What’s the difference between a manual-wind and an automatic watch?

In the world of watch repair we see plenty of different types and styles of watch. Differences can be found in many different areas – be it the style of dial, functions the watch provides, type of case, type of escapement… the list is huge. In this blog post we’re going to focus on the difference between a manual-wind and an automatic watch.

To provide some background – Manual-wind and automatic watches are generally speaking very similar, they are both types of mechanical watch. All mechanical watches rely on certain principles:

  • There needs to be a source of motive force to power the watch
  • A gear train is needed to operate the time indication.
  • Something is needed to control the speed at which the gear train moves (escapement and oscillator)
  • A mechanism is needed to wind the watch
  • A mechanism is needed to set the time
  • All these parts must be attached to a frame or plate

In the vast majority of the above areas, there is no fundamental difference between a manual-wind and automatic watch.

Both manual-wind and automatic watches use a spring (the mainspring) as their form of motive force to power the watch. This spring is coiled inside a small drum (barrel) and when the watch is wound, the spring is constantly trying to unwind. The force this produces is transferred through the gear train and released in a controlled manner by the action of the escapement and oscillator. The manner in which this spring is wound up is where the key difference between manual-wind and automatic watches can be found.

Manually wound movements

A manual-wind watch, as the name would suggest, is wound up by hand. Rotating the crown (winder) results in the mainspring being wound up via a series of wheels. The mainspring is prevented from unwinding by a recoiling click and ratchet wheel. The click allows the ratchet to turn in one direction to wind up, but blocks it in the opposite direction. It recoils slightly to prevent the mainspring being wound extremely tightly, as this could lead to problems caused by too much force being produced .

Two examples of mechanical hand-wound watch movements.

Automatically wound movements

An automatic watch may also facilitate winding using the above system, though the mainspring used in an automatic watch is different. Automatic mainsprings are designed to slip around the inside of the barrel once they reach a certain point of winding. This is necessary because the watch is constantly being wound via an automatic winding mechanism as it is worn.

A disassembled ETA 2836-2 movement, undergoing repair in our workshop.

Automatic winding mechanisms come in a huge number of different designs – some better and more efficient than others! They usually involve an oscillating weight (or rotor) which swings through 360 degrees with the movement of the watch on the wrist. The motion of the rotor is transferred through to the ratchet and mainspring via a reverser mechanism. During watch servicing reversers are often worn out and in need of replacement as they have a hard life, though some types like the “magic lever” system are quite robust.

Automatically wound mechanisms, the oscillating rotor can be seen in here.

So manual-wind and automatic watch are very similar. The difference lies in the method in which the mainspring is wound up, and the type of mainspring used. Automatic watches are wound by the movement of the watch on your wrist, and they may also be wound up by rotating the crown. Manual-wind watches are wound up by rotating the crown only.

We are able to repair almost any type and brand of manual-wind and automatic mechanical watches. From vintage manual-wind Rotary and Omega, through to modern automatic Rolex and Tag Heuer, we are able to help. If you have a watch in need of repair – do not hesitate to contact us. We offer a fully insured, freepost repairs service to clients all around the UK and our Feefo Platinum Trusted Service Award is testament to the excellent service we provide to our clients.

Please ask us any question you may have, or send a photo via our Ask the Watchmaker page.

We look forward to hearing from you soon

David Clark PJGemDip PJDip CertGA
Managing Director
W.E. Clark & Son Limited

Watch investment tips from a Master Watchmaker

Master Watchmaker

Certain watches have real investment potential, so if you are passionate about your timepieces, a watch could be something you want to consider investing in. Just like certain vintage cars, there are notable examples of watches selling for incredible prices. In 2017 The Rolex Daytona ‘Paul Newman’ owned by Paul Newman himself sold for a record 17.8 million dollars!

However, choosing a good investment watch isn’t easy. You’ll need to familiarise yourself with the brands and models expected to increase in value over time, and for that you’ll need an experienced eye.

There is much more to selecting a watch to invest in than being guided by brand. The value of a watch isn’t purely based on brand and craftsmanship, it also depends on rarity and demand. Discontinued watches are very collectible and will usually sell for more that their purchase price a few years later.

Rolex, Omega and Patek Philippe are notably the most collectable watch brands from around the world. But other watch brands to look out for are Audemars and Tudor. The Audemars Piguet, Royal Oak Extra-thin currently retails at around £50,000 and being such a limited edition, its value would be expected to rise in value in the next 10 years.

For a more reasonable investment, the Tudor Heritage Black Bay retails at around £3,000, but has good investment potential. The watch is a relatively new entrant to the investment market, but has a classic design, which is likely to stand the test of time.

Panerai have a bit of a cult following. A rare Second World War watch by Panerai Radiomir soared in price from £16,000 to £58,000 over the period of a decade.

Be aware that modern watches are made in much larger quantities and may not generate such a large return on your investment.

Most important of all when you are buying an investment watch is the condition of the timepiece. Watches that are most likely to hold their value or increase in value over time are those that are as near to their original condition as possible. Variations released after original models don’t usually hold their value as well as those with the original spec.

If you are seriously considering putting some money into a watch as an investment, read on for some tips from our Master Watchmaker.

1 – Pick a brand that has performed consistently across generations

Rolex Watch Repair Banner Image

Luxury watch brands, like Rolex, are almost certain to sell for more than their original cost. Rolex has an impressive reputation and an equally impressive list of celebrities who have endorsed the brand and even particular watch models.

2 – Do your research

It’s a good idea to check out watches that have gone up in investment value and understand why. There are a number of iconic watches that are likely to always keep their value, as well as the obvious brands (Rolex and Patek).

3 – Go for limited edition

Look out for limited editions and special collaborations as these watches are more likely to hold their price and go up in value. Statement timepieces (like the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Pearlmaster Yellow Gold, with yellow and orange sapphirres) will be more sought after and are usually easier to sell, though it will depend on the watch’s condition.

4 – Go for a mechanical watch

With expert attention, a mechanical watch can keep going forever. Even when mechanical parts become obsolete, qualified Master Watchmakers can source replacement parts or make identical parts and keep watch movements in perfect working order. Be aware that replacing watch parts may negatively affect the value of the timepiece.

5 – Keep your investment watch in tip top condition

Watch inspection

When it comes to cashing in on your investment, the quality and condition of the watch matters. Keep your watch in tip top condition, but be wary of watch repair services who don’t have a Master Watchmaker. See here for more information on the watch repair services available by our Master Watchmaker.

6 – Don’t put all of your money into watches

As with any investment, owning watches doesn’t come without risk. There are never any guarantees that your investment in a timepiece will go up. When it comes to making a serious investment in watches, you need to know your stuff.

If you don’t have the expertise, consider smaller, affordable investments that have the potential to increase in value. It’s always a good idea to spread the risk when you are making investments.

7 – Be patient

Never invest in a watch expecting the value to increase soon after you’ve bought it. Investment watches don’t usually see a real return for a few years. If it’s a good investment, you should see a return after 5 to 10 years.

8 – Check your home insurance

After purchasing an investment timepiece, check with your home insurance provider that your investment watch is covered against theft or damage.

9 – The best investment timepieces

You can rarely go wrong with these:

  • Original Breitling Navitimer
  • Rolex Submariner
  • Rolex Daytona
  • Omega Cosmic Triple Calendar
  • Omega Speedmaster
  • TAG Heuer Carrerra
  • Patek Philippe Nautilus
  • Audemars Piguet Royal Oak