Written By: Vahid Moradi
There exists a dividing line in the world of watches. On one side, you have quartz and mechanical watches, powered respectively by a battery and a hand-wound spring. They’re often the most common and affordable for any watch enthusiast.
The other side of the line is populated by automatic watches––the category most revered and invested in by watch aficionados. With the word, “automatic” comes elite craftsmanship, luxury, and, subsequently, price tags.
That said, there are several reasons why automatic watches stand above the rest.
What Makes an Automatic Watch Tick?
Newcomers to the watch game may already know that automatic watches are the creme de la creme, but what is an automatic watch, and why are they so highly valued?
Simply put, automatic watches continue to tick without the power of a battery or spring. That in and of itself makes automatic watches a far more convenient, reliable option. There is no fear that the watch will lose power and fall out of time.
That said, the reason automatic watches dominate the luxury watch market is due to their intricate craftsmanship. Automatic watches are engineered with an elaborate set of gears, springs, and rotating weights that keep the hands ticking.
A More Modern Offering
The ability to power a watch without any outside charge is a relatively modern revelation. Historically, watches got their juice from hand-wound springs.1 Mechanical watches still exist today; however, their antiquated nature makes them a less desirable option.
The burden of a manual winding watch felt antiquated even 250 years ago when Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Perrelet engineered a way for mechanical watches to be powered via the wearer’s movement. With Perrelet’s design, the regular movement kept a weight swinging, which would continuously coil the spring.
At the time, though, this technology was extremely difficult to produce, especially in large quantities. It wasn’t until 1933 that automatic watches became the standard for high-end wristwatches. Even then, the modern wristwatch did not reach its final form until just over 50 years ago.
The Inner Workings
While Rolex can be credited with putting the automatic timepiece into mass production, the technology as we know it today was innovated by Zenith, the Heuer-Breitling-Hamilton group, and Seiko. The anatomy of an automatic wristwatch includes the following:
- A mainspring, which stores the watch’s power2
- The rotor, an oscillating weight that winds the spring
- A balance wheel and hairspring, which keep the watch on time
- An escapement and gear train, which control the movement of the hands
- A reverser, which transfers the kinetic energy from your motion to the mainspring
- Synthetic jewels, which protect the above components from wearing out
When you wear your self winding watch, your wrist movements stimulate the weighted rotor, in turn winding the mainspring. The kinetic energy stored in the mainspring is then transferred through the gear train’s wheels into the escapement.
Via incremental impulses to the balance wheel, the escapement maintains the balance wheel’s oscillations. Each of the balance wheel’s oscillations moves the wheels of the gear train, thus moving the watch’s hands.
How Much Do Automatic Watches Cost?
A functional automatic timepiece can be bought for less than $500; however, many will find that such an affordable automatic is unintuitive. The reason for this is the cost of service that even the best automatic watch requires.
If you’re spending at least $200 every three to five years for service, it quickly becomes cheaper to replace the watch rather than continue servicing it.
Beyond the base price tag, legacy is what makes a watch so valuable. When you buy and maintain an exquisite watch with high-end materials, it becomes a part of your history. It becomes an extension of yourself that can not only stand as a signature piece but, more importantly, be shared with the generations that come after you.
How Much Should I Spend on an Automatic Watch?
Automatic watches can leap well into the six figures; however, you don’t need to refinance your home to purchase an exquisite piece that will last several lifetimes.
IWC Schaffhausen is a high-end watch brand that offers excellent pieces at a range of prices. Standing as an excellent middle ground between affordability and luxury, the IWC Pilot’s Watch Automatic Spitfire features a versatile design with best-in-class components. With a price tag just north of $5,000, the Spitfire is an indisputable luxury watch that won’t break the bank.
More valuable options include the Portugieser or Portofino Automatic. These pieces are revered classics, well-regarded, and likely owned by the most elite watch enthusiasts. These classics feature timeless designs that will fit seamlessly into the most special occasions.
Are Automatic Watches Worth the Price?
It's no secret that automatic watches come at a hefty price. The intricacy of their components and engineering is the impetus for this; however, high demand and the “luxury tax” of designer brands are at play as well.
Before splurging on the best automatic watch, you may ask yourself, is this price worth it? Here are a few reasons why automatic watches are worth their hefty price tag:
- Durability – They are meant to last forever. Components can easily be repaired and replaced, while excellent automatics can last several years without service.
