed below.
The escapement is not the escape wheel, but the escape wheel is a part of the escapement.
As the name implies, the escapement is the system that regulates how the mainspring releases energy such that it doesn't use up all the power reserve at once. Otherwise, you would have to turn the crown or always move your hand to keep the inner mechanisms of the watch working.
When you look at mechanical watches that offer a view of the inner mechanism, the escapement is usually the most visible part. Since the escape wheel is always moving in relation to the pallet fork, hairspring, and other related parts, it provides a fine sight for those who want to see something happening inside the watch.
Other important parts
The parts above might be the main picks, but they won't work without other tiny components that make the engine.
Here are a few:
- Winding pinion – this is a part of the mainspring, which also works to prevent the energy in the mainspring from getting lost all at once. Thanks to this pinion, the mainspring can only rotate in one direction, and it doesn't malfunction or unwind itself the other way.
- Center wheel – this wheel is responsible for the watch's minute hand (so, the minute wheel). A part of the dial train powered by the mainspring, this wheel also rotates fully once every hour.
- Third wheel – this wheel mostly links the center wheel to the fourth wheel.
- The fourth wheel – this wheel train is dedicated to the second hand, completing a full cycle once every minute. If the second hand is present, the wheel makes the distinct move on the watch's dial possible. Otherwise, it just sends a signal to the minute hand gears after a full cycle to respond accordingly.
- Synthetic jewel bearing – the mechanical setting includes many moving parts and gears, so friction will be an issue at some point. To reduce friction/ reduce wear, the synthetic jewel bearing is inserted.
- Escape wheel – we touched on the escape wheel above, but not fully. The escape wheel gets energy from the mainspring, rotates, and pushes against the pallet fork. That takes us to the next part…
- Pallet fork – the pallet fork is an important intermediary to flick the balance wheel. Not the entire balance wheel, but the right section that's needed to help the balance wheel manage the right energy usage by the watch.
- Hairspring – not to be confused with the mainspring, the hairspring in the mechanical movement keeps the balance wheel in check.
- Oscillating weight – also referred to as the oscillating rotor, this part comes with automatic mechanical watches only. This weight/ weighted rotor sits at the base of the watch and moves freely when the wearer moves their hand too, collecting and storing the energy for later use.
- Winding stem – the winding stem is also referred to as the stem. For manual mechanical movements, this part connects to the inner mechanism from the crown. When wound manually, the winding stem transfers the energy to the mainspring.
If this list tells you anything, it is the sheer number of parts that make up the mechanical movement. While this is not an exhaustive list, due to manufacturers developing different mechanisms all the time, it covers more than the basics of what you can expect from your mechanical watch movement.
Do mechanical watches use batteries at all?
The automatic mechanical watches are more confusing here than the manual winding ones.
We have talked about how they are powered.
For the manual winders, well, the trick is in the name.
For the automatic units, the movement of the wearer's hands generates all the energy that they need to keep working.
Still, you don't need to wind the manual ones every second – and the automatic units can still keep working for some hours after they have been last worn.
So, what gives?
When explaining the mainspring, you must have seen that some mechanisms prevent the instant unwinding of this part.
That is called the power reserve of the watch.
Depending on the materials used for the manufacture of the movement, the cost of individual parts, and the manufacturer itself, the power reserve could range from a few to several hours.
Make sure to check this out when getting a mechanical watch.
What is so good about mechanical watches?
Mechanical watches do not only rely on having been here for a long time to appeal to users.
Of course, there is a lot of history behind them, and that stands for something. When we don't look at that, though, here are some other factors to consider:
Look at all of the moving parts that go into the mechanical watch movement, and you can agree that it takes a high level of craftsmanship to achieve the precision that they bring to the table.
This fact alone is enough to create an appreciation for these hand-wound/ self-winding watches that continue to show the importance of top-scale watch engineering, among other things.
There is a reason why mechanical watches are usually family heirlooms too.
Of course, we can rule that to the fact that most family heirloom traditions started at a time when mechanical watches were the in-thing. These days, for those who choose to go this way, these watches are believed to last forever.
Of course, you have to contend with a higher level of maintenance and care, but finely-made mechanical watches won't give up on you anytime soon.
You don't spend all that time making a good manual winding or automatic movement for your mechanical watch only to then fit it with cheap plastics or stainless steel materials.
This is one of the reasons why mechanical watches are a bit on the pricey side, but that also makes them a good value for the money.
If you're getting a mechanical watch, make sure you are going with a reputable brand, and you'll be sure to have high-quality materials on your hand.
Are mechanical watches obsolete?
We hear this question in several circles, and it's funny that it is even here in the first place.
At Nordgreen, we started with analog quartz wristwatches when the market already had smartwatches. That tells you that the advent of smartwatches did not kill the quartz movements, so why would the quartz watch kill the mechanical watch?
We have already established that using a timepiece goes beyond the need to measure time. Some watches are complicated with enough functions that help them stand out in a class of their own – but you don't need a highly complicated setup to enjoy a good timepiece either.
Thus, the appeal, respect for hours of craftsmanship, intricate engineering, and style statement of a mechanical watch means that they will still be here for a long time to come.
Which Should You Get: Quartz or Mechanical?
We have discussed all three movements – quartz, manual mechanical, and automatic – in the past.
Most people tend towards the quartz movement because of the simplicity of use, ease of maintenance, and having a battery inside the watch to power it for longer.
However, there are those Nordgreen customers who want more from their watches – or just want something extra on the quartz movement already obtainable.
It is for them that we have launched a new line of mechanical watches that they can call their own.
Whether you simply like the appeal of automatic watches, would like to start a family heirloom too, check what this movement brings to the table, or for any other reason, you should check out these automatic men's watches and automatic watches for ladies too.
The best part?
You don't have to break the bank to buy our automatic watches. They are not cheap – either in price or appearance – but the final cost gives you such value for money that you almost don't find anywhere else.
If you're ready to get into the automatic watch movement and you need a watch brand that cares about you on your side, it is time to customize your automatic watch to taste.