For many years, quality watches have been a status symbol, and many high-end watchmakers pride themselves on designing and manufacturing watches that may be passed down through multiple generations.
Mechanical watches do not last forever without maintenance. Like all machines, watches are made up of moving parts, which will gradually break down due to wear and tear. However, with good care and maintenance, a high-quality mechanical watch will last for more than one lifetime.
Forever is a long time, but a good watch can be a lifelong companion and a valued heirloom. Read more to learn everything you need to know about keeping your mechanical watch ticking throughout your lifetime and through the next generation.
What Makes a Watch Mechanical?
Different types of watches and clocks are categorized according to the inner mechanism with which they keep time and the source of their energy.
A mechanical watch measures time using clockwork, a complex arrangement of minuscule springs, gears, and wheels packed precisely inside the watch casing. The art of making clockwork gears and springs small enough to fit into a small decorative case is highly prized.
Today, even the best mechanical watches are far less accurate than modern quartz and electrical watches. Still, mechanical watches retain their status as a symbol of wealth and high-quality workmanship.
Many high-end watches are designed to survive longer than their makers or original owners.
A Brief History of Time-keeping
Today, we are more familiar with the electronic timekeeper on our phone screens than with the hands of an old-fashioned watch. But for much of modern history, the mechanical watch was the cutting edge of time-keeping technology.
The mechanical watch is a direct descendant of the first spring-powered clocks developed in 15th century Europe (source). Before the invention of the clockwork mechanism, for centuries, human beings used sundials, hourglasses, water clocks, and other time-keeping devices to measure time.
Early wearable clocks were large and usually hung from a person’s neck or clothing. The first wristwatches were worn by women. Men tended to favor pocket watches until World War I when soldiers realized it was easier to see the time displayed on the wrist rather than having to remove a watch from their pockets (source).
After the introduction of clockwork, all watches were driven by clockwork until electronic quartz watches became widely available in the 1970s.
Quartz watches measure time using the vibration of a quartz crystal and draws its energy from a small electronic battery. They are more accurate than mechanical watches. The first model available to the public, the Seiko Quartz-Astron 35SQ, released in 1969, was accurate to within five seconds a month (source).
Modern clocks and watches no longer rely on the movement of clockwork. Cell Phones and GPS watches, meanwhile, are calibrated through connection with a satellite and never need to be manually adjusted.
The Best Mechanical Watch Brands
Even someone completely unfamiliar with the world of watchmaking will probably be able to name some of the most celebrated mechanical watch brands, such as Rolex or Omega.
Almost all luxury mechanical watch brands are European. The earliest portable watches were developed in Germany, while England and the Netherlands were also early leaders in watchmaking innovation (source).
During the late 20th century, Switzerland began to dominate the market in luxury watches. Today, many luxury watch brands are Swiss companies, many of which were established more than a century ago. The oldest watchmaker is Blancpain, established in 1735 and now owned by Swatch (source).
To learn more about the best high-end watch brands, you can read “Watches Better than Rolex.”
How to Keep a Mechanical Watch Ticking
Just as good treatment can keep a vintage car running for decades, so will a good quality mechanical watch reward your tender loving care with many years of reliable service.
A mechanical watch’s longevity depends on how well its moving parts endure wear and tear, so the first step to keeping it ticking is understanding the basics of its mechanism.
The Moving Parts of a Mechanical Watch
If you have ever opened up a mechanical clock or watch, you will know that, packed inside the tiny casing, there may be a bewilderingly large number of tiny, complex parts. You may also know that once taken apart, a mechanical clock is extremely difficult to put back together!
The entire mechanism inside a mechanical watch is called the movement. The movement is made up of a series of smaller parts that can be divided into five main groups or roles: the mainspring, the wheel train, the balance wheel, the escapement, and the display or indicator.
The energy that drives a mechanical watch is stored inside the mainspring (source). Mechanical watches must be manually wound via a small knob on one side of the watch’s face.
