Automatic Self-Winding Watch: A Complete Guide

automatic self winding watch

Ever since the automatic self-winding watch developed from being a limited accessory for the wealthy into an affordable commodity for ordinary citizens, it has provided an invaluable convenience in everyday life of the wearers. Only a few would imagine themselves winding the watch every other day, and the few being the hardcore heritage worshipers, of course (no offense).

The pool for automatic timepieces is so vast as if you could drown in the selection process. That’s the reason we’ll give you a hand and help you out! 

automatic self winding watch


In the following paragraphs, we’ll explain everything that is to do with an automatic self-winding watch – the working mechanism, the advantages and disadvantages, the different types you may come across, and much more.

Finally, based on this information, we’ll give specific guidelines for choosing the self-winding timepiece precisely according to your needs.

What Is An Automatic Self-Winding Watch?

An automatic self-winding watch is a mechanical watch that gets wound through the motion of the wearer, making regular manual winding unnecessary. 

The difference between the old-school mechanical and the modern automatic watch lies in the way the energy is generated.

While manual-wind timepiece has nothing but a crown for creating energy for the mainspring, the automatic equivalent possesses a freely spinning rotor that starts to spin and whirl while naturally worn, thus automatically winding the mainspring.

automatic watch rotor for energy creation


Automatic wristwatches usually come with manual winding option too, despite the existence of a spinning rotor doing the job. Why is that? The rotor executes the task of keeping the mainspring wound but is not able to completely tighten it. Through manual winding via the crown, the mainspring gets fully tightened. 

A typical automatic timepiece has a power reserve of 40 hours if not in motion. If the mainspring doesn’t get fully tightened for a long time, the power reserve starts to shorten over time significantly. That’s why automatic wristwatches need a manual wind from time to time, before leaving the rest of the winding for the rotor.

In addition to the power reserve concern, the long period of a half-wound mainspring causes the time to lag in an abnormal scale. 

Lifestyle Concerns

The lifestyle of the wearer is the most significant factor in the need for a time to time manual winding. Office workers behind computers, for example, move their hands less frequently, whereas medics and mechanics keep their hands in motion throughout the day. 

If the wearer represents the not-so-active lifestyle, the watch requires manual winding about once a week, usually 20-30 turns of the crown. If worn at least 8-10 hours each day, the mainspring holds the tension almost indefinitely, but it’s always good to give the mechanism a manual push from time to time.

The concern of irregular wear of automatic watches may scare some prospects off, but there’s no need to be concerned. A particular device, called watch winder, keeps tickers wound when not in use.

This helpful gadget, starting from 50$, provides an excellent convenience, especially for the timepieces which possess extra features that require resetting every time the watch runs out of the power reserve.

Working Mechanism

The running of an automatic timepiece starts from the motion of the wrist, which activates the oscillating rotor. Energy derived from the freely spinning rotor gradually conserves into the mainspring. The escapement receives the power through the gear train and measures it to equal parts so that the balance wheel could beat back and forth at an unchangeable rate.

Finally, with every beat, the gears transfer the measured energy in equal parts to the hands and eventually make the watch tick.

Automatic watch mechanism

The intrinsic mechanism is built in a manner that it would be impossible to overwind the mainspring. In essence, the winding gears disengage from the mainspring once it’s fully wound.

Due to the added oscillating weight in the movement, the self-winding wristwatches are heavier and thicker than most of the other time trackers.

Whether it’s an advantage or disadvantage depends mainly on individual preferences. However, some of the characteristics of automatic timepieces are certainly preferable in comparison to other types of watches.

Advantages

The self-winding feature is the very reason why buyers opt for the type. Mechanical watches are considered pieces of art nowadays, costing thousands of dollars to own one. Albeit the magnificence of these timepieces, they do require constant manual winding to keep them running, in that making automatic watches a perfect alternative.

The price is also in favor – a typical mid-range self-winding wristwatch costs between 200$-500$.

gorgeous Seiko military watch with rich dial


The movement’s main competitor – quartz movement – employs a battery to function. It’s common to replace it every two to three years, making it an unpleasant periodical duty. Since an automatic watch runs solely on kinetic energy and rarely needs maintenance, it offers hassle-free upkeep. 

The mechanism consists of a large number of parts forming an intricate connection. The complexity often means more engineering and craftsmanship applied to the manufacturing process, which is a sign of quality. That’s one of the reasons why automatic watches are more valued than quartz counterparts.

Albeit the overwhelming advantages an automatic self-winding watch provides, it also possesses characteristics that are often overshadowed by other types.

