Reading about watches can often feel like cracking open a textbook. Those trying to understand what they’re looking at—or maybe even considering buying—are immediately barraged with inscrutable words and phrases like ”tourbillons,” “perpetual calendars,” “minute repeaters,” and so on. So here, we’ll be breaking down the meaning, history, and importance of different watch terms. Welcome to GQ’s Watch Glossary.
What is a watch movement? There’s not a straightforward answer, so we’ll use an analogy: a movement is to a watch what an engine is to a car, what a heart is to a human body, and what a decentralized nervous system is to a jellyfish. The movement is the thing that makes the watch go, function, operate, run. Movements come in several different varieties, some of which are made up of a complicated chain of distinct parts. It’s a lot, I know. So we’ll start with the basics.
From the most zoomed-out perspective, we can put movements into two buckets: mechanical and quartz. Which gives us two answers to our question. A mechanical movement is a series of interconnected parts that, together, power the most treasured and valuable watches on the planet. A mechanical timepiece gets its juice from a bunch of parts working together, like:
The mainspring, a coil of metal that stores energy by winding up tighter and tighter
The gear train, which receives power from the mainspring and then pushes that power through a series of increasingly smaller gears
The escapement, a toothy circular part that receives energy from the gear train. The teeth get caught so that the energy directed at the balance wheel is metered out. Which brings us to…
The balance wheel, which swings back and forth like the pendulum on the old grandfather clock collecting dust in your grandparents’ attic, in the process keeping time
Even after these bullet points, there are still further differentiators to suss out because there are two types of mechanical watches: manual-wound and automatic. The mainspring on a manual mechanical movement receives energy when its wearer winds the crown. These are the most traditional timepieces—some date the invention of the self-winding mechanical watch all the way back to the 16th century. The most diehard collectors will tell you they enjoy the process of winding their watches every morning, a sort of meditation for the filthy rich.
The automatic movement, which most sources believe was invented around the 1770s, is almost exactly the same as its manual counterpart. The only difference is how it’s powered. Where a manual watch needs the wearer, or some diligent butler, to hand-wind the crown, the automatic watch contains a metal semi-circle known as a rotor that spins around as the wearer moves their arm around—to, say, reach for their phone, grab food, or put up bricks during a pick-up basketball game. The spinning rotor in turn tightens the mainspring.
Which brings us to our second question. A quartz movement is a tool that so simplified timekeeping that, upon its invention in the 1970s, completely upended the watch industry. While mechanical watches are beautiful and prized for the intricate machinery that powers them, the quartz movement offers a less intensive timekeeping solution.
Basically: a quartz watch is a battery-powered timepiece that sends electrical currents through a small piece of (quartz) crystal. Power runs through the crystal, which is made to vibrate at precisely 32,768 times a second (The number divided by two to the 15th power is a very neat one, so 32,768 vibrations equals one second.) The crystal is connected to a device that moves the watch hands at this rate. Quartz movements enabled brands to make watches that are both more accurate (they are way less susceptible to external factors like gravity and temperature!) and way less expensive (quartz, not metals like steel and titanium that need to be turned into tiny precise parts).
This, of course, was a crisis for the Swiss watchmaking industry. (Seriously: the phrase “Quartz crisis” has its own Wikipedia page.) As the quartz-powered Casios and Timexes pursued world domination, traditional watchmakers like Patek Phillippe and Rolex pushed more adventurous designs and put stock into their watches’ status as heirlooms.
Quartz watches can be found at basement-level prices. That $10 Casio many people own as a kid? Powered by quartz. Most mechanical watches will cost $1,000 at the very least, but a large majority come at a much steeper price. Now, the next time you go watch shopping, at least you can understand what all those extra zeroes are about.