- Construction – They are handcrafted. Because automatic watches require so many little components, significantly more care is put into their construction.
- Quality – They use higher quality materials. Materials like stainless steel, sapphire crystal, and leather are often used to ensure luxury and longevity.
Watch experts invest so much into automatic watches because they are a form of art, no different than paintings, clothing, or food. A beautiful watch is an expression, able to serve as an extension of yourself and be passed down through generations.
Where Do Automatic Watches Fall Short?
For the most part, an automatic watch will ensure quality, luxury, and longevity. An exquisite automatic is a must in anyone’s watch collection; however, it would be wise to keep a few other options at your disposal. Some shortcomings of automatic watches include:
- They are not an every-down watch – Wearing them while playing sports, for example, can cause mechanical problems. However, they eventually stop ticking if they’re not regularly worn.
- They require much more intensive care – Owners should treat them delicately, store them in a dry, cool environment, and take them for regular service.
- They require regular maintenance – Because of the intricacy of their mechanical components, service is required every three to five years. Additionally, they are not the most accurate watch that you can buy, depending on the positioning of the wheel and escapement.
Quartz watches, which use a battery as their main source of power, are actually more accurate timekeepers than automatics. On average, an automatic wristwatch will be inaccurate by around 25 seconds per day. On the other hand, the best quartz watches will be inaccurate by around 15 seconds per month.
If you don’t regularly wear a watch, a quartz watch may also be more functional in terms of the difference between a quartz vs automatic watch. This quartz watch by Omega boasts a battery life of 25 months. Meanwhile, an automatic watch usually won’t have a power reserve of more than a week.
How to Care For an Automatic Watch
Whether you spend $5,000 or $50,000 on an automatic watch, you’ll want to do everything in your power to keep it in pristine working condition. Beautifully-maintained watches retain their resale value and serve as cherished family heirlooms. To keep your watch ticking:
- Wipe it every night. Use a microfiber cloth if it's non-water-resistant or a mixture of mild soap and water if it's waterproof.
- Remove it before taking a shower. Even if it’s waterproof, heat can cause gaskets to expand.
- Keep it in a case or box when you’re not using it.
- Don’t leave it unworn for too long.
- Take it to get serviced every three to five years.
What Other Kinds of Watches Are There?
While automatic watches dominate the luxury watch market, quartz and mechanical watches are still widely available. As previously noted, the benefits of quartz watches include affordability, accuracy, and versatility. Oftentimes, quartz watches are the most appropriate for intense activities or extreme conditions.
Technically speaking, automatic watches are mechanical watches; that said, mechanical usually refer to a watch powered by a hand-wound spring. While there aren’t necessarily any tangible advantages to a mechanical watch, its appeal comes from its heritage. Watch collectors appreciate their intricate constructions, usually visible via an exhibition case back.
Begin Your Watch Journey With CJ Charles
An automatic timepiece is a time-honored heirloom that offers high-quality and long-lasting luxury features. As a family-owned business of more than 35 years and curator of fine timepieces, CJ Charles Jewelers takes pride in outfitting their customers with the most exquisite jewelry on the market, from automatic watches to gemstone necklaces. We also help you with any questions you may have like what’s a tourbillon or what’s a GMT watch. Whatever it is, we are here for you.
We’re more than just a jewelry store; rather, we’re your partner in a lifelong journey. Our in-house experts specialize in services from comprehensive maintenance to resale. When you purchase a watch with us, you purchase a lifestyle.
Our promise to you is to be with you on that journey every step of the way.
Written By: Vahid Moradi
Vahid Moradi’s lifelong passion, dedication, and commitment for the jewelry industry led him to become the respected owner of CJ Charles Jewelers in 1988. From that moment, Moradi’s single focus in business was to become recognized as the pinnacle of value and world-class quality in the his Community. Over 34 years later, CJ Charles continues to grow and thrive as a successful, family-owned business that consistently provides exceptional service to all their clientele.
- Why the luxury watch market is dominated by automatic watches. https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/what-is-an-automatic-watch
- Effortless Gent. How Does An Automatic Watch Work? (Ask An Effortless Gent). https://effortlessgent.com/how-does-an-automatic-watch-work/