How Do Mechanical Watches Work?

Mechanical watches are marvels of craftsmanship. These intricate timepieces, often prized for their artistry, stand the test of time despite the prevalence of digital and quartz watches.

Though not as accurate as their quartz counterparts, mechanical watches captivate with their complex clockwork mechanisms. Collectors and non-collectors are often fascinated with how mechanical watches work.

Mechanical pocket watch

Parts of a Mechanical Watch

To understand how a mechanical watch works, you first need to know what the key components are in the mechancism.

Here are the five essential parts:

  • Mainspring: usually a coiled metal ribbon, this stores energy to power the watch.
  • Gear train (Wheel train): the power released from the mainspring drives the gear train, transmitting the force of the mainspring through to the balance wheel and escape wheel to measure time. The hour and minute hands on the dial are attached to different wheels in the train, which turn at different rates.
  • Balance wheel: a timekeeping element oscillates back and forth, acting as the pendulum does in old standing clocks or “grandfather” clocks.
  • The escape mechanism: keeps the balance wheel oscillating and advances the watch’s gears or ‘escapes’ the gears with each swing. The stopping of the gear train during each swing of the balance wheel by the escapement produces the signature ticking sound of the mechanical watch and the jumping of the second hand.
  • Indicating Dial – a clock face consisting of the traditional rotating hands to display the time in a way humans can easily read.

Simply put, the mainspring stores mechanical energy to power the watch. Working in tandem with the gear train, it transmits force to the balance wheel to keep time. The escapement ensures the balance wheel oscillates consistently, advancing the watch’s gears  at a specific rate and producing the ticking sound. This all drives the hour, minute, and second hands on the watch face so we can tell the time.

Types of Movement (Manual Wind and Automatic)

Mechanical watches have two types of movement: manual wind and automatic movements.

Manual wind watches, also known as hand-wound movements, require the wearer to turn the crown, which winds the mainspring up. This winding or coiling of the mainspring means that more power is stored to keep the mechanism running for longer.

In contrast, automatic watches use the wearer’s motion to wind the mainspring. Using an oscillating weight or rotor, movement such as walking around with the watch in your pocket can keep the mainspring wound.

Although automatic watches are self-wind, they may benefit from winding from time to time. And, it’s recommended to manually wind them when stopped before wearing them.

Winding a Manual Mechanical Watch

If you have a manual wind watch, it is recommended that you wind it every 24 hours. So, to wear a watch daily, it’s best to build a habit of winding your watch at the same time each day. That’s probably easiest at the same time in the morning or in the evening.

To wind it, pull out the crown at the top of the watch and turn it several times to coil the mainspring. You should start to feel some resistant when it is fully wound.

It is crucial not to overwind the watch as this can damage the mainspring or other parts of the mechanism. Winding the watch once daily is ideal because it ensures that the mainspring maintains more than half its tension.

Basic Care for a Mechanical Watch

Caring for your mechanical watch is essential to keep it running smoothly over time.

Firstly, ensure that it stays clean and dry. Exposure to moisture or dirt can cause damage to the sensitive inner mechanisms such as the mainspring, escapement, and balance wheel.

Secondly, avoid exposing it to extreme temperatures, as heat can impair accuracy and affect the lubricants’ consistency.

Thirdly, keep it safe when not being worn, such as by storing it in a box. That will help to prevent any scratching or damage when you are not using it.

Last but not least, have it serviced regularly by a professional watchmaker. Unlike a quartz watch, a mechanical watch requires manual inspection, cleaning, and lubrication maintenance to ensure its longevity.

Remember, the beauty of a mechanical watch lies in its carefully crafted inner workings, and it is essential to take good care of it to keep its artistry ticking.