If a machine is “automatic,” we naturally assume it needs little to no human involvement to function. And while that assumption isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s also not entirely true when referring to wristwatches.
The three main types of watches are mechanical, automatic, and quartz. All of the functions in a quartz watch work via power supplied by a battery. In mechanical and automatic watches, the tension in the coiled mainspring delivers that power. A mechanical watch needs to be manually wound in order to coil the mainspring, whereas, in an automatic timepiece, the kinetic energy produced by the wearer does the winding.
After a Bumpy Start, Self-Winding Takes Off
Automatic movements got their start in the 1770s when Swiss clock maker Abraham-Louis Perrelet developed a self-winding mechanism for pocket watches. The idea worked on a hinge system so that whenever you opened the watch to check the time, the hinge would pull on the movement and tighten the mainspring.
Unfortunately, the idea didn’t catch on very well. The mechanism proved to be overly complex and costly. In addition, a person pulling out their watch occasionally to look at the time didn’t provide enough tightening to keep the mechanism wound.
Fast-forward to WWI, where a pilot or soldier often had no free hand to retrieve their pocket watch whenever necessary. To solve this problem, watchmakers created a wearable timepiece that would allow a person to get all the information they needed in a single glance to the wrist.
It was then that British watchmaker John Harwood decided to pick up where Perrelet left off and take another stab at creating a workable self-winding watch movement. In 1922, while observing a couple of kids playing on a see-saw, Harwood developed the idea for the automatic bumper movement. The mechanism used a weighted metal plate that partially rotated along a 270° arc. As the plate bounced back and forth off the bumpers at either side of the arc, it would pull the mainspring coil and wind the watch. The kinetic energy generated by the wearer’s motion powered the metal plate.
Harwood patented his mechanism in 1924 and later worked with Swiss watchmaker Fortis to mass-produce the timepiece. At the 1926 international watch fair in Basel, Switzerland, the company presented the Harwood Automatic as the world’s first wristwatch with an automatic movement. A short time later, in 1931, Rolex further developed the concept by introducing the 360°-winding rotor, dubbed the Oyster Perpetual.
Even as automatic watches dominate the market, fledgling horology connoisseurs continue to fall victim to popular myths about the movement. We asked our watch repair experts to list some of the more common misconceptions they hear about regularly, and here’s what we discovered:
Myth #1: Automatic Watches Are Not Mechanical
That statement is definitely false, as automatic watches are, in fact, classified as mechanical watches. They utilize nearly all of the same parts and function similarly—the difference lies in the weighted rotor atop the back of the movement. You have probably seen it before in timepieces with transparent case backs. It looks like a half-circle piece of metal that spins on an axis with the motion of your wrist and arm.
Although automatic watches can be every bit as complicated as their manual counterparts and are created by master watchmakers, there are some other differences. For instance, automatic watches tend to be heavier and thicker than manual ones because of the added rotor. Also, since automatics are much more common than manuals, you will find many more style and design options with self-winding watches.
Myth #2: Automatic Watches Never Have to Be Wound
Again, false. When you first purchase an automatic watch, the power reserve will be empty, so you’ll need to wind it to “wake it up.” Hold your timepiece in one hand while turning the crown clockwise with the other hand. You should never wind your watch while wearing it, as that could damage the stem and crown. Wind the crown only until you reach a point of resistance. Now your timepiece is fully charged and ready to go.
Does this mean you never have to wind it again? Nope, especially if you plan on storing the watch for any length of time, you don’t wear it every day, or you don’t get all that much activity from your wrist and arm, e.g., working at a computer all day, etc. While your timepiece generally has a power reserve of 36 to 42 hours, you’ll want to wind it occasionally (by hand) so it doesn’t fully drain and stop running. A full stop will mean you must reset everything the next time you wear it, which can be a big hassle.
Even though it’s not necessary, some people like to hand-wind their automatics regularly to maintain that personal connection with their watch. This brings us to our next myth.
Myth #3: You Can Overwind Your Watch
Thankfully, no, you really can’t. Watchmakers have designed the rotor in an automatic to stop spinning when the watch is fully wound. So, no matter how much you move your arm or wrist, the rotor will not spin again until the watch winds down a bit. It’s also nearly impossible to manually overwind an automatic unless you exert significant pressure on the stem and crown, such as forcing the crown to turn after you meet resistance.
Myth #4: An Automatic Doesn’t Need Regular Servicing
Every mechanical watch needs regular servicing. Period. Whether that’s every 2-3 years or at longer intervals, taking your timepiece to a qualified watch repair person who will clean out any accumulated dust and debris and properly lubricate the movement is essential. Allowing parts to wear out will not only affect the accuracy of your watch but may cause more significant issues down the road.
The timing of your service and where you go really depends on your brand. For example, Rolex wants their customers to get their timepieces serviced only at official Rolex jewelers or service centers every ten years. On the other hand, if you’re looking to save some time and money in maintaining your vintage Day-Date Presidential, consider seeking out a top-notch third-party Rolex repair shop and taking it in before the requisite ten years have passed.
Myth #5: All Automatic Watches Are Super Expensive
Au contraire, mes Amis! While mechanical and automatic timepieces are synonymous with luxury, craftsmanship, and accuracy, they do not all have the price tag to prove it—many exceptional automatics sport prices under $5000. Consider the Tag Heuer Carrera and Aquaracer lines, Baume & Mercier’s Classima collection, and Cartier’s Must watches.
If you want to keep your budget under $1000, look no further than Tissot, Seiko, and Hamilton. Some popular standouts in this price range include the Hamilton Khaki Field, the Tissot PRX Powermatic 80, and the Seiko Prospex Alpinist.
Of course, if you’re aiming to impress, you certainly have more expensive options, such as the popular Vacheron Constantin Overseas, Omega Planet Ocean 600M, IWC Schaffhausen’s Portugieser Chronograph, and the new Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.
Overall, automatic watches represent Swiss engineering at its finest and are worthwhile investments if you want the beauty of a classic mechanical paired with modern convenience.