How Mechanical Watches Work | Schwanke-Kasten Jewelers

Pocket Watch

While the mechanism of a watch is considered “mature technology”, many people are unsure exactly how a mechanical watch works, so we thought we would explain. At Schwanke-Kasten Jewelers, all of the brands we carry, incorporate highly fine-tuned mechanical movements into their lines in one way or the other

The earliest known mechanical timepieces have been dated back to the 1500’s where they were worn as ornaments for the nobility. However, these timepieces were incredibly inaccurate sometimes losing hours per day. It was not until the 1600’s when time keeping devices began taking steps forward to improve their functionality and provenance. These were largely in the form of a pocket-watch.

So, what exactly powers a mechanical watch? At their simplest form, all mechanical movements or calibers (as they are often referred to within the industry) are almost always comprised of the following 5 parts:  mainspring, the gear train (or going train), balance wheel, escapement and the indicating dial (generally a clock face).

1. The mainspring serves as the main source of kinetic energy which is used to power the different mechanisms of the watch. The mainspring is basically a coiled ribbon of a metal, usually steel. In the case of a manual wind watch, this is what is actually wound up.

2. However, it is the gear train or going train (when referring to a mechanical watch or clock) is the mechanism that is physically winding the mainspring as well as the mechanism that moves the hours, minutes and seconds in the proper time ratios. In addition, this mechanism is usually coupled with a keyless work that allows the wearers to wind the watch and set the time.

3. The balance wheel, similar to a pendulum, rotates back and forth on a spring which advances the gear train by a set amount.

4. The escapement plays a very important role in regulating the energy of the watch. By allowing the gears to advance (escape) by a regulated amount, the escapement controls the flow of energy and time. In addition, the escapement “pushes” the balance wheel at the end of each swing to keep it vibrating.

5. All of these mechanisms then translate on the “indicating dial” so that time is read off in human-legible form.

Should the watch be an automatic mechanical watch, there will be an oscillating weight, generally in the form of a half circle, which works with the natural movement of the wrist. Additional functions in the caliber are referred to as complications.

Also, you will frequently see in the movements the number of “jewels”. These are jewels in the traditional sense of valuable stones. They actually refer to jewel bearings, areas where are intense points of friction, that aim to reduce this through synthetic sapphire or ruby crystals. These synthetic materials are known for the ultra-hard and slick properties.

We invite you to stop by our Whitefish Bay Schwanke-Kasten Jewelers location to see our collection of Breitling, TUDOR, Rolex and TAG Heuer watches.