What is a Mechanical Watch?
A mechanical watch is a watch driven by a mainspring that turns gears as it unwinds. These gears then transfer force to a balance wheel, which oscillates uniformly back and forth, taking the same amount of time for each swing. As the balance wheel swings, an “escapement” then allow the watch’s gears to advance uniformly (giving a mechanical watch its “ticking” sound). Rotating hands attached to the gears then display the time on the dial of the watch.
Mechanical watches represent one of the oldest technologies created by man. In 1524, a German locksmith named Peter Heinlein, invented the first spring powered portable watch in Nuremburg. Personal mechanical watches then became very popular among nobility and the wealthy throughout Western Europe, and watchmakers competed with one another to improve the accuracy of their timekeeping and their features.
As the years passed, a fine mechanical watch became not only a symbol of refinement and distinction for a gentleman, but also a very necessary instrument for trade and commerce. Today, a fine mechanical timepiece is the culmination of the watchmaker’s art. Currently, there are over 600 manufacturers of time pieces who create watches for every desired style and complications. A mechanical watch today truly represents wearable art that embodies a refined elegance and sophistication almost tailored to the unique personality of its wearer.
What is a Quartz Watch?
Most of the watches manufactured today are quartz watches and you may be wearing one. Quartz watches are simply watches that are battery powered, or more specifically, uses an electronic oscillator powered by a quartz crystal to create an extremely accurate measurement of time. In 1969, Seiko produced the first commercial quartz wristwatch, the Astron. Since then, quartz watches have become the predominate form of watch available; lightweight, cheap to manufacture and extremely accurate.
The advent of quartz technology had a dire impact on mechanical watch making. Consumers became enthralled by the use of the new technology and many thought that mechanical watches were passé. The Swiss watch industry contracted by 65% over a 15-year period from 1970 to 1985; employment decreased from 90,000 to 30,000 and the number of watch manufacturers plummeted from 1600 to a low of 600. Many predicted the extinction of the industry; a notable low point was reached when one company dumped into a river thousands of its carefully manufactured movements that represented years of labor by now unemployed artisans. At the time, there was simply little demand for the complex movements.
Fortunately, in the mid-1980s, those who appreciated true artistry and precision craftsmanship returned to mechanical watches in ever increasing numbers. Now the industry is vibrant and experiencing a renewal not seen before in its 500-year history. A profusion of new styles suited for every individual taste continue to be introduced by entrepreneurial and well-financed manufactures, whose artistry is matched by evermore intricate movements and complications. Inside and out, mechanical watch making has entered a new golden era!
If a quartz watch keeps the most accurate time, then why would I be interested in a mechanical watch?
If extremely accurate timekeeping (such as in scientific experimentation) were the sole criteria for buying a watch, then quartz would seem to be the obvious choice. Nevertheless, the efficiency of a technology alone is never definitive when it comes to choosing an article that will be on your wrist nearly 12 hours of every day. In the United States, it is only during the two decades that we have come to appreciate again the advantages and pleasures that a fine mechanical watch confers over a mass-produced, mass branded quartz watch:
- The manufactures of mechanical watches do not generally create for the masses; limited production and special editions exemplify a philosophy of creating a watch of rarefied appeal, not driven by gigantic marketing budgets or mass channel distribution. Ask yourself if you would rather wear a watch worn by millions or by only a few others who hold your values or have your sense of aesthetics.
- Mechanical watches today represent the evolution of a craftsmanship discipline that has painstakingly evolved over 500 years. If you are intrigued by the knowledge that several master artisans have spent weeks and months (or in some cases, years) building your watch by hand to a level of precision that is now rarely attained without the benefit of technology, then the mechanical watch is for you. Know that your timepiece has its own unique story and romance in its creation; the same is not true for mass-produced quartz watches that clatter by on assembly lines before they reach their shipping containers.
- The mechanical watch also provides you with the opportunity to begin your own traditions. Many in the industry say that you do not buy a fine timepiece for yourself, but for your descendants. As mechanical watches are designed and crafted to last decades (if not hundreds of year), implicit in their creation is the idea that the first owner will not be the last to enjoy their unique character. It has been a tradition in Europe for over the last two hundred years that a parent will purchase for a son or daughter their first fine watch upon their 18th birthday to commemorate their becoming an adult. Most of us will agree that a fine watch they will wear is a more personal and reflective coming-of-age gift than the usual “car for college.” Know that when your pass your watches through the generations, they will become enduring touchstones of your family’s legacy and traditions.
- A mechanical watch is wearable art. While you can only admire a painting from across the room, a mechanical watch is with you always. Unlike a painting or a beautiful vista, an advantage of a mechanical watch from the artistic sense is that it also is very tactile. You can feel the weight of the watch, the feel of its strap on your wrist, the way it reflect light to your eye. The mechanical watch is art that interacts with you!
- A mechanical watch is also wearable luxury. When you think of “luxury,” you may have the emotion of anticipating the experience. Often this requires quite a lot of effort; planning the vacation, driving the car, savoring the gourmand dinner. However, often the luxury experience can be fleeting. As “wearable luxury,” the fine mechanical watch is always with you and you can savor it all the time and anywhere (if you find the experience diminishes with one timepiece, then it is time for a new one!).
- A fine mechanical watch also confers upon its wearer a very high degree of status. Because of their unique character and obvious luxury, they attract attention with which mass-branded watches cannot compete. When you wear a top mechanical luxury watch, it sends the subtle, yet undeniable message: “Not only have I arrived, I have always been here!” A fine watch also says that you are a discerning person, apart from the crowd, and can appreciate the finer (or the finest) things in life.
- With over 600 manufactures producing a bewildering array of watch designs and styles, you can find the specific brand and watch that reflects you own personality and values. When you find the mechanical watch that is right for you, you do not compromise by accepting the tastes dictated by mass marketers. Fine luxury watches are created for rugged individualists, not the me-too crowd!
- For the more practical minded, a fine mechanical watch also has the advantage of retaining (and increasing) in value. This make obvious sense when you think of the appreciation over time of other handcrafted works of art made of precious metals. Nevertheless, if you are still not convinced, when was the last time you heard that a 20-year old, plastic, battery-powered triathletes’ watch appreciated several times in value?
- Generally, you can know that a mechanical watch can offers a rich history, unparalleled artistry, aesthetics that rival any art masterpiece, a statement of elegance, not a bad investment, and a personal luxury experience.