In the world of watches, there are essentially three key types of watches: mechanical, quartz, and digital. Each of these have their pros and cons and are suitable for different purposes and preferences.
Automatic watches use mechanical movements and are equipped with a rotor that rotates by the movement of the wrist, thus meaning that you will not have to manually wind it like a manual watch. As long as you wear your automatic watch regularly, it will have enough energy to continue to tick day after day.
Whilst all the three types of watches have their own sets of benefits, nothing comes without flaws and potential problems.
In this article, we are looking closer at automatic watches and their common problems about them.
About automatic watches
Originally, the only type of mechanical watch available on the market was the hand-wound. In 1776, Abram Louys Perrelet who was a church elder from Le Locle, Switzerland, created the very first self-winding watch. However, it would take many decades until the self-winding watch became widely used in the market. Many years later a man named John Harwood set out to eliminate the issue and develop a new winding mechanism that solved the common issues of hand-wound watches. Hardwood consequently was awarded a patent for the first self-winding wristwatch in 1924. His invention then went into mass-production for the first time by Fortis in 1926 with a watch called Hardwood automatic.
However, Hardwood’s self-winding invention used a hammer design that used “a pivoted oscillating weight that moved to and from, hitting buffer springs on both sides. This is rather different from the automatic movement we know today.
But in 1931, Rolex came into the game and received the first Rolex patent for a self-winding watch movement. This would ultimately compete with Hardwood's invention. So, unlike what some people think, Rolex did not invent the automatic watch, Hardwood did. But Rolex did greatly improve the automatic movement design with its rotor innovation which could rotate 360 degrees, something that Hardwood’s invention couldn’t. Rolex’s automatic invention is ultimately what has laid the foundation for automatic movements today. Rolex’s automatic watch principles still apply to this very day.
Common problems with automatic watches
Running out of power - poor power reserve
The most common problem that people experience with automatic watches is insufficient power reserve. In other words, they stop. Most automatic watches have a power reserve of around 24-48 hours, although some have more and some have less. This reflects the time over which you can leave the watch without wearing it before the movement runs out of power and stops.
For example, you have taken off your watch and then forgotten to wear it for a few days. By the time you get back, the watch has stopped and you need to set it again. Whilst this is not a huge deal, some people find it annoying when they are on the move. It becomes particularly annoying if your watch also has several other functions that need to be set as well. Setting the time is easy, but if you also need to set the date, the day, and a GMT function, to mention a few, it may be more frustrating. Especially if you need to do this every time you are going to wear it.
Compared to a quartz watch that will continue to tick for years without having to do anything, an automatic watch may sound pretty unnecessary. If making sure your watch continues to run without having to think about is what you are looking for, it that is.
But another perhaps even more frustrating problem is when you do, in fact, wear your watch frequently, but it still doesn’t have enough energy and stops.
One reason is that you are not subjecting to enough movement. Bear in mind that whilst an automatic watch does not need to be wound manually, it needs movement to be wound. As you move your wrist, the rotor will rotate and the movement gets wound.
But what if your wrist doesn't move a lot over the course of a few days? What if you only sit in a chair on your computer all day for a few days?
In these cases, you may not be subjecting the watch to enough movements for the rotor to generate sufficient energy. And as such, the watch will eventually run out of energy.
This also depends on the watch and its movement. Some movements have extremely smooth rotors that rotate even by the slightest movement. But others may require greater movement to produce sufficient energy.
To combat this issue, if you are experiencing it, you can invest in a watch winder that you use every day. At the end of the day, you put the watch in the winder. The next day, it will be fully wound and ready to go. You can also make it a habit to wind your automatic watch manually on a regular basis to make sure it is fully wound. Because if you’re not subjecting it to a lot of movement, chances are, your movement will not get fully wound solely by the limited movement of your wrist.
Another solution is to buy a watch with a longer power reserve. But still, an automatic watch first needs to be wound before it can offer the benefits of the long power reserve.
Actual mechanical issues with the movement
The movements inside automatic watches are mechanical machines that consist of hundreds of small and delicate parts. And like all mechanical machines, things inside may break or get worn out. Ultimately, this may lead them to not function the way they should, or it may make the watch stops altogether.
