How a Mechanical Watch Works
Jan 17, 2023
The watch world has a wide variety of options and varieties. Digital and analog, casual and luxury, metal and wood; chronograph, dive, field watches, and more. While all these timepiece variations matter for function as well as user experience, there’s another factor of watch type that’s even more important to be aware of: its movement.
The driving force of an analog watch is called the watch movement. The watch movement the engine that makes it tick. The most common and popular type today is the battery-operated Quartz movement due to its low cost and low maintenance requirements. However, so-called mechanical watches are also on the market and even offer advantages over Quartz watches.
What is a Mechanical Watch?
Unlike a Quartz watch, a mechanical watch doesn’t rely on battery power. Instead, it uses more traditional clockwork mechanisms to measure passing time and move the watch’s hands to their appropriate positions.
Mechanical watches are further divided into two categories based on what provides the energy for the watch’s movement. An automatic watch propels its internal mechanisms with the watch wearer's natural motion. A mechanical watch requires manual winding.
How Do Mechanical Watches Work?
Wondering how mechanical watches work? Deep within the internal workings of a mechanical watch is the escapement, which is essentially a tiny engine room. Here, a weighted, rotating wheel known as the balance wheel oscillates against the side of the pallet fork, an inverted anchor-like device. The pallet fork releases the opposing pallet jewel from its default locked position.
The oscillation of the pallet fork generates a small pulse of power from the mechanical watch’s mainspring through the pallet fork and to the balance wheel’s impulse pin. The energy created by this process isn’t large, but it’s enough to push the balance wheel again, which ultimately creates an ongoing domino effect or chain reaction, powering the watch’s time-keeping.
Several other mechanisms control the watch’s hour, minute, and second hands. The wheel train is what helps the hands move, as its connection to the mainspring and escapement allows a center wheel to rotate once every hour. The center wheel is then connected to another wheel that rotates once per minute. Similarly, yet another wheel rotates each second and moves the second hand. The motion works regulates the movement of those rotations. The cannon pinion, a metal shaft that translates wheel motion to the time-keeping display, reduces the hour hand’s speed so that it only completes a full revolution every twelve hours rather than moving at the same rate as the minute hand.
So, that’s a mechanical watch’s time-keeping in a nutshell. But what about time-setting? For this, we need to turn our attention to the crown. The viewable action is the part the user pulls out to disengage the watch’s natural function and change the hands’ positions, yet a complex interaction of parts happens invisibly underneath the surface.
As soon as the crown is pulled out, the motion works’ cannon pinion and other press-fit pieces are temporarily moved out of place, and a setting lever nestles into an indent in the setting jumper. This, in turn, presses against the yoke, also called a setting spring, and the sliding pinion and time-setting gears are brought into contact. The user can then set the time as they wish and easily put the watch back into regular use.
Benefits of mechanical watches
Compared to battery-operated watches and digital watches, mechanical watches operate without additional parts or products. That means the wearer doesn’t need to purchase batteries, chargers, or other technology; nor does the wearer need to discard these things in a drawer or landfill. Besides offering benefits to personal decluttering efforts and our planet, mechanical watches are also often far more stylish, convenient, reliable, and long-lasting than those with Quartz movements thanks to having fewer, and higher quality, component parts.
Mechanical watches are on average more expensive than Quartz watches. However, mechanical watches frequently end up being the better purchase in the long run compared to the alternatives. They will serve you for years rather than a few months and maintain their timeless and pristine look. A mechanical watch is more of an investment piece, but the investment will pay off in the long run.