Human beings have always needed to be able to tell the time. That’s why the ancient Egyptians compressed time from its larger, seasonal scale and started measuring it according to the 24 hour day. A need to give some context to the passing of sunlight hours gave birth to sundials, and sticks planted in the ground. The ancient Chinese created water clocks, or clepsydras as the Greek called them, and later someone, it’s not clear who, created the hourglass.
Although the Chinese continued to refine their water clocks (an 11th century inventor, Su Song, created a clock tower that would chime every hour and also doubled up as an astronomical clock), modern timekeeping devices as we know them didn’t come into being until the middle ages in Europe, with the creation of the escapement, sometime in the 14th century. You could call the escapement the key to horology, a device that takes the inchoate energy generated by a power-source, and then distributes it through regular pulses that allows a timekeeping device to function.
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To cut a long story short, between the 14th and the 18th centuries, watchmakers continued to refine the basic mechanism of the timepiece, designing increasingly more efficient movements, while also miniaturising them. By the early 1800s, the use of pocket watches was widespread, driven by the inventions and innovations of legendary figures in horology like the Dutch Christiaan Huygens and the Swiss Abraham-Louis Breguet.
By the latter half of the 19th century, the technology of mechanical watches was already in place. In the century and a bit more since, apart from George Daniels’s coaxial movement (patented in 1980 and found in Omega watches since), and Grand Seiko’s 9SA5 movement from 2020 with its dual impulse escapement, there have been no “advances” in watchmaking technology. What has improved is the finishing of watches and movements; designs have become more innovative; and the materials used in constructing watches have also undergone a sea change. But the basic “tech” is the same as it was 150 years ago.
So, in 2021, for all practical purposes, a mechanical watch (and by that I mean both handwound and automatic watches) is obsolete. That comes down to two reasons. First of all, mechanical watches aren’t accurate. Even the COSC certified chronometer movements that you’d find in high end Swiss watches like Rolex or Omega, will give you an accuracy of within +2 to -2 seconds per day. On the other hand, even the cheapest quartz watch would be accurate to within 4 seconds a month. For higher grade quartz movements from brands like Citizen or Casio, the accuracy would jump to within 4 seconds a year.
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The second thing that makes mechanical watches obsolete to many people is the ubiquity of the smart phone and the smart watch. Both devices will give you the time, the accurate time, at all times. A smart watch like the Apple watch will give you much else besides, from health apps to emails, at the tap of your finger. Simply put, they represent the cutting edge of technology, and mechanical watches can seem hopelessly quaint in comparison.
So why bother with mechanical watches? Now, I’m not going to give you a facile list along the lines of “5 reasons you should buy an automatic watch”; there’s plenty of those on the internet. Because here’s the thing, quartz and smart watches are great. Though I’ll personally never own a smart watch, I can totally see why it’s a useful tool. And I love quartz watches, having grown up with cheap and stylish Timex and Casio timepieces. If I go on a trek, or when I work out or go running, I would, without hesitation, strap on my G-Shock DW5600. That watch is a classic of design and utility: it has multiple alarms, has a day-date-month complication, and functions as a chronograph, a countdown timer and a stopwatch. It’s 200m water resistant and is so tough it would survive a fall from a three storey building without a scratch.
Mechanical watches can’t provide you email updates, and although some are tough as nails, they’re not G-Shocks. But these tiny machines represent a peak of human ingenuity, art and creativity. Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine an immensely complicated machine, made up of a hundred individual moving parts, somehow working together in perfect sync, powered by nothing more than the natural movement of your hand, to tell you the time. Now imagine that this machine is small enough to fit comfortably on your wrist.
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See, the one characteristic that defines time is the fact that it passes. It’s an active force that animates our world, and we are just passive recipients of its dictates. We mostly flail impotently against its constant flow, either “racing against time” to get things done, or “wasting time” by letting it take full control by slowing down or speeding up as it wishes. The more adventurous amongst us try to step outside time entirely, either through meditation or by ingesting mind altering substances. But only a mechanical watch allows you to participate in time. To see the balance spring ticking away, nestled inside a movement that’s a miniature sea of gears and wheels and bridges, is the closest you will come to actually picturing time.
Thus, a mechanical watch invites you to have a more intimate relationship with time. You pull out the crown, stopping your watch and time. You move the hands and set the time, push in the crown and time resumes. If it’s a handwound watch, then you spend a few minutes everyday turning the crown and adding power to the mainspring. You are what animates your watch, you are its battery. By interacting with your watch, you are also interacting with humankind’s millennia-old fascination with time, with the age-old attempt of our species to order cosmic forces, to catch lightning in a bottle.
A mechanical watch, like all watches, is a tool, but it transcends the purely utilitarian to move into the realms of beauty and wonder. Because it’s not just utilitarian, it isn’t disposable. With proper care and maintenance, a mechanical watch will last generations, and will still tell the time. The oldest watch I own is a handwound Favre Leuba tank from the 1940s, which I bought from a vintage watch dealer in Delhi earlier this year for the princely sum of ₹3,000. After over seven decades of existence, it gives me the time accurately, to within half a minute every 24 hours. But it also connects me to a different era, and not a day goes by when I don’t wonder about the things it must have seen in all that time. Would an Apple watch from 2020 still function in 2100? What I do know is that if human beings survive climate change, you bet my Seiko 5 will still be ticking 80 years from now.
Handwound is a fortnightly column on watches and watchmaking.