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The Timekeeper's Handbook - A Guide On Horology

Previously, we had discussed the underappreciation of high-end Japanese watchmaking, and Part 2 will come soon, as we dive more into the watches that I'm most keen about from Japan's high street of timekeeping.

Following the great support that you have all shown from that article, I would like to give out a hearty thank you. However, before we move into that, I thought that it would be interesting to provide a handy guide on the componentry that make up mechanical watches.

Credits to: GIPHY

They're complicated pieces of machinery, of which I don't have any mastery myself, especially given how fast the world is changing, and how traditional mechanical watches are in nature.

As we learn more about smartwatches, with their technology, sensors, and colourful displays, I think it's fair to celebrate from where we've come from, and to learn more about mechanical watches, and all the many parts that make it tick, and tock.

So before we move onto Part 2 of our tribute, here's a small glossary and guide for all the componentry and jargon in the world of horology.


  • All the different bits and pieces
  • Manual v. Automatic
  • Power Reserves
  • Complications
  • Frequencies

The Timekeeper's Guide.

Credits to: Fratello - Watches & Pencils

Bits and Pieces.

Mechanical watches are rather complicated, hence why they're more attractive than a digital, or smart watch. Rather than being powered by a motherboard and some circuitry, a mechanical watch has the beauty of hundreds of microscopic parts moving together in a well-knit movement.

So, what're all the different components to know about? Here's the rundown of the most important ones:

Credits to: Hodinkee (Watch 101 - Interactive Guide)

1) Mainspring, and Barrel - These two would form the equivalent of a fuel tank in a car. Mechanical watches are powered by the energy stored from winding up a spring, and that would be the Mainspring, which would later slowly unwind to power the many gears and tracks within the watch. The Barrel is the "container" where the Mainspring sits.

2) Crown, and Ratchet Wheel - This is how you fuel up a wristwatch - by using the energy from your hand. From your winding of the Crown, it intermediates to the Crown Wheel, and then to the Ratchet Wheel. From there, the Ratchet Wheel will keep winding up the Mainspring, and to keep it from unwinding. That satisfying clicking noise you hear from winding up a watch comes from the Ratchet Wheel clicking into place.

In the early days of timekeeping, it's actually possible to break your watch from winding it up too much. Back then, it's necessary to keep track as to when was the last time that you've winded up your watch, and how many rotations it took to wind it up fully. But nowadays, pretty much every mechanical watch has a release on the Ratchet Wheel, which keeps you from winding it up too much.

Credits to: Orient Watch USA (Demystified: A Simplified Breakdown of how a Mechanical Movement Keeps Time)

3) Hairspring, and Balance Wheel - In a car, these two pieces would form the engine. They both act as the regulating organ of a wristwatch, thus resulting in it telling us the time, just like the pendulum of a clock. Not to be confused with the Mainspring, the Hairspring provides Restoring Force to the Balance Wheel. The oscillations of the Hairspring and the Balance Wheel combined regulates the time, at each vibration.

The Hairspring is in fact, a spring, usually made from metals, but are nowadays made in a variety of alloys and silicon, for added resistance and anti-magnetism to our modern surroundings. This is important, since small disturbances can disrupt the Hairspring's oscillations, thus disrupting the accuracy of a timepiece.

4) Escapement - Between the power (Mainspring/Barrel) and the engine (Hairspring/Balance Wheel) sits the watch's Escapement, which acts to regulate the unwinding of the Mainspring. Imagine a spring being wound to its maximum, and to then be let go… chaos! Thus, to make sure the Mainspring doesn't unwind in an uncontrollable fashion, the Escapement manages the amount of power released by the Mainspring, to the Hairspring and Balance Wheel.

Credits to: GIPHY

5) Mainplate, and Bridges - From an automotive perspective, this is the chassis - the core underpinnings where all our watch components are attached to. The Mainplate is the body of the watch's movement, forming up the majority of the spacing. The Bridges are complementary items that help attach wheels, gears, and other parts of the watch to the Mainplate.

6) Jewels, and Screws - All the parts that are attached to the Mainplate and Bridge are done so through the use of both Screws and Jewels. Screws are self explanatory, however, it won't be enough, as the constant oscillations from the watch's movement itself will at some point cause mechanical wear, as parts begin to vibrate and rotate on each other. Thus, Jewels are used to absorb some of the impact, and reduce wear and tear, thus allowing a watch to stay and work in good shape. Jewels are made from synthetic crystals.

Credits to: Hodinkee

Manual v. Automatic.

When talking about mechanical watches, there often comes up a discussion about its type - manual, or automatic. So, what's the difference?

Simply, the term "manual" and "automatic" refer to the method of winding the watch. As we now know, the power from a watch comes from the Mainspring, which itself is fuelled through the Crown, and Ratchet Wheel respectively.

Nomos' in-house movements. Left: DUW 1001 Manual Calibre, Right: DUW 5001 Automatic Calibre.

