Mechanical watch vs. quartz watch - Part 1: Watches with mechanical movement.

Klaus Botta, 07.05.2021

Mechanical watch vs. quartz watch - Part 1: Watches with mechanical movement.

In this 1st part of a two-part article you will find basic information about automatic and other mechanical watches - explained in an understandable way:

Rarely do opinions divide so clearly into two camps as on the subject of wristwatch drives.

The one nothing would come to the wrist, which does not have a mechanical movement. The other swears by the simplicity of a quartz watch.

Reason for me, to compare both systems once completely neutrally and objectively.

Advantages and disadvantages of hand-wound watches and automatic watches

The hand-wound watch or the automatic watch.

For all non-experts, a short explanation of the terms:

A hand-wound watch is the classic in the league of mechanical watches. With it, the watch spring is wound by turning the winding crown typically once a day.

The "time counting" and driving of the hands is done by moving mechanical components, such as gears, shafts, bearings, etc.

An automatic watch is a mechanical watch with an automatic winding mechanism. A rotating oscillating weight on the back of the movement converts the movement of the wearer into a winding movement for the mainspring movement. Otherwise, it is identical to a hand-wound watch and has essentially the same features.

Advantages and disadvantages of mechanical watches

Advantage 1: A mechanical watch does not require batteries and, accordingly, does not require battery replacement. It draws its motive power from the aforementioned mainspring movement, a wound hairspring. The "spring movement" is charged by winding the crown or via the automatic winding mechanism. Thus, a mechanical watch is always autonomous in terms of energy supply.

Advantage 2: (Very important for watch lovers!) A mechanical watch has a soul. Its movement is a true precision mechanical marvel. It is unbelievable what technology and precision is housed in such a small mechanism. The evolutionary development work that goes into such a miniaturized timekeeping machine is also often underestimated. Without countless patents and highly developed special materials, combined with decades of optimization, it would be difficult even today to realize such a movement from scratch. This is demonstrated time and again by replicas of successful movements, which never quite achieve the reliability of their proven predecessors. There are parallels here with engine construction in the automotive industry.

Advantage 3: A mechanical movement is fascinating - especially when you can watch it doing its high-precision work through a glass caseback. On the one hand, there are the fast-moving parts such as the balance and the escapement, but also all the other high-precision components that interlock with extreme precision and tirelessly go about their work in the smallest of spaces. Even I, as a designer and technician with a preference for clean lines, am impressed by a stylishly finished mechanical movement. Technical ornaments like "Geneva stripes" or a "perlage" in the right place can enhance a movement even more. Colored galvanized components or blued screws also have a particularly refined effect. Also strong red rubies in the bearing points set stylish color accents in this overall work of art.

The precision with which the individual components are manufactured and finished is generally impressive. Here we are in the world of micrometers (one thousandth of a millimeter). Hardly any technical device relies on such high precision as a mechanical watch. 

Advantage 4: "A mechanical watch speaks well of its owner". Of course, it does not speak in the literal sense, but it has a pronounced symbolic value. Of course, the wristwatch is only one of many symbols with which we consciously or subconsciously surround ourselves, but it is a very important one (see also "What does a watch tell us about its wearer?"). Depending on the type of watch, the messages it sends can be quite different. What a mechanical watch says in any case: its wearer is a consciously living person with aspirations.

Of course, a hand-wound watch or an automatic watch has its disadvantages (or special features)

Here are a few examples:

Disadvantage 1: You have to wind mechanical watches every day. This "disadvantage" does not apply to automatic watches that are worn and moved daily or spend their pauses between wear intervals on a watch winder. Normal hand-wound watches without automatic movement must indeed be wound daily.

However, a watch enthusiast would say, "I do get to wind my watch every day". For many watch owners, it is actually a very positive daily ritual to supply their mechanical watch with fresh energy by turning the crown a few times every day. From there, disadvantage #1 can also be seen as advantage #5 - depending on your perspective.

Disadvantage 2: A mechanical or automatic watch needs to be set again after each stop. And that happens in less than two days if it is not moved. But again, connoisseurs would say: this little procedure takes only a few seconds, creates a personal connection to one's own timepiece and is fun.

Disadvantage 3: Mechanical watches are less accurate than quartz watches. This is also undoubtedly true. Even the most expensive automatic watch does not come close to the accuracy of a quartz watch. Very well adjusted and maintained mechanical movements are within a tolerance of -0 to +20 seconds / day. Much too inaccurate for accuracy fanatics, perfectly fine for watch lovers. After all, there are other timepieces for the very precise time.

Disadvantage 4: Mechanical watches need a revision from time to time. This is also true. About every 5 years, you should subject such a wristwatch to a technical service. Even if it has been worn little or not at all, but is now to be put back into service. Modern synthetic watch oils do not gum up like their mineral oil-based predecessors, but they do evaporate over time. Together with the abrasion of the mechanical parts, this then results in stubborn soiling that can only be removed again by professional cleaning. A lack of oil in the bearings leads to dry-running and thus to significantly increased wear.

A professional watch revision with the replacement of wear parts (this costs for example in our BOTTA service 219€) resets the movement to new condition and thus maintains the value and the accuracy of the watch.

Here an analogy can be made to the car. This also needs service from time to time to remain permanently functional. 

Disadvantage 5: Mechanical watches are more fragile than quartz watches. Also true. However, modern movements from well-known manufacturers, such as the ETA 2824-2 or the ETA 2893-2, are surprisingly robust. This is mainly due to sophisticated shock protections like Inkablock, which can withstand even rough blows quite well. 

Depending on the movement type, there are considerable differences. In fact, the manually produced premium movements are often significantly more sensitive than the high-quality series movements. 

Disadvantage 6: Mechanical watches and especially automatic watches are significantly thicker than quartz watches. Again, it is in the eye of the beholder whether this is seen as a disadvantage or an advantage. Some prefer large expressive watches, others prefer thin elegant watches.

Here, too, there are amazing developments, like the already mentioned ETA 2893-2, which manages with an overall thickness of only 3.7 mm (!), despite automatic movement including rotor. For comparison: an average quartz movement has a height of 2.5 mm.

Depending on the movement used or the case design, an automatic watch can look quite slim.

This is a brief overview of the advantages and disadvantages of mechanical watches. They are the more characterful models compared to quartz watches. This entails that they need more "attention", for example, need to be regularly wound. However, for connoisseurs, this is a beloved ritual and thus has a positive connotation.

In the second part of the article called "Mechanical watch vs. quartz watch - Part 2: Watches with electric movement" you will find interesting information about quartz watches along with their advantages and disadvantages.

Experience time in a new way!

Your Klaus Botta

Learn more about watch technology:

What is sapphire glass and what does a high-quality anti-reflective coating do?

Titanium – the precious lightweight metal

Original vs Copy – How you recognize the differences

What is a watch revision?

1 comment

  • Johannes Brand

    Lieber Herr Botta,
    vielen Dank für diesen schönen Artikel. Da ja die F.A.S. seit Kurzem immer schon samstags geliefert wird, hat man sonntags fast nichts mehr zu lesen. Gerade deshalb ist dieser Beitrag so erfrischend. An einer Stelle aber haben Sie ungenau recherchiert. Ihr “Nachteil 3” stimmt so nicht. Es gibt wesentlich ganggenauere Uhren als solche, die Abweichungen von -0/+20 Sekunden pro Tag haben…
    Bspw. weicht die Defy Lab von Zenith nur höchstens +/-0,3 Sekunden pro Tag ab.
    Viele Grüße aus Aachen
    Johannes Brand

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