miércoles, 2 de septiembre de 2009

Does the Spring a Mechanical Make? by Ken Worley

Does the Spring a Mechanical Make?

All photos Copyright Ken Worley

There has been some lively debate from time to time about the "status" of Seiko's Spring Drive movement. Is it a quartz movement? Is it mechanical? Although I know I love the movement, it has taken a while to decide exactly why. If you're interested, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts in this essay.

Do We Love Watches?

Is it the watches we love, or is it their movements? That can be a difficult question. For those of us who love mechanical watches, I believe it is the movement that is the essence of the watch. It is the movement that makes it special. To gaze into the workings of a mechanical movement and see this tiny machine working, spinning and ticking fills me with a sense of wonder. How could it be that a tiny balance wheel, flying back and forth against its spring, can regulate the unwinding of the mainspring so accurately? It is truly amazing. To me, the love of such a magical thing is obvious, self-evident; how could you not love it?

Omega Speedmaster Professional with display back

Quartz watch proponents know the answer, but let me guess at it. To a person that does not understand or appreciate the magic of a mechanical watch movement, a watch is a practical tool. It is merely a convenient means of checking the time. All notions of jewelry aside, a watch should be as accurate as possible and as inexpensive as possible. Okay, sure, style plays a role as does prestige. But with quartz watches, the notion of timekeeping seems to exist separately from the watch as jewelry. It takes on a secondary role. It is taken for granted. "Why, what a lovely diamond encrusted bracelet that is…and it also tells time." In other words, quartz watches are loved for the attributes of the movement: accuracy, battery life, and functions, as well as for the style of the watch, not for the movement itself.

I know there are many people who love both quartz and mechanical. But, if I may postulate, they are loved for different reasons. How could a mechanical watch be loved for its true practicality? It is less accurate and more expensive than a quartz watch of equivalent build quality. How can a quartz watch be loved for the wonder of its movement? Looking into a quartz movement is like staring at a battery. I've seen quartz watches with display backs and I can't fathom the reason. It's beyond me.

Let me also make it clear that I know there are many other reasons to love a watch regardless of its movement. Watches can hold tremendous sentimental value (just watch Pulp Fiction). They can be loved for their pure style, or for their history. There are other reasons as well, but they're all outside the scope of this essay. My thoughts are centered around what's inside.

Let me also say that accuracy varies wildly in both mechanical and quartz watches. Some mechanical watches are very accurate while some quartz watches leave much to be desired, keeping time much less accurately than a good mechanical. Quartz watches, however, are certainly capable of much more accuracy than any mechanical watch and there are many examples which prove it. I don't think many people would argue with the assertion that, on average, quartz watches are more accurate than mechanical watches.

Ups and Downs

Let me summarize briefly what I consider to be the pros and cons of each type of watch (and I know I'll leave some things out). I purposely leave out any notion of whether a watch gets you noticed (pro or con), and it's true that these are generalizations.


+ Amazing, magical tiny machine

+ Cool sweeping second hand (no once-per-second tick)

+ Requires no batteries

- Requires servicing from time to time

- Requires winding (either by being worn or manually)

- Expensive (compared to most quartz)

Zenith Rainbow Flyback

Roamer La Grande

Minerva Palladio


+ Usually highly accurate (a technological wonder)

+ Service required rarely (if at all)

+ Less expensive

- Movement is mundane

- Requires battery changes (rechargeables less so, but all rechargeable batteries die)

- Annoying once-per-second tick (okay, maybe only for me)

Breitling B-1

Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33

Wenger Commando

What is Mechanical? What is Quartz?

I've been throwing around the term "quartz watch" quite recklessly. For me, it has a very specific meaning: a watch that runs off battery power (whether disposable or rechargeable) and which moves the watch hands by means of one or more stepper motors. I know that everyone does not share this definition, but for me "quartz watch" is equivalent to "battery powered watch" for I don't know of any battery powered watch (currently manufactured) which does not use a stepper motor. So, to me, a battery powered watch is, more or less, just a tool for telling time. I have several that I like and I do like a certain look. I'm even willing to spend a fair amount of money for just the right look, but I know I'm buying a look. I'm not buying magic.

Perhaps I've also been using the term "mechanical watch" a little too carelessly. After all, anything that has parts and locomotion of some sort is in a sense mechanical, yes? My definition of a mechanical watch, and I know almost everyone will agree with me at least to some extent, is one which contains a mainspring whose power is used to drive the watch hands. It contains no battery and no stepper motor. That sounds fairly self-evident, doesn't it? And yet, it leaves out the thing that some people consider to be essential to a mechanical watch. Here's where we may diverge. Does a mechanical watch have to have a traditional escapement?

