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Watch movements

Watch movements

The watch's motor

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.

More features, more money

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.

Either mechanical or quartz

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

Mechanical movements generally have these parts:

  • Winding crown on the exterior of the case, which winds up the mainspring
  • Mainspring, which stores the energy
  • Gear train, a group of gears that transmit the energy from the mainspring to the escapement
  • Escapement, which regulates and distributes the energy in equal parts to the balance wheel
  • Balance wheel, which takes the lateral pulses from the escapement and oscillates at a constant frequency to regulate the movement. Mechanical movement balance wheels can oscillate anywhere from 18,000 to 36,000 beats per hour
  • Dial train, which takes the constant beats of the balance wheel to move the hands on the dial forward

Quartz movements

Quartz movements generally have these parts:

  • Battery, which is the power source of the watch.
  • Integrated circuit, which transmits energy from the battery to the quartz crystal and transmits electrical pulses from the quartz crystal to the stepping motor
  • Quartz crystal, which oscillates at a precise frequency of 32,768 times each second
  • Stepping motor, which releases every 32,768th electrical pulse to the dial train
  • Dial train, which takes the constant pulses of the stepping motor (1 per second) to move the hands on the dial forward

Automatic vs. manual vs. quartz

The three main types of watch movements are manual, automatic, and quartz. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.


  • Automatic movements (also known as self-winding movements) are mechanical movements with a rotor
  • A rotor is a semi-circular metal weight that swings freely with the wrist, which winds the mainspring (also known as a hairspring)
  • As long as you wear an automatic watch (or store it in a winder), it will continue to run
  • Most luxury automatic watches will have a power reserve anywhere between 36 and 72 hours
  • Automatic watches can also be manually wound using the winding crown


  • Manual movements (also known as hand-wound movements or manual-winding movements) are the most traditional and oldest type of mechanical movements
  • Most require daily winding to keep the watch running
  • One of the main benefits of a manual movement is that they’re slim in profile
  • They’re often used in elegant ultra-thin dress watches


  • Quartz movements are newer than mechanical movements
  • Generally don’t require the same upkeep as mechanical movements
  • Quartz watches will continue to run as long as the watch battery has power — there are no winding requirements with a quartz watch
  • Depending on the watch, batteries have to be replaced every two to five years.

The Quartz Crisis

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.

Mechanical recovery

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.

In-house vs. modified movements

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.

In-house movements

AKA manufacture movements

  • The majority of an in-house movement is designed, developed, built, and produced by the brand
  • More and more luxury watch brands are moving towards making in-house movements
  • In-house made movements are considered more prestigious than modified ones

Modified movements

AKA ébauche movements

  • A modified movement is an outsourced base movement that is typically adjusted according to brand specifications
  • Most Swiss luxury watch brands traditionally outsourced movements from specialized movement makers
  • The largest supplier of movements today is ETA SA Manufacture Horlogère Suisse

Chronometers and COSC

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.

1.8 million per year

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.

Rigorous precision

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.

Finishing and decoration

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:

  • Anglage: French for beveling/chamfering
  • Black polish: results in a perfectly smooth surface of steel parts, which can reflect like a mirror or look black depending on the angle
  • Geneva stripes: parallel wave-like patterns, which can be circular or straight
  • Perlage (a.k.a. circular-graining or stippling): overlapping circular pattern
  • Engraving: various parts of the movement can be engraved with brand names, numbers, text, or decorative patterns

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.

What watches can do