What Makes Your Watch Tick? How Mechanical Watches Work

September 3rd, 2011 | 7 Comments

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Modern mechanical watch design has changed little over the past half-century, excepting the usage of high-tech materials in the manufacturing/design processes.

The functional composition of these watches can be subdivided into 4 categories:

How do mechanical watches work?

The wearer either winds the mainspring manually by twisting the crown, or the wearer generates energy when he/she swings his/her arm, winding the mainspring automatically.

Then, energy from the wound spring is released periodically into the gear train, which transmits the power and moves the hands. This release of energy is highly regulated by the escapement system, which converts the continuous rotational motion of the gears into an oscillating motion (like a pendulum). Without the escapement, the spring would unwind uncontrollably. It works by driving a timekeeping part (usually a pendulum or balance wheel) back and forth periodically allowing the gears to “escape” for a short period of time with each swing, translating into the steady movement of the hands on the display.

The escapement keeps the pendulum/balance wheel moving by giving it a push with each swing. Every time the oscillator swings, it releases the escapement, changing the gears from “locked” to “drive” for that short period of time, ending when the subsequent tooth of the gear hits the locking surface of the escapement causing the watch to tick.

Automatic mechanical watches harness the energy generated with each swing of the arm by including a semi-circular metal piece that is relatively heavy and therefore, affected by gravity. As the arm swings, this piece always remains pointed at the ground, swinging back and forth within the watch. This metal piece is connected to the gear train; so, each swing of the arm winds the mainspring a tiny bit, easily keeping the spring wound.

The energy stored can allow the watch to run without being worn for about 1-2 days; although, some more complicated versions have energy reserves allowing the watch to run longer.

How accurate are they?

Mechanical watches typically keep accurate time within 25 seconds per day, compared with the quartz designs that keep time to within .5 seconds per day. These quartz watches use a quartz crystal as the oscillator, transmitting energy through a set of gears or a capacitor to facilitate the movement of the hands. Typically, this design requires the use of batteries, but a simple yet revolutionary combination of the traditional mechanical design and the advanced quartz design have changed this. This type runs like a traditional quartz watch but gets energy from a self-winding movement, negating the need for batteries. The escapement stretches the mainspring, and the energy released fuels a micro-generator converting the mechanical energy into electrical energy. This power is then accumulated in a tiny capacitor which funnels the electricity into the quartz oscillator, and from then on, the process continues as in a normal quartz watch. This design allows for the unparalleled accuracy of the quartz design, without the undesirable qualities, e.g. the need for batteries.

  1. 7 Comments | Tell us what you think!

  2. By RobG on Sep 6, 2009

    This is a great primer on historical drivetrains for watches. It’s nice to be able to do some shopping AND learn a thing or two along the way. It builds on the appreciation we already have, thanks for taking the time to post this.

  3. By Jaylynn Krause on Sep 14, 2009

    I love the clean classic look of these watches, nice website to look at too!

  4. By Eric W. on Sep 15, 2009

    This is a very interesting article! Thank you for sharing!

  5. By Sreekumar on Dec 25, 2009

    Going through this article will make attracted towards the Automatic Watches. I am already a victim. :-)
    Once you know the complicated system inside this tiny piece of watch, one can just appreciate the workmanship of the people behind it. Hats off to you guys..

  6. By Debbie Roa on Jan 8, 2012

    I have allways been curious about how a watch works. I’m looking for an old fashioned mechanical watch. And can’t seem to find one. I hope I will I like the old fashioned wind watches.

  7. By colton on Apr 17, 2012

    great information! thank you i can definitively use this on my invention project for social studies!:)

  8. By Carlos Marques on Apr 26, 2012


    I have a vintage Multi-Year-Calendar Automatic Orient watch. After so many years, it’s a model from the 70′s, it’s amazing how it keeps the time so well.
    It is a strong and beautiful piece at the same time, and although I Keep a lot of other vintage automatic watches, this Orient is the one that I prefer and use more regullarly.For those who love vintage automatic wristwatches go a and buy an Orient rigth now.

7 comments | Tell us what you think!