When you’re shopping for a new watch, you’ll quickly realize that there are three main types of watch movements: automatic, quartz, and mechanical.
While these three watch movements might sound similar, the difference between them is what makes each type unique and valuable.
So, what’s the difference between these movements?
Mechanical watches are powered by a mainspring, which must be manually wound, typically every 2-3 days.
Automatic watches are just like mechanical watches, except they also use the movement of your arm to wind the mainspring automatically.
Finally, quartz watches are powered by a small battery. Quartz watches tend to be the most affordable and accurate, thanks to their electronically powered movement.
In this article, we will take a closer look at each type of watch movement and discuss its pros and cons in greater detail.
So without further ado, let’s get started.
How Are Automatic, Mechanical, and Quartz Watches Powered?
Mechanical watches don’t have any batteries or circuits to power them, so how on earth do they work?
These sophisticated timepieces have 6 main parts:
- The Crown
- The Mainspring
- The Gear Train
- The Hairspring
- The Balance Wheel
- The Escapement (Pallet Fork & Escape Wheel)
Here is how it works:
The crown is connected to the mainspring, which is a foot-long (30cm) strip of hardened metal coiled into a spring.
By rotating the crown a few times, you add tension on the mainspring.
As is the case of any coiled spring, the spring will want to return to its original shape, so it will unwind slowly, releasing energy into our watch over time.
This is exactly what powers the watch movement and makes it tick!
The mechanical movement simply uses a train of small gears to transfer the mainspring’s energy throughout the movement; all the way to the escapement and balance wheels, an integral part of any mechanical movement.
This is the heart of the watch’s operation and it’s responsible for the smooth sweep of the second hand.
By spinning the crown, you wind the mainspring and this force is then transferred via small gears to the escapement, which keeps it ticking at a consistent rate, just like our heart!
Automatic watches are very similar to mechanical watches, the only difference is that you don’t need to manually wind the watch’s coil.
You can think of it as a self-winding mechanical watch!
The watch can use the power of your wrist’s movement to keep its mainspring fully wound, so it never stops working!
The way they achieve this is through something called the ” automatic rotor”.
A watch rotor is a half-circle-shaped piece of metal attached to the watch’s mainspring.
It spins freely around an axis point, and as it moves, it winds the mainspring.
Like the movement in any mechanical watch, an automatic watch doesn’t use a battery to operate. Instead, it uses a series of gears to transfer the energy from the automatic rotor into the watch’s mainspring and eventually the rest of the movement.
An automatic watch gets its name from the fact that it is powered by the movement of your arm.
This is rather similar to how mechanical watches work, but the main difference here is that you don’t need to manually wind them each day.
Unlike mechanical and automatic watches, quartz timepieces are driven by a battery and an electronic circuit.
The battery sends a small electric current through the quartz tuning fork-shaped crystal, which vibrates at exactly 32,768 Hertz/second.
Why precisely 32,768?
Well, there are 2 reasons for that:
First, it needs to be above 20,000hz, and outside the range of the human’s hearing frequency range. This makes the quartz movement silent in operation.
Second, it needs to be a power of the number 2 because we use electronic parts to convert the frequency into seconds, minutes, and hours.
And no matter how complex the electronic part is, on a basic level, it still just has only 2 modes, either on or off. And 32,768 is the first power of 2 above 20,000.
The quartz’s vibration is picked up by a set of sensors, which convert it into electrical pulses.
These pulses are what drive the watch’s second hand and all its other functions.
Also, since we are dealing with electrical current here, we can use digital screens to display the time, which is why digital watches are always quartz.
Quartz watches are driven by a battery and an electronic circuit.
The vibration of the quartz crystal is converted into electrical pulses and the electronic circuit uses these pulses to display time.
Mechanical and Automatic Watches
One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between mechanical and quartz watches is by looking at their movement.
In the case of mechanical and automatic watches, the power source is the mainspring.
As we discussed earlier, the spring slowly unwinds, releasing energy through the gears to the escapement and balance wheel, which keeps the watch ticking.
Since this is a continuous process rather than a ticking process, the second-hand moves in a smooth motion.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a super smooth motion, it just ticks so fast that we can’t see it unless we really look closely.
And this is what gives mechanical watches that special charm and character!
Quartz watches, on the other hand, have no mainspring.
They get their power from a battery, which sends an electric current through the quartz crystal.
