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What is an automatic watch and how does it work?

Tim Breining
Jan 31, 2019
What is an automatic watch and how does it work?

 

Most mechanical watches sold today feature an automatic movement. These watches require nothing more than regular wear to keep them running. But how does an automatic watch self-wind? Do you need a watch winder if you only wear your watch from time to time? Is there anything else you should know?

 

What is an automatic watch?

An automatic watch winds “automatically” or by itself. Of course, this isn’t meant in a literal sense since the energy has to come from somewhere. Automatic watches get their energy from the movement of the wearer.

Even though the first automatic watches appeared as early as the 18th century, they remained a niche product until the rise of the wristwatch in the early 20th century. This new way of wearing a watch took it from the serenity of the pocket to the constant movement of the wrist. The time had finally come for automatic-winding technology to have its breakthrough.

 

 

How does automatic winding work?

Manual watches are wound by twisting the crown. Then there are automatic watches. Every automatic watch has a rotor made of a heavy material like tungsten, gold, or platinum so that they are powerful enough to wind the movement. As the wearer moves their arm, the rotor swings, thus setting the gears in motion and winding the spring. If your watch has a glass case back, simply flip it over to see this process in real time.

 

Can and should you wind your automatic watch by hand?

It all comes down to the movement. Not every automatic watch comes with a manual winding option. If and when these watches stop ticking, you’ll have to give it a little shake to get the gears turning again. However, most modern watch movements are also able to be wound by hand. This is particularly practical if you don’t wear your watch very often or move it frequently.

Whether regularly winding your automatic watch by hand is advisable also depends on the movement. There is no universal answer. Manufacturers usually provide this information. Generally speaking, however, the less you rely on winding your automatic watch manually, the slower the components will wear down.

 

Panerai Radiomir 5567

 

How to Avoid Damaging the Mainspring

It’s worth noting that unlike manual watches, you can’t damage or ruin the mainspring by twisting the crown too much. This is thanks to a “slipping spring” at the end of the mainspring that simply glides around the inside of the barrel once the watch is fully wound. You can twist as much as you want, and nothing will happen to the movement. Have a listen the next time you wind your automatic watch manually. You might even hear the spring as it glides. This lets you know your watch is fully wound without a power reserve indicator.

 

The Scoop on Watch Winders

Many proud watch collectors showcase and store their precious timepieces moving in rotating display cases known as watch winders. As with watches, there’s a watch winder for every budget.

It’s likely that anyone who has their own small collection has at least thought about whether they should buy a watch winder. If the answer is yes, the question then becomes whether you should get the affordable winder that does the job or go straight for the more sophisticated model.

 

Watch Winder

 

As always, it depends on your motive. If it’s about the convenience of only ever having to set your watch once, then watch winders are a practical investment. This is especially true if you have a complicated watch, such as one with a perpetual calendar. These can be rather time consuming to correct manually on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, there’s always a catch. If your winder isn’t set to wind your watch the proper amount every day and instead winds it for too long, this can put added strain on the movement. This comes down to the quality of the winder. Any winder worth its weight should at least allow you to program how many times it rotates per day. You may have to use a socket timer to achieve the same result with the simplest models.

There is still a rumor floating around that watch winders prevent a movement’s lubricants from “gumming up.”. However, we’ve been using synthetic lubricants for over half a century now. These modern materials no longer come with the gummy disadvantage found in their natural predecessors. That being said, if you want to limit wear on the movement, lengthen time between services, and you don’t have a problem with resetting the time and date, you don’t really need a winder.

 

Relax and Enjoy Your Timepiece

The point of automatic watches is to spare their owners the burden of having to wind them daily. After reading this article, you’d be forgiven for thinking that maintaining an automatic watch comes with its own set of worries. Let me put you at ease: Enjoy your watch in the way that best suits you. If you want to wind it by hand because you like to or put it in a winder because you like the way it looks, go for it!

The potential “pitfalls” listed above are just possibilities. No watch will suddenly break down from one day to the next because you didn’t follow each instruction to a “t.” It’s more important that you enjoy your automatic watch without any worries, perhaps keeping what you’ve learned in the back of your mind. That is the best way to appreciate this technological marvel. At the end of the day, appreciating watches is what the passion’s all about anyway, isn’t it?

 

Read more:

What is a chronograph and how does it work?

What is an in-house movement?

What is a tourbillon and how does it work?


Tim Breining
By Tim Breining
Jan 31, 2019
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