The quality of your watch will ultimately affect how likely it is to break and how much of an effect such as shocks and bangs will have on the watch. But naturally, no automatic watch is immune to potential damages and issues.
If your automatic stops or doesn’t function properly, even if fully wound, it’s evident that you have an issue with your watch and something inside the movement may have broken. Depending on the issue of the movement, it may involve a costly repair. In general, the more expensive your watch is, the more expensive the repair will be. Mass-produced movements like ETA, SEIKO, Orient, or Sellita tend to be easier to repair and more watchmakers have the required expertise to work on them.
The ”problem” is that when an automatic movement needs to be repaired, they usually need to be completely disassembled to ensure the proper functioning of the movement. And because automatic movements consist of hundreds of parts, it is a delicate and time-consuming task that requires expertise. Plus, you don’t want to take your expensive luxury watch to just any watchmaker, you want to take it to the manufacturer or an official retailer with the right tools, parts, and expertise. And that will cost.
Whilst many automatic movements have been built to be robust and long-lasting, they generally cannot compete with quartz. The only thing you need to do with quartz watches is to replace the battery once they run out of energy and they are ready to go for many more years. They’re also much less delicate than automatic watches.
It’s no news that magnetic fields can have a negative effect on the proper functioning of the watch. What magnetism tends to do is make the hairspring stick which will ultimately greatly affect the accuracy of the watch.
When subject to a lot of magnetism, an automatic watch can therefore greatly lose its accuracy. And in the worst case, it may stop completely.
The issue is that magnetism is all around is un our everyday life. In our computers, our phones, speakers, refrigerators, and much more. With that said, if you find yourself often in situations where there is a lot of magnetism, an automatic watch can become a problem.
There are, however, some solutions.
The first is of course to be mindful about where you have your watch. And if you know there are magnetic fields close by, keep your watch away. The second, and perhaps, better alternative, is to opt for a watch with improved anti-magnetic properties. Since all watch brands are aware of the issues magnetic fields can cause to automatic watches, many of them have of course tried to solve this issue.
Rolex has built the Milgauss with greater anti-magnetic properties, and Omega has built the Aqua-terra, just to mention two. Since these watches will resist great magnetic fields, they will remain unaffected by smaller magnetic fields that we come in contact with in our everyday life.
For more than a century, watchmakers and brands have worked hard to consistently improve the accuracy of automatic watches. Rolex is one of the companies that have come the furthest with its Superlative Chronometer certification that requires an accuracy of +/-2 seconds per day.
At the same time, Rolex watches cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
When you move down in price, you often have to compromise with the accuracy of the watch.
Lower-end automatic watches can have a specified accuracy of +/-25 seconds a day.
Since automatic movements consist of hundreds of parts, building a highly accurate mechanical movement is no easy feat. Every single part has to work in harmony with each other and they are also affected by several different outside forces. Temperatures, shocks, the position of the watch, how it is worn, and much more.
Most people who opt for an automatic watch don’t mind that it is a few seconds off. They know that is to be expected and they still choose them above other alternatives due to the appeal of a robust, long-lasting watch that is built with a great level of craftsmanship.
At the same time, a cheap quartz watch for 10 or 20 dollars can offer greater accuracy than an automatic watch for hundreds of dollars. If we look solely at accuracy, the choice is easy. Buy a quartz watch. But most people who buy a wristwatch don’t only look at one single thing and factor, which in this case is accuracy.
Of course, having an automatic watch that is highly inaccurate can cause issues in everyday life. If you rely on it for timekeeping, it may mean that you arrive late to your meeting or miss the bus. But if you are aware of the fact that your watch is running slow or fast, then you can keep that in your calculations.
And if you’re going to buy a highly accurate automatic watch, you need to spend thousands of dollars.
If your watch is highly inaccurate, it may indicate that there is something wrong with the watch. Some of the most common reasons why your automatic watch has lost its accuracy are:
- It has been magnetized
- It needs to be serviced
- It has been subject to a heavy shock or bang
- It doesn’t have enough power reserve