Mechanical Watches

I really like mechanical wrist watches. They have been every day tools since the 1800s and are a mix of precise craftsmanship, complex engineering and aesthetic beauty (form and function). They can often be high quality products that last a lifetime, and serve as a both a memory of the past and as a reminder that time is my only irrevocable resource and I should use it well.

This is a nerdy, niche post. I’ll cover why I think mechanical watches are interesting to me, summarize how they work, and list out a few complications and why most are useless 🙂

Why are they interesting?

As humans, we’ve been telling the time since before recorded history. The sundial was invented before we had records, and common in both Egypt and China by 3500 BC. The first watch was made in Germany in the 1505 as a pocket watch. Wrist watches have been around since 1868, and the first wrist watch was made by legendary watchmaking company, Patek Philippe for a Hungarian Countess. Wrist watches were almost exclusively worn by women and men would carry pocket watches until World War 1 when wrist watches took off for men given their usefulness as a tool for soldiers. They grew in popularity for men over women from this point onwards. High quality, accurate watches now exist in almost every price point from a few dollars to $18m for Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona.

The Holy Trinity of Swiss watchmaking are Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, and Patek Philippe because of their very long history (100+ years old) and consistent quality of luxury watchmaking. Rolex is arguably the most successful brand in the watch industry but started as a tool watch, made of steel vs. precious metals and always focused on reliability and durability versus complicated movements or ornate finishings.

I first became interested in watches as a young child. Both my parents owned and wore good watches (Omegas) and my favorite gifts from their travels were plastic Swatch’s with dial protectors. One of my prized possessions when I was 10 was my Casio G-Shock, and I wore my first proper watch (a blue Omega Seamaster in 2003) every day for over 10 years.

Watches are first and foremost tools. They can be used ever single day, have a (mostly) timeless design, and high quality timepieces can last a lifetime. Quality mechanical watches are fairly accurate (+/- 2 seconds a day), and require deep knowledge and skill to build and maintain. I also like that they can last across generations and carry the stories with them – one of my favorite watches is my dad’s because it reminds me of him every time I wear it.

I know that mechanical watches are an outdated technology and both quartz and atomic clocks are a step function more accurate. Quartz watches (battery powered) are accurate to +/- a few seconds a month and atomic clocks (your smartphone clock) are almost perfectly accurate. However, neither have the romanticism or require the craftsmanship of a mechanical watch, nor will either help us when the robots take over the world.

How do they work?

Mechanical watches are complex little machines that have to be precisely engineered, assembled and maintained to work properly. Here are the major components and how they fit together:

  1. Crown: The crown typically has three states, a locked state, a winding state and a time setting state for the most simple watches. In the winding state the crown connects to a set of gears to wine up the main spring.
  2. Mainspring: The mainspring, is the energy store, which can by wound up manually or by a self winding or automatic movement.
  3. Automatic movements: An automatic movement has a weighted rotor which usually exists in addition to a manual winding. Most modern rotors can wind the mainspring in either direction.
  4. Balance Wheel: The balance wheel and hairspring handles the transfer of energy from the mainspring in a consistent manner. This swings back and fourth and gives a watch that ‘ticking’ sound. It’s one of the most sensitive parts of a watch and typically is both shock absorbent and and anti magnetic.
  5. Escapement: The escapement meters out the energy from the mainspring to the wheel train into equal regular parts to move them a precise amount.
  6. Wheel trains: The wheel trains are set of gears layered on top of each other, which move at typically 6 beats per second which is why second hand looks ‘sweeping’ on many mechanical watches. There is typically one for minutes, one for hours and each of these gears has a watch face hand on it.
  7. Jewels: Jewels are used for lubrication and they reduce friction by acting as bearings (not because they are precious). Jewels are very smooth and hard and make mechanical watches last long time.
A good overview of how a watch works

What are complications?

Complications are additional functions added to mechanical watches to improve their usefulness. Here is a list of the most common comlpications and why I find them useful or useless.

  • Date: The date of the month, which is pretty useful but is getting less so as we work more digitally.
  • Day: The day of the week, not really useful until everyone started working from home.
  • GMT: The ability to add in a second time zone, typically with another hand. In the photo above the time almost 6pm in the second time zone. This the most useful complication in my opinion especially for people who travel across time zones.
  • Moon phase: This displays a the different kinds of moons – new, quarter, half and full moon. It’s a pretty romantic complication, and one I like (although have never owned a watch with a moon phase).
  • Power reserve: This is an indicator to tell the user how much ‘charge’ remains in the main spring, and seems like a pretty useful indicator for a manual wind or automatic watch, although I’ve never had a watch with a power reserve indicator.
  • Chronograph: A chronograph is basically a stop watch with seconds, minutes and hours typically. It’s really not that useful as you don’t often need a timer and when you do a phone is a much better device. I have a chronograph and almost never use it.
  • Perpetual calendar: A perpetual calendar watch stores the day, month, and year and accounts for leap years as well. It’s a rare complication typically in expensive watches. I don’t think it’s particularly useful unless you are wearing the perpetual calendar watch regularly enough that it stays wound.
  • Tourbilon: Tourbilons were designed to improve the accuracy of wall mounted clocks by eliminating the errors caused by gravity. They do not significantly improve the accuracy of modern wrist watches, and are very expensive and difficult to produce. I don’t really see the point of ever buying a watch with this complication.
  • Minute repeater: Minute repeaters were found in pocket watches in the 1800s. This is a chime (pattern of sound) when specific conditions are met, usually on demand. It is very difficult to make, and uses hammers and gongs with the case. Much like tourbilons, I don’t see the point of ever buying a watch with this complication.

My favorite complication is the GMT, and I have the second time set to Kenya which reminds me of home and I often glance at the second time and think about what my parents might be up to. I like the idea and the romance of a Moon Phase, but until I actually own a watch which has one, it’s hard for me to tell if it lives up to the idea in my head.

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