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What Is a Watch? Answers to All of Your Questions

what is a watch
There are a number of classifications or subcategories of watches, including wristwatches, but what is a watch?

There are a number of classifications or subcategories of watches, including wristwatches, but what is a watch?

What Is a Watch?

A watch is commonly referred to as a timepiece and is designed to be worn or carried by a person. It is created to maintain a consistent reference of time and movement, regardless of the wearer’s daily activities.

These are designed to be worn around the wrist and attached via a wrist strap or some other type of bearing or band, typically made of metal or leather. Conversely, a pocket watch is created to be carried in a pocket. It’s usually attached to a metal chain of some sort. These kinds of watches were more popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Smartwatches are probably what spring to mind for most people when they think of a digital watch, but we’ve come a long way from the Casio fad of the late 80s and early 90s.

With the prevalence of the Apple Watch, digital watches have seemingly disappeared from the market, with most consumers opting for the look of a classic mechanical watch or a smartwatch like the Apple Watch. 

Smartwatches incorporate a timekeeping function, but with the commonplace use of the smartphone, they usually offer more lifestyle features that are geared toward fitness and daily activity.

Watches were developed in the 17th century. Since then, there have been many advancements in the appearance and functionality of this signature timepiece.

We’ll take a look at the differences between the common types of watches (electronic vs. mechanical), a little bit about their structure (mechanisms vs. complications), and the parts of a watch any enthusiast or collector should know.

Mechanical Watches vs. Electronic Watches

Mechanical Watches vs. Electronic Watches

What are the differences between mechanical watch movements and electronic watch movements, and how do they work?

When it comes to watches, movements are actually what make the watch function properly. The vast majority of contemporary watch manufacturers, particularly if they aren’t luxury brands, actually order the movement or parts of the movement from another company altogether. 

Actually, the companies and brands that make movements for use in their own watches are often referred to as manufacturers, and their watches are typically much more costly.

Manual and automatic movements are both types of movement that relate to the mechanical watch. They are only ever composed of mechanical parts like springs and gears. Conversely, electronic watches rely on quartz movements. These have an electrical circuit and require a battery to run.

When it comes to movement, mechanical watches are much more expensive due to how technical and labor-intensive they are to build. Despite quartz movements being inherently more accurate, most collectors or enthusiasts prefer to opt for manual or automatic mechanical watches. 

They tend to better represent the history of the watch and also display a higher degree of craftsmanship and skill on the part of the manufacturer. Most of the watches you see going for exorbitant prices online or in auctions are all mechanical.

Quartz Movement

How do quartz movements work? They feature a quartz crystal. Electricity is carried from the battery to the quartz crystal through the integrated circuit in the watch. The electricity then makes the quartz crystal rapidly vibrate. 

These pulses are then sent to the stepping motor via the integrated circuit. The steeping motor sends the electrical pulse to the dial train, which advances the hands on the watch. Quartz watches do not require winding like a mechanical watch, and are regarded as the most accurate.

Manual Movement

How does manual movement work? Turning the crown winds up the mainspring, which stores energy. The gear train then transfers the energy to the escapement, which regulates the energy to the rest of the parts. 

The balance wheel uses this energy to beat back and forth at a consistent rate. Upon a certain number of consistent beats, the dial train transfers energy to the hands of the watch for the hands to advance.

Manual movement is commonly referred to as hand-wound movement. It is also the oldest type of watch movement made. This dates back to the 16th century. It also unfortunately requires daily winding to work, which can be a small inconvenience. 

They should be wound until a feeling of tension is reached. If you keep winding past this point, you can damage the crown. You also need to keep in mind that the watch needs to be removed from your wrist before winding. Failing to do this can cause damage to the crown and movement.

Automatic Movement

How does automatic movement work? Automatic movement is also referred to as self-winding movement. It winds itself while being worn on the wrist and cuts out the need for winding on a daily basis. 

Of course, if the watch is not worn daily for a prolonged period of time, it will stop working and require an actual manual winding. In the case of automatic movement, the internal process is the same, but movement of the wrist during daily wear turns the rotor, which winds the mainspring as opposed to simply turning the crown.

Complications

A complication is anything that relates to a function or purpose other than that of keeping time. Complications can be incredibly commonplace or take years to create. There is a pretty wide array of complications, but we’ll go over the most common ones below.

Moon Phase

The moon phase complication can allow the user to track the lunar cycle via the dial and curved aperture. The more advanced the moon phase mechanism within a watch, the less frequently you’ll have to manually change it.

The original functionality comes from helping sailors better understand and gauge tides. The moon phase is a more visually appealing feature and depicts whether it is a full moon, half moon, quarter moon, or new moon.

