A watch movement, also known as a watch caliber, is the mechanism that drives the watch. A movement is to a watch what an engine is to a car. Like car engines, there are plenty of movement varieties, ranging from type to functionality to finishing.
The movement determines the type of features a watch has, how the watch gets its power, and what type of maintenance it will need. A watch movement also plays a part in the cost and collectibility of the watch, as some are more complicated to build than others.
Mechanical movements are comprised of mechanical components such as gears, trains, and wheels, and can be either manual or automatic (more on this below). Quartz movements have electrical circuit boards and batteries. Mechanical movements are generally more expensive and desirable while quartz movements are more practical and accurate.
Mechanical movements generally have these parts:
Quartz movements generally have these parts:
The three main types of watch movements are manual, automatic, and quartz. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Seiko released the Astron — the world’s first quartz wristwatch — in 1969, which was the start of the two-decade period that would later be known as the Quartz Crisis. Because quartz movements are more accurate and cheaper to produce than mechanical movements, they largely replaced traditional mechanical timepieces throughout the 1970s and 1980s, which just about decimated the Swiss watch industry.
Toward the end of the 1980s and the onset of the 90s, mechanical movements — particularly Swiss-made ones — began their comeback as the more prestigious option. While the vast majority of the world’s watches run on quartz movements today, mechanical movements are generally preferred for high-end timepieces since they require more skill, knowledge, and craftsmanship to manufacture.
Watch brands can choose whether to develop and build their watch movements in-house from the ground up or take a base movement (called an ébauche) and modify it. For most of its history, the Swiss watch industry was comprised of a network of artisans and craftspeople that specialized in making different components of the watches. For instance, there were dial makers, case makers, bracelet makers, and of course, movement makers.
Very few brands historically made all (if any) watch movements in-house. Instead, most brands would source components from various specialists and assemble the watches according to their design and mechanical specifications. Some famed past movement makers include Peseux, Lemania, and Valjoux, which were all eventually consolidated and absorbed by ETA SA Manufacture Horlogère Suisse — the largest manufacturer of Swiss ébauches and movements today.
However, over recent decades, more and more luxury watch companies manufacture as many movements themselves as possible. In turn, more luxury watch consumers expect high-end watches to run on in-house calibers. In-house-made movements are often called manufacture movements. While no hard and fast rule says an in-house movement is necessarily better than a modified ébauche, a manufacture movement is typically seen as more prestigious.
AKA manufacture movements
AKA ébauche movements
A chronometer is the name given to high-precision timepieces, which are certified only after passing a series of rigorous tests. In Switzerland, the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) — or Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute in English — is responsible for certifying Swiss watches as chronometers.
Mechanical and quartz watches can be chronometers and COSC certifies around 1.8 million watches a year, complete with a unique ID number engraved on the movement and a certificate. While the words chronometer and chronograph are often mixed up, they are not the same thing. A chronometer is a very accurate timepiece, while a chronograph is a watch with a stopwatch function.
Mechanical watches are subjected to 15 days of testing across different temperatures and positions. Among other criteria, a mechanical watch must maintain an average daily rate of -4/+6 seconds a day to be certified as a chronometer. Although quartz movements are more precise than mechanical movements, they are more susceptible to temperature and humidity, which can affect their precision. Therefore a quartz chronometer undergoes 13 days of testing at three different temperatures and four different humidity levels.
The finest watch brands not only ensure that the timepiece exterior is beautiful but they also take painstaking care that movements are impeccably finished and decorated. Some watches even have exhibition casebacks (where the back of the watch is furnished with a transparent glass) so a decorated movement can be admired.
Not just aesthetically pleasing, movement finishing historically also served a functional role (no longer applicable to modern movements) by making certain parts more corrosion resistant or keeping dust away from the most sensitive componentsFurthermore, steel turns into a rich blue colour after being exposed to high heat, which explains the ubiquity of “blued steel” watch parts.
Some of the most traditional finishing and decorative techniques, whether done by hand or machine, include:
The Poinçon de Genève, or the Geneva Seal, is a certificate awarded to timepieces that have movements that are decorated and finished to a certain standard. The criterion is strict and includes several movement components such as baseplates, bridges, balance wheels, balance springs, wheel train, screws, and pin. The Poinçon de Genève can only be awarded to Geneva-based watchmakers.