What are Jewels in Watches – and how do they work?

Many different parts make up a quality watch. Some watches have multiple hundreds of components to ensure they perform all of their key functions. But there’s one thing that all watch movements have to guarantee that they work well and provide accuracy. Watch jewels are an essential component, which are used in different materials, shapes, and numbers for a smoother movement. Understanding what jewels do and why they’re important is a key part of familiarising yourself with how watches work and how to spot those that are high-quality.

What Is a Jewel?

Jewels are one of the parts of a watch movement. Their purpose is to help with accuracy, as well as help the watch movement to last longer. These tiny pieces (also called jewel bearings) are made from synthetic ruby or sapphire. They reduce friction in the moving parts of the movement by creating a hard surface that enables the metal components to move more freely. Jewels are used in several different places within the movement, with various shapes that fit where they’re needed.

Modern watches typically use artificial ruby or sapphire, which are essentially the same mineral. With a rating of 9 on the Mohs hardness scale (diamonds are a 10), they’re ideal for the purpose. Before using artificial ruby and sapphire, watchmakers would make use of materials such as quartz, garnet, or glass to serve the same purpose.

Types of Jewels

Each type of jewel is used in different ways to help prevent stress in various areas. There are four main types of jewels that you will typically see in a watch movement.

  • Hole jewels – Hole jewels or pierced jewels have holes bored into them, as the name implies. This means that they can be mounted onto various components, such as the wheel’s axel or pivots. They are circular and concave, and are used together with cap jewels to create pivot bearings.
  • Cap jewels – Cap jewels do not have a hole in them. Also called end stones or capstones, they are used to minimise the balance staff’s movement. Usually used with a hole jewel, they are also paired with some form of shock protection, such as a spring.
  • Pallet jewels – Pallet jewels are used at the end of each arm on the pallet fork. They are usually rectangular.
  • Roller jewels – Roller jewels sit inside the pallet fork, forming a connection between the pallet and the escape wheel. These are also called impulse jewels.

Jewel Counts in Watches

If you have ever shopped for watches, or just researched them, you will have noticed that there are different numbers of jewels that a watch might have. The number of jewels in a watch may be affected by its age, with many watches from before the 1970s having far fewer jewels than those made today.

To be considered fully jewelled, a watch typically has 17 jewels. However, some manufacturers will use up to 21 jewels to create more accuracy and reliability in their watches. Older watches may have as few as between 5 and 7 jewels. Generally, the more jewels there are, the higher the quality of the watch is.

Do Quartz Watches Have Jewels?

Quartz watches also have moving parts, but they don’t necessarily use jewels. Just like in a mechanical watch, jewels can help to make a quartz watch more durable. However, a self-lubricating quartz watch doesn’t need jewels as much as a mechanical watch does. A quartz watch might have between 5 to 10 jewels, when it does have them, although some can have more if they have more complications.

Where Are Jewels Used?

There are multiple places where you can find jewels in a watch. You most likely can’t see them without opening the watch up, but if you were to look inside, you would see jewels in some of the following places.

  • Balance wheel – a jewel is used in the assembly where the escapement level hits
  • Staff pivot – two pivot bearings, made of pairs of one hole jewel and one cap jewel, are used here
  • Centre wheel – a hole jewel and cap jewel form another pivot bearing here
  • Escape lever pallet – two pallet jewels are found here
  • Escape lever – the escape lever features a pivot bearing
  • Fourth wheel – another pivot bearing
  • Third wheel – a cap jewel and hole jewel create a pivot bearing
  • Escape wheel – the escape wheel also has a pivot bearing

A watch with 17 jewels is considered fully jewelled, but those that have 21 jewels have some additional cap jewels, which help to reduce positional errors.

Is It Better to Have More Jewels?

The question you may be asking yourself is whether more jewels are better than fewer jewels. Is it necessary to choose a watch that has 21 jewels over one that has 17 if you are looking for the best quality? To answer this question, you need to keep in mind why jewels are used. They’re used to reduce friction and protect the components, as well as to reduce positional errors in the case of watches with 21 jewels. The main thing to keep in mind is that watches with more complications will require more jewels to help all of the functions work properly. Very thin watches also often use more jewels to provide more protection to the components and ensure they’re accurate.

Some watches can have many more jewels than 21, especially if they have many complications, such as chronographs or perpetual calendars. The world’s most complicated watch, made by Vacheron Constantin, features a huge 242 jewels. Created for the company’s 260th year, it has 57 different complications, including a perpetual calendar, minute repeater, tourbillon, split-seconds chronograph, and more.

The number of jewels in a watch alone is not what makes it a better quality watch. However, the number of jewels might indicate how complicated the watch is or how thin it is. In the 1960s, some watchmakers did try to add more jewels just so that they could say they had more. Some even added nonfunctional jewels simply to have more in their watches. But it wasn’t long before this practice was over. The introduction of the ISO 1112 standard in 1974 prevented manufacturers from advertising unnecessary jewels.

Do Jewels Make a Watch More Expensive?

The fact that jewels are made from small pieces of sapphire or ruby might make you wonder if they contribute to the price of a watch. However, watch jewels are made from synthetic ruby, which is created in a lab. It’s cheap to make and doesn’t have much value, so it’s possible to add plenty of them to a watch without raising the price. The cost of a watch is much more likely to be influenced by other factors, including the technical design, the other materials used, the designer, and more.

The History of Jewels in Watches

So where exactly did jewels come from? Like many things in watchmaking, it was Swiss watchmakers who first came up with the concept. Brothers Peter and Jacob Debaufre, along with their partner Nicolas Fatio, were the first to use jewels in watch movements in the early 18th century. They patented this idea in England and were soon followed by other watchmakers who began to add jewels to their watches too. Before the ability to create synthetic ruby and sapphire, shards of natural ruby were often used for watch jewels. Watchmakers also tried out other materials, such as garnet and quartz. It wasn’t until 1902 that the French chemist Auguste Verneuil developed a process to synthesise gemstones in a cheap way that jewels would begin to be replaced with synthetic ruby instead.

Up until the mid-20th century, many watches featured between just 5 and 7 jewels. However, 17 has become the standard for a fully jewelled watch as movements have developed and manufacturers have taken steps to ensure the best protection. Using synthetic rubies is cost-effective and it’s an eco-friendly way to manufacture jewels for watches. This makes it easy to add the required number of jewels to keep any watch ticking. As well as the hardness of ruby and sapphire making them suitable materials, they are also good choices because they can be finely polished. The surface is great at retaining oil and lubrication and the material is really resistant to wear too. Watches have lasted for many decades and remained accurate without ever being surfaced thanks to the jewels used in them.

The Final Word on Why Jewels Matter

Jewels in watches continue to be important, especially in mechanical watches. They are there to increase the accuracy and the longevity of the watch by protecting the moving parts. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the number of jewels in a watch isn’t always a strong indicator of whether the watch is better or worse than others. A watch with more jewels isn’t necessarily a good one and a watch with fewer jewels isn’t always worse. It’s essential to consider other factors when assessing the quality of a watch and whether it’s worth the investment.

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