Self-winding watches? Mechanical timepieces without a battery? What’s not to love? Other than maybe having to reset the time from time-to-time. From the cheapest Seiko to the most expensive Patek Philippe, automatic watches are the mechanical marvel that every watch buyer wants. With a few exceptions . . .
People who buy quartz watches, ’cause they’re cheaper and more reliable. (The watches, I mean). People who buy Apple Watches (the majority of all watch buyers). And people who don’t wear a watch (small children). A Venn diagram that doesn’t include you. At least not all the time.
Either you’re reading this to hate on me for daring to suggest your gorgeous automatic watch is a bad idea, or a newbie who’s just figured out that a self-winding watch is called an automatic watch – as opposed to a watch you have to wind. Both types qualify as a mechanical watch. So, if we’re getting technical, a watch you have to wind is “a manual wind mechanical watch” or, less technically, a “hand-wound watch.”
Where was I? Oh yes: don’t buy a self-winding watch. Hand-wound watches are better. Two reasons: aesthetic and visceral.
The aesthetic issue with automatic watches is rotor-related. That’s the spinny thing (a.k.a., oscillating weight) that winds the watch as you move your arm. It obscures the movement. If you buy watches with a solid caseback (e.g., the Rolex Explorer), you can stop stop reading now. If you buy automatic watches with a transparent (a.k.a., exhibition) caseback, you’re only getting half the story – and not always not a good one.
Affordable automatic watches are powered by a movement so pedestrian, so math class ditchwater dull, that gazing at the mechanism is like staring at a microwave oven. In that case, all you’re getting is mild reassurance that you’re not wearing a quartz or Apple Watch.
Sure, you can tilt your automatic, self-winding watch to move the rotor to see both halves of the movement. But you can’t see both halves at the same time. You can’t appreciate the full, unsullied splendor of the bits and pieces that makes a hand-wound mechanical watch a thing of unique beauty. You can’t stare at the engineering marvel, knowing that you own a complex, wonderful, wondrous, complete micro-machine.
High end watchmakers do their best to make their automatics’ rotor a thing of beauty through ornamentation and skeletonization, and some go micro. It’s still a great landing at the wrong airport. (Image courtesy watchfinder.com.) It’s like purchasing an obstructed view ticket to the Rolling Stones back when Mick performed without a Zimmer frame.
We don’t need spend a great deal of time debating this. Either images of hand-wound watch movements entrance and enthrall you or they don’t. If they do, all that remains is the ultimate first world problem: can you be bothered to repeatedly O.K. constantly wind and reset your hand-wound watch? Well, that and money. Anyway . . .
There are those of us who consider the winding and time setting process a privilege rather than a pain-in-the-ass. Think of it this way: if you own a self-winding watch, picking it up and slipping it over your wrist will be your main man – machine interaction.
Winding a mechanical watch connects you to your watch. You feel the mainspring winding. You feel yourself making the watch come to life. It becomes your watch. You have to wind your baby – your babies – to stop them from falling into disrepair – a daily reminder of a simple, inescapable fact: that which you own, owns you.
I know I’m whistling in the dark. But there are points of light in the watch industry. Artisans who keep the hand-wound faith because they love the art of it. The challenge. The tradition. And there are discerning horophiles who keep them in business. Buyers who understand that a “true” mechanical watch is a thing of rarity, beauty and devotion.
As for those who think I’m being unnecessarily snobby and divisive, sorry for winding you up. As anyone who’s read my writing knows by now, it happens automatically. But at least I’m transparent about it.
[Convinced but cash-strapped? Click here for Hand-Wound Watch: Three Under $700]