The Beginner’s Guide To Mechanical Watches

There comes a time in everyone’s life when that trusty Swatch you’ve had since you were 15 just doesn’t quite cut it any more. However, the leap from quartz to mechanical can seem anything from daunting to unnecessary. After all, isn’t a mechanical watch a piece of anachronistic history that doesn’t keep as good time as your mobile phone?

While battery-powered watches are great and your phone is probably an essential, mechanical watches are something else entirely. They are a link to the past; a statement about the type of person you are; a daily companion whose heartbeat cannot work without yours.

“A mechanical watch is, in my opinion, an emotional purchase,” says Mark Toulson, head of watch buying at Watches of Switzerland. “It’s involving, because you either wind it by hand or, when wearing it, power it by the movement of your wrist and if the watch has an open back you can actually see the movement working, which is a wonderful thing.”

Caseback - OmegaThe case back of an Omega Seamaster Diver 300

So if you’re sitting on the proverbial fence or just thinking of making the switch, maybe our guide to what makes a mechanical watch marvellous will convince you to swap a battery-operated past for a future of gear trains and balances.

What Is A Mechanical Watch?

When it comes to watches, mechanical is the catch-all term for a timepiece that isn’t powered by a quartz or battery-powered movement. The subdivisions of this are ‘automatic’ – one with a rotor that rotates when your wrist moves, powering the watch – and ‘hand-wound’ – where you’ve got to put in the effort yourself.

The difference isn’t always a question of price, but of convenience. An A. Lange & Sohne manual wind could set you back around £27,000 compared to a £300 Tissot automatic. The question is, are you the type of man who likes to have that daily connection with his watch, that reminder that what is on your wrist is powered by cogs and springs? Or would you rather the thing just worked?

Tissot VisodateTissot Visodate

“Price is a relative thing,” says Toulson. “I’d be inclined to ask what you think the price of mechanicals start at and then advise that you can buy an excellent automatic watch from Tissot for just under £300. Realistically, it’s not that expensive – particularly when you consider you can wear it every day.”

Why Buy Mechanical?

“In a world that encourages the purchase of expensive but ultimately disposable electronic products such as cell phones, a mechanical watch may seem like an anachronism,” concedes Toulson, “but they really aren’t. My view is that electronics have their place, particularly in watchmaking but so do mechanical timepieces. They speak directly to the history of watches going back hundreds of years but are constantly evolving with the use of new materials such as silicon to improve time keeping. So be assured you aren’t buying into ‘old fashioned technology’.”

Rolex DaytonaA Rolex Daytona on the wrist

There is also something much more personal about a mechanical watch that just isn’t there with quartz. Whether you have a timepiece you wind every day or one powered by a rotor, there is a connection there between man and machine; without that human element, the watch wouldn’t work. It needs something with a human heartbeat to make its own – the balance – come to life. You don’t get that with a battery.

What’s In A Movement?

Price may not be a differential when it comes to hand wound versus automatic, but it certainly is when it comes to where your movement is made. Movements made in Switzerland, thanks to labour and material costs, are going to cost more than those made in Japan – they are also generally considered to be more accurate.

Without dropping into the rabbit hole that is movement manufacturing, here are the basic calibres and makes you might encounter.

First up, the work horse of the Swiss watch industry is the Swatch Group-owned ETA 2824, found in everything from a Hamilton Khaki to the old Tudor Pelagos, before the brand began producing its own movements. It has been manufactured since 1982 and has a reputation for being accurate, robust and, thanks to its widespread usage, the parts are easy to come by so any hiccups can be easily repaired.

Also from the ETA stable is the more refined 2892, which is the base calibre of choice for those brands who don’t have the capacity to make their own movements in-house and can be used as a base for more intricate watches, such as chronographs, because it is thinner. When it comes to reasonable integrated chronographs, then you’re looking at the Valjoux 7750. Also part of ETA, you’ll find this movement in the likes of TAG Heuers and Omegas, as well as it providing a base for brands such as IWC.

Swiss Watch Movement - RolexThe intricate finishing of a Rolex movement…

Still in Switzerland and seen as competitors to ETA is Sellita. It used to assemble 2824s until ETA said it would no longer be providing unfinished movement kits, so it created an almost identical version to sell, which you’ll find in the likes of Christopher Ward. Another name you might come across, especially if you start looking at independent brands is Soprod, which is owned by the Festina Group and supplies the likes of Sinn and is also in some Baume & Merciers.

