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All watches tell the time, we all know that…....

And you will probably also know that they all contain a movement. The engine, if you like, that drives it and makes it work.

Contrary to popular belief, there are only two types of watch movement, and this has remained unchanged since 1969. It is unlikely to ever change since there is nowhere else to "really go" in terms of how a watch works. I have excluded "Smart Watches", Finish, et al since they contain no movement and are wholly electronic units.

Watch movements come in various guises and, here, I will attempt to break down exactly what they are and how they work.

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MECHANICAL MOVEMENTS

The first ever wristwatch was made for a woman, Countess Koscowicz of Hungary, by Swiss watch manufacturer in 1868. Although it was the first timekeeping device to be designed specifically for use on the wrist, it was intended primarily as a piece of decorative jewellery.

Timepieces had existed since as early as the 1570's commonly referred to as Pocket Watches. Their movement, and the way in which they operated, remain the same today. Nonetheless, they are not something I am covering here.

The design then, as it is now, featured moving parts that were wound up manually. The main component of a mechanical movement is the mainspring, a spring that gradually unwinds and transmits energy. A mechanical watch will keep fairly accurate time despite requiring constant winding up. Many “enthusiasts" proclaim ….”There is something traditional and pleasurable about a wind up watch…”. Maybe.

All mechanical objects that comprise of moving parts require bearings to lessen the wear on components. Mechanical watches are no exception and their "bearings" have historically been referred to as "jewels".

ALL ABOUT JEWELS

Stones or jewels were developed in watches to reduce friction at the points of heaviest wear. When metal rubs against metal and when oil breaks down, the damage to pivots and bearings can be rapid and devastating in terms of watch repairs. In order to reduce wear and friction between two pieces of metal, watch makers used hard stones (today synthetic rubies) as friction points since they last a lot longer than metal.

To combat metal-on-metal wear watchmakers needed to find a substance that was harder than metal and so began the use of jewels within watches. The jewels that are hard enough are diamonds, sapphires and rubies. The latter two were cheaper than diamonds and could be synthetically created, Rubies are used because they have a hardness on the similar to diamonds. These days these are synthetic rubies created for the express purpose of use in watches. As it was initially quite difficult to create and set these jewels, the amount of jewels in a movement was a fictional indicator of it’s quality.

In most watches these jewels were used for all the pivot points in the gear train, as well as in the anti-shock settings (whether these be Incabloc or some other version). Those watches with complications also use jewels to reduce friction and over time, as watches became complicated, the amount of jewels gradually increased.

This is where it all became rather unscrupulous. As jewels became easier to produce and set, some brands used to include jewels in places where they weren’t needed, sometimes even to the detriment of the movement. They then heavily marketed this fact so consumers would think their relatively inexpensive watch was of a higher quality.

AUTOMATIC or SELF WINDING

Abraham Louis Perrelet, a Swiss horologist in 1770, using precisely the same mechanical movement types created a simple spring powered mechanism which allowed the watch to wind as the wearer moved. Most mechanical watches these days are automatics. “Automatic” is just another term for “self-winding”, meaning the watch winds itself using a weight inside the watch that oscillates to put tension on the mainspring through the random motion of the watch wearer's arm. Energy is stored for, dependant on the manufacturer, between 12 and 48 hours.

ACCURACY

Hugely dependent on vintage and movement type but, generally, expect +/- 5 to 30 seconds per 24 hours. By modern standards, they are hugely inaccurate.

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QUARTZ MOVEMENTS

Both Seiko and Switzerland competed to develop the first quartz watch. For Seiko, the race began in 1959 with Project 59A, whose mission was to develop quartz crystal timers. One of the team’s first successes was a portable quartz clock called the Seiko Crystal Chronometer QC-951, which Seiko used as a backup timer for marathon events in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Summer Games.

The big challenge was to make a mechanism small enough for use not in a clock but a wristwatch. Both Seiko and a consortium of Switzerland’s top firms tackled it. They were able to monitor each other’s progress through timing competitions sponsored by Switzerland’s Neuchâtel Observatory, where prototype watches were submitted for testing. The Swiss developed the first quartz marine chronometer in 1961. Seiko had one by 1963.

Seiko quickly caught up. Seiko and Longines were the big winners in the Observatory’s 1964 competition, both with prototype quartz board chronometers. Longines took the Grand Prix and Seiko took the next six prizes. The same results occurred in 1966 for prototypes of the world’s first quartz pocket watch. At both competitions, more than half the winning products were from Seiko. In 1967, Seiko nabbed the Grand Prix for a quartz pocket watch. That year quartz wristwatches were entered into the Neuchâtel competitions for the first time. The Swiss consortium entered its movement, known as Beta 1, and Seiko entered the Astron movement. Both groups raced to perfect the movements for commercial production and sale.

