I’ve had a love affair with watches for quite some time now. They are seductive creatures, latching onto the wrists of folks everywhere. The shame of it is that so many of their owners are unaware of what’s really going on inside those shiny timepieces. Whether it is mechanical or quartz it really does deserve a little attention and TLC. There is more to watches than meets the eye!
There are two main types of watches, and they are categorized by how they tell time: digital and analog. The main difference between the two is the way in which they display time. An analog watch displays time with the classic hour, minute, and second hands, and a digital watch uses a computerized LCD screen to show the numerals. These two types can then be categorized by what makes them tick, so to speak—battery or mechanics.
The first two types of watches we’ll discuss are both run by batteries and are referred to as quartz watches. Quartz is the second most common mineral found in the world, and it is used in watches as a tuning device that keeps it timing properly. Despite the abundance of quartz found in nature, most of the quartz used in watches is synthetic. Quartz analog and quartz digital watches are the most common watches sold in the world, making up around ninety percent of the market. They are also the most accurate and reliable watches out there. Quartz watches run the gamut from inexpensive, plastic pieces to expensive ones that are covered in gold and diamonds.
Quartz Analog Watches
When people think of watches, they typically picture what’s known as a quartz analog watch: a battery-operated watch with a face featuring rotating hands. They are abundantly found in a wide range of styles and designers, from brandless souvenir watches in a gift shop to Timex, Swatch, and Swiss Army to luxury brands such as Raymond Weil and Baume & Mercier. The difference in cost among the various analog quartz watches is largely due to the brand; materials used to make the case, bracelet,
and face of the watch; and the quality of craftsmanship to build those parts of a watch. The movement, or time-keeping mechanism of the watch, most certainly can be finer and more precise in well-made watches but movements are relatively inexpensive to manufacture regardless.
Quartz analog watches are typically powered by a low-drain silver oxide battery, which can be easily replaced by your local jeweler or watchmaker. The movement loosely consists of a power cell, quartz, a circuit board, and a small electric motor—all of which work together to turn the hands of the watch and keep the time. The most common repair performed on a quartz analog watch is movement replacement. This is when the entire movement of the watch—which is largely manufactured as an entire piece, not parts—is replaced. Most watchmakers can easily repair a quartz watch, but be wary of taking a more expensive quartz watch to a watchmaker you are unfamiliar with. The movement of a watch can be replaced with a non-brand movement, and you would never know! If this was to be the case, and the customer is not made aware of the situation, its underhanded and they may be getting ripped off either monetarily or by thinking they are getting something they are not. A customer may agree to have a non-branded movement replace a branded one if they are not prepared to pay the additional cost for the brand movement – but be careful, as this will void any warranty with the original manufacturer! It may also be acceptable if the movement being replaced is no longer manufactured or the watch company no longer exists and parts are not available.
Quartz Digital Watches
Quartz digital watches vary greatly when it comes to style and function. They can be used as both fashion statements and functional pieces. Digital watches are great for someone who might be doing a lot of outdoor activities. Many of them are low cost and “sport proof,” meaning they are often water resistant, or even waterproof, and can handle a few bumps here and there pretty well. Digital watches can perform a myriad of tasks with some having additional built-in features such as stopwatches, Bluetooth capabilities, complicated calendar and GPS functions, pedometers, and digital heart monitors. Pretty cool and useful!
Because digital watches are so varied in style and function, the interior computer boards and circuitry tend to be vastly different from watch to watch. They are also quite complicated inside and can have many layers of computer parts. Digital watches are also the only watches that do not have any moving parts. Generally, if a digital watch is in need of repair or a battery change, it must be sent back to the manufacturer or be taken to a specialized repair shop. Unfortunately for the digital-watch owner, traditional watchmakers are usually trained to work on watches with gears and movements, not computer boards, so a repair shop that specializes in digital watches can sometimes be a little difficult to find. There is no harm is asking your jeweler or watchmaker to take a look, of course. If they are unable to help, they may be able to point you in the right direction.
