Watch 101: Manual vs. self-winding watches

Furthering the conversation begun in ‘What is a mechanical watch?’, in this edition of ‘Watch 101’ we delve into the mechanical movement in its two most common forms -- manual and self-winding.
By Randy Lai

Two ways to wind up

On the face of things, the distinction between a manually wound and automatic movement seems fairly self-explanatory. But in order to better grasp the effects of both — on timekeeping and indeed the overall wearing experience — a short explanation is in order, as regards the principle of what makes mechanical watches tick. (Editor’s Note: We gave a broad outline of all the various types of movements here, which I urge you to check out before we dive into the present topic.

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Automatic movement of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar
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Automatic movement of Urwerk UR100 T-Rex
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Automatic movement of Richard Mille RM11-03 Rose Gold

Essentially, in a mechanical watch — whether it be manual or automatic — the kinetic energy that powers the piece emanates from a steel spring (the ‘mainspring’) coiled within a small drum (the ‘barrel’). As the spring unwinds, it gradually releases stored energy: doing so at a rate regulated by the pallet fork and balance wheel (collectively, these two mechanisms form part of what’s known as the ‘escapement’).   

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Manual movement of F.P. Journe Chronomètre à Résonance
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Manual movement of Jaeger-LeCoultre Duometre Quantieme Lunaire
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Manual movement of Chanel Monsieur Watch

So, in the aforementioned context, when someone says a movement is “manually wound” or “automatic” they’re describing how power gets delivered to the mainspring. Grand Seiko collector and aficionado Daniel Yong describes the difference thusly: “In manually wound mechanicals, the mainspring needs to be physically wound. Whereas in an automatic, [the spring] is powered whenever the rotor spins, because of the wearer’s movement of their wrist. Ergo, everytime you see or hear the rotor spinning, you know it’s coiling the mainspring and building up power.”  That to-and-from motion also means you theoretically never have to wind your watch — unless of course, the crown is being used to adjust the time, date or various other displays. 

 

Between convenience and romanticism

At this point — assuming you’ve not fallen unconscious — you could be forgiven for thinking the difference between manual and automatic movements boils down to personal taste. 

For a plethora of reasons, newcomers to watch collecting will likely have their first substantial interaction with an automatic timepiece. Much of this mass appeal can be chalked up to convenience. Worn regularly (and with the normal range of motion) automatic movements are a decidedly hands-off option for those used to the comforts of 21st century living. “I can understand why people might choose them,” says Yong. “They’re less fussy and are great for people on the go.” In concert with a display caseback — a feature that’s become increasingly common in luxury watchmaking — they also offer an aesthetic medium, showcasing a range of traditional techniques like openworking, hobnailing or the classic striped finish known as Côtes de Genève.

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Case back of Patek Philippe World Time

In addition, because the mainspring is periodically rewound as the watch is worn, an argument is often advanced by sticklers for accuracy that automatic movements are more precise — because they’re running at a consistent speed. 

Conversely, traditionalists have a tendency to cite a manual movement’s lack of rotor (and all the attendant parts) as one of the key reasons behind its longevity. The logic is simple: fewer moving parts, fewer chances for mechanical error — ditto the average length of service intervals. This goes some way to explaining why tool watches (traditionally associated with high-octane activities) have been fitted, overwhelmingly, with manual movements: when one is being shot at or hurtling into the cold void of space, reliable instrumentation is key. 

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Case back of Bulgari Octo Tourbillon Ultranero

Another simple yet compelling advantage of the manual movement is its thinness, as compared to the self-winding alternative. There’s a strong argument to be made that the important dress chronographs of the mid-century (e.g. the Patek Philippe 1518 or Vacheron’s 4072) would not have enjoyed their current status amongst collectors if fitted with chunky, rotor-weighted calibres.

 

A sentimental mood

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Front and back of Royal Oak Offshore ‘Jarno Trulli’ chronograph

Ultimately, even the seemingly trivial act of winding a crown will convey a good deal about your preferences in movement. For many, in this age of instant gratification, the act of threading the crown can seem a minor irritation, better shelved in favour of something self-governing. For guys like Yong however, there’s still romance in ritual. “Personally, I love hand-winders because they remind me of my childhood toys. Besides, I tend to be quite fidgety at work -- especially when I’m stuck in long, unproductive meetings. In situations like that, a manually-wound movement can be a pleasant distraction. To me, you’re forming a closer relationship with the object because your hands give it life -- if even for a fleeting moment.” One thing’s for certain: you ain’t getting that from a battery. 

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