Congratulations, you bought your first mechanical watch. That makes you the rightfully proud owner of more than just a timekeeper: that little disc on your wrist is an emblem of the culmination of art and science, a salute to man’s ingenuity. Whether you wear it just for special occasions or it accompanies you during all of life’s significant moments — and whether you paid a week’s salary for it or a year’s — it should serve you well, running trouble-free for many years. Set it and forget it. Strap it on and go. These are the pros of a mechanical watch.
But before you reap the benefits, there are a few things to keep in mind that will help keep that watch running flawlessly until you pass it on your offspring one day. Take some time to learn them thoroughly. Your timepiece deserves it.
How a Mechanical Watch Works
The basic architecture of almost every mechanical watch for the past three centuries is the same, proving what a truly ingenious and efficient machine it is. Unlike a quartz watch, a mechanical timepiece doesn’t get its energy from a battery. Instead, the power that drives the hands around the dial, and also drives any additional complications like a date function, a moonphase or a chronograph, comes from the unwinding of a tightly coiled flat spring.
Left unchecked, this mainspring would quickly unwind and give up its energy in an instant. Therefore, the barrel that houses the mainspring meshes with a precisely-sized geartrain of toothed wheels that terminates in what is called the escapement. The escapement consists of a wheel that is caught and released intermittently by a pivoting lever. The pivoting of the lever is controlled by a delicate spiral aptly known as the hairspring. This so-called “lever escapement” controls the energy release from the mainspring, feeding back this power through the geartrain, driving the hands of the watch to count out seconds, minutes and hours.
The hairspring is the heart of the watch; if you’ve seen a mechanical watch movement running, you’ll appreciate that metaphor, as the hairspring “beats” back and forth at a steady rate anywhere between 18,000 and 36,000 times per hour. The precision of the watch depends largely on the tension of this hairspring, as well as its resistance to temperature changes and magnetism. Most modern hairsprings are made up of a metallic alloy that compensates for temperature changes, and some are made from silicon, which is immune to magnetism.
With all of these meshed gears and delicate springs, it’s a wonder these contraptions are as precise as they are (though a well-adjusted chronometer-grade movement can keep time to a 99.999% accuracy). But, as you might guess, friction and external shocks are archenemies of the mechanical watch movement. Friction is mitigated by regular lubrication and smooth “jeweled” bearings. Those red shiny discs you see in the bridges of a watch are rubies, formerly real ones, currently most often synthetic ones. The pivots of the gear wheels ride in the center of these rubies, which are polished smooth to provide nearly frictionless surfaces.
If there were no wiggle room for those delicate pivots, a sudden jolt from say, your arm scrambling eggs, could shear one off, a death blow to the movement. So the jewels are suspended in a floating frame that absorbs vibrations and shocks, saving the pivots from certain death.
How to Wind and Set a Watch
One of the beautiful things about a mechanical watch is that it requires interaction with its owner to function. That coiled mainspring will only provide power for a day or two (or sometimes longer) if you don’t keep it wound. A hand-wound watch is the purest form of the mechanical timepiece, which is part of its appeal. The mainspring is wound, as the name suggests, by turning the watch’s crown a few dozen times. While winding a watch is a simple process, there are a couple things to be aware of.
Take It Off
First of all, wind the watch off of your wrist. While it may be tempting to give the crown a few twirls while you’re surfing the Web at work, the angle can be awkward and put lateral stress on the delicate winding stem. Secondly, don’t overwind your watch. You’ll know when it’s wound when you can’t turn the crown anymore. This isn’t like topping off your gas tank (which you also shouldn’t do), so don’t try to give it a little extra. Stop winding when you first feel resistance. Try to wind your watch once a day. A watch typically keeps the best time when the mainspring is above half tension. The typical watch has about a two-day power reserve so winding it up before you strap it on each morning is a good habit to form.
Let the Watch Do the Winding
The automatic (or “self-winding”) watch functions as its name suggests. As long as you’re wearing it, the mainspring maintains tension thanks to the weighted rotor in the movement that oscillates with your arm’s movements. A slipping clutch prevents the spring from getting overwound. Unless you don’t wear your watch daily or you’re an extremely inactive person, you won’t have to wind your automatic.
But if you do, just give the crown 20 or 30 spins until the seconds hand starts moving, set the time and then strap it on. Unlike the hand-wound watch, you can’t overwind your automatic, but don’t overdo it — the winding mechanism in an automatic is typically less robust than that in a hand-wound watch and thus more vulnerable to breaking with careless or excessive use. Let the watch wind itself.
Setting a watch is a pretty straightforward process, but it does have some dos and don’ts. The most important rule is not to set the date if the watch’s time is between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. Note that we said “the watch’s time”, not the actual time of day. If you pick up a watch that isn’t running and you aren’t sure when it stopped, pull the crown all the way out and spin the hands until the date changes. Then you’ve found midnight; next, advance the time past 2 a.m. before pushing the crown in to set the date.
Why, you ask? The date-changing mechanism starts to engage the gear train after 9 p.m. and only disengages after 2 a.m. Setting the date during this period can break off the delicate teeth of the mechanism, resulting in a costly repair. It’s also a good idea to set a watch forward rather than running it backward. This is, again, to prevent damage to the date mechanism. Of course, if your watch doesn’t display the date, none of this matters.
