Watch movements are the mechanism by which a watch measures and displays time. They may be either mechanical or quartz, with variations of each.

A mechanical movement watch uses the energy from a wound spiral spring, called the mainspring, and releases that energy by highly regulating this release of energy through a set of gears, the wheel train, and an escapement. It uses entirely mechanical components to keep time. 

A quartz movement watch uses a battery or some other type of electrical source to cause a quartz crystal to vibrate at 33 times per second. A computer chip translates these vibrations, or impulses to drive an electronic motor which causes the hands of the watch to move and display the time.


Mechanical Movements

The mechanical movement has been used by the watch making industry for centuries. The Swiss watch industry, prior to the 1970's, manufactured 50% or more of all mechanical watches worldwide. Traditional mechanical movement watches utilize a spiral wound spring (mainspring) to produce the energy necessary to turn a series of gears (the wheel train) and some type of escapement mechanism to control the winding and unwinding of the mainspring into a highly regulated periodic and controlled release of energy. Mechanical movements also utilize a balance wheel in conjunction with a balance spring (hairspring) to control the motion of the wheel train in a manner similar to the pendulum in a clock.



An escapement is a device that converts the continual rotational movement of the spring and gears of a mechanical movement into an oscillating (back and forth) motion. It produces the ticking sound in mechanical clocks and watches. In the absence of an escapement, the mainspring would unwind uncontrollably. The escapement is controlled by the balance wheel and regulates this motion and allows the gears to advance, or escape, a fixed amount of energy to move the watch hands forward at a constant rate.

There are several types of escapements. The liquid-driven, by either water or mercury, escapements were the first to be used, but they were not true mechanical escapements, as they relied on the flow of the water or mercury through an orifice in order to measure time. The first truly mechanical escapement was the "verge escapement", which was used in a bell ringing apparatus, called an alarum, for several centuries before being incorporated into clocks.

The development of the balance spring and pendulum in the mid 1600's, greatly improved the accuracy of mechanical movements by making them harmonic oscillators, which focused on the errors of the escapement and resulted in the invention of more than 300 escapement designs, however, only ten or so of these were widely used and withstood the test of time. The grasshopper escapement and the co-axial escapement were designed to avoid sliding friction and to eliminate the need to lubricate the escapement.

The most crucial factor in an escapement design is to give it just enough energy to keep the pendulum or balance spring moving with as little restriction to the movement as possible.


Types of Mechanical Movements

Mechanical movements today are of two major types, the manual wind movement and the self-winding, or automatic movement. Manual mechanical watches require the user to rewind the mainspring periodically by turning the crown, Modern manual watches are designed to run for 24 to 40 hours per winding, requiring the user to wind the watch on a daily basis. A self-winding or automatic watch uses the motion of the wearer's body movements to rewind the mainspring. They use a winding rotor which couples to a ratchet that automatically winds the mainspring. Most automatic or self-winding mechanical watches can also be wound manually to keep them running when not being worn.


Quartz Movements

The quartz movement was developed in the 1950's. During World War II, Swiss neutrality in the war allowed it to continue to produce consumer mechanical movement watches, while other nations involved in the war started exploring timing devices for military use. This allowed the Swiss to dominate the watch making industry until the 1970's. During the 1950's, the research and development of the electronic mechanical watch, whereby the mainspring was replaced by a small battery laid the groundwork for the quartz movement.

Seiko was a leader in the field in developing electric watches and quartz technology. One of Seiko's first successes was the Seiko Crystal Chronometer QC-951, a portable quartz clock that was used as a back-up timer for selected events in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. In 1966, Seiko and Longines introduced prototypes of the first quartz pocket-watch. In 1969, Seiko unveiled the Ashton, the world's first quartz movement wristwatch. 


The Quartz Crisis / Quartz Revolution

The 1970's and early 1980's began what is known in Switzerland as the Quartz Crisis and in the rest of the world as the Quartz Revolution. This coincided with the popularity and mainstreaming of quartz movement watches, an world-wide economic downturn and the low point of the Swiss watchmaking industry, which had remained focused on the production of mechanical movement watches rather than join in on the quartz movement technology.

In 1978, quartz movement watches had gained enough popularity throughout the world to overtake sales of mechanical movement watches. This plummeted the Swiss watch making industry into crisis while advancing both the American and Japanese watch making industries into prominence.

Watches utilizing quartz movements have very few moving parts, compared to the mechanical movement watch. They use a battery as the electrical source to cause a tiny quartz crystal in conjunction with the crystal that forms a quartz oscillator to resonate at a highly stable and specific frequency which is used to more accurately pace the timekeeping of the watch. They are geared to drive the mechanical hands on the face of the watch to provide a traditional analog display, which is preferred by most consumers.

Quartz movement watches are more shock resistant that their mechanical movement counter-pats, as they have fewer moving parts and the light weight of vital parts help to protect them against shocks. They are also cheaper to produce because of automation of the process, while mechanical watches are still hand made.


Which Movement is More Accurate?

A quartz watch is, by far, much more accurate than a mechanical watch, due to the precise number of vibrations a quartz movement generates. A quartz watch is typically accurate to within +/- 1 to 2 seconds per day (sometimes less), as opposed to a mechanical movement watch that is typically accurate to within 5 to 10 seconds per day. A quartz watch will lose or gain as much time in a year as a mechanical watch will lose in a month. Atomic quartz watches, which receive a radio signal from the nearest atomic clock tower or transmitter up to six times per day, increase the accuracy of this type of quartz watch to within seconds per year.


Which is the Best Watch for Me?

This depends entirely on your own expectations and requirements. While a quartz watch is generally less expensive, more accurate and shock resistance than a mechanical watch, quartz watch movements also have very few moving parts which assist in their longevity. This can also make them difficult to repair should something other than the battery fail. Mechanical watches, on the other hand, when routinely adjusted and maintained properly, will typically last longer than a quartz watch. They are also less sensitive to extreme temperature changes than quartz watches.

Mechanical watches, through advancements in the materials used in their construction, new technological advancements and improvements in design are still a statement of elegance. Their highly detailed assembly and the art of tweaking movements for maximum performance can help maintain their value over time.

Still having problems deciding on the type of watch to buy? Write down the qualities and functions you are looking for in a watch. Determine which qualities and functions are associated with each type of watch and choose the one that fulfills the majority of your requirements. Or simply purchase the watch you feel is the most esthetic within your budget.

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