How Do Watches Work?

With the advent of multi-app smartphones and tablets, watches are slowly losing their market. Surveys by Mintel, a leader in the Market Research field, show that the younger generation has no desire or need for a watch. Indeed, digital natives see watches as a rather odd device. Unlike mobile phones and other gadgets, watches have a single function: telling time. However, what it singularly does, it does with certain sophistication. Complex and refined artistry are behind each timepiece. The inner workings of a watch are now what draw people in.

How Watches Work

The artistry behind a timepiece lies in its ability to translate time into something visual. In order to keep time, a watch relies on an oscillator: a device that moves between two positions with regularity. One can derive time from these regular movements or oscillation. Bigger timepieces such as clocks, for example, have a resonant oscillator in the form of a pendulum. Wristwatches, due to their compact size, use a more compact form of oscillator, usually a tuning fork, a balance wheel, or a crystal such as quartz. The oscillator transmits its movements to gears or circuits, which then translates those movements into hand motions or a digital display.

Types of Watches

There are two types of watches, classified according to internal workings: mechanical and electronic. Mechanical watches are more complex in terms of craftsmanship, as it involves a lot of moving parts. On the other hand, electronic watches are more versatile, and have more functions and selections of watch faces because of the minimal working parts.


Mechanical Watch

Electronic Watch

Oscillator Balance wheel/spring Crystal, often quartz
Power source Manual or automatic winding of mainspring Battery
Display types Analog



Digital LED

Digital LCD

Illumination Luminous paint Electric illumination
Accuracy Errors of up to seconds per day

Affected by temperature and magnetism

Stable and accurate
Maintenance involved Regular maintenance and readjustments by a professional required Periodic replacement of battery

Despite its inaccuracy and maintenance hassles, the complexity of mechanical watches often translates to a higher price point. Some of the most expensive watches show the gears and mechanisms, further emphasizing the artistry involved.

How Mechanical Watches Work

In mechanical watches, a motive force, provided by a ribbon of spring called a mainspring, drives a set of gears called the wheel train. The wheel train translates the strong but slow movement of the mainspring into quick and tiny movements. This allows the watch to run for several days or weeks. These movements operate a time indication, often in the form of watch hands. The wheel train consists of gears with different ratios, corresponding to the second, minute, and hour hands. In order to accurately tell time, an oscillator, usually in the form of a balance wheel, combined with an escapement lever controls the speed of the wheel train.

Because the mainspring loosens up in this process, rewinding is necessary to keep the watch going. Modern mechanical watches use the turning movement of the watch crown to wind up the mainspring. Antique watches used a separate key for rewinding. Automatic or self-winding watches use a weighted rotor, which translates a user’s natural motion into a circular motion that winds the mainspring.

How Electronic Watches Work

Electric watches are relatively simpler than mechanical watches. Most watches of this type use a crystal, often quartz, as an oscillator. Once exposed to the current from the battery, the quartz vibrates and emits a stable frequency, often in the form of pulses. In digital displays, circuits receive these pulses. The circuits then translate these pulses into a digital visualization of time. Analog electronic watches use these pulses to signal a small electric motor connected to a standard wheel train.


The time-telling function of a watch is easily replaceable in today’s gadget-filled world. However, the craftsmanship and artistry behind how it tells time is still something of a marvel. Each tick and tock of a mechanical watch is the result of carefully-placed springs, gears, and levers, each with its own unique function. Even the inner workings of electronic watches, with their hybrid of electronic and mechanical movements, are still works of precision. Knowing how watches work gives watch owners a better grasp of what makes their timepiece special.

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