It's Not So Black and White

As it turns out, it is difficult to define, at least for everyone, what is a quartz watch or what is a mechanical watch. I've given you my definitions, but there really aren't just two black and white categories. There have been several mixtures of the two technologies in an attempt to capture just the right mix of mechanical wonder and quartz accuracy and practicality. Many of these are still in use. Here are the major contenders:

Tuning Fork:

These appeared at the beginning of the battery powered watch era. The movement uses a battery to power a "tuning fork" which vibrates at around 300 times per second. The motion of the tuning fork itself drove a tiny gear whose power was transmitted to the hands. These movements, made famous by Bulova with their Accutron models, were a revelation. They were more accurate than most mechanical movements and displayed a smoothly sweeping second hand which "ticked" faster than the eye could see. Quartz technology, however, quickly drove tuning forks out with even higher accuracy and longer battery life. Tuning fork movements are no longer produced.

Standard Quartz:

We've discussed this one already. A quartz watch uses a battery to power a quartz oscillator which vibrates at a fairly stable rate around 32,000 times per second. Its vibration is used as a reference rate to drive the watch hands using a stepper motor.


A mecaquartz is a battery powered watch which keeps time using a quartz crystal oscillator and moves the hands using a stepper motor. The difference between this and a regular quartz watch is that the watch includes a mechanical chronograph module. The watch generally uses a stepper motor with a higher step rate to drive the mechanical chronograph so that it looks the same as the chronograph you would see on a mechanical watch - generally stepping four or five times per second. Most battery powered chronographs simply use several stepper motors to drive the different chronograph hands.

I owned a Breitling Chronoracer Rattrapante mecaquartz watch at one time. It was a beautiful watch, and I appreciated the mechanical chronograph especially with the split-second feature. In the end, however, I thought of it as basically a quartz watch. It had a battery that would have to be changed and the standard second hand ticked once per second like any other quartz watch. It seemed to be a combination of more cons than pros. It retained the battery powered stepper motor that I have no love for from the quartz side, while adding the extra service requirements and expense of a mechanical chronograph movement. I still thought it was a nice watch, but more for its style and accuracy than for its movement. It wasn't my "perfect" watch by any stretch.

Breitling Chronoracer Rattrapante (mecaquartz movement)


A kinetic movement (this is just Seiko's term for the technology) is a like a standard quartz watch except that it uses a rechargeable battery or capacitor. I know of at least two companies that produce such a movement: Seiko and Ventura. These have a rotor, just like an automatic mechanical movement, which is used to drive a small generator circuit which recharges the battery. Some of these watches have a display back so you can watch the rotor spin.

To me, kinetic movements are a bad trade-off. You remove the necessity to change the battery every couple of years, but you add a great deal of inconvenience when the rechargeable battery does finally give out. And believe me, every rechargeable battery does give out eventually. Perhaps it wouldn't be until after the practical life of the watch is over, but judging by reports I've seen on the internet, this is certainly not guaranteed to be the case. Scientific, I know.

This movement also introduces one of the disadvantages of a mechanical movement to quartz: that the watch be worn in order to work the rotor and recharge the battery. They generally hold quite a charge and may not require any recharging for months, but the requirement is still there. You may not be able to set it in a drawer for a year, then put it right back on with no further adjustment like you can with most quartz watches.


A solar movement is like any other battery powered quartz movement except that it uses solar energy to charge a rechargeable battery.

Just as the kinetic movement, this one trades the inconvenience of a battery change every couple years for the larger inconvenience at some later time when the rechargeable battery gives out. It also introduces the (not so difficult) requirement that the watch be exposed to light at least some of the time. If you wear it all the time or even a fair amount of time, this is not a problem. Even if you just leave it out on top of your dresser, it will likely hold a charge nicely. You just can't put it away for a year in a drawer and expect it to be charged when it emerges.

In my opinion, this is a much more efficient way to maintain a rechargeable battery than the kinetic. They hold their charge well, don't require that much light to charge, and don't have the additional complexity of a moving rotor. They can also charge without being worn (and without a watch winder) by simply being left out in the light.

Radio Controlled:

A "radio controlled" watch movement is a standard quartz movement which receives a radio time signal from an atomic clock source (like the one in Boulder, Colorado in the US). They are not so much accurate as often corrected to exactly the right time.

And Then We Have The Spring Drive

All currently produced, battery powered wristwatches are quartz based. That is, at their base, they are powered by a battery and use a stepper motor to drive the mechanism. Seiko's Spring Drive approaches from the opposite direction. Beginning with a mechanical movement, using a mainspring to drive the mechanism, the Spring Drive replaces only the escapement - the mechanism that regulates the rate at which the mainspring unwinds. Instead of a traditional escape wheel and balance spring, the movement generates electrical energy as it unwinds. This is used to power a quartz oscillator and an electromagnetic brake which keeps the "glide wheel" spinning at exactly 8 revolutions per second in a smooth motion.

