There are two main types of watch movements, quartz and mechanical. Mechanical movements can either be manual or automatic. Manual movements must be wound by hand, while automatic ones wind while you wear them.
When I first started learning about watches, the concept of movements was a bit confusing.
Not only were there different types, but various subcategories, grades, and manufacturers.
I spent a ton of time learning, reading, and scouring watch forums for info.
I even bought a book to learn more.
You don’t need to go down that rabbit hole, though, because I’m going to condense everything into this post for you.
After reading this, you’ll know everything you’ll need to know about watch movements.
What is a Watch Movement and Why Should You Care?
The movement, sometimes called a caliber, is the little engine that powers a watch.
It drives the hands around the dial and any complications the watch has, such as the day, date, or chronograph.
This tiny motor is found inside the watch’s case behind the dial.
It can either get its energy from the wearer or a battery or capacitor.
Knowing the type of movement a watch has is important.
It will affect how durable, accurate, and expensive the watch is. It will also affect the upkeep you’ll need to do.
You want to buy a watch that fits your lifestyle, personality, and budget.
You should always factor the kind of movement a watch has into your buying decision. So let’s take a deeper look into each type.
Quartz watches came onto the scene in the 70s, with the Japanese leading the way.
They shook the watch industry to its core and put many long-running companies out of business.
Quartz movements are powered by a small battery in an integrated circuit.
The power from the battery vibrates a small quartz crystal 32,768 times a second, creating electrical pulses.
These pulses drive the hands and complications of the watch.
Quartz movements have many benefits. They are highly accurate, more so even than their mechanical counterparts.
Also, they have fewer pieces that can be damaged if the watch is dropped or jolted, making them durable.
They are more inexpensive to manufacture than mechanical ones, so they tend to cost less.
Also, they don’t need much maintenance. You only need to change the battery every couple of years.
There are a few types of unique quartz movements that have been developed over the years.
Autoquartz uses a rotor that moves with the wearer. The spinning rotor charges a capacitor or rechargeable battery.
Solar watches, like Citizen’s Eco-Drive, have solar panels in the watch dial that capture light and store its energy.
Radio-controlled watches sync with regionally located radio transmitters to keep them accurate.
Mechanical movements date back to the 14th century. They represent hundreds of years of innovation, ingenuity, and craftsmanship.
When you think of a clock with gears and springs working together to move the hands around the dial, you’re thinking of a mechanical movement.
Mechanical movements work by winding and tightening a spring, called the mainspring. This wound spring provides the energy. The energy is transferred through the gear train of the watch.
A piece called the escapement keeps the spring from unwinding all at once. It meters the energy out to the balance wheel, which beats back and forth at a steady rate.
This energy then goes through another set of gears, called the dial train, to move the watch’s hands.
Manual Vs. Automatic Mechanical Movements
There are two types of mechanical movements, manual and automatic.
Manual movements, or hand-wound movements, depend on the wearer to wind the mainspring. You do this by turning the crown (the dial on the side of the watch case).
If you don’t wind the watch regularly, the watch stops working until it’s wound again.
Automatic movements still have mainsprings that get wound. The difference is it winds while you wear it.
These movements have an additional mechanism called a rotor.
The rotor spins inside the case when you move your arm throughout the day. The rotor winds the mainspring.
Some automatics also allow you to mechanically wind them if needed.
How is the quality of a mechanical movement determined?
There are a few things that determine the quality (and price) of a mechanical movement.
Of these, accuracy and reliability are the most important.
Beats Per Hour (BPH) is a metric tied to accuracy. Watches with a high BHP are more accurate.
Mechanical movements can also have grades ranging from standard, elabore, and chronometer.
Chronometers are the highest grade. A Swiss organization called the COSC tests and certifies them. These are accurate to within 4 to 6 seconds a day.
Other things like the power reserve, number of complications, and materials used, can increase a watch’s price.
The power reserve refers to the amount of energy stored by the mainspring. This determines how long it lasts until it has to be wound.
The materials used can also affect a watch’s accuracy. Swiss, Japanese, and German manufactures have a good reputation for using high-quality materials.
Why go with a Mechanical Movement?
As I’ve said, mechanical movements are much less accurate over time than quartz.
Because there is so much delicate machinery inside, they are also more fragile. Something like dropping it can dislodge one of those pieces and break the watch.
Also, mechanical watches are more expensive.
So why buy one?
Well, it comes down to their history, beauty, and the craftsmanship that goes into making one.
The modern mechanical watch is the culmination of centuries of engineering development.
Add in complications, and these little machines are tiny modern marvels.
Also, if you get an exhibition case-back or skeleton watch, seeing the movement working away is a beauty to behold.
Finally, a mechanical watch can last a lifetime if you take care of it.
It will need maintenance every few years to keep it running well, though. So there is an additional service cost you should factor in if you opt for one.
One final thing to keep in mind when comparing watches is the manufacturer of the movement.
Movements can either be manufactured in-house by the watchmaker or built by a third party. This applies to quartz or mechanical movements.
In-house movements are viewed as more exclusive, and they tend to be more expensive.
This is a double-edged sword in some cases, though. Uncommon in-house movements are not easy or cheap to repair.
Also, it can be challenging to find parts for these because they are not as abundant.
Third-party movement companies produce movements for other brands to use. These brands either modify the movements or put them in their watches unmodified.
Because they are widely used, parts can be readily found.
Third-party manufacturers include ETA (Swatch Group), Miyota (Citizen Group), Selita, and Rhonda. Seiko also sells its movements.
Bottom Line: Which is Best For You?
So, now that you know your options, which type of movement should you go with?
Well, it depends on three primary considerations: when you’ll wear the watch, your priorities, and your budget.
If you want to wear your watch while putting a roof on your house or tearing up your driveway, go with the quartz.
On the flip side, if you’re looking for a casual, dress, or dive watch, a mechanical watch will work fine.
Also, consider your priorities.
Do you want a watch that is low maintenance and super accurate? If you’re the set it and forget it type, a quartz watch is more your style.
Go for the mechanical if you want to interact with your watch or you’re fascinated by having a finely tuned little machine on your wrist.
If you’re on a very tight budget, your options will be limited.
Typically, at the bottom of the price spectrum, most watches have quartz movements.
That doesn’t mean you can’t get a quality watch from a historically significant brand, though.
Brands with horological histories like Timex, Casio, and Swatch all make very affordable quartz watches.
Seiko and Orient both offer budget-friendly mechanical options, too.
If you want to browse all the brands that make quality, budget-friendly watches, take a look at my post on the best affordable watch brands.