The timeless appeal of automatic watch

Oct 13, 2012
For those who do not wear their automatic watches every day, watch winders are available to store automatic watches and keep them wound
For those who do not wear their automatic watches every day, watch winders are available to store automatic watches and keep them wound

An automatic or self-winding watch is a mechanical watch whose mainspring is wound automatically by the natural motion of the wearer's arm providing energy to run the watch and making it unnecessary to manually wind the watch. Although they temporarily went out of fashion during the 1970s, automatic watches have become increasingly popular since the mid-1980s.

An automatic watch is a watch that operates through the continued motion of the wearer's wrist. Automatic wristwatches don't need winding if worn daily. The energy is stored by using a half-disc metal weight, called a rotor, which spins when the arm is moved. This energy is used to power the watch and can keep the watch going at night or while the watch isn't being worn. Stored energy in an automatic wristwatch can keep an unworn watch running for 24 to 48 hours. If your automatic watch is unworn for 24 to 48 hours, it will likely stop running. An idle automatic can be wound with a few rotations to restore its energy. Even just a couple of turns of the crown or a brief shake will usually get it started again.

How it works
A mechanical watch is powered by an internal spiral mainspring which turns the gears that move the hands. The spring loses energy as the watch runs, so in a manual watch movement the spring must be wound by turning a small knob on the case to provide energy to run the watch otherwise, once the watch loses its stored energy, it stops.

A self-winding watch movement has a mechanism which winds the mainspring. The watch contains an eccentric weight (the rotor), which turns on a pivot. The normal movements of the user's arm cause the rotor to pivot on its staff, which is attached to a ratcheted winding mechanism. The motion of the wearer's arm is thereby translated into circular motion of the rotor which, through a series of reverser and reducing gears, eventually winds the mainspring. Modern self-winding mechanisms have two ratchets and wind the mainspring during clockwise and anticlockwise rotor motions.

The fully wound mainspring in a typical watch can store enough energy reserve for roughly two days, allowing the watch to keep running through the night while stationary.

The modern rotor system was developed and patented by Rolex and introduced into the Oyster line as the Oyster Perpetual in 1931. Emile Borer, Rolex's technical chief at the time, is credited with inventing the modern rotor system.

The person who first developed a rotor, however, was Abraham-Louis Perrelet (1729-1826), one of Switzerland's greatest watchmakers. Perrelet is considered the father of the automatic watch. He introduced the concept in 1770 and was way ahead of his time since the invention was better suited to wristwatches. Perrelet lived in the pocket watch era and, because the watches did not move much in pockets, the rotor system did not perform so well. The rotor did not move around enough to wind the mainspring sufficiently.

Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823) improved self-winding watches; he called them "perpetuelles". Other watchmaking greats of the 19th century advanced the concept. But it wasn't until wristwatches became popular after World War I and Rolex perfected its system that automatics came into their own.

By the 1960s, automatic winding became standard in quality mechanical watches being produced by different watch companies.  Automatic watches experienced a setback during the quartz watch boom of the 1970s, but men's and women's watches with mechanical craftsmanship and quality made a comeback in the 1980s. Watch wearers recognised the benefits and pleasure of interacting with a mechanical device as part of their daily routine. Now common, traditional mechanical women’s and men’s watches also offer an aesthetic value that is difficult to replace with battery-operated timepieces.

The watch winder
For those who do not wear their automatic watches every day, watch winders are available to store automatic watches and keep them wound. This is particularly advantageous where a watch has complications, such as perpetual calendars or moon phases. A watch winder can hold one or more watches and move them in circular patterns to approximate to the human movement which otherwise keeps the self-winding mechanism working.

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