Arguably, this movement combines the special nature of a mechanical movement with the higher accuracy of a quartz movement. It retains the wonder of a tiny mechanical machine spinning and whirring using only the power of its mainspring while, at the same time, adding the accuracy of quartz and some of the lower maintenance requirements of quartz movements due to decreased friction and a single direction of motion. It also adds its own special perk to those who might appreciate it: a perfectly smooth non-ticking second hand. It's the furthest you can get from the once-per-second tick tick tick of a run-of-the-mill quartz movement.

Seiko manufactures Spring Drive movements to the highest build quality using more parts than most traditional mechanical watches. Fewer than 10 highly skilled watchmakers at Seiko are qualified to assemble and work on the movements. No other company makes anything remotely similar.

I have owned two watches containing a Spring Drive movement (the second I still own). The first was a Seiko Marinemaster 600m Spring Drive. It was a huge chunk of a diver watch and a model sold only in Japan. The second is a Seiko Spring Drive GMT which contains the same movement as the Marinemaster and also sports a display back that lets you see the mainspring unwind via the spinning glide wheel. This model is part of Seiko's international line of Spring Drive models available around the world. Both displayed amazing accuracy varying by less than a second per month from the atomic clock.

Seiko Marinemaster 600m Spring Drive

Seiko Spring Drive GMT

What makes a movement special?

There are many people who dismiss Seiko as a maker of mass market quartz watches. Perhaps they blame Seiko, as the inventor of the quartz watch, for the temporary demise of the mechanical watch industry in the "dark years." For some, "Swiss Made" is what makes a watch good as gold. But wait, that Panerai sure is nice. Guess we'll have to include Italian watches too. Oooh, I like that Glashutte Original. Okay, Germany is in. Perhaps any movement made in Europe is okay?

Ask a group of watch aficionados what makes a mechanical movement really special and I think you'll get several common answers (among others):

- High build quality (and, sometimes, decoration)

- High complexity (complicated or complex to build)

- Exclusivity (usually to one brand i.e. "manufacture" but not always)

- History & Tradition (of the company)

These are the traits that make a high dollar Swiss (or Italian or German) watch worth the money. Things don't always add up though. Some brands that are highly respected and make expensive watches do not use exclusive movements. Some of them don't have a long history (although they may have assumed a name that is steeped in history and tradition). Many fine mechanical watches use relatively pedestrian movements made by ETA and that's okay. But everything does add up for Seiko. It meets all of these conditions with the Spring Drive (as well as with some of its other high end mechanical movements). Seiko has a long history of tradition and innovation in watchmaking. These movements are of extremely high build quality and are built by Seiko exclusively for use in their own watches. The Spring Drive, in particular, is highly complex requiring many years of research and prototyping to perfect.

For those that do still think of Seiko as only a mass market quartz watch pusher despite this, I guess I have to chalk that up to guilt by association. Seiko does produce a lot of quartz watches which, while generally more expensive than most quartz watches, are a lot less expensive than most mechanical watches. I guess this leaves them in the same situation as many other companies who have chosen to use the same brand name for products intended for a broad market as well as those intended for a much more exclusive market. Alas, the Ford GT will forever be associated with the Ford Fiesta! :)

So where does this leave me?

I have owned several mechanical watches, including at least one which was even more accurate than some of the quartz watches I own. My Breitling Navitimer Montbrillant Datora ran, for the most part, dead on for the relatively short time that I owned it. I only gave it up to get a Spring Drive. I lust after mechanical watches with all their little gears, their mainsprings, their mechanical whirrings. And yet, at the same time, I'm an accuracy freak. I almost (note that I said almost :) cannot stand to wear a watch that needs to be reset every few days or every week to keep it within a reasonable interval from the atomic clock. I start to get antsy when my watch reads more than 5 seconds off of the "real" time. I know this is just a personality quirk on my part, but it is there nonetheless and I know I'm not alone. For some of us, accuracy is important.

Breitling Montbrillant Datora

At the top of my list of desirable watch traits are mechanical and accurate while at the bottom are the requirements for battery replacement and regular service. And at the very bottom of my list is whether or not everyone agrees with me. This leaves, at the top of my list, the Seiko Spring Drive.

Seiko Spring Drive GMT

Seiko Spring Drive GMT

Seiko Spring Drive GMT display back

Hope you enjoyed my ramblings,


1 comentario:

  1. Solar power for homes should be thought of as an investment that you and the environment around you will benefit from in the long run.

    solar hot water