Seiko won. The Swiss were not far behind. The first Swiss quartz analogue watches containing the Beta 1 movement arrived at the 1970 Basel Fair. But while Seiko embraced the new technology, the Swiss, burdened by a legacy of mechanical watch supremacy, hesitated, and paid dearly.

The Seiko Quartz Astron debuted on 25 December 1969 in an 18 carat gold case at a price of 450,000 yen (£2,919). It was more expensive than the price of a family car. Now, Seiko Quartz Astron’s are rare. Seiko only produced 200 of them. What’s not rare is the technology Seiko developed for Astron, including fork-type oscillators, open-type separated motors and one-second-interval movement of the second hand. They set the standard for all analogue quartz watches that followed.

HOW DO THEY WORK?

Quartz is actually one of the most common minerals on Earth. It's made from a chemical compound called silicon dioxide (silicon is also the stuff from which computer chips are made), and you can find it in sand and most types of rock. Perhaps the most interesting thing about quartz is that it's piezoelectric. That means if you squeeze a quartz crystal, it generates a tiny electric current. The opposite is also true: if you pass electricity through quartz, it vibrates at a precise frequency (it shakes an exact number of times each second).

Inside a quartz clock or watch, the battery sends electricity to the quartz crystal through an electronic circuit. The quartz crystal oscillates (vibrates back and forth) at a precise frequency: exactly 32768 times each second. The circuit counts the number of vibrations and uses them to generate regular electric pulses, one per second. These pulses can either power an LCD display (showing the time numerically) or they can drive a small electric motor (a tiny stepping motor, in fact), turning gear wheels that spin the clock's second, minute, and hour hands.

The downside of this movement is it's dependency on a battery. When these expire the watch will fail to function. Typically, battery replacement is not a DIY job. The back needs to be removed and many watches require a special tool to do so. Far worse, if you own a waterproof timepiece all rear seals will need to be replaced as well. "Watch shops", and the ever growing band of pop up businesses offering cheap battery replacement, will ignore the seal, charge you £5.00 (or so) and move on......Your watch is (now) no longer waterproof.

Much has been written as to the life of these batteries. Expect between 9 months to 2 years (again, dependent on the watch brand). If your watch is water resistant, it will need to be sent to your manufacturer for replacement. This can work out fairly expensive.

ACCURACY 

Quartz Watches are highly accurate, compared to their mechanical rivals. Expect +/- 5 to 10 seconds per month.

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VARIATIONS of QUARTZ MOVEMENTS - Using Rechargeable Batteries

SOLAR

Using a Quartz movement, Solar watches have the unique ability to power themselves by harnessing energy from solar or artificial light sources.

They are either completely or partially powered by solar cells. They’re not only a good choice in terms of convenience, because you don’t have the hassle and expense of changing the battery, but also an environmentally friendly choice too.

Solar powered watches use Silicon cells containing semi-conductors. When light strikes these Silicon cells some of it is absorbed by the semi-conductors causing electrons inside to flow. This flow of electrons is a current which can be harnessed by attaching metal contacts. The electricity is then stored in a rechargeable battery.

Modern solar watches use Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries which don’t suffer from the usual charge/discharge deterioration of typical rechargeable batteries and are intended to last the lifetime of the watch. The first version of a solar watch was produced by inventor Roger Riehl in March 1968, a prototype followed in 1970 and a full production version called the ‘Synchronar‘ was released in 1972.

The Synchronar was a very unique and futuristic looking watch for its time, what would be termed as ‘Space Age design’ back then.
On the top of the watch where the time would usually be displayed there were instead two banks of solar cells and, rather uniquely the time is displayed on the side of the watch.

Most LED watches were unable to compete with the much more power efficient LCD watches that started to appear later in the seventies.
However the Synchronar due to its solar power was able to survive and has had one of the longest production runs in watchmaking history, available in one version or another up until 2007.

It also had some rather advanced features for the time, including being certified for diving up to 700ft, magnetically controlled switches on top and the ability to automatically adjust for Daylight savings as well as Leap years.

The next landmark would be the introduction of the Citizen Crystron in 1976 the first solar watch with an analogue display.

Whereas the earlier solar watches had visible external solar cells modern ones have them hidden beneath a light absorbent dial. The light is converted to electricity using the solar cells which power the watch and charge the battery.
The battery does need to be replaced and it stores electricity and also power the watch in the dark. So long as the watch is exposed to enough light the battery will remain fully charged.

A lot of the major Japanese watch manufacturers make solar watches, there are Citizen’s Eco-Drive watches, Casio’s Tough Solar and Seiko’s Solar watches amongst others. Citizen in particular is the only watch manufacturer to base a whole range around Solar powered watches with its Eco Drive watches.

