Since the early 13th century when Genghis Khan rode against the Khwarazmian Empire in the dusty deserts of Central Asia, mechanical clocks were already ticking away the minutes and hours of the day. Today, their modern descendants continue their faithful duty of keeping time, in bold defiance to the quartz revolution which took over the world in the 1970s.
But what exactly is a mechanical watch? With the swarm of buzzwords like “chronometer” and “tourbillon” buzzing around in the proverbial hive of global commerce, it is completely understandable that its definition gets lost in the wind.
In fact, there is no need to be intimidated when it comes to understanding the inner workings of the mechanical watch.
So, let us begin by stating the following: A mechanical watch is a portable timepiece that employs a clockwork mechanism to measure time.
How do they differ from quartz watches, you may ask? Well, hop on aboard the gear train and let’s get a little technical.
Springing into action
There are five essential parts in all mechanical watches.
Firstly, the mainspring is the power plant that drives the clockwork mechanism. This is a metal ribbon that is coiled up into a spiral and attached to a center shaft. As the shaft is wound, kinetic energy is transferred from the shaft and stored as potential energy in the spring.
In contrast, quartz watches are mostly powered by chemical batteries. Typically, modern mainsprings would last for at least 24 hours with a few additional hours of buffer time before needing a “recharge”.
In a manual watch, this is done by manually rotating its winding crown. In an automatic watch, there is an additional mechanism that taps into the energy of the wearer’s movements to do the winding work automatically.
With the mainspring wound, it now wants to uncoil and rotate the shaft in the middle. This shaft is connected to a system of gears, collectively known as the gear train or wheel train. The center shaft of the mainspring is connected to the first wheel. Each rotation of the first wheel is then subdivided via additional gears to the appropriate ratios of first wheel to hour wheel to minute wheel (and second wheel if the watch has a second hand).
At the heart of every mechanical watch is the balance wheel, the timekeeping element of the mechanism.
For thousands of years before the invention of the mechanical clock, continuous flow systems such as water clocks and hourglasses were used to measure the passage of time. These devices were often inaccurate and were eventually replaced by oscillating systems like the pendulum, which oscillate back and forth at a constant rate. As can be observed in old grandfather clocks, a pendulum is simply a swinging weight of which movement is described as harmonic oscillation.
Since it is impractical and horribly unsightly to have a heavy pendulum swinging from the wrist or pocket, mechanical watches employ the analogous balance wheel which uses a balance spring instead of gravity to return the wheel to its center position.
By varying the weight of the wheel and stiffness of the spring, the balance wheel can be calibrated to oscillate at a desired rate, typically five to 10 oscillations per second in most mechanical watches.
On the other hand, a quartz watch keeps time in a completely different way by “counting” the vibrations of a quartz crystal when an electrical current passes through it.
Making it tick
If the balance wheel is the heart, then the escapement is the valve that “opens and closes” to regulate the rotation of the first wheel to be in sync with the balance wheel. The escapement has two pallets that see-saw back and forth in step with the balance wheel. They engage with a part fixed to the first wheel known as the crown wheel in a ratchet-like motion, allowing only one step of rotation per pallet swing. This ratcheting is what gives the mechanical watch its signature ticking sound.
Best face forward
Finally, the most visible and universally recognised part is the clock face. These are the hour, minute, and in some watches, second hands that translate the complex inner workings of the watch to the simple graphical display that we are all familiar with. The concentric shafts of the hands extend into the watch and join with the hour, minute and second wheels of the gear train, respectively.
While we’ve covered the key components of a mechanical watch, there are additional features such as chronographs and repeaters that further complicate things. These add-ons are unsurprisingly called “complications” in horology speak. But the question that you’d likely ask, the multi-billion-dollar elephant in the room, is: Why do people still buy mechanical watches?
Is it time's up?
Today, quartz timepieces have far exceeded the accuracy of the most accurate maritime mechanical clock, with errors as low as under 10 seconds a year. And they do so at under a fraction of the cost. To answer that question, you have to appreciate its rich history spanning multiple empires, its pivotal role in the hands of brave founders sailing uncharted waters, its evolution from man-sized contraption to wearable jewellery.
Some buy them as an investment, some as a status symbol. But for the aficionado, the mechanical watch is truly a marvel that oscillates harmoniously between a beautiful work of art and a remarkable feat of precision engineering. The glass and metal shell of the timepiece encapsulates the centuries of refinement, years of experience, and hours of craftsmanship intricately assembled into an instrument that literally moves like clockwork.
Its true value lies not in the hands that tell time, but in the meticulous hands that told it how to tell time.
Before you consider it as obsolete, get a fine specimen in your hands, bring it close to you, listen to its gentle serenade of tick, tick, tick; and that may be all the answer you need.