Watch Movements

Welcome to the first part in our series entitled ‘5 Things to Know Before You Buy a Tool Watch’.

Today, I would like to focus on movements. Some call it the heart of a watch because it beats. Others call it the brains of a watch because it moves everything we see.

Listen up as this part is important, and I’ll warn you – once you know the difference between a quartz and an automatic, you may find yourself falling down a rabbit hole, just like I did.

A brief history

Initially, wristwatches were mostly worn by women, and wealthy women at that. They loved that watches provided a point of difference, jewellery-wise. Men traditionally used pocket watches, as this was seen as a status symbol of the wealthy.

How ironic it is then that the tide turned for the wristwatch when servicemen in the late 19th started using them for their convenience. Time, and more importantly, the coordination of time within groups, made a hand-strapped timepiece a military must. During this early stage, watchmakers would solder wire lugs to pocket watches and adapted mesh grills to protect the crystals in the trenches. What they lacked in ease-of-legibility, they more than made up for with toughness.

Useful reading:

As these soldiers returned home, and reintegrated into civilian life, their wristwatches were seen as a symbol of active masculinity. As we moved into the 20th century, more and more people were wearing wristwatches.

When Alberto Santos-Dumont, a pioneering Brazilian socialite and aviator, asked his jeweller friend Louis Cartier (yes, that one!) to design a timepiece that would allow him to control the plane without having to take his hands off the controls, the Frenchman obliged.

Pretty soon, watchmakers started designing wristwatches for the masses. While brands like Patek Phillipe and Omega had been around since the mid-1800’s, they were primarily focused on fine watchmaking and of course, pocket watches. This would change. Originally set up in London in 1905 by Wilsdorf and Davis, Rolex would soon to move to Switzerland, where their sole focus was to manufacture what we would now call tool watches.

Not to be forgotten, Seiko started operations in 1881.

World War I (1914 – 1918) played the next major part – the need to coordinate operations precisely meant a pocket watch just was not practical. Watch cases became purpose-built for the wrist, and movements became smaller, more reliable and accurate. The British military began issuing wristwatches to soldiers.

Mechanical Automatic

It is worth noting at this point the distinction between manually wound and automatic movements. Both are mechanical in that they are not powered by a battery.

The first mechanical watch was the manual wind. Simply put, this is most likely what your grandfather used. Inside every watch is a Mainspring. Think of it as the watch’s power source. Through a series of gears and other small parts, this mainspring connects to the hands. As the mainspring loses its tightness, gradually, it releases energy that drives the hands.

The best modern analogy for the hand-winding mechanical watch is the battery percentage on your phone. It does not charge itself. It starts at 100% (full wind) and every day, one has to charge it (rotating the crown to tighten the mainspring) to bring it back up to 100%.

As you can imagine, this daily level of interaction, while romantic now, could be considered quite cumbersome. But it is something every solder who fought in The Great War would have had to go through.

So in 1923, when Englishman John Harwood patented the first “self-winding” movement – now commonly known as the “automatic” – it wa considered a giant step in timekeeping for the Everyman.

Automatics are different from manually wound watches in that the mainspring is connected to a rotor. This rotor spins as the wrist moves, and is connected to a series of gears that wind the aforementioned mainspring. What this means is that the charging of the watch happens on-the-go. To add to the convenience, almost every modern automatic movement can also be manually wound, which is very handy if you want to give the watch a quick charge if it has been lying in your watch box for a few days.

Somewhat bizarrely Harwood’s self-winding watch didn’t have a crown – time setting was done via a rotating bezel

Other impressive complications were developed during the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1931 that Rolex developed their self-winding watch, which became the blueprint for most of today’s automatic watch designs.

Electric Quartz

In 1959 Seiko began R&D into the first-ever quartz electric watch movement. Other watch companies had also been researching the possibility of an electric watch, but many were lagging behind the Japanese.

It wasn’t until 1969 that Seiko began mass producing its quartz movement watch, The Astron.

This was not just the invention of a new technology, or the mere winning of a race. This would, within the next two decades, mean the end of many traditional Swiss brands. Quartz would become cheaper and more accurate than anything they could produce, and the average non-enthusiast didn’t have to deal with the romantic vagaries of the mechanical watch anymore.

The Quartz Crisis, as it became know, redrew the map of Swiss watchmaking, who paid a massive price for snubbing quartz in its formative days and letting Seiko beat them to the punch.

A quartz watch works by utilizing a small piece of quartz crystal to keep time. The battery in the watch sends an electrical current through the quartz, causing it to vibrate at a very precise frequency. This vibration is then measured by a built-in circuit, which converts it into a regular pulse that moves the watch’s hands via a coil magnet motor. Because the frequency of a quartz crystal is so stable, quartz watches are known for their accuracy and reliability.

There are a ton of exceptions and variations to both these movement types. Seiko has made many of innovations in the quartz space with movements like Spring Drive, and more recently the VK series, commonly referred to as mechaquartz, a blend of mechanical and quartz

Citizen, another Japanese giant, and Casio have perfected solar quartz technology. These watches do not have replaceable batteries, but instead use solar panels embedded on their dial or face to capture light and convert that to energy.

You’ll find that many watch-collecting groups favour mechanical/automatics. There is some snobbery towards quartz as they are generally regarded as cheap movements and don’t display the same craftsmanship and attention to detail as mechanical/automatic watches.

For Draken, we don’t favour one or the other. In terms of tool watch practicality, you could say that quartz is preferred, however, I have tended to produce automatic watches purely due to my love of the movement type rather than an aversion to quartz. Some quartz movements have an impressive 10-year battery life which would make an ideal tool watch movement. We could look at adding some affordable tool watches to the lineup with these movements.

However, we do avoid using mechanical hand-wound movements as these can stop ticking while being worn, making them unsuitable as a tool watch.

Of course, there is a lot more to a watch than just the movement. Hope you’ve found this information helpful. In the next post, we’ll talk about case materials and construction.

Kia kaha.


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