KINETIC

It was at the 1986 Basel Fair that Seiko unveiled its first Kinetic prototype. Introduced under the trial name of 'AGM', it was the first watch in the world to convert kinetic movement into electrical energy. It was the first step in a development that, 20 years later, has made Kinetic synonymous with environmental friendliness, high performance and long-lasting convenience to a generation of users worldwide. From the launch in 1988 of the first commercially available watch (then under the new name AGS) until today, over eight million Kinetic watches have been sold (as of 2007).

In 1998, Kinetic Auto Relay was released, extending the 'at-rest' operating period of the watch to a remarkable 4 years. 1999 saw the launch of the Ultimate Kinetic Chronograph, a masterpiece which fused the very best of Seiko's mechanical and electronic watchmaking skills, and in 2003 another Kinetic Chronograph was launched. At Baselworld 2005, the Kinetic Perpetual made its first appearance, combining Kinetic convenience and longevity with a perpetual calendar, correct to the year 2100. Again, no battery replacement is required.

RADIO CONTROLLED

Radio controlled watches connect to atomic clocks to make sure that the time kept on your watch is as precise as it can possibly be. Citizen claim that their radio controlled watches have a margin of error of just one second in 100,000 years. Radio controlled watches regularly connect to local atomic clock transmitters to make sure that they stay as precise as possible.

There are transmitters for atomic clocks all around the world, so your watch will connect to the nearest one you are within range of. You will usually need to be within 500km and 1,500km of a transmitter to be able to connect to it. Many radio controlled watches, including those from Citizen, will connect to an atomic transmitter at night time. This ensures that your watch does not interfere with household appliances on the same frequency and that your watch is as correct as possible when you use it on the morning.

That all said, of course, many of us do not live within reach of radio transmitters. Trees, high buildings, etc. Can easily obstruct signals. In reality, obtaining a signal can be extremely "hit and miss" and is hugely dependent as to where you at the time. This does not preclude the watch from working, just that its accuracy remains unchecked.

GPS

Seiko have led the way here. These are the most accurate watch movements currently available and they ensure your watch is accurate to the second ALWAYS.

Unlike radio control watches, which work only in a small part of the world‘s land mass, GPS solar watch identifies the recognized time zones on earth. Whether you are on a mountain top, in the middle of the ocean, or even in the centre of a desert, the watch displays the exact local time.

Using Solar technology, whenever the dial is exposed to bright light, the watch automatically receives GPS signals. When the watch is concealed under a sleeve and the dial cannot receive enough light, the watch stores the time of the previous successful manual time adjustment or time zone adjustment, and automatically starts time adjustment at the same time.

HOW TO TELL 

An easy way to differentiate a quartz from a mechanical movement is by looking at the second hand. On a quartz watch, the second hand has the tick-tick motion that moves once per second while mechanical watches have a smooth, sweeping seconds motion.

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THE HYPE - DESIGNER WATCHES

Rolex, Tag Heur, Omega amongst many others are super fine watches. They tend to be handmade (in the case of Rolex, at least) and will almost certainly last a lifetime.

However, they all (with a few exceptions) tend to use mechanical movements. So, you really need to consider whether you wish to own a highly accurate timepiece, or an item of "bling" which is incapable of keeping the correct time?

Wearing a mechanical designer watch will bring you many "friends"and, doubtless, influence others. Nonetheless, it simply cannot compete with better and more accurate watches - available at a fraction of the price. Ask yourself. What is the purpose of a watch?

1) To tell the correct time.

Or

2) Look nice as an item of jewellery.

Jewellery looks nice but watches must be accurate and tell the real time.

Rolex movements, for example, are only accurate to +/- 3 seconds every 24 hours (when new). This does change over time becoming slower, faster, and less accurate, etc. Depending on how the watch worn.

These days, no one requires a Swiss handmade watch to tell the time. The time displayed on our mobile phones and other digital devices will always be more accurate than the time displayed on even the most skillfully engineered "designer" mechanical watch, yet the industry has a visual presence in our lives like few others. The storefronts of the world’s big-money boulevards glow with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and magazines appear to be kept in business largely by watch adverts; airports would be empty shells without them.

The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 40 in platinum (“The watch par excellence of influential people”) is on sale for £41,700, while the platinum Patek Philippe Split-Seconds Chronograph with the alligator strap (“For men who take accuracy seriously”) is £162,970. For some collectors, this would be considered entry-level: the most complicated limited-edition watches sell for £1m or more. These watches have a waiting list, as the world only contains so many squinting master craftsmen who can make them, and even they haven’t found a way to extend the day beyond 24 hours....

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RECOMMENDATIONS

Inexpensive, high quality automatic watches. They will last forever Best Solar watches Kinetic choices GPS. The market leaders

Best UK retailer? First Class Watches are my favoured choice. I do not recommend The Watch Hut

E&OE © Richard C. Barber 2017