Since the electric signal is on/off rather than continuous like with the mainspring, the second-hand moves in a jumpy motion, ticking once per second.
The second hand on a mechanical watch moves in a smooth motion while the second hand on a quartz watch moves in a jumpy, ticky motion.
Mechanical & Automatic Watches
This is where mechanical and automatic watches differ the most.
As we previously discussed, automatic watches are powered by your movement.
Every time you move your arm, the rotor spins and winds the mainspring.
This means that you don’t need to worry about winding your automatic watch as long as you’re wearing it regularly.
However, if you don’t wear your watch for a few days, the mainspring will slowly run down and you’ll need to give it a manual wind.
Mechanical watches, on the other hand, require more frequent winding in order to keep it running.
How often you should wind your watch mainly depends on the quality of the mainspring, the wear and tear of the gears, the lubrication of the movement, and most importantly, the power reserve.
The power reserve demonstrates the maximum amount of time a mechanical watch will run, once fully round. Often, watches will have power reserves between 40 and 80 hours.
As a general rule, you’ll want to wind your watch every day to make sure it’s running, though some watches, with larger power reserves, can go for longer without needing additional winding.
Quartz timepieces don’t require any winding at all, as they simply don’t have any springs.
Instead, they do need semi-frequent battery changes, which we will explain in detail in the next section.
Mechanical watches need to be wound daily, automatic watches only need to be wound if you are not wearing them regularly, and quartz timepieces don’t require any winding at all.
Automatic & Mechanical Watches
One aspect that is often overlooked by newbies is the maintenance of their mechanical watches.
As we discussed, mechanical watches have lots of moving parts.
This puts them suspect to wear and tear, which can cause them to run slow or stop working altogether.
Think of your mechanical watch as a car.
If you don’t perform regular maintenance on your car, it will eventually break down and it will cost you a lot more to fix than if you had just taken care of it in the first place.
The same goes for your mechanical watch, although thankfully they don’t require as much maintenance as a car.
So, what kind of maintenance do you need to perform on your watch?
Well, the most important thing is to make sure the movement is well lubricated or “oiled.”
This is because the gears and bearings in the movement will eventually start to wear down if they’re not lubricated and this can significantly affect the watch’s accuracy.
For this reason, it’s suggested to take your mechanical timepiece to a qualified watchmaker once every 3-5 years for regular maintenance, though some movements, like Seiko’s reliable 7S26 and 4R36, are known to go 7-10 years and beyond without ever needing service.
He/she will strip down the movement and replace all of the oils with fresh ones.
It’s important to mention that servicing a mechanical watch can be quite pricey, depending on its working mechanism and condition.
The cost for a watch service can vary based on the type of watch being serviced, availability of parts, and a watchmaker’s experience level. On average, you should expect to pay around $250 every 4 years, an average of $62.50 per year.
This is where quartz timepieces really take the cake.
Since they have much fewer moving parts than mechanical watches, they’re not as prone to wear and tear.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is some maintenance involved.
Every 2 to 5 years, you’ll need to have the battery replaced, which is often simple enough to do yourself. Further, battery replacements are much cheaper than a watch service required on a mechanical watch.
Overall, quartz watches are a lot less work than mechanical or automatic watches.
In terms of the maintenance cost, servicing a quartz timepiece is relatively cheap, especially when compared to mechanical watches.
All mechanical watches need regular maintenance in the form of watch services every few years in order to keep the watch running smoothly.
This usually entails taking it to a qualified watchmaker every few years to have the movement oiled.
Maintenance also can be pricey, depending on the watch, but it’s important in order to keep your timepiece ticking.
Quartz watches, on the other hand, are by far the easiest to take care of since they don’t have as many moving parts as mechanical watches. Quartz watches only require a very simple to perform, and affordable battery change every few years.
Overall, quartz timepieces maintenance cost is relatively low when compared to mechanical watches.
Durability & Longevity
Automatic & Mechanical Watches
One of the main things that many people fail to consider when buying a new watch is its durability.
Mechanical watches are the most susceptible to wear and tear due to the many small, mechanical moving parts that can easily get out of whack.
Yes, they can always be fixed by a skilled watchmaker, given replacement parts are readily available, but this can sometimes be costly.
Sometimes, it can even cost you more than buying a new one, especially in the case of an affordable mechanical watch. If the price of replacing your mechanical watch costs less than the service of the watch, it may be worth considering replacing it entirely.