Disadvantages

The most significant shortage with automatic timepieces is the relative inaccuracy when a typical watch losing around 5-15 seconds a day is quite usual. When collating it to a quartz watch’s fraction of a second a day, the automatic wristwatch accuracy is a definite underdog. 

The precision relies largely on the mechanism’s endurance against external influences, such as temperature fluctuations and magnetism. Since mechanical watches consist of numerous parts that can get affected, it’s impossible to reach the precision levels quartz with its piezoelectric attributes achieves.

Self-winding is a convenient feature automatic watches have, however, in order to maintain consistent timekeeping, it requires regular wearing.

If not worn for a couple of days, the mechanism stops, after which it needs the motion to restart. Battery-powered wristwatches, on the other hand, run continuously for two to three years without any complications. Hence, automatic watches suit the best for regular wearers.

Metallic luxury watch with automatic movement and chronograph
Maurice de Mauriac automatic chronograph

The complicated internal mechanism which requires engineering and craftsmanship means automatic wristwear cost more than the likes of mass-produced quartz movements. Luckily, the demand for self-winding watches is high enough, meaning the prices are not as grand as one would expect from an intricate piece of art.

How Have The Watches Developed?

The first references of automatic windings are from the 1770s when a rotor and oscillating weight were implemented into a pocket watch. However, the systems were too complex and expensive for them to be manufactured and sold and eventually lost the interest for wider distribution for more than a century.

The advent of wristwatches after World War I ignited the interest in automatic mechanisms when different weight systems were tried and implemented. 

Rolex introduced the first full 360-degree weight rotation in 1931. The Oyster Perpetual model increased the amount of energy stored in the mainspring and was able to run up to 35 hours. The previous inventions had significantly shorter power reserves and could not rotate the full circle.

One of the last developments before an automatic self-winding watch could become reliable was the use of ball bearings for the smooth weight rotation. Eterna Watch introduced the bearings in 1948.

By the 1960s, automatic winding had become standard in mechanical wristwatches. Throughout the development of mechanical and automatic wristwear, many features and types of watches inherent to the movement have emerged, creating a vast selection of self-winding timepieces.

Types And Styles Of Automatic Self-Winding Watches

Skeleton Watches

Skeleton watches have more intriguing looks than the name itself suggests.

It’s a type where all the moving parts are visible through the front or the back of the watch, and sometimes through a small cut on the dial (also known as an open heart watch). The robustness, but also the artistry, are a sight to see.

posh watch with gears and wheels visible on the dial


Skeletonized apparel isn’t as simple to achieve as cutting a hole into the dial, or replacing part of a case with a transparent material. The skeletonization process involves removing all the non-essential metal away from intrinsic elements, leaving only the essentials required for the movement and the attractive aesthetics.

Tourbillon Watches

One of the most expensive types of watches around are tourbillons. It stands for “whirlwind” in French, where the balance wheel and escapement are placed in a cage to deny the effects of gravity, for the sole purpose of enhancing accuracy. The cage rotates continuously at a slow pace to average out positional errors.

cartier tourbillon luxury watch


The complication is often visible on the dial, so recognizing tourbillons is rather easy. And unfortunately, for most of us, the closest contact with these masterpieces will remain the recognition of them.

While some of the cheap tourbillon watches cost a thousand or so dollars, the high-end tourbillons have a price tag in tens and hundreds of thousands.

Chronometer Watches

Chronometers are mechanical wristwatches that have surpassed COSC (Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute) certification procedures.

The point for getting it is to present a guarantee of the accuracy of mechanical watches. COSC-certified timepieces have a maximum deviation of -4/+6 seconds per day, but a typical COSC watch loses/gains around two to three seconds only. 

The procedure eliminates the most significant concern with mechanical watches – inaccuracy. Chronometers have quite a hefty price tag with the cheapest starting around 600$-700$, while the median price is at 5,000$.

The three luxury watch powerhouses – Rolex, Omega, and Breitling – have the most COSC-certified timepieces in their collections.

The Array And Prices Of Automatic Watches

Besides the most inherent styles of skeleton, tourbillon, and chronometer, self-winding watches also come in all the other known styles and types in the watch industry. Minimalistic analog, complicated chronograph, military purpose, luxury and dress watches – the list is ongoing and covers basically all the various purposes a man could use his wristwatch for.

simple analog dress watch with self-winding movement


Name any brand in the industry, and you’ve got self-winding wristwatches looking back at you in their collections. It is really that straightforward!

No proper watch manufacturer starts the business without the intention of offering automatic tickers, because relying entirely on quartzes is just too thin for cementing the groundworks for successful and long-term watch manufacture. Well, except for the Citizen brand where basically all the watches come solar-powered and are highly appreciated.

