How Does a Watch Work? The Basics: Automatic & Beyond

Watches are functional and stylish accessories that can be worn anywhere. But how does it work? There are different types of watch movement - automatic, mechanical, solar, and quartz. We're going to discuss how each movement works.

Most watches use either mechanical or quartz movements. The most significant difference between them is that quartz movement requires batteries, while its mechanical counterpart depends on the wearer to power the watch. Mechanical movements are divided into two types – manual and automatic. Here's how each type of movement works.


Quartz watches are the most common timekeeping mechanisms you'll find out there. These watches use batteries and quartz crystals to power the watch. When the battery sends an electric signal to the quartz crystal, it vibrates 32,768 times/second. A circuit measures those vibrations and converts them into an electric pulse, making it more accurate than mechanical watches.

You have to change the battery every few years to keep the watch ticking. Quartz watches are also more affordable than their mechanical counterparts. However, quartz movements are not popular among watch enthusiasts despite their accuracy. If you're looking for a watch that you can wear daily, quartz watches are good. But if you're concerned with engineering or mechanics, you should go for a mechanical watch.


Automatic watches are powered by the wearer's arm movements. This kind of movement doesn't require batteries. In other words, it's self-winding. Automatic watches have rotors that wind the timepiece. This metal weight is unique to these watches. Moreover, you have to wear this watch regularly.

So how does it work? Automatic watches capture the energy produced by the wearer's body movements. That's why automatic watches are also called self-winding timepieces. It has a rotor that spins around a fixed place every time you move your arm. The spinning rotor twists the mainspring. When this happens, energy is produced. Excess energy, also known as power reserve, will be stored to keep the watch ticking even if you're not wearing it. However, the stored energy will be exhausted eventually, and the timepiece won't work until it is worn again.

One of the best things about automatic watches is that they're easy to use. Before wearing it, check the time. You may have to set the time again if you have not worn your watch for quite some time. Wearing the watch will keep it going. That's how you're going to "oil" the timepiece.


If you have a manual watch, you have to wind it regularly. Like automatic watches, manual timepieces don't need batteries. These watches will keep ticking as long as they have a power reserve. The most significant difference between automatic and manual watches is that you need to wind the latter manually. Manual watches will keep ticking for a day or two without requiring winding, depending on the power reserve.

Unlike automatic watches with a rotor that spins every time the wearer moves, manual watches require you to turn the mainspring. In other words, you will be the rotor. You may need to set the time if you have not worn the timepiece for a while. Then, all you need to do is to wind the watch, adjust the time, and you're good to go.


Solar watches have solar panels that gather and convert light into power. Like quartz timepieces, solar watches use quartz crystals to power the watch. Some solar timepieces can use artificial light indoors. However, direct sunlight will work best for all solar watches.

Solar watches use different solar cells to collect and store energy gathered from artificial light and sunlight. You'll find the solar cells behind or along the watch dial's perimeter. The cells gradually release energy to power a quartz movement.

Solar watches have a lifespan of 10-20 years. After this period, you'd have to replace the battery. One of the best features of solar watches is that they don't require much from the wearer. You only need to expose the timepiece to artificial light or sunlight to charge. Adjust the time, and that's it.


It doesn't matter how many watches you have. You have to keep them in good shape to serve you for a long time. Here are some tips on caring for your watch and extending its lifespan.

Determine the watch movement

If you have a mechanical watch, you have to clean and oil it every three-five years. Modern quartz timepieces require little to no maintenance. But since they have delicate electronic movements, we recommend taking your watch to an authorized repair shop. Even if it is a minor repair or replacement job, you're assured that you'll get the right components. Authorized repair shops also provide a warranty for their services.

Wear the watch regularly

Mechanical watches need to be worn regularly to keep their lubricants working. If you don't wear it often, the lubricants can dry up and damage the watch's mechanism. Another option is to use a watch winder. Like mechanical watches, quartz timepieces can be damaged if they're left sitting in your closet for too long. For example, the battery will leak and corrode if it's never replaced at a regular interval. The leaking battery will release an acid that can destroy the delicate movement of the watch.

Keep the watch clean

Direct exposure to cosmetics, perfumes, seawater, or chemicals can destroy the bracelet and case of the watch. It would help if you kept your watch clean with a slightly damp cloth. You also need to dry your watch carefully. Wipe the strap with a soft, clean cloth if it becomes wet with sweat. After wiping it, leave your watch in a well-ventilated area. Avoid putting it in a sealed box or drawer when it's damp. Also, avoid storing it in places that receive direct sunlight because the dial and strap color may fade. If you have scratched the crystal or case, you can take your watch to a reliable repair facility.

Don't overwind manual mechanical watches

Manual watches are quite robust, but they can be damaged as well. When winding your watch, all you need to do is continue twisting the crown until there's a slight resistance. Stop winding once you feel a slight resistance from the watch. If you can't turn the crown, don't wind it in the first place. Instead, go to a repair shop and have it fixed there. When you're setting the time, only turn the hour hands clockwise. Turning them counterclockwise will damage the watch's mechanicals. If your watch has a date and day window, set them during the day. Adjusting the date and day late at night can damage the watch.

Avoid submerging your watch in water

Don't submerge your timepiece in water unless it's a diver's watch. The gasket that protects the watch will grow dry and break eventually. Have them replaced immediately. When the gasket between the back of the timepiece and the case becomes dry, the watch won't be waterproof anymore. In addition, moisture can enter the watch through tiny cracks in the crystal or case. Regular maintenance can help prevent these problems.

Choose a trustworthy repair facility

Watchmakers should be knowledgeable and trained in performing watch repairs. You should send your timepiece to a reliable and authorized repair center. Their technicians have received manufacturer-approved training, so they're qualified to service your watch. Also, keep in mind that dissembling and assembling a timepiece is difficult. So be patient and give the repair center enough time to get the right parts and fix your watch.


One of the most frequently asked questions about a watch is how it keeps time. Watches convert electrical, light, or kinetic energy to power the watch. The watch movement consists of various small parts such as springs and gears.

What about watches without batteries? How do they work? Mechanical watches don't have batteries. Instead, they have a mainspring that produces and stores energy. Manual watches require winding, while automatic timepieces depend on the wearer's movements to turn a rotor. On the other hand, solar and quartz watches use batteries to gather and produce power.