Watch Movements Explained

A Patek Philippe manual wind movement up close

It is typical for budding watch collectors to choose a watch based on its looks, but true watch connoisseurs give equal attention to its functions, particularly to its internal mechanisms.

These inner workings, called the movement or caliber, determine how a watch works. Often described as the heart of a watch, the movement dictates how accurate the watch will be; and how often the wearer needs to interact with his timepiece.

With that, here are the 3 basic types of watch movements, simplified.


A Patek Philippe manual wind movement up close
A Patek Philippe manual wind movement up close


What is a watch “movement”?

All watches, regardless of style or design, are powered by a movement or caliber. The movement is essentially the engine that makes a watch go – the mechanism that makes the hands move and what powers other functions such as calendars, dual time zones, chronographs and other complications.

Movement Types

Watch movements can be categorized into 3 different types: manual wind, automatic, and quartz.

Manual and automatic movements are both mechanical, whose parts are made up only of mechanical parts like gears and springs and do not need batteries. Quartz movements, meanwhile, have an electrical circuit and require a battery to run.

While battery-run movements are inherently more accurate, mechanical movements are more prized because they are more labor-intensive to build and, with proper care, can last a lifetime. Of course, artistry is also a consideration – mechanical movements are the result of centuries of expertise and craftsmanship.

Let’s see how these three movements differ.




Jaeger LeCoultre manual wind movement
Jaeger LeCoultre manual wind movement

A manual movement is the oldest type of movement made, dating back to the 16th century. They are also often called hand-wound movements, because in order to keep them moving, they have to be wound by hand daily in order to create energy in the watch’s mainspring.

Manual movements are often beloved for their complex and beautifully crafted springs and gears, usually displayed through a watch’s case back. The gesture of winding the watch also becomes a form of ritual for the wearer. Both of these aspects enchant watch connoisseurs and watchmakers, thus making manual wind movements the most preferred type of movement.

They are often found in expensive, collectible, and conservative timepieces.




Patek Philippe automatic movement
Patek Philippe automatic movement

Along with manual wind movements is the other type of mechanical movement – the automatic movement, also often called the self-winding movement. This movement was introduced in the early 20th century. It harnesses kinetic energy from the natural motion of the wearer’s wrist, thus, moving your wrist around while you’re wearing the watch will wind the mainspring and keep the watch running.

How does an automatic movement accomplish this? It does so with a metal weight called the rotor, which is added to the manual parts. The rotor most often comes in a semi-circular weight that swings 360 degrees as the wrist moves, consequently winding the mainspring and keeping the watch powered.

With automatic movements, the ritual of daily winding isn’t necessary. As long as one wears the watch often, the watch will continue to get wound; however, it will run down over time if the watch is not worn for a long time, thus requiring manual winding.




Cartier quartz movement
Cartier quartz movement

The quartz movement was introduced by Japanese watchmaker Seiko in 1969. Quartz movements utilize a battery as its main power source.

The battery sends electricity through a piece of crystal quartz, creating a signal with precise frequency, thus resulting in the consistent movement of the watch hands. It is currently the most accurate type of movement being produced.

With a low number of moving parts, quartz watches are easier to produce and maintain and are therefore cheaper than manual and automatic movements.



Which movement is right for you?

If you value the craftsmanship that goes into making mechanical watches, then a manual wind or automatic movement is your best choice. This also means you’ll likely be spending more for your timepiece and will have to take additional time in ensuring that it is wound and running properly.

If you’re the type who wants to wear one watch on a consistent basis or are just getting into the watch collecting hobby, a no frills quartz movement might be right for you.





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