Things to Avoid
Watch Your Water Resistance
As we mentioned above, the mortal enemies of a mechanical watch are moisture, shock and magnets. Fortunately, modern timepieces are pretty good at resisting all three. Synthetic gaskets, screw-down crowns and tight tolerances keep water out of a watch — assuming they’re all in good shape. Most watches, even dress watches, are rated for water resistance to at least 3 atmospheres, which is equivalent to roughly 30 meters.
That may sound deep, but it’s nearly the minimum rating for a watch, so though your Patek Calatrava will probably survive a dunk in the pool at a bachelor party, we don’t advise taking it for your daily morning swim. (For that, stick with a timepiece rated to at least 50 meters.) While screw-down crowns are the best insurance against moisture, even some 200-meter rated dive watches use robust double-sealed free-spinning crowns. Regardless, if you spend a lot of time in the water (by choice or by accident), it’s a good idea to have your watch’s water resistance tested annually, and to have gaskets replaced.
In for a Shock
While the Incabloc and Kif shock absorbers in watch movements do a decent job of fending off life’s unexpected blows, keep in mind that you are wearing a delicate precision mechanism on your wrist. We’re known to subject our watches to a fair amount of punishment, but there are limits. Splitting wood, freeing a frozen bolt or golfing are activities for which a mechanical watch is not ideally suited. These occasions are perfect opportunities to strap on that quartz watch you’ve been neglecting and to leave the Speedmaster on your dresser — no matter how much testing NASA did.
Be Mindful of Magnetism
Magnetism can cause the spirals of that delicate hairspring to “stick” together, shortening the spring and causing the watch to run very fast. Watch companies are making great strides in protection against magnetism, but the hairspring in most affordable mechanical watches remains vulnerable. Televisions, speakers and iPads all contain magnets that can affect the precision of your watch if you keep them in close proximity. If one day you find your normally reliable Breitling running five minutes fast, odds are it got zapped. Fortunately, demagnetizing is an easy fix, and one a watchmaker can do in less than five minutes. Still, preventing magnetism is even easier.
How to Maintain Your Watch
Polish That Crystal
Just a little attention and TLC will ensure that your pride and joy withstands daily wear and tear long enough to pass down to your heirs. Most watches nowadays have sapphire crystals, which shrug off knocks and resist scratches. However, some timepieces (like the Omega Speedmaster Professional and the Panerai PAM00372) have acrylic crystals in keeping with their retro aesthetics; or maybe you’re wearing Grandpa’s 1960s Rolex Datejust with its warm plastic dome. While acrylic can be a scratch magnet, it can also easily be polished. Automobile headlamp lens cleaner works; so does Brasso. If you want to be official, you can pop for a tube of Polywatch, which was designed for the job.
In This Case
Watch cases also get scratched unless your timepiece is a safe queen. Again, a little skillful polishing goes a long way. Invest in a watch polishing kit, which will include abrasive cloths in varying grades of fineness, to restore various finishes. In a pinch, a skillfully-wielded Scotchbrite pad will return your brushed Submariner bracelet to its original glory, though don’t quote us on that. If you have a collectible vintage watch, keep in mind that original unpolished condition may be desirable. In this case, live with the scratches unless you don’t intend to sell the watch.
Wash It Off
Regardless of the watch you wear, if it spends any time on your wrist, expect it to collect enough of your DNA to rival a crime scene. So don’t forget to clean it from time to time. An old toothbrush and some running water, especially on the caseback and around the strap lugs, will keep your watch nerd buddies from getting sick when they ask to see your classic.
Strap It On
Straps and, to a lesser degree, metal bracelets, are the more disposable components of a watch, but with regular care you can keep them looking good quite a bit lot longer. Rubber straps are durable and great for wet wear but can degrade from exposure to the sun and from the application of bug spray, cologne and sunscreens. So keep them rinsed-off and check for tears around the buckle and springbars regularly, lest you lose your Seamaster to the briny deep when you least expect it.
Leather straps don’t like water, but applying some leather oils and waterproofing products can protect long enough to get a few years out of them. With some simple polishing, a metal bracelet should last as long as your watch. No matter what you choose, keep a few extra sets of springbars around and a quality strap-changing tool (learn how to use it), especially if you like to swap straps often.
Everyone has heard stories of Rolexes and Seikos that lived through ‘Nam on the wrist of a Navy SEAL, then kept ticking in perfect time through subsequent decades of daily wear without maintenance, but this doesn’t mean it’s good for the watch. As lubricating oils dry up, gear teeth and jewels wear out; this can cause what normally would be a routine service to become a major (read: “expensive”) overhaul.
Most modern watches can go for a good five years before needing a visit to the spa. Given that, worn regularly, an escapement will see 700,000 oscillations per day, don’t you think a visit to a watchmaker twice a decade is well deserved? Watch maintenance can be expensive, but a mechanical watch is an investment — chances are, if you’ve kept it that long, it’s something you value and want around a lot longer. So bite the bullet and send it in. Anyway, it’s a good excuse to buy another watch to tide you over while it’s being serviced.