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How to Spot a Mechanical Watch from Across a Room

It's all in the seconds hand.

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Welcome to Further Details, a series dedicated to ubiquitous but overlooked elements hidden on your favorite products. This week: what the motion of your watch's seconds hand can reveal.

They say that within the first seconds of meeting a person, we unconsciously use only a few basic factors to form an impression. Something similar is true of watches. What can you tell right away when looking at a watch? A brand name can be potent, sure, but there's another distinction that's significant for many people: Is it quartz or mechanical?

This refers to the two primary types of mechanism (or movement) which power the timekeeping. Either can drive a basic three-hand watch indicating the hours, minutes and seconds, for example, so why is it so important to determine what's on the inside?

Whether you're encountering watches on display at a retailer or noticing something interesting on a stranger's wrist, identifying quartz or mechanical can give you some more substantive info on it right away. Perhaps you're attracted to quartz watches' pragmatism and affordability, or conversely, you may be seduced by the prestige associated with more expensive mechanical watches.

If you're close enough to read text on the dial that says "automatic," for example, this tells you that it's the type of mechanical watch that's wound by a rotor when the wearer's wrist moves. But there's a quick-and-dirty method that can be quite useful even at a glance: look at the motion of the watch's seconds hand.

In many cases, a quartz watch can be easily recognized by a seconds hand that jumps, whereas mechanical watches' seconds hands sweep smoothly around the dial.

A caveat: there are examples of quartz watches with seconds hands that sweep and mechanical watches with seconds hands that jump (and there are other types of movements, as well), but they are rare and the above method will generally serve you well. The quartz jump is particularly easy to spot because of its sudden movement, but sometimes you need to wait and watch to make sure.

The ticking of a quartz-based Casio

Inside a common quartz watch is a crystal that vibrates 65,536 per second (!) but sends an impulse only once a second for efficient energy use. The equivalent component in a mechanical watch is called a balance wheel, and in modern movements it commonly vibrates eight times per second (which is audible). The watch's seconds hand advances an eighth of a second for each vibration of the balance wheel, and this gives the appearance of a smooth sweep — unless you look really closely.

As noted, checking whether the seconds hand is sweeping or ticking only works most of the time. Some dress watches, for example, might only feature two hands (hours and minutes), and some watches place the seconds hand in a small subdial (rather than the center of the main dial) that makes it harder to get a quick read. In these cases, it might take some more digging.

The desirability of quartz versus mechanical watches is debated endlessly (each has its merits). We're not here today to pick this particular bone of collector contention, and there are of course many other important factors to consider. But being able to tell the difference between a quartz and mechanical watch right off the bat is a good place to start when evaluating a watch.

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