Mechanical Watches and Why They Matter

Mechanical movement seen through the clear case back of a Patek Phillipe
Image credit: Diniy Salleh on Unsplash

To the casual observer, there is little more to the average watch than its purely utilitarian features. The hands or display that tells the time, say, or the strap that keeps it on your wrist. A slightly more aesthetically-minded person might further appreciate the look of a nice dial, while someone with some commercial savvy will appreciate a certain brand’s cache. But that’s about as deep as it goes for most people.

When prompted to dig beneath the surface and venture into more technological territory, a newcomer will doubtless be able to distinguish between a digital and an analogue watch. They might also have glimpsed the words ‘quartz’ or ‘automatic’ on a dial here and there, but it might be trickier to tell exactly what these words mean. And, without ready access to a search engine, heaven forbid anyone brings up such mystifying jargon as ‘chronograph’ or ‘tourbillon’.

Yet to people who really care about watches, what’s going on under the proverbial hood is precisely where the real interest lies. For the horologically minded, few things are more important than the engine that drives a particular piece’s timekeeping. What’s more, it seems fair to say that the preference of the crowd in question skews heavily in favour of mechanical watches.

And just what is a mechanical watch, I hear you asking, and quite reasonably so. Simply put, mechanical watches are ones that tell time with the aid of movement rather than with batteries (those are called quartz watches, and you can read more about them here). This movement drives the timekeeping mechanisms of the watch and it can be generated either by winding (in which case it’s called a manual- or hand-wound watch) or simply by the act of wearing it (in which case it’s called an automatic watch or, simply, an automatic). If you want to go any deeper into the technical side of things, you can find out exactly how these watches work with the help of this video.

Needless to say, the above is about as basic an explanation as you’re likely to get, a bit like describing music simply as organised sound, or defining marriage as a legal union between two parties. In one sense, it’s accurate, but in another, it verges on being so elementary as to miss the point entirely. 

Such a straightforward description can be useful, though, in that it gestures starkly at the apparent sorcery that is mechanical timekeeping. ‘Wait, it just…works? You mean without batteries or anything?’ you might exclaim, as a number of people I know — myself included — have done more or less verbatim upon learning this astonishing scrap of info. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The history of mechanical timekeeping is one that spans centuries and continents. Its development has boosted entire economies and made many fortunes (not to mention fueling probably more than a few bankruptcies). It has both enabled and accompanied oceanic travel, deep-sea exploration, and even trips to the moon and back. It is a crowning achievement of human ingenuity across time, and one that continues to reach new heights of innovation, precision, and complexity, all while offering those who care about these things ever giddier levels of excitement. Understandably, it’s been the obsession of makers and consumers alike for the better part of a millennium, proving mechanical watches to be a means of keeping time that is itself timeless. 

An early example of a watch worn around the neck 1567
An early example from 1567 of a watch worn around the neck
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Humans have been measuring time in one form or another for millennia, but the history of mechanical watches starts with the development of the weight-driven mechanical clock in the thirteenth century. The first portable watches were created in the first half of the sixteenth century and consisted of ball-shaped cases containing a plated movement. It took several centuries for the watch as we know it to develop, however. These fledgeling examples were first worn around the neck or hung from a belt as novelty items and later, in part due to a corresponding fashion for waistcoats, migrated to the pocket and proliferated as more accurate timekeeping became central to organising social life.

The first mechanical watches were not very accurate, though, meaning several bits of technology were needed in the watch’s incremental progress toward modernity. These included, among many others, a spiral hairspring from 1675 that enabled more reliable timekeeping, the use of drilled jewels as bearings to reduce friction beginning around the turn of the eighteenth century, and the gradual development of more refined escapements to better drive a watch’s gear train and move along its hands in steady, time-telling increments.

