Watch 101

What Is A Mechanical Watch?

By Kevin Cureau
9 Feb 2021
5 min read

Welcome to ‘Watch 101’: a recurring series in which we explore the ABCs of watch collecting — "Fundamentals of Horology" if you like. In this instalment, we set about defining what a ‘mechanical watch’ is and look at the main categories of watches on the market

Mechanical time-keeping devices have been around for centuries. Indeed, the first mechanical clocks can be traced back to the end of the 13th century. Way before they were compact enough to be worn on our wrists, humanity saw mechanical ‘watches’ take the guise of gigantic clock towers; then devices small enough to fit in in our pockets; and finally, at the extremity of our forearms.

Why do we love mechanical watches so much? Apart from the visual and designed aspects, it really boils down to pure human ingenuity. Back when the first mechanical watches were created, everything was crafted by the hands of skilled artisans. An incredible number of tiny little metal pieces come together as the result of technical calculations that I would never even begin to comprehend, all in the pursuit of one simple task: telling the time. 

Before exploring the large selection of timepieces we offer here at Wristcheck, it’s important to understand the key elements that are so beloved of watches, which will also allow you to understand and answer the most important question: what is a mechanical watch?

When it comes to watches, there are three broad categories that people shall encounter: mechanical, quartz and smartwatches. Each of these has distinctive characteristics that are themselves a great source of love or dislike, depending on the collector. Below, we’ll go through each, explaining what makes them unique in their own way.


The Mechanical Watch

In a ‘mechanical’ watch (meaning that the watch does not require a battery to function) the kinetic energy powering the machine comes from a tiny 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’). The latter mechanism is what makes the 'ticking' sound heard in an operating mechanical watch.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref. 15500

A mechanical watch comes in two variants:

  1. The manual kind, which wearers are required to wind using a crown.
  2. The automatic (or ‘self-winding’) kind that remains wound throughout the day due to the the natural motion of the wearer’s wrist. This is done through the use of a rotor which winds the movement as the wrist moves.
Case back of Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref. 15500

A mechanical watch uses a clockwork mechanism (lots of small pieces of metal composed of tiny screws, gears, plates, and more!) inside what is called the watch movement, essentially the heart of the watch, to measure the passage of time. In theory, as long as it’s wound, a mechanical watch can function in perpetuity.


The Quartz Watch

The second broad category of watches is quartz watches. It is also the first type of watch that most people will encounter in life, simply because they’re widely available and are relatively inexpensive, making them perfect for kids to own and wear daily while learning how to read the time.

Swatch quartz watch

A quartz watch is powered by a small battery with a movement featuring a quartz crystal oscillator. Quartz watches are attractive because they beat at a very precise and constant frequency, allowing them to keep time extremely accurately.

Case back of Swatch quartz watch

Although there was a period when purists would usually avoid them they were previously often thought of as being ‘mass produced’ and a distraction from the beauty and craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking quartz watches have now become accepted, even into the upper echelons of the luxury watch market, by many enthusiasts who appreciate wearing a finely crafted timepiece paired with the precision and convenience of a quartz movement.

Editor’s Note: It's worth mentioning here that there is an option on the market that combines a mechanical movement with an electronic regulator, and that is Seiko’s own proprietary technology called 'Spring Drive'. The advantage is that it uses a mainspring (just like a conventional mechanical watch) that’s governed by an electronic regulator, producing an ultra-precise movement of the seconds hand.


The Smart Watch

The last category of watches we will touch on today is what people commonly refer to as ‘smart’ watches. Naturally, the quintessential example that comes to mind is the Apple Watch a product so popular it accounts for 55 percent of the entire smart watch market.

Apple Watch

You see them everywhere: they act as a sort of miniature computer for your wrist, allowing wearers to record their workouts; deal with notifications; reply to messages; listen to music; and even make or receive phone calls.

Digital watches are nothing new, and date back all the way to the 1970s when Hamilton introduced the Pulsar with a digital display of the time. Smartwatches extend this digital display to fit our modern times and to allow us to manage the flow of digital information we receive daily.

Although not a category we’d readily associate with mechanical watches — one is updated and replaced by a new model every year, while the other is a piece of craftsmanship you can theoretically own in perpetuity — what smartwatches have done for mechanical watches is create awareness around watches in general, and help draw attention to precious real estate on the wrist that can be adorned with timepieces. It’s not too far a step for a person to start wearing a smart watch, only to slowly transition to higher-end watches down the line.

Indeed, for some people there’s no need to compromise; they simply partake in the art of “Double-Wristing” and wear both a mechanical timepiece and a smart watch at the same time.