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It's complicated: The world of watch movements

You can’t talk about mechanical watches without talking about their movements

The L952.2 movement of the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon. (Courtesy A. Lange & Söhne)

Ever wondered why a Patek Philippe is so expensive? Why is it a luxury watch? Well a fair amount of the price is reflected in the precious materials used in the creation of the watches. But, in a way, what you’re paying for is the movement. That’s where all the artisanal flourishes, the high specifications, the hand finish and quality of components come in. But before we talk about that, here’s what you need to know about watch movements.

It’s the movement (also called a calibre)—over a hundred moving parts assembled together to make a watch tell the time—that sets an mechanical watch apart from a quartz or a digital watch. Consider the very nature of a mechanical movement. You wind the mainspring by rotating the crown, and the power that’s generated is released incrementally by the escapement assembly. The mainspring and the escapement are connected by gears, called the wheel train, which turn at various speeds, telling the hour, minutes and seconds. The axle of each wheel rests in a synthetic jewel bearing, and these friction-less jewels keep the mechanics of the movement working for decades, allowing for a servicing every few years. Other than these basic components, there are the four bridges which hold the barrel, the wheel train, the pallet fork and the balance wheel respectively. The entire movement is mounted on the main plate.

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In a manually wound movement, you need to wind the watch every day or so to input fresh power into the mainspring so the watch can keep ticking. For automatic watches, a weighted rotor, added to the movement, uses the watch wearer’s hand motions to continuously power the mainspring. This is why an automatic watch is also called a self-winding watch. So basically what you’re wearing on your wrist is a bit of miniaturised steampunk fantasy. And what I’ve described is just a basic mechanical movement. If you throw in complications— beyond the common date or day-and-date ones—like that of a chronograph, or a moon-phase, or a perpetual calendar, then the movement starts looking like a hallucinatory fever dream!

Due to economies of scale, very few brands make in-house movements. Which makes sense, because after over a century of mechanisation, there are now a wide variety of third party calibres the fit the bill for most brands. Two of the biggest third party movements are Seiko’s automatic calibres NH35 and NH36 and Citizen’s many Miyota calibres in the 8000 and 9000 series. The NH35 is the third party version of Seiko’s in-house calibre 4R35, which you’ll find in many Seiko models like the Presage Cocktail Time watches or the Turtles. You’ll find the NH35 in tons of well-respected watch microbrands like Unimatic, Undone, Zelos and Dan Henry. The Miyota 8215, a workhorse calibre dating back to 1977 can be found in Timex automatics, as well as some Bulova models like the Sinatra. A newer and increasingly popular calibre is the 9015.

Seiko's in-house calibre 4R35 as seen in a Seiko Presage Cocktail Time watch.
Seiko's in-house calibre 4R35 as seen in a Seiko Presage Cocktail Time watch. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

The king of the market is the Swiss ETA calibres, which you’ll find in many well known Swiss and German brands. ETA calibres come in four categories: standard, the elabore, the top and the chronometer. Depending on the price points, these calibres are made with different components, feature different grades of finishing, and different accuracies and tolerances. To start off, there’re standard ones like the svelte manual 7001 (seen in watches by Tissot or Junghans e.g.), or the mid-sized 2801-2 (found in, say, the Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical). A highly respected ETA chronograph movement is the Valjoux 7750. You’ll find it in watches like the Montblanc Star 4810 Chronograph, the Junghans Max Bill Chronoscope or the Laco Chronograph Monte Carlo, to name just three. Another massively popular automatic calibre is the ETA 2824-2. A real workhorse movement that’s been around since the early 1980s, you can find it in the Junghans Max Bill, the Tudor Black Bay, The Hamilton Khaki Field Auto, the Sinn 556 and 556A and many more. Other popular third party movement manufacturers would include Sellita (found in models from brands like Formex, Sinn and Marathon), Soprod (found in models from microbrands like Baltic), and STP (Fossil).

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A step up from a luxury point of view are the in-house movements of brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, Omega, Grand Seiko, A. Lange & Söhne, Audemars Piguet and Breitling. The calibres that form the beating hearts of brands such as these can be considered the cream of the crop. Most often hand-finished, gorgeously decorated and complicated to a mind-bending degree, these movements are as much of an eye candy as the dials.

Take the German watch maker A. Lange & Söhne’s Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon. Limited to a 100 pieces and released in 2019, it features the L952.2 movement with 729 movement parts, each of which are perfectly hand finished. The floating tourbillion is exquisitely crafted, with a diamond at its centre, and placed amidst an unbelievable landscape of bridges, wheels and gears. The diamond is one of two found in the movement, apart from 59 rubies and 5 screwed gold chatons. In terms of complications, the watch is a perpetual calendar and a flyback chronograph, has a moon-phase display, a power-reserve indicator and a tachymeter scale.

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Talking about exquisite calibres can take all day, so when it comes to the world of movements, let me offer a comparative figure. Patek Philippe makes an estimated 60,000 watches a year, whereas Seiko makes that many watches in a few hours. While Seiko’s production line is entirely mechanised, Patek Philippe depends on the skills of the 2,000-odd people it employs. Both make excellent watches. Both feature in-house mechanical movements. And the comparisons end there.

Handwound is a fortnightly column on watches and watchmaking.

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