The early nations to dominate the world of watchmaking were the British and — you guessed it — the Swiss. America would join their ranks when, in fine form for a nation founded on the notion of equal opportunity, they succeeded in creating timepieces that were more affordable to all (I’ve written before about one company, now known as Timex, that was particularly successful in this pursuit). As the United States created ever cheaper watches through increased mechanisation, on the other end of the Atlantic, Britain’s cottage watchmaking industry ultimately failed to keep pace and effectively dropped out of the watchmaking race, allowing Switzerland to rush ahead and eventually dominate the market in Europe and the rest of the world.

The twentieth century marked the arrival of the watch as we know it in all of its varied incarnations. For one thing, the peripatetic portable timepiece once again changed its location of choice, this time moving from the pocket to the wrist thanks to the popularity of the trench watch in World War I (more about which, here). Then, in the latter half of the century, there came the first real challenge to the supremacy of mechanical timekeeping in centuries: the electrically-powered quartz watch. So disruptive was this new development (also covered in greater depth elsewhere on this site) that it became known as the ‘quartz crisis’.

Quartz watches nearly decimated the Swiss watchmaking industry and seemed for a moment to have spelled the end for the mechanical watch. Of course, that didn’t happen. Eventually, the novelty of battery-driven watches wore off and a concomitant interest in vintage movements boosted a revival in new mechanical watches, which has only gone from strength to strength since.

It isn’t hard to see why. As Eric Bruton once said: 

‘The mechanical watch, particularly one made in Switzerland, seemed to be the ultimate in personal timekeepers. A good one, worn on a wrist and subjected to violent movements as when playing sports, and subjected to extremes of temperature, even submerged in cold water, would still keep time to about 30 seconds a week, which is one second in 60 480, an accuracy of 99.98 per cent. There is no mechanical scientific instrument available commercially as accurate as that. There is probably no mechanical instrument of any kind that will go for ten years or more, night and day, without stopping, without wearing out, and maintaining its accuracy.’

Bruton wrote that back in 1979, at the height of the quartz crisis. In the intervening decades, mechanical watches have only gone from strength to strength, reaching ever new heights of refinement and desirability. 

I only recently bought my first mechanical watch and after some initial degree of scepticism, like so many before me, I have well and truly fallen for their many charms. Mechanical watch fans are liable to wax lyrical about the merits of their beloved timepieces (much to the despair of their loved ones and those doomed to sit across from them at dinner parties) and, alas, I’m no different.

With that said, to glimpse the beating heart of a balance wheel through a clear case back or to see a second hand glide smoothly along a dial (because mechanical watches don’t tick the same way that quartz watches do, you see) is a unique pleasure, in my experience. It is, in one way, laughable to get quite so excited about a piece of tech, but in another it seems entirely appropriate to stand in awe of the results of hundreds of years of striving toward perfection. Because, of course, above all a mechanical watch represents just that: perfection. In order to do its job and survive the vicissitudes of daily wear, such a watch has to be damn near perfect at every turn or the whole thing simply stops. They don’t, though (unless something major has gone awry), which is incredible in itself, but doubly so when you pause to consider your own role in the exchange. While a quartz watch will happily go on ticking as long as it has a working battery inside it — entirely indifferent to your presence or otherwise — a mechanical watch, for all of its ingenious construction, can only function so long as you are in the picture. I suspect, over and above the beauty, brilliance, and prestige associated with these watches, it is this reciprocal relationship that accounts for the sense of devotion mechanical watch owners typically feel for the objects of their affection.

While they are ultimately just pieces of time-telling tech, there is something oddly organic and intimate about these watches and I have already come to feel an odd sense of connection to my own. The last thing I’ll say in this respect is this: My automatic has made me pause to reflect on another meaning of the word ‘watch’. Like the imagined novice evoked at the start of this article, I had at one point only thought of the watch in its simplest terms: a device that tells the time. Pausing every now and then to appreciate the sublime intricacy of a mechanical watch, however, has prompted me to look a little deeper. The appreciation I now have for the ingenuity represented by the thing on my wrist has made me apply the same perspective elsewhere in life. It has allowed me to examine more carefully, to try appreciate things more deeply. To stop every now and then not simply to check the time, but to take my cue from the object that’s telling the time. To not just look, in other words, but, really, to watch.

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