How to Set the Time and Date on a Mechanical Watch

If you’re new to the world of mechanical watches, you probably have many questions about how to use and maintain your first automatic watch.

What should you do when you first get your watch? How do you set the time? It’s not running, is it broken?

It can seem simple enough on the surface, it’s a watch, right? How complex could it be? 

Well, an automatic watch is a little more complicated than you might think. There’s actually a way to permanently damage your watch, even accidentally, if it has a day or date function, and you don’t know how to set the time properly.

NEVER change the day or date when your watch’s time is currently between 9pm and 3am. The gears that change the day and date are active between those times, on most watches. Changing the day or date manually during those times can chip a gear in your movement, causing permanent damage to your day or date wheel.  To avoid this, always make sure your watch’s time is set to 6:30 (hour and minute hands pointing straight down) before ever changing the day or date.

Confused? Don’t worry. We’ll go more in depth about how to avoid ever damaging your watch with this little lesser known fact, as well as how to properly set the time on your first automatic watch. And what to do when you get your first automatic. But first…

Why Automatic Over Quartz?

The beauty of a watch with an automatic movement is that it’s powered by a series of mechanical parts, without any need for electronics, or even a battery.

It’s also pretty difficult to make a watch with an automatic movement from start to finish with just machines alone. It’s likely that at some point the watch had some human touch, often by a skilled watchmaker, to assemble or regulate your watch.

Though it’s usually only high-end luxury watches that are fully assembled by hand, the added craftsmanship required in automatic watches tends to make them the more desired and collected watches.

My Automatic Watch Stopped Running, is it Broken?

When you first get your automatic watch, you’ll likely notice that it’s not running at all. This can be scary for someone who has never owned an automatic before. You might even think your watch is broken. 

I can assure you, it’s almost certainly not broken.

Automatic watches are powered by either the motion of the rotor swinging around inside the case, powering the movement or by manually winding the crown yourself if it has hand-winding features. Not all watches have handwinding, so don’t worry if yours doesn’t. 

Does my watch have handwinding?

Generally the best way to tell if your watch has handwinding is by reading the manual.

If that’s not an option, and looking online didn’t bring you any fruitful results, you can try to manually feel if your watch has handwinding.

You can usually feel when you’re winding your watch, as there’s a slight bit of resistance as you turn it. 

My Watch Has Handwinding – How do I use it?

If your watch does have handwinding, turn the crown (usually clockwise) 30-40 times to wind the mainspring and power the watch fully. This will usually give it a power reserve charge of about 40 hours, give or take, depending on the watch.

Sometimes you’ll need to pull the crown out first, depending on the watch. Dive watches with a screw-down crown will need to be unscrewed counterclockwise first before you can pull them out. 

Can You Overwind an Automatic Watch?

No. You can never overwind an automatic watch. The automatic mechanism is disengaged or completely separated, from the rest of the movement. You can wind your automatic watch indefinitely without any fear of ever damaging it. 

Though most automatic watches usually only have an average power reserve of around 40 hours, depending on the watch, so winding it any more than 40 turns or so is just a waste of time.

Of course, there are always exceptions, like the Officine Panerai Luminor 1950 10-Days Ceramica that has a power reserve of… You guessed it, 10 days. 

My Watch Doesn’t Handwind – How Do I Power It?

Don’t sweat it! Every single automatic watch can be powered by your movement. Simply give it a few shakes, back and forth, and you should see the watch’s hands start to move.

If you’re someone who isn’t very active, like those who work at a desk job, it’s possible your watch will stop again sometime during the day, as it’s mainly powered by motion. You can keep it running by giving it a shake every so often, or simply by moving around more.

Before Setting The Time… (Day/Date Functions)

Now that you finally have power, you’ll want to set the time, the day and date of your watch, if it has said features. Not all watches have a day or date feature, but many do.

One important thing to note about automatic watches with day/date features is that they contain a specific set of gears, inside the mechanical movement, that can easily be broken if you set the time incorrectly.

The gears of the day and date functions usually start shifting between 9pm – 3am. Because of this, you always want to avoid EVER changing the day or date during this time, so you don’t damage the movement.

As a general rule to follow, always set the day or date with the time set at 6:30. This is for 2 reasons.

  1. Neither 6:30am, nor 6:30pm lands between the “danger zone” of 9pm – 3am. So no matter if your watch is currently on AM or PM time, 6:30 will always avoid this danger zone.
  2. You can position your watch hands to 6:30 with both the hour and minute hand pointing straight down to the 6:00 position. This is generally pretty easy to remember. 

Once you’ve successfully set the time to 6:30, you can proceed to adjust the day and date functions.

On most watches, you can set the day and date by pulling the crown out all the way, then turning it clockwise to change the date, counterclockwise to change the day.

As a general rule of thumb, you always want to set the day and date to the day BEFORE today.

This is because a watch with a day/date function actually measures time in 24-hour increments, both AM and PM. The day and date wheel won’t swap when hitting 12:00pm. 

By setting the day and date before the day it actually is, you’re giving yourself room to manually push the hours forward until the day swaps over to the next day. When it finally does, you’ll know your watch is set to AM.

How Do You Set the Time On Your Automatic Watch?

Once you have the day and date set to the day before today, go ahead and pull the crown out to set the time.

You can set the time on most automatic watches by pulling the crown out one click. 

Go ahead and start to turn the crown clockwise, moving the hands forward. You can damage some watches by setting the time moving the hands counterclockwise. That’s a trip to a watch repairer you surely want to avoid. 

My Date Wheel is Stuck? Is My Watch Broken?

Some people think that if your day or date wheel is currently misaligned, between two different days or dates, that it’s broken.

While this is a possibility, it’s more likely that what’s happening is the day or date and transitioning over. In most watches, especially watches that aren’t high-end luxury pieces, the day or date takes a few hours to change over completely.

It’s not uncommon that you’ll see the day/date wheel in an “in-between” transition phase until it swaps over. 

There are a few watches that have the day or date jump over instantly, especially in watches with higher quality movements.

So, how do you know if your day or date wheel is broken, or if it’s just transitioning to the next day?

Take a look at the time. As we mentioned earlier, the day and date functions start to activate on most watches when the watch is set to somewhere between 9pm to 3am. If your watch is currently between the position of 9:00 and 3:00, it’s likely you have nothing to worry about. Don’t sweat it! You can change the time to 6:30, as we spoke about earlier, and change the day or date manually. It should snap back into place. If it doesn’t, it might mean a trip to the watchmaker is in order, sadly.

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