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The History Of Automatic Mechanical Watches - A Beginner’s Guide

The History Of Automatic Mechanical Watches - A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re brand new to the world of watches, it may come as a surprise that not all watches are powered by a tiny silver battery inside. Today we wanted to take a deep dive and introduce you to the distinct history of mechanical watches.

Let’s jump right in.

What is an automatic mechanical watch?

Basically, there are two families in the world of watches: quartz (battery powered) watches and mechanical watches. Mechanical watches can be broken down further into two families, either automatic/self-winding or hand-wound. The terms self-winding and automatic are interchangeable, so for the purposes of this post, we'll just refer to self-winding as automatic from here on. 

We’ve covered the difference before in Quartz vs. Automatic Watches: What’s the Difference & Which Watch Should I Buy, but one easy way you can tell the difference between a quartz and a mechanical watch is by how the second-hand moves. A quartz watch will have a crisp, clean, and precise tick, whereas a mechanical watch will more than likely have a smoother sweep. The watch may also have which type it is written out on the dial.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how an automatic mechanical watch works, let’s go back in time to understand hand-wound mechanical watches a bit more. Years ago, people didn’t have batteries to power their watches, so how did they keep them going? They had to hand-wind their watches periodically to keep time. Imagine an old black-and-white film where a gentleman with an umbrella tucked under his arm is heading out to buy a newspaper. He pulls his pocket watch out of the front pocket of his three-piece suit only to realize it's stopped working. He winds and winds and winds and syncs it to the clock tower in the center of town and continues on his way. This guy has an old-fashioned hand-wound mechanical watch.

How does a mechanical watch actually work?

A mechanical watch is powered by a spiraled coil spring known as the mainspring. Energy (tension) gets stored in the mainspring when you turn the knob—the crown— on the side of the watch, and the spring gets tightened. As the mainspring starts to unfurl, it pulls along cogs that, through intricate engineering, move the hands. As soon as the mainspring completely unfurls and the energy runs out, the watch will stop working. Then it’s time to manually wind the watch again.

The good news, though, is that since then, we've had the invention of automatic mechanical watches. Like the name suggests, these don't need to be constantly hand-wound and will essentially 'top-up' their energy reserve throughout daily wear. There are mechanisms inside the watch—an oscillation weight that turns on a pivot and works in conjunction with gravity, reverser gears, and reducing gears—that use the natural motion of your wrist to keep the mainspring “charged".

If you’re at all confused, think of an automatic mechanical watch like a Toyota Prius. You know how in a Prius, the car battery charges when you tap the brakes? An automatic watch maintains its power supply while you simply move about. The very act of you moving, charges the watch - by rotating the oscillation weight that winds the mainspring. If you’re wearing it while you’re shaving, it “charges”. When you’re frying eggs, walking to work, texting, sending an email, or pouring a drink, it stays “powered up.”

It's a common misconception though, to think that automatic mechanical watches don't need to be wound at all. They do, it's just that you don't need to wind them whilst wearing them. Because they self-wind by utilizing the motion of your wrist - if they haven't been worn for a while then they will eventually run out of juice. You should only need to wind the watch when you first put it on (if you haven't worn it for while), to provide enough of a 'base' of energy, so that the kinetic motion of your wrist simply tops this up through daily wear. Generally the power reserve on our watches is around 20 hours, so taking them off at night and wearing them the next day is fine, but if it's been a few days, then we would advise winding them again on first wear. The process takes no more than 15 seconds. 

Who invented the automatic mechanical watch?

The creation of the very first automatic watch dates back to the 1770s. Abraham-Louis Perrelet, a clock maker in Switzerland, created the first of its kind by using a side weight. A few people cast off his bizarre idea saying it was too expensive and far too complex.

But years later, in 1922, a British man by the name of John Hardwood took another crack at it. He had been watching kids play on a see-saw in the park. Could a kind of simple, kinetic energy power a watch? It was a bizarre idea, but he followed the possibility. He built prototypes and traveled to Switzerland to fine tune the more technical aspects. He prevailed. In 1924, Hardwood was awarded Patent No. 10 65 83 for the first ever self-winding wristwatch.

Is an automatic mechanical watch better than a quartz one?

This is probably one of the most frequent questions we get asked, and the answer isn’t a simple “yes” or “no.” Ultimately, it comes down to preference. Are you a watch lover at heart? (Go automatic.) Are you nuts about gears and parts? (Go automatic.) Do you want something simple that just tells you the time? (Go quartz.) Maybe, too, you just like the way it looks. (Go with your gut.)

What makes them more expensive and desirable despite being slightly less accurate?

At the end of the day, an automatic mechanical watch is less precise than quartz and it requires a bit more care and attention since there is some pretty fine engineering that goes on inside to make them tick. There are also those of us as watch enthusiasts who find the ritual of winding a watch akin to an art. It’s nostalgic. It’s slightly romantic. It echoes back to another time, another place. Call us old-fashioned, but there’s something about taking good care of the things that connect us to and root us in history.

Which Ralph Christian watches are automatic watches?

If you’re intrigued by the idea of a self-winding watch, explore The Avalon, The Prague, or The Maverick in our Ralph Christian collection.

How do I set my automatic watch?

We have specific instructions here on how to manually initiate all Ralph Christian automatic watches. If you skip this step, your timepiece will never operate properly or consistently, but it’s simple and only takes about a minute.

Our self-winding watches should be worn for at least eight hours a day to maximize the power reserve. If this isn't possible, or if the watch has not been worn for more than 15 hours, the initiation process must be repeated.

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