When you wind your mechanical watch, you are tightening the mainspring and transferring energy into the spring. The spring then slowly unwinds, transferring that energy into the movement of the watch (source).
As the mainspring unwinds, the watch gradually slows down and “loses” time, which is why mechanical watches are not entirely accurate.
Some mechanical clocks are driven by weights, which are lifted when the clock is wound and slowly drop as energy is transferred into the clock’s movement. Automatic or self-winding mechanical watches do not need to be wound because they have an internal mechanism that winds the mainspring using the movement of the watch on your wrist.
The Wheel Train
The wheel train inside a mechanical watch is comparable to a car’s gearbox. The train is made up of a series of toothed wheels, which transfer the energy of the mainspring into the balance wheel and escapement.
The gear ratios between the wheels in the train also divide the rotation of the balance wheel into units of time: seconds, minutes, and hours.
The Balance Wheel
The balance wheel is the time-keeping mechanism inside the watch. It rotates back and forth at a precise rate, in exactly the same way as a pendulum keeps time on an old-fashioned wall clock.
Each swing of the balance wheel advances the wheel train forward one click, moving the hands of the watch forward by one second. As the wheel rotates, it will, of course, lose energy through air resistance and friction. Keeping the balance wheel moving, using energy stored in the mainspring, is the escapement.
The escapement drives the balance wheel, giving it a small push on each swing. Therefore, the escapement transmits energy to the balance wheel, preventing it from running down for as long as the mainspring is wound (source).
It also regulates the swing of the balance wheel, advancing the wheel train by only one gear tooth on each swing. The “ticktock” of a watch is caused by the escapement connecting with the balance wheel on its oscillation back and forth.
The final element of a watch’s movement is the one you are probably most familiar with. This is the display, which allows you to read the time as measured by the mechanism of the watch.
Mechanical watches have a clock face, with hands indicating the hours, minutes, and, usually, the seconds.
The display is also the most recognizable element of a mechanical watch. Mechanical watches sweep rather than “tick” as quartz and electronic watches.
Maintaining a Mechanical Watch
Now that you know a little more about the parts that make up a mechanical watch, you know that a watch’s longevity depends on keeping those parts in working order. Good watch maintenance involves a lot of common sense and a little finesse.
Start with the basics: avoid dropping your watch, which can not only crack the face but might break the internal mechanism. Clean it regularly and keep it in a safe place when you’re not wearing it.
Don’t expose your watch to extreme heat or cold, which may cause expansion and contraction of the internal gears, create friction between the gears, or allow moisture to build up inside the watch casing. Avoid strong magnetic fields, which can interfere with the escapement.
Have your watch serviced every few years to replace old oil and avoid wear and tear to the mechanism. Service intervals vary by brand: check your watch’s manual and never interfere with the delicate movement of the watch yourself.
Besides basic maintenance and servicing, the best way to keep your watch ticking is to keep it wound.
You are welcome to read my in-depth guide on maintaining mechanical watches. The guide also includes automatic watches.
Winding a Mechanical Watch
Most mechanical watches will last around 40 hours per winding, so it’s best to wind your watch once a day. To wind a watch, you usually turn the crown away from you for about 20-40 turns. Check your manual for instructions.
However, winding can cause serious damage to a watch if done incorrectly. Always take your watch off your wrist before winding to avoid damaging the crown and stem. Once you feel the resistance increase, stop winding, as overwinding can damage the mainspring.
You should also exercise care when setting the time on your mechanical watch, especially if the watch includes additional functions such as calendar date. Setting these functions incorrectly can cause damage to the delicate parts of the movement.
It’s easy to see why an expensive mechanical watch has often been given as a traditional retirement present. If carefully looked after, your watch will outlast you and make a wonderful inheritance for your son or daughter and their children.
There is no reason why your mechanical watch should not last, if not forever, a very long time — as long as you take good care of it. However, unless you are a knowledgeable hobbyist, watch maintenance is a delicate procedure best left to the experts.
The best you can do is keep your watch clean, safe, and regularly serviced — and enjoy your part of a centuries-old craft.
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