How watches work

We can all visualise the cogs in our watches turning, but what exactly makes them tick?

Welcome to our Dawsons Watch Basics – 101 Manual.


The mechanism on a timepiece can be an artwork in itself. Here we have created the ultimate watch basics guide to help anyone brush up their knowledge, or perhaps get started with a new hobby. 


Watches at a glance

 Their function is to display hours, minutes and seconds. Any additional features such a chronograph (stopwatch), power reserve, day and/or date apeture, alarm, AM/PM indicator, moonphase, tachymeter, etc are referred to as a “complication”.

All watches will have the following basic components:

Dial: the face of the watch where numerals and/or markers are used to display the time

Case: this holds and protects the watch movement

Hands: hour, minute and seconds markers

Lugs: this is where the watch case is connected to the strap

Crystal: the translucent protective dial cover

Bezel: the outer ring/border of the dial which connects to the lugs

Crown: wheel on the side of the watch used to wind and set the time

Strap and Clasp: available in a variety of materials and designs, including leather, gold and stainless steel


Movement or Caliber

The movement is the inner working bits and pieces of a watch that make it “go”. Usually, these movements are purchased from an outside company, but there are a few watchmakers who will produce them inhouse. These inhouse manufacturers typically produce more expensive and highly sought-after watches. Rolex is an example of one of these companies that produce inhouse movements.

There are three types of movements: Manual, Automatic and Quartz.

Manual and Automatic movements are mechanical, made up of an intricate collection of moving parts like gears, jewels and springs. Quartz is electrical and requires a circuit and battery to run.


automatic movement vs quartz movement

 Diagram of automatic movement and quartz movement watch


Manual Movement

Referred to as the hand-wound movement, it is the most traditional of the three and is usually found in good quality collectable watches. Daily winding is required - with care - as it is possible to damage the movement by overwinding. As soon as you feel tension or tightness on the crown, you should cease any further winding.


Automatic Movement 

Also known as the self-winding movement, winds itself while being worn on the wrist. This type of watch stores energy in the mainspring and can hold an average power reserve of 40-50 hours. If you do not wear this type of watch regularly, you will end up having to manual wind on occasion. There are automatic watch display boxes and storage solutions available that will rotate your watch, and movement while you are not wearing it – which will alleviate the need to manual wind if you do not wear the watch daily.


Typical Components of the Mechanical Movement How

Balance Spring / Hairspring: A very fine spring that causes the balance wheel to oscillate back and forth, which then regulates time.

Balance Wheel: The heart of the oscillating system, energy from the escapement powers this wheel.

Dial Train: Like the Gear Train, transmits regulated, equally metered energy from the balance wheel to the hands.

Escapement: Is the regulator, taking energy from the mainspring through the gear train and projecting it out into equal parts.

Gear Train: Through a series of small gears, stored energy is transmitted from the main spring to the escapement.

Jewels: Synthetic rubies are used at points of high friction, such as a gear that is in constant motion. Rubies are extremely hard and absorb heat, which makes them excellent at reducing metal-to-metal friction and wear, which improves performance and accuracy.

Mainspring: Thin metal ribbon which stores the kinetic energy to power the movement. The coil-shaped spring gets tighter with each twist of the crown.

Rotor: Only present in the Automatic Movement, connected by a series of gears to the mainspring, as it rotates it winds the mainspring. This semi-circle shaped metal weight is attached to the movement and can rotate freely in 360 degree moves, equipped to disengage when the mainspring is full wound.


How Do They Work?
  1. Manual: Crown rotation winds the mainspring, causing it to store kinetic energy. Automatic: Natural wrist movement turns the oscillating rotor, which sends kinetic energy to the mainspring.
  2. The gear train transfers energy to the escapement which is metered out into regulated parts.
  3. The balance wheel uses the regulated energy to oscillate at a constant rate and works the same way as a pendulum. The dial train transfers energy to the hands at a regular interval of beats. The hands move forward.
  4. Every certain number of beats, the dial train transfers the energy to the hands of the watch.


Quartz Movement

A quartz movement makes us of a synthetic quartz crystal, known as an “oscillator,” that uses a battery to provide vibrations via electricity and does not need winding. A seconds hand that ticks rather than a “sweeping” motion, is indicative of a quartz movement.


Typical Components of the Quartz Movement

Battery: Ensure you remove or replace a dead battery as quickly as possible, as leaking acid can damage the movement.

Integrated Circuit: Carrier of the electrical charge.

Quartz Crystal: Performs the same function as the balance wheel on a mechanical watch.

Stepping Motor: Converts electrical impulses into mechanical power.

Dial Train: Functions just like the dial train found on a mechanical movement.


How Do They Work
  1. An electric current is carried from the battery through a small piece of quartz crystal via the integrated circuit.
  2. This causes the crystal to vibrate 32,768 times per second. These vibrations are sent via the integrated circuit to the stepping motor.The stepping motor measures these vibrations and converts them into one pulse every second.
  3. The pulse drives the dial train which then moves the hands on the watch.


Please do get in touch should you have any queries or maybe you have a timepiece you would like to have valued.

We would love to hear from you.

Call us on 0207 431 9445 or get in touch via email at