Credits to: Nomos (Nomos Movements)

In a Manual watch, the act of winding up the Mainspring occurs manually, where you have to pull out the Crown, and to then wind it. Winding up a manual watch takes little effort, and requires a set amount of rotations.

Whereas in an Automatic, the watch now has two options for being wound - one where you have the option to wind it manually, or you can let the Rotor do it for you. The Rotor is a large oscillating pendulum that sits on the opposite end of the dial, and it's very sensitive to movement. As you carry out your day, the minute movements of your body, especially the arms and wrists, will allow the Rotor to oscillate, thus making it wind up the watch automatically.

In automotive terms, this is akin to choosing between a manual transmission, or an automatic, although there aren't many heaty debates on the horological side of things. For watches, people appreciate both Manual and Automatic watches.

Credits to: GIPHY

Some prefer Manual watches, as it allows them to have better engagement with their watch, as the wearer is reminded to wind up the watch to keep time. Another advantage of Manual watches are the visibility. If your watch as a clear caseback that gives you a view of the many components moving around, then omitting a large Rotor certainly gives you a better view.

Some others prefer Automatic watches, as it gives them some convenience. When a watch ends up "dead", or fully unwound, it's usually the case that you have to wind it back manually, but once it's back up and running, the Rotor will keep the watch topped up for you, so you don't have to worry about it. Just like automatic transmissions in cars, it shifts the gears for you autonomously, while also allowing you to shift yourself if you want to.

Power Reserves.

When you read about a watch's specifications, it often shows you the Power Reserve. What does this mean?

Credits to: Fratello - Watches & Pencils

Just like batteries, power doesn't last forever, and in the case of mechanical watches, the Mainspring will be unwound at some point. So, the Power Reserve tells you how many hours a watch can operate between being in a state of fully wound, to fully unwound.

Mechanical watches in today's world can usually last at least 48 hours, while some watches are capable of going for months at a time on one fully wound up state. This depends on the Mainspring and the size of the Barrel. The Power Reserve will also depend on how many complications that a watch may be needed to power.

Some of the more complex watches may have a large, or even two barrels to provide all the power. It's difficult to tell how much power you have left, and its safer to just wind it up a bit when you have some spare seconds, although this is less of a worry for Automatics. Some watches may even have indicators, that is to say a physical dial to show how much Power is has left.


Watches can come in different sorts of functionalities, and these are described as Complications. What are those?

Credits to: Fratello - Watches & Pencils

Complications are the types of abilities that a watch has, and there's certainly far too many to discuss in this post alone, so keep an eye out for that! In fact, both an automatic winding system, and a power reserve dial, are Complications.

A watch can have more than a few Complications, and the more complex watches may have dozens. Complications can include a watch's ability to track days and dates, separate time zones, a chronograph function, moon phases, a 24-hour hand, annual and perpetual calendars, alarms (yes, mechanical watches have those, too! ), among others.


One small detail about a mechanical wristwatch that is often not discussed is the Frequency, measured in Vibrations per Hour (VpH), or Hertz (Hz). This doesn't usually impact a purchasing decision, but it's worth knowing anyways.

Credits to: Fratello - Watches & Pencils

A mechanical watch oscillates through its Hairspring and Balance Wheel, and the rate at which it oscillates is measured with VpH or Hz, summarised as its Frequency. The common mechanical watch vibrates at a rate of 4 Hertz (Hz), or 28,000 Vibrations per Hour (VpH). In other words, the watch's regulator (Hairspring and Balance Wheel) oscillates 4 times every second.

One observable aspect of a watch's Frequency is the smoothness at which the hands move. This isn't something that can be easily observed, but it is the biggest difference between a Quartz, and a Mechanical watch. By the way a Quartz system works, the seconds hand ticks, rather than the smooth and effortless sweep of a Mechanical movement.

That can be the biggest reason that people choose between having a Mechanical, or a Quartz movement. Another thing that can be measured is accuracy. A higher Frequency results in higher accuracy, although ordinary movements are more than adequate. Among the most accurate mechanical watches, Zenith's Defy, can oscillate at a rate of 18 Hz, or 129,600 VpH.

Final Words.

Credits to: GIPHY

So here you go, a simple and hopefully helpful rundown of all the important stuff that you should know about watches. Know that you are more prepared, we can safely continue our adventure, as we go into Chapter 2 of "A Hidden Gem"

Credits, and Thanks to:

  • Hodinkee, for their extremely helpful and easy-to-understand Watch 101 interactive guide, where you can also learn more about the pieces that makes a watch tick.
  • Fratello Magazine, for their comical Watches and Pencils, for the some of the artwork that you've seen here.

For more updates on my blogs, or the more minute things in life, feel free to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, and maybe give a shout there as well!

While you're at it, follow along @zacknorman97 for more, coming soon :-)

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