In spite of the sophisticated craftsmanship and high reputation, automatic watches won’t cost you a fortune by any means.

The most affordable self-winders start from well below 100$, while reputable quality brands, such as Tissot and Seiko, have them priced anywhere between 200$-1,000$.

Feel free to check out our list of the best automatic watches that cost less than $500.

And if you really have the fortune to spend, you can opt for luxury pieces with some exciting features that usually come along. Watches from Rolex, Omega, and Breitling typically start from 2,500$.

How To Choose An Automatic Self-Winding Watch?

1. Define Your Budget

Without any doubt, price is the most significant factor for the majority of us and also an effective way of narrowing down the vast array of automatics available. Don’t worry if your budget isn’t in thousands, or even in the upper hundreds of dollars because quite a lot of reputable brands offer their watches for as little as 100$-300$. 

When defining the amount you’re willing to invest, try to consider the density of use, among other factors. Are you going to use it daily, or will it be mostly for special occasions? The best investment is something you get the most out of it while paying as little as possible. 

If you’re not a dedicated watch collector or enthusiast, or a wealthy bloke trying to find different ways on how to burn money, it’s probably not the best of ideas to go for an expensive watch that’s eventually going to stay put in the drawer.

The best value-for-money options for automatic watches are available in the collections of affordable Swiss brands, as well as in the majority of Japanese brands.

2. Consider The Types

Ask yourself how you can pull the maximum out of your timepiece. Wristwatch’s purpose is not limited only to time tracking anymore as it used to be decades ago, but to offer comprehensive usefulness.   

Consider hobbies, characteristics of your job, and the way you live your life. Those spending a lot of time swimming or diving should pick a waterproof diver’s watch. Professionals passing the majority of the day in an office might want to consider simple analog dress watches.

Skeleton wristwatches, on the other hand, would be perfect for those seeking for attention and compliments, or for simply enjoying the sight of moving gears and wheels.

A skeleton watch with wheels and spirals


The different kinds of watches have their inherent characteristics serving the full spectrum of various intentions and needs. Your job is to pick the right one out!

3. Choose The Brand 

After you’ve defined your budget and chosen the suitable type, look through the brands, and decide your favorite. Watch manufacturers are quite distinguishable from each other, bearing certain identifiable features. Some brands tend to be a bit flashier, while others pay more attention to functionality.

Research the history, the range of models they offer and go through reviews and various forums on the brand and watches. The best feedback comes from the actual buyers. It’s definitely easier to evaluate the product after the purchase, rather than before, so an honest assessment comes from those who’ve already made the investment.

4. Decide On Functionality

If the brand is chosen, it’s time to dive deeper into the models. Since you already know the budget and type, evaluate the different functions you have available in the price range of your type. A chronograph feature is one of the most popular features, as is the water-resistance to specific depths.
 

luxurious watch with rich dial and three subdials
Breitling chronometer chronograph

Make sure whether you prefer an easily readable dial and figures, or more of aesthetic apparel with clearness being a secondary matter.

5. Warranty And Upkeep

Now you should’ve come to a decision on which one to buy. But before giving away your bucks, you got to make sure the length and conditions of the warranty, how to care for the ticker properly, and how often it needs upkeep from a professional watchmaker. 

Usually, the longer the warranty period, the better quality the watches offer. Two years should be the minimum for a decent wristwatch. Below that, you better not waste your time, and above that, a definite bonus. 

Since automatic self-winding timepieces are more complicated than quartz equivalents, they require extra attention in maintenance. Watches typically come with manuals on how to take care of them properly, but if they don’t, do some research on the web.

The ordinary suggestions include regular wiping, preventing showering, avoiding winding while on the wrist, and keeping it wound either through constant wear or by a watch winder. 

automatic self winding watch open from behind


The intrinsic parts of an automatic watch eventually start to wear out after some time. Replacing and maintaining them is not a job for everyone. That’s why it’s advisable to take the watch to a professional for servicing.

In general, a self-winding watch needs servicing once every 3-5 years, but it depends on the manufacturer’s recommendations. Check it out and make sure you follow them!

6. Finally…

Insert your credit card number and wait for the precious to arrive. Congratulations!

Conclusion: Automatic Self-Winding Watch

An automatic self-winding watch is no ordinary timepiece. It has some kind of an aura surrounding it. Maybe it’s due to the complicated timekeeping mechanism that is unaffected from recent technological developments, yet providing a glimpse of modernity through a form of automatization? Maybe. But considering the fact that the pool of self-winding wristwatches is broader and deeper than ever before, gives a strong indication of the preferences the population has.

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