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What is an Automatic Wristwatch? (Guide to Self-Winding Watches)

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Jacky Chou

What is an Automatic Wristwatch (Guide to Self-Winding Watches)

When I bought my first wristwatch, the design, color, and aesthetics were the most critical factors.  Like me, many other wristwatch enthusiasts notice the design of a watch faster than its working mechanism and movement.

When you become familiar with wristwatches, you'll realize that wristwatches are more than what you see on the surface.

So, what is an automatic watch and what does that mean for you?

An automatic watch is a self-winding mechanical watch relying primarily on the wearer’s hand movement to power an oscillating rotor which generates a power reserve to run the watch. Since these watches don’t require manual winding, they are referred to as automatic instead.

Through the rest of this guide, I'll explain all you need to know about an automatic wristwatch, from its working procedure to pros and cons.

What is Special about Automatic Wristwatches?

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Historically, a manual-winding watch was the most common type of wristwatch. To keep these watches working, you need to wind the engine of your wristwatch via the crown lest it stops working.

Although automatic wristwatches aren't as popular, they redefined the mechanical watch niche and made them appealing again. After all, why should you pay for a wristwatch and still have to do so much to make it work?

The natural motion of your hand when you wear the watch is enough to keep it ticking. When you are not moving your hand, the watch doesn’t just stop since it would have created a power reserve.

Depending on the quality of the automatic movement, the power reserve can get as high as 50 hours.

Are Automatic Wristwatches Good?

With an automatic wristwatch, you have a modern mechanical wristwatch.

Although automatic wristwatches have existed for many centuries, this type of wristwatch continues to evolve and grow in design and craftsmanship. Therefore, most automatic wristwatches are aesthetically pleasing on top of their functionality.

A vintage Certina automatic watch design

There are some arguments about the low precision of an automatic wristwatch. Depending on the quality of the particular automatic movement used in your watch and how much you paid for it, it gives you the daily time accuracy you need.

The accuracy issue boils down to when the watch is not in use and the power reserve gets exhausted. In such cases, the watch loses time and you have to wind it again to get it working.

Alternatively, you can choose a watch winder to keep the watch working.

If you have a single automatic watch or plan on collecting more in the future, here are some watch winders I would recommend (and you can find them on Amazon too):

How Does an Automatic Wristwatch Work?

The automatic watch stays wound through the oscillating/ weighted rotor acting at the off-center of the watch.

The rotor has to keep spinning to generate the energy needed for your automatic wristwatch to work. Luckily, the rotor movement doesn't require you to do anything aside from wearing your watch.

As you wear the wristwatch, the rotor spins back and forth through your hand movement. The movement of the rotor is regular, giving power to the watch.

Initially, most automatic watches featured rotors that depend on the user to work. That means for every day you're not wearing the watch, the rotor may stop working and, in turn, the watch.

However, in recent times, automatic wristwatches come with a power reserve. With the reserved power, the rotor doesn't stop working immediately you stop moving.

That way, you can rest assured of a more extended period before your watch needs winding.

What are the pros and cons of an automatic watch?

For every wristwatch type, there are some advantages and disadvantages. Automatic watches aren't left out.

Here are some reasons why you might want to get one or stay away from the automatic watch movement altogether.

Pros of the automatic watch

These pointers could convince you to pick one up soon:

  • No manual winding: If you've ever used a manual winding watch where you have to turn the crown every morning, you'll understand the value of an automatic wristwatch.
  • Aesthetics: You can take everything away from an automatic wristwatch, but not its looks. From the materials to the watch's design, most automatic wristwatches have outstanding craftsmanship and fantastic engineering. In addition to its unique look, an automatic wristwatch comes with beautiful designs on the hands that make you enjoy looking at the time.
  • Minimal Maintenance: Quartz watches still take the crown for ease of maintenance. Compared to manual mechanical watches, though, the ease of maintaining an automatic wristwatch is amazing.
  • Long-lasting feature: An automatic watch, when appropriately maintained and has excellent production, lasts for centuries. If you're buying an automatic wristwatch, you may just be buying a generational timepiece that you hand down as a family timepiece over time.
  • Dual control: While automatic wristwatch winds on their own from the influence of the wearer, some also come with a manual winding mechanism fitted in the watch crown. When the automatic wristwatch stops working, you can wind it manually.

Cons of the automatic watch

If the above pointers got you excited, make sure you can live with these before getting one:

  • High cost: In most cases, you may need to make a fairly expensive investment to own an automatic wristwatch.
  • Accuracy inconsistency: A wristwatch isn't a perfect device that gives accurate time. Sometimes, even an automatic wristwatch may stop for a while, losing seconds and minutes to provide you with the precise time.

Do you have to wear an automatic watch every day?

The rotor in the automatic watch works when the watch is moving so you may need to wear it regularly.

But wearing your automatic watch may not be necessary, depending on the type of automatic watch. As mentioned, most come with a power reserve of up to 50 hours, which keeps your watch working for about 2-3 days after the last use.

Likewise, you can invest in quality watch winders as recommended above to keep your watch well-wound so that you don't lose time when not in use.

Are automatic watches durable?

An automatic wristwatch can last for centuries and you could buy one that doesn’t stick around for more than a few months before it gives. It all depends on the quality of materials used in its production and how well you use/ maintain the watch.

If you maintain your automatic watches right, and you pick one up from a reliable manufacturer in the first place, the watch will take care of you for longer too.

Why are automatic watches expensive?

Automatic wristwatches are expensive for a couple of valid reasons.

Over the basic mechanical watches, these automatic timepieces cost more because of the extra convenience that they bring you.

Next, most automatic watches are made from the best materials, giving high prices. Likewise, the social status that these watches now enjoy contributes to their higher price tag.

Add that to the time it takes to create a movement with so many moving parts as this, putting it all together such that it works well for several years, and you see why you have to pay extra on top for such quality.

How often do you wind an automatic watch?

Usually, the winding process of an automatic wristwatch happens without you even knowing. All you have to do is to wear your watch!

Depending on the power reserve of your automatic wristwatch, you may need to wear (wind) the wristwatch every day.

However, there are times when your wristwatch will need manual winding.

Whenever that happens, I have embedded a video guide to winding your automatic watch properly so that you don’t damage it in the process:

How to wind and set your automatic watch by yourself

Mechanical vs automatic watch: similarities and differences

An automatic wristwatch's working mechanism depends heavily on the mechanical movements of the rotor.

Technically, an automatic watch is a kind of mechanical watch. It has just been treated to better advancements in tech for user convenience, earning it a category of its own.

Both the mechanical and automatic wristwatches boast a rich historical background.

Likewise, both watches are usually on the high-priced side for their intricate movements, top-level craftsmanship, and attention to detail that goes into putting them together.

The only visible difference between a mechanical wristwatch and an automatic wristwatch is the winding process.

On the mechanical watch, you will need to wound the clock manually. On the other hand, automatic wristwatches require you to wear your watch and move your hands!

Final Words

Automatic wristwatches have been here for a while and they will continue to dominate in their niche.

While they are not the clear favorites for many, they remain a choice pick for vintage watch lovers, the high class, and watch enthusiasts alike.

Jacky Chou

Jacky Chou is the co-founder of Uberwrists and has gotten into watches from his father from a young age. His first watch was a black G Shock that was comedically large for his wrist. He appreciates watches from Seiko to a Patek Philippe.

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