Much is made of brands that offer watches with in-house movements. This is where all the parts are made or at least assembled by watchmakers at the company in question. Things get testy here. Does “in-house” mean every cog and screw under the hood is produced on-site? Are we talking about design or manufacture? Does a movement qualify if some or many of its components are sourced elsewhere? And does any of this justify a few extra thousand on the price tag? Purists would say yes. As would luxury watch brands like Rolex, Zenith, Breitling, Tudor and Cartier.

Heading East and the two major movements families come from Seiko and Citizen. Watches containing these will be cheaper – they aren’t as finished as Swiss movements, mostly made on an automated robotics line rather than by hand assembly and aren’t as accurate. There used to be great snobbery surrounding Swiss made vs Japanese made, with the former being regarded as the only option when it came to going mechanical however that’s dwindled now. If you can get a great-looking mechanical timepiece for £200, are you going to care if it has the words “Swiss made” on the dial?

Japanese Watch Movement - Grand Seiko…compared to that of a Grand Seiko

It is worth noting also that Seiko produces a line of high-end watches under the ‘Grand Seiko’ moniker – these bad boys are seriously underrated, expensive, and the movements are made to a quality that rivals any other watch brand in the world, Swiss or otherwise.

Further Complications

Presuming your first mechanical watch isn’t going to be a Patek Philippe Grand Complication, you won’t need to worry about the merits of perpetual calendars, tourbillons, moon phases and minute repeaters. At the entry level, it’s your power reserve that’s important – this refers to how much energy can be stored in the movement, which affects how long it can run accurately before slowing.

Omega Watch Power ReserveThe power reserve of this Omega De Ville is located at 6 o’clock

The most popular is a 40-hour power reserve, though you can get an 80-hour option, thanks to Tissot, for a reasonable price. Some brands put their power reserve gauge on the dial, but it isn’t a given, so if you’re unsure ask before you buy. If you’re willing to spend a little more, then you could be looking at a timepiece with a chronograph, which is where knowing about your Valjoux 7750 comes in. It’s a badge of quality but not one that ratchets up the price tag.

Top 5 Entry Level Mechanical Watches

So, we’ve finally convinced you to take the plunge and get some gearing on your wrist. Here are five mechanical watches that won’t break the bank.

Timex Marlin

Yes, you have read that price correctly and no we haven’t missed out a zero. It is a reissue of a 1960s original from the Timex back catalogue and the first time the brand has produced a mechanical watch in 36 years. Timex has been brave enough to keep the vintage proportions, so the 34mm case might sit too delicately if you’re large of wrist. However, if you can pull it off, it’s a hand-wound delight for less than the cost of a night out at a London restaurant. And a lot more refined.

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Timex Marlin

Seiko Prospex PADI Automatic Diver

For a lot of men, a diving watch is top of the list when it comes to watch purchases. It’s robust, perennially in style and works with most things in your wardrobe. This Prospex from Seiko is all those things and also phenomenally good value. Seiko has supplied divers to professionals and civilians since 1965 and this edition has been created to celebrate its partnership with PADI, the professional diver’s association. So you know it will go the depths, even if you’re only going to use it for snorkelling on the surface.

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Seiko Prospex PADI Automatic Diver

Tissot Powermatic

When Tissot unveiled its Powermatic 80 back in 2012 it was hailed as a gamechanger; an example of how things were quietly evolving in the watch industry. Here was a movement that had 80 hours of power reserve – something usually seen at the more pricey end of the market – packaged in a watch that was just over £400. It has continued to set the standard for low-cost but highly precise mechanical movements and is now available across the Swatch Group brands. However, you can’t beat the straight-forward sports elegance of this classic steel bracelet version. And, six years later, it’s still only just over £400.

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Tissot Powermatic

Junghans Max Bill Hand Wound

“Minimalist and achingly cool” is how Toulson refers to this watch and it’s easy to see why. Created in the 1960s for this German watch brand by Max Bill, a Swiss architect, artist and typeface designer, who is widely thought to have had the greatest influence on modernist Swiss graphic design. In keeping with his minimalistic aesthetic, this timepiece is a desirable slice of Bauhaus cool.

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Junghans Max Bill Hand Wound

Hamilton Jazzmaster Chronograph

While finding complications under the £1000 barrier is usually a challenge, this cracking chronograph from Hamilton manages to just slip in. The price is made even more astonishing when you consider that this is powered by a modification of the iconic Valjoux 7750. Although it might feel like a bit of an outlay, remember you are getting the mechanical muscle that is used in the likes of a Breitling, but for a quarter of the price.

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