Although quartz watches keep more accurate time than mechanical watches, what I love about mechanical watches is that they perform amazing functions without the use of computers or electricity. A
perpetual calendar watch, for example, will keep an accurate calendar (if kept properly running, of course!) for one hundred years, needing only one date adjustment during that time. This basically means that a bunch of gears, springs, rotors, and metal parts are keeping track of years, leap years, long months, short months, weeks, and days for one hundred years—accurately—without need for correction by a human hand. Simply amazing. If that is not an art, I don’t know what is!
There are two basic kinds of mechanical watches: automatic and manual wind. The difference being that automatic watches are self-powered and manual-winding watches need to be wound by hand on a daily basis.
Automatic—or self-winding watches—run from the power produced by an oscillating weight inside the watch that rotates from the motion of the wearer’s arm or a watch winder! No battery, just mechanics! This rotating action then produces tension in the mainspring of the watch, making it tick. Given that, an automatic watch that is not worn on a daily basis will stop running. It then must be manually wound—via the crown—to “recharge” the mainspring, and the time must be reset. If an automatic watch that has stopped or has lost considerable time due to lack of wear is simply placed on the wrist without being manually wound, it will not keep proper time.
Automatic watches are something more of a specialty item and are sought out by enthusiasts for their looks, complicated movements, and functions. Automatic watches are marvels of engineering and can perform tasks that are seemingly impossible for a watch that uses no electricity or computer technology. Automatic watches can sometimes perform functions like tracking
moon phases, astrological charts, and multiple time zones, as well as function as alarms and annual and/or perpetual calendars. Their continued popularity pays homage to the history of traditional watchmaking from which they descend.
If you are in the market for an automatic watch there is plenty of diversity to be found, and a decent watch can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. However, if you are looking for complication and craftsmanship you will be set back thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. One of the most popular brands to feature a well-made line of automatic watches is Rolex. However, they have quite the competition these days from brands like Panerai, Breitling, and Cartier. Even finer examples of watchmaking and craftsmanship can be found by boutique luxury brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and Patek Philippe. Some watches created by these companies are entirely made by hand and take over a year to build.
As you can probably guess, care and maintenance of an automatic watch is of the utmost importance. Think of its interior parts as a car engine: an automatic watch will occasionally need a tune up, which is known as an overhaul. Every watch will differ as to how often an overhaul is needed, but Rolex, for example, suggests that an automatic watch be serviced every four to six years. The purpose of an overhaul is to clean the interior, re-lubricate it, and replace some standard parts that are typically subject to wear, like small gears. Automatic watch repair is done by a watchmaker who will identify any problems with the watch or its timekeeping, replace parts, clean, and possibly refurbish the watch, if necessary.
Manual-wind mechanical watches are the predecessors to automatic watches. The main difference between the two styles is that manual-wind watches have no rotating weight to power them. They must be hand wound every day in order to keep time. By winding the watch through the crown, the mainspring coils tightly and powers the watch for a few hours to a full day depending on the watch.
Most people would associate this type of watch with an old-timey train conductor who pulls a watch from his pocket before calling “All Aboard!”. Truth be told, they have been around for quite a long time. The first mechanical watches appeared in Europe in the seventeenth century and were derived from mechanical clocks. Today, however beautiful their mechanics, their popularity remains mostly among watch enthusiasts due to their lack of everyday practicality. They are even more of a specialized item than the automatic watch.
Manual wind watches are capable of performing complex functions, just like the automatic watch. The recommended maintenance, care, and repair is very similar to that of an automatic watch, as well. Some companies that manufacture manual-wind watches today are Hamilton Watch Company, Breguet, and Longines.
Whether it’s the hundreds of years of watchmaking skill that has led to the advanced mechanical watches we know today or the innovations in computer technology of the digital watch that strike your fancy, timepieces like these really are amazing feats of engineering and craftsmanship. To think that the quartz watch was only invented in the 1960s and is now readily available in every price range and style is incredible. Not to mention that “smart watches” are available now that wirelessly connect to your computer or phone. What will they come up with next?!
Jess the Jeweler