However, while mechanical watches aren’t as durable as quartz ones, they can last much longer, if properly maintained for.
On average, a mechanical timepiece can last for around 150 years!
That’s why they are often treated as heirlooms and passed down from generation to generation. You’ll often hear stories of a family member passing down a mechanical Rolex or Seiko, while it is much rarer to hear someone passing down their G-Shock, for instance.
One of the biggest benefits of quartz watches is that they are extremely durable.
In fact, I’m not exaggerating if I said that my quartz G-Shock has been beaten and dropped numerous times with next-to-no damage, whatsoever.
Now, I’m not saying that quartz watches are invincible.
They still can break down, but only if you really try to break them.
However, what they have in durability, they lack in longevity.
On average, a quartz timepiece can last around 25 years before the electric circuit breaks down.
Yes, you can always change the inner mechanism, but obviously, it will cost you; sometimes more than a replacement of the watch itself.
Quartz watches are super durable and can survive numerous falls, bumps, drops, and scrapes, but don’t have the longevity of a well-maintained and cared for mechanical watch.
Automatic & Mechanical Watches
To be honest, mechanical watches aren’t the most accurate timepieces.
The reason why they aren’t as accurate is, you guessed it, the moving parts that can easily get out of whack.
It’s not that they are inaccurate by design, but more likely due to the many minuscule parts required to be in perfect motion for precise timekeeping.
The average automatic watch, even some of the higher-end luxury watches, such as Rolex, Omega, Patek Philippe, etc. can lose or gain anywhere from 2-25 seconds per day, depending on their quality of movement.
That may not seem like a lot day-to-day, but over the course of a week, month, or year, it can add up, and become quite inaccurate over time.
For example: assuming your watch is off by only 3 seconds/day, then this means it will be off by 90 seconds/day at the end of the month, or 1,080 seconds/day by the end of the year; that’s 18 minutes!
Unlike mechanical timepieces, quartz watches are extremely accurate.
They may not be as precise as an atomic clock, but they’re close.
The average quartz watch can lose or gain ~1-2 minutes per year, which is pretty impressive if I might say.
Mechanical watches are not that accurate and can lose/gain up to 25 seconds per day.
Quartz watches, on the other hand, are extremely accurate and can lose/gain about a minute or two per year.
Size & Weight
Automatic & Mechanical Watches
Another thing to consider is the size and weight of the watch.
Automatic watches are typically heavier than their mechanical and quartz countertops.
As you guessed, it’s because of the many smaller, mechanical parts, often made with various metals used in the movement, combined with the rotor. The rotor needs to be heavy, so it can efficiently rotate and shift when wearing it on the wrist, in-turn, winding the mainspring.
Although mechanical watches don’t have a rotor, they are still quite heavy as well due to the number of gears and springs inside.
The average mechanical watch can weigh around 3.5 ounces (100 grams) and have a thickness of 0.4 inches (10 millimeters).
Since quartz timepieces don’t have any moving parts (except for the second hand), they can often be made smaller, lighter, and thinner than automatic or mechanical watches.
The average weight of a quartz watch is around 2.5 ounces (70 grams) and has a thickness of 0.27 inches (6 millimeters).
Automatic timepieces are the heaviest and bulkiest watches, followed by mechanical watches, while quartz watches are the slimmest and smallest.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can a quartz watch be automatic?
No, an automatic watch is a self-powered [automatic] mechanical movement, while a quartz watch is an electronically powered movement.
Can a quartz watch be mechanical?
No, a mechanical watch movement is comprised of small mechanical parts, such as springs and gears, while a quartz watch is electronically powered.
Are Rolex watches mechanical, automatic, or quartz?
Rolex has made Rolex Oyster Quartz watches, which use a battery, in the past, however, modern Rolex watches use automatic movements.
Which Type Of Watch Movement Is Better?
At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference.
If you’re someone who wants the most accurate, affordable, easy to maintain, and durable timepiece, you should definitely stick with a quartz watch.
On the other hand, if you want a watch that contains a tiny, mechanically driven machine, and a watch you can hand down for generations, a mechanical watch is the one for you, so long as you don’t mind the semi-regular cost of a watch service.
And finally, if you want all of the charm of a mechanical watch, without having to deal with the hassle of winding the watch regularly, a self-powered automatic watch that will wind itself while you’re wearing it on your wrist is the one for you.
If you’re looking for an affordable automatic watch to kickstart your collection, I’ve shared some of my personal favorites here.