The moon dial in a basic moon phase mechanism is adjusted by a gear with 59 teeth. One notch is rotated every 12 hours, while a lunar cycle is typically 29.53 days. This means that a standard 59-tooth mechanism will actually be off by a day, every two or two and a half years!

Minute Repeater

Minute repeater mechanisms were initially created so that the wearer of the watch could hear the time if they were unable to actually see the face of the watch itself. 

If the corresponding repeater lever or button is pressed, the timepiece then relays the time using the feature of a chime. This complication was actually more commonly seen across pocket watches during the 18th and 19th centuries.

This now serves less functionality in everyday practice, for obvious reasons. The minute designation marks that the chime sounds out down to the minute, but there are several repeaters: the hour repeater, quarter repeater, and 5-minute repeater. Differing mechanisms may utilize different sets of chimes to distinguish the difference between hour and minute.

Tourbillon

The function of the tourbillon is actually to improve the timekeeping abilities of the watch. As such, some people tend to disregard it as a complication. Yet, it is one of the most complicated components of the watch in the realm of horology.

The tourbillon reduces the impact of gravity on the actual timekeeping of the mechanical watch by fixating the balance wheel in multiple positions. Keep in mind that this is also the fastest-moving component within a mechanical watch. 

This is happening even while the watch itself is stationary. A standard tourbillon rotates on one axis, while double or triple tourbillons rotate the balance wheel on two or three axes. They are considered grand complications due to their complex nature.

Perpetual Calendar

A perpetual calendar is the most complicated type of calendar feature to exist in the realm of the watch. Usually, watches that feature a perpetual calendar are exceptionally rare and much more valuable. They accurately depict the date, day, month, year, and account for leap years. They retain accuracy until the year 2100, at which point they will need correction.

Chronograph

Round Silver-colored Chronograph Watch

In the most simplistic of terms, the chronograph complication serves as a stopwatch. A chronograph complication will normally have a sub-dial or hand to track or record the number of seconds elapsed, with another to record and track the minutes elapsed. Contemporary watches that feature a chronograph will typically have two buttons around the crown of the watch. 

One is to start and stop the chronograph, and one is to reset it. More advanced timepieces will have variations on the buttons that track time passed, while standard chronographs are just about the ability to start, stop, and reset as a stopwatch.

Types of Chronographs:

Monopoussoir (One Button): This is the original form of all chronographs. The form of the two-button chronograph was not introduced until much later in 1923. The one-button model cannot measure or track interrupted time spans.

Retour-En-Vol (Flyback): Specifically engineered so that when the second button is pushed while the chronograph is still running, all counters reset and begin back at zero. This feature was implemented for pilots, where split-second accuracy was needed. Flybacks are more of an exception than a rule to the chronograph.

Rattrapante (Split-seconds): You can easily locate a Rattrapante from a Monopoussoir by the indication of three pushers/buttons on the case, compared to one or two. There are also two-second hands on the chronograph itself, one directly atop the other.

Tachymeter: This instrument is used for measuring speed that is commonly found on watches today. In this case, a scale is placed on the outer or inner bezel and is only found in conjunction with a chronograph. A tachymeter is known to measure units per hour (either miles or kilometers). For them to work, you must be moving at a fixed rate of speed and distance.

Chronometer

A chronometer is a watch crafted with the utmost precision in mind. A chronometer has also passed a number of predetermined tests. Notably, Swiss watches are deemed valid or faulty through the certification board of the COSC, which stands for Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres. 

The COSC tests watches for multiple days, under certain conditions and temperatures. 

They check for any variance of -4/+6 seconds in a day. If this is encountered, the watch has failed. There is also a specific category of chronometer called the marine chronometer. 

The clock is suspended in a gyroscopic box and was initially designed for those working aboard ships to help better determine location. Basically, these are watches that have been certified to be exceptionally precise.

Conclusion

In the world of watches, there are many factors to consider when picking one out, along with some intricacies that go into the actual construction of the watch itself.

What is a watch? A watch can simply be a functional object and just tell time. But it can also be an object one takes great pride in wearing, which exceeds the standard perceptions of craftsmanship. 

We see this in timepieces from the likes of Patek Philippe, Unika, Rolex, and electronic watches that feature Japanese quartz. On a more technical level, we see this with mechanical watches with elaborate complications.

Ultimately, a well-constructed watch, whether it’s a wristwatch or pocket watch, will last for generations and outlive the new tech of smartwatches that may need to be replaced in a couple of years, either due to mechanical failure or outdated OS. 

No one needs to know the inner technicalities of a watch to appreciate its appearance or value, but for the experienced collector or enthusiast, there is a lot more to a timepiece than the simple ability to tell the current time.

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