What makes a great watch? While many people think that a good watch is about how it looks, the definition of a ‘good’ watch is so much more than that. Yes, aesthetics are important, but for many, it’s how the watch is powered that helps determine the appeal and value of the watch. And this is where a watch’s movement becomes important.
A watch’s movement is what powers the watch’s hands to move, signalling both the time and the date. Not all watch movements are the same – different manufacturers may have their own unique movements, giving them a certain appeal to buyers.
So what exactly are watch movements, and what makes them good? Learn more in our handy guide from the experts at Lux Horology.
What are watch movements?
The simplest way to explain a watch movement is that it is the thing that makes a watch work. Also known as the calibre, the movement, is a fascinating example of engineering, helping to power the hands of the watch to tell the time, the date and other functions of the watch. Watch movements may have been invented centuries ago, but today’s watches still feature these original mechanisms, which makes it easy to see why watches have such an appeal to people. Just like cars, it’s not all about looks when it comes to finding a good watch.
There are three different types of watch movement: mechanical, automatic and quartz.
A mechanical watch movement, is also known as a hand-wound movement, and is the oldest method used in watch-making. The first mechanical watch was invented back in 1510 by a German clockmaker named Peter Henlien, while the more well-known minute-hand design was invented by English watchmaker Daniel Quare in 1676.
Mechanical watches require winding each day to ensure they work correctly. It’s very important that the watch is wound correctly, ensuring there is an element of tension, but not so much that the movement becomes damaged.
You can learn more about the history of mechanical watchmaking in UNESCO’s fascinating look at Swiss mechanical watchmaking craftasmanship:
Automatic watch movements became more popular in the early 20th century, building on mechanical movement engineering to create a ‘self-winding’ movement, which is activated when the wearer wears the watch. It will reset itself if the watch isn’t worn for a long period of time.
Quartz movements are battery-powered, which means they don’t need winding to work. Because of this, quartz watches have a high degree of accuracy, which makes them a popular choice of watch.
What is classed as a ‘good’ watch movement?
Each type of watch movement has its benefits, but defining a ‘good’ watch movement depends on several factors, including:
Precision is paramount for a good watch movement. Watches should be able to maintain timekeeping each day. The highest-quality watch movements show the time to the second.
Wearers need to be able to rely on their watch to tell them the exact time, day or night. An effective watch movement should always be able to maintain an accurate time.
A watch is an investment, and durability is expected with high-quality watch movements. Made from high-quality materials, with a considered design, the watch should be able to last for many years without the need for repair or maintenance.
A good movement will display excellent craftsmanship, from the assembly to the finishing, ensuring every detail has been carefully thought about.
Good movements will incorporate the latest features, helping to prevent magnetising, for example. These innovations will help boost performance and functionality for a watch made to the highest standards.
Legacy comes into play with the best watch movements. A brand that has a long and respected heritage will come with a strong reputation, highlighting the brand’s excellence.
Overall, a ‘good’ watch movement will encompass many different elements, and whether it is a mechanical, automatic or quartz movement, watchmakers that take these into account will create an effective, first-rate piece.
What role does craftsmanship play in creating a good watch movement?
The most coveted timepieces are those that can demonstrate high-quality craftsmanship and design. Those who value tradition and heritage have a particular leaning towards mechanical movements, due to their aesthetics and the engineering that goes into creating the watch. Others may prefer an automatic watch because it doesn’t need to be hand-wound every day, which is why automatic watches are amongst the industry’s bestsellers.
Compared to say, digital watches, the incredible craftsmanship that goes into making a watch, is very much admired and respected, which makes it easy to see why watches become collectors items.
In-house movements versus outsourced movements
The art of watch-making is more complex and detailed than people may realise. Even the way the components are created has an impact on their value and prestige.
In-house movements, otherwise known as a ‘manufacture’ movement, apply to watch movements that have been completely created in-house, with each individual component designed and produced by the watchmaker. In-house movement is rare in the watchmaking industry, and is typically found among elite watchmakers. Some of these watchmakers include Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Breitling. Some watch companies, including Omega, Tag Heuer and Sinn, manufacture some of their movements in-house.
It’s important to note that the true definition of in-house movements varies. Purist horologists may insist that every component is manufactured in-house to be worthy of the name, while others acknowledge that it is not possible for some watch brands to manufacture every single component themselves.
Outsourced movements, however, refer to watch movements that are designed by a manufacturer, but are then outsourced to create the necessary components and complete the build. There are multiple companies that specialise in creating watch movements, who then supply them to watchmakers – including ETA, which supplies movements for brands within the Swatch Group. This includes Omega, Longines, TAG Heuer and others.
Which is better?
Whether in-house movements are superior to outsourced movements can divide opinions amongst watch enthusiasts. Watchmakers who create their movements in-house will advocate for superior quality and enhanced accuracy compared to outsourced movements. However, as some of the most respected movement manufacturers have been producing movements for hundreds of years, it can also be argued that this long history of movement manufacturing assures quality and highly developed watchmaking techniques.
While in-house movements come with an element of prestige, which makes them popular amongst watch collectors, it’s hard to ignore the experience and techniques used by outsourced movement manufacturers. For many people, personal preference is a significant factor in choosing a watch.
Which type of movement is considered the best?
Each type of watch movement has its strengths, and for many people, the preference is down to taste and personality. But in terms of choosing the most accurate and reliable watch, a quartz movement is considered superior. This is because the watches are battery-powered and don’t rely on any manual or automatic movements to make the watch work. This means they are lower maintenance than other watch types, with the battery simply needing replacing every couple of years. If it’s a watch you can rely on to tell the time correctly, then a quartz watch is certainly the better choice. Other watch movements need to be operated correctly in order for them to work, requiring some effort on the wearer’s part to help maintain accuracy.
However, in terms of aesthetic appeal, watch collectors and enthusiasts may prefer a mechanical or automatic watch movement, preferring the aesthetic of these pieces, as well as the high level of detail and craftsmanship required to produce the piece.
Swiss watch movements – are they more reliable?
Swiss watch movements are considered by many to be the gold standard of watch movements. This is because they are designed for precision, with heritage and knowledge that spans centuries. Swiss watch movements are handmade using metal gears and are designed for lifetime use, with servicing available as needed.
With Swiss watch movements, especially those used by the most sought-after watchmakers, there is a focus on precision, with stringent checks and quality control before the watch is deemed complete. This is also reflected in the watch’s appearance, where the quality of the movement is clear to see.
More recently, Japanese watchmakers have become popular with watch buyers. Japanese watch movements are designed to be highly accurate, with a focus on practicality. They are also designed to be more cost-effective, and therefore may be preferred by many watch buyers.
How movement affects the price of watches
Movement can have a significant impact on watch pricing. As battery-powered watches need fewer parts to work, quartz movements are the most affordable and are designed to last a long time.
For manual and automatic movements, which contain various parts to work, pricing increases. Luxury brands will use premium materials, including precious metals and jewels, to help boost a watch movement’s performance. As these watches are handmade, the level of detail that goes into every stage of making the watch will be factored into the pricing.
Some of the highest-priced watches will also feature special-edition designs or features, making them more exclusive, and appealing to horologists, collectors and luxury goods buyers.
Watch movements provide a fascinating exploration of how watchmaking has changed over the years, yet the original concept and designs still remain popular today – something that can’t be said about other goods such as cars or even appliances. The definition of a ‘good’ watch movement will vary from person to person, but precision, accuracy, craftsmanship and heritage can help determine the value and appeal of a watch, creating a piece that is respected and coveted by watch experts