Automatic Watches | How Do They Work Without Batteries?

automatic watch by Seiko
Seiko automatic 23 jewel watch. Image Credit: Wayne Truong

There is a plethora of watches on the market. These days, when shopping for a new watch, you have a lot of decisions to make. Are you the type of person who prefers analog or digital? Are you looking for something that is elegant with an uncluttered face, or do you need the maximum of functions with all the extra dials and windows? We can’t forget, smartwatches are entering the market in a big way.

The discerning shopper is now able to find a watch that perfectly reflects their personality and style, but it can be a daunting task to narrow down to the right fit.

Among all this variety, there is one other option that will make the choice a little harder, though it’s really one of the oldest options there is: do you buy a watch with or without a battery?

Winding your watch

You might think that all watches these days must have a battery. When’s the last time you even saw a steam-powered watch? In fact, though, the first watches didn’t have batteries and they worked just fine by simply being wound.

A hand-wound watch certainly seems like a relic of a long gone era, back when “horsepower” literally referred to how many horses you had out in front of your buggy. In fact, while hand-wound watches are not the norm these days, they never went away. There remain some watch aficionados who would never dream of owning any other kind.

For the most part, hand-wound watches were replaced by automatic watches (also known as self-winding). Both types of watches rely on a mainspring inside the body of the watch which is tightened for the gears within to move. Automatic watches, though, don’t require daily attention.

A result of ingenious design, automatic watches are powered by the movement of the wearer’s body as they move. The natural movement of the arm when the wearer is walking or doing other activities causes a weighted piece inside the watch to fall back and forth, utilizing that kinetic energy to wind the gear train.

For storing watches, especially if you invest in a collection of watches and can’t possibly wear each watch daily- you can also use a watch winder, these devices are used to keep automatic watch running when not worn.

Whether hand- or self-wound, these types of watches have a classic feel and don’t require a battery, which is a bonus for anyone who has ever struggled to change out one of those tiny batteries.

For a clear explanation of an automatic watch, this short video gives a great explanation and answers to several frequently asked questions.

Should I buy an automatic watch?

Now that you know about automatic watches, the obvious question to ask is whether there are more advantages to a wound watch or a battery-powered watch.

First, it’s important to know how the two kinds of watches differ. Besides for the power sources, there are slight differences in the way the two types of watches behave.

The most obvious is the second hand. On a watch that is powered by winding, either hand or automatic, the second hand glides smoothly around the face of the watch in a constant motion.

If you think about the mechanics of a wound watch, that makes perfect since. By contrast, if the second hand of the watch makes a halted ticking motion as it moves, you’re in possession of a battery-powered watch.

Another difference is internal and probably only makes a difference to the aforementioned watch aficionado. A wound watch, by necessity, will be a more intricately designed and crafted machine. The carefully assembled gears can look like a work of art and so, from a purely aesthetic point of view, an automatic watch is nicer to look at.

Physical appearance isn’t the only advantage, though. As a result of the higher craftsmanship, automatic (and hand-wound) watches tend to also be more durable and less difficult to keep in working condition. Keep it would up and you’re good to go.

So, that clinches it, right? Automatic watches are the way to go. Well, not so fast.

Are there any advantages to battery-powered watches?

If there were no benefits to battery-powered watches, no one would have invented them in the first place. Clearly, there are reasons to consider them.

While it’s true that automatic watches are generally more pleasing to look at and are usually the result of finer craftsmanship, they are also more expensive. Quartz watches can be made cheaply, so if all you need is a basic, practical timepiece, a battery-powered watch will probably meet your needs just fine.

Also, battery-powered watches are more accurate, overall. They will lose or gain a few seconds a month, as any clock is bound to do, though some will lose as little as five seconds a year. By comparison, most automatic watches lose a few seconds every day. After a few weeks, that will result in a noticeable divergence.

A basic battery-powered watch is probably going to be the go-to choice for someone who simply needs a reliable, no-nonsense timepiece that doesn’t cost too much money and isn’t intended to impress fashionistas. That group likely includes most people looking for a watch.

If, though, you are intrigued by an automatic watch and want to know more about the options, keep reading.

Can a watch be both automatic and smart?

Deciding to buy an automatic watch opens a whole new list of options to consider. You might think that if you opt to go with an automatic watch you will have to skip on some of the newest advanced features, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

These days, there are plenty of automatic watches that use a classic design and look that will appeal to most people looking for the perfect fashion accessory. If you’re in the market for an automatic watch, that’s surely one of the main selling points.

Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a new watch with all the bells and whistles, the automatic options do thin out. For the last few years, anyone in the market for a smartwatch had to resign themselves to the battery-powered options.

That might be changing soon, though. Hybrid watches have existed for a few years, but in 2017, Sequent launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to fund the world’s first fully automatic smartwatch. The first watches are shipping in June of 2018, so it’s yet to be seen if there will be any issues with the final product, but it does seem to be a promising development.

An automatic smartwatch would be the perfect blend of old school style with state-of-the-art technology. That could mean, whichever type of watch you decide to purchase next, you’ll be able to go automatic without forgoing the latest technology or your style. Isn’t the future cool?

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