Watch Education: Is My Watch Automatic, Battery Powered, or Hand Wound?

While the style of the watch—from the case to the dial to the bracelet—is what gets noticed first, for many watch enthusiasts, what lies underneath is just as important. In watch-speak, the mechanism that powers a timepiece is referred to as a movement or a caliber. Read on to find out what the three main types of watch movements are and the famous luxury watches that house them.

Omega Caliber 1861What is a Hand-Wound Mechanical Watch Movement?

The most traditional watch movement is what is referred to as a hand-wound or manual-wound movement. As its name suggests, a watch that runs on this type of caliber requires the wearer to manually wind the crown of the watch regularly to keep it going. Turning the crown winds the mainspring, where the energy of the watch is stored. In simplest terms, that energy is then distributed through the gear train, balance wheel, and escapement to drive the hands around the dial to indicate the time. Depending on the power reserve of movement—how long energy is stored before it runs out of juice—a manual watch needs to be wound anywhere from daily to weekly. The biggest advantage of a hand-wound mechanical movement—aside from prestige and tradition—is that its construction is thinner than its automatic counterpart. Therefore, manual calibers are typically found in ultra-thin timepieces. For example, many models within Patek Philippe’s signature Calatrava collection contain manual movements. Furthermore, there’s Omega’s famed Speedmaster Professional “Moonwatch,” which has the distinction of being the first watch to journey to the moon. Powered by hand-wound movements, the original 1957 Speedmaster Professional contained the Caliber 321, followed by the Caliber 861, and finally the Caliber 1861.

Rolex Datejust MovementWhat is an Automatic Watch Movement?

An automatic or self-winding movement is also a mechanical caliber, but it doesn’t require manual winding. Rather, it winds itself automatically via a rotor that moves back and forth thanks to the natural motion of the wearer’s wrist. As the rotor moves, it winds the mainspring, which subsequently powers the watch. The leading benefit of an automatic movement is prestige mixed with practicality. As long as it is worn, an automatic watch will keep running without the need for manual winding or battery. Automatic movements are prevalent in luxury watches today. Take for example Rolex’s famous Caliber 3135 found within the Datejust, Submariner, Yacht-Master, and Sea-Dweller watches. There’s also the Caliber 3155 of the Day-Date, the Caliber 3186 of the GMT-Master II, and the Caliber 4130 of the Daytona. While some top watchmakers manufacture in-house movements, many of them also depend on ébauche movements. These are unassembled movement parts that are then built and modified by the watch companies as they see fit. Famous ones include the Valjoux 7750 movement and the ETA 2892-A2—both used by watch brands like Omega, TAG Heuer, Breitling, and IWC.

What is a Quartz Watch Movement?

A quartz movement is one that depends on a battery for energy. Seiko unleashed the world’s first mass-produced quartz watch in 1969 with the Astron. Not only are quartz movements more accurate than mechanical ones, they’re also cheaper and faster to produce. As a result, this technological breakthrough almost eliminated the Swiss watch industry in the 1970s and 1980s. Swiss watches not only bounced back, but most leading luxury Swiss watch companies today include quartz models in their lineup. For example, there’s the Cartier Panthère, the OMEGA Constellation, the TAG Heuer Aquaracer, and the Breitling Colt. In fact, Breitling flaunts that their SuperQuartz movement is ten times more accurate than a standard quartz caliber.

Aside from opening up the watch, an easy way to tell if a watch is quartz is to look at the seconds hand. A quartz watch will have the once-every-second ticking action while a mechanical piece will feature smoother sweeping strokes around the dial.

Manual, Automatic, or Quartz Movement?

The discussion of watch movements can be a heated one among the watch crowd with loyal fans in each camp. However, the truth is, each caliber brings its own advantages (and disadvantages) to the table. Like any other component of a timepiece, a particular movement—whether manual, automatic, or quartz—should suit the wearer’s lifestyle, budget, and taste.