These days, we tend to take shock protection in our watches for granted. Shocks, however, have long been the enemy of the mechanical timekeeper, as even a simple blow to a timepiece from smacking one’s arm against a table could be enough to cause damage to the intricate movement inside. Many watches today are robust, but watchmakers sometimes claim that their watches are particularly shock-resistant. What does it all mean for you and your precious (or not-so-precious) timekeeper?
A Brief History of Shock Resistance in Watches
Watchmakers have been battling the problem for centuries, with solutions dating as far back as the 1700s, when Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the pare-chute shock protection system and installed it in some of his more exclusive models.
By and large, watch manufacturers would continue the search for an ideal shock protection system until the year 1932, which saw the introduction of the Incabloc system that could be adapted to fit in any watch. It took some time for manufacturers to equip their watches with the technology, which is why we see watches made as late as the 1950s that didn’t utilize any form of shock protection.
Why Is Shock Protection so Essential for Watches?
A typical mechanical watch movement is made of over 100 tiny parts, many of which move and interact with each other. It's easy to imagine that anything getting shaken loose would make the whole Rube Goldberg-like contraption fail.
More specifically, though, every gear has an axle, or arbor, running through the middle of it and a pivot on the end of that axle. These pivots get progressively smaller from the mainspring barrel — the source of energy — down to the balance, which is responsible for timekeeping regulation. The balance has particularly fine pivots that are extremely breakable, and watches that lack shock protection would only need a small blow to shear them off.
How Does Shock Resistance Actually Work?
Most watch brands are not equipped to make their own shock protection systems, and so they purchase them from specialist suppliers. Today, Incabloc is the main supplier of shock protection systems for mechanical watches, but there are many others on the market, such as ETA’s Nivashoc, Seiko’s Diashock and Citizen’s Parashock.
Whichever system is used, they all work in a similar manner: when the watch receives a shock, a spring-loaded system absorbs it and allows the balance to swing freely. The Incabloc system in particular has three main parts: a jeweled bearing, a cap jewel that sits over top of this bearing and a spring. When the watch receives the shock, the whole unit is able to move, which absorbs the energy and stops the balance pivots from breaking. Some high-quality watches, such as those built by Rolex, will use similar technology on other wheels in the gear train.
Other factors like case materials and design can also contribute to shock absorption. Casio G-Shock's creator Kikuo Ibe was famously inspired by having seen a child bouncing a ball to suspend (or "float") his watch module within a similar structure. Even the band was designed with shock resistance in mind, and its plastic ("resin") construction surely also absorbs shocks better than a rigid material.
We've mostly been talking about mechanical watches and protecting their delicate regulating mechanicsms, but quartz watches are naturally far more shock-resistant. They have fewer moving parts, and their timekeeping is regulated by quartz crystals, which are very hard-wearing by nature.
Watches Built for Adventure
It's not just the fear of knocking or dropping your watch with everyday life that makes shock protection a big deal in watches — watchmakers have always strived to make watches that could survive far beyond what the average wearer would subject them to. That gives many customers peace of mind, but it also leads to watches that can actually be used in all manner of extreme situations.
You surely know of watches built for the likes of military use, spelunking or other sports or activities. Their water resistance is often shorthand for general robustness in many consumers' minds, but shock resistance is an even more basic criterion. Quartz might be the more practical choice for adventurers, but some still prefer the allure of a mechanical watch. Thankfully, there are robust options for just about any adventure or watch predilection.
3 Tough Watches that Showcase Shock Resistance
Casio G-Shock GW6900-1
It's right there in the name: G-Shock watches with their quartz movements, plastic construction and focus on shock resistance are the go-to tough watches. Any G is going to be nearly indestructible, but the 6900 series is especially popular among such demanding professions as police and military.
Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon Original
Ball Watches feature their own patented anti-shock technology: Springlock protects the hairspring, Springseal protects the regulator, and a system called Amortiser, together with rotor-locking, allows you to stop the automatic rotor from spinning in circumstances where it might be subject to bangs. The brand famously demonstrated its watches' shock resilience by placing one on the wrist of Eric Singer, the drummer for Kiss, to wear while performing.
Richard Mille RM27-04
The most expensive watches are also often the most complicated — and as watches get complicated they can get delicate. Richard Mille makes some of the most expensive watches, but they're also quite robust. The RM27-04 is one of the models that's been worn by tennis champion Rafael Nadal while playing professional matches (though he's also known to have broken early prototypes).