How Automatic Watches Work

If you’re a fan or collector of vintage clocks, you’ll likely have to spend some time winding them, unless, of course, you own electric models.

Winding a clock has been part of the process of owning one for centuries.  They’re driven by springs, and those springs have to have tension in order for the mechanism to keep time.  As the clock runs, the tension decreases and unless you rest it, the timepiece will eventually stop running.

With mechanical clocks, you wind them with a key or by resetting a weight.  With mechanical watches, you wind them by twisting the small knob on the crown that’s usually found at the 3 o’clock position….

…unless, that is, you own an automatic watch.

oris automatic watch

Back side of Oris automatic watch with visible rotor

Automatic watches aren’t new; they’ve been in mass production since the 1930s.  The method used for most automatic watches was patented by Rolex and is still in use, with some modifications, today.

These timepieces are mechanically wound; there is no magic mechanism that avoids that.  What makes them “automatic” is that there is a small weighted rotor inside the case.  This rotor moves as the person wearing the watch moves their arm during the normal course of the day.  As they move, the rotor moves, and this adds tension to the spring, thus winding the watch.

You don’t have to continuously wear an automatic watch to keep them running, as they have what is known as a “power reserve.”  This represents the amount of time, usually expressed in hours, that a watch will continue to run without being manually wound.  The power reserve of most watches is somewhere between 12 and 72 hours, which means that you likely won’t have to wear your watch every day in order to keep it running.

Even if you do fail to wear your watch for a long enough period of time that it stops, you can get it running again by winding it manually.  Automatic watches can be wound just as any other mechanical watch might be.

Vintage Rolex automatic watch

Vintage Rolex automatic watch

If you don’t want to manually wind your automatic watch but you want to keep it running while it’s not being worn, you can buy a device known as a watch winder.  These are storage boxes that move the watch while it’s being stored in order to wind it for you.  That way, it will always be ready to wear and have the correct time waiting for you.

Automatic watches come in a wide variety of price ranges.  While many high end watches ($10,000 and up) are automatic, self-winding models, we have also seen budget self-winding watches priced at under $30.

That makes them affordable for just about everyone.

Automatic watches are convenient affordable and accurate.  Unfortunately, no one has yet to invent a self-winding mechanical clock.  For that, we’re just going to have to wait a bit longer.

Atomic Clocks the Ultimate in Accuracy

Mechanical clocks have been available for hundreds of years, and during this time, numerous improvements have been made in their accuracy.  Today, the best mechanical clocks and watches are usually accurate to within a minute or two per year, and for most people, that level of accuracy is more than sufficient.

For those who want more accurate timekeeping, there are, of course, clocks and watches with quartz movements.  These are electronic devices that are capable of keeping time within a couple of seconds per year, and they’re highly reliable.

Heathkit GC-1000 radio clock, 1983

Heathkit GC-1000 radio clock, 1983

They’re not as interesting to collectors as mechanical devices, but they are affordable and if you’re interested in fairly accurate time at a good price, then a quartz clock or watch would be a good choice.

For some people however, either by necessity or just out of interest, there are still more accurate clocks and watches available.  These are known as radio clocks.  They’re not clock radios, which are clocks that have AM/FM radios built in so you can listen to music or wake up to your favorite drive-time DJ.

Radio clocks are highly accurate timepieces that receive the correct time over radio waves that are transmitted by government installations that either have an atomic clock on hand or have ready access to one.

Atomic clocks are the most accurate timekeeping devices known; they base their timekeeping on the change of state within certain atoms.  The first such clock to demonstrate high accuracy was built in 1955 and used the cesium-133 atom as the basis.

The U.S. government and other governments worldwide have atomic clocks and radio networks that transmit the time from these clocks.  Radio clocks (and now, radio watches) receive a signal from such networks and use them to keep their own timekeeping accurate.  Most radio clocks also have built-in timekeeping mechanisms in order to keep fairly accurate time when access to the radio signal is not possible.

The first affordable commercial radio clock was the GC-1000, made by Heathkit.  It was sold in both kit form ($250) and factory assembled ($400) versions in the early 1980s.  While Heathkit has long since gone out of business, collectors are still interested in these clocks and they sell for a few hundred dollars when they come up for sale today, working or not.

Modern Casio radio watch

Modern Casio radio watch

Radio clocks are today rather inexpensive, and can be purchased for less than $20, though more expensive models are available.  Now, radio watches are also available, and they work on the same principle as the radio clocks.  There is a quartz timekeeping unit within the watch, but it also has a radio receiver which allows it to stay in contact with the much-more-accurate atomic clock.  When it detects a change in the time from the broadcast signal compared with its own time, it automatically changes the time on the watch.

While such watches might have seemed quite expensive at one time, they’re now relatively affordable.  We’ve seen models for sale for less than $100 and you can usually buy them at department stores and big box retailers.

You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an accurate timepiece, but oddly enough, the most accurate timepieces available to consumers are astonishingly affordable.

Unusual Cartier Clocks For Auction

Most clocks are mass produced, and even many older models from 100 years or so ago were mass produced back in their day.  Many of those older clocks are still quite collectible today as time has rendered them rare, regardless of the actual production numbers at the time they were made.

cartier tripod clockOne of a kind, or extremely limited production items, however, tend to truly attract the attention of clock collectors, as you well might understand.  The fewer the numbers, the fewer the occasions on which such items may come up for sale.

That’s why a lot of clock collectors are interested in an upcoming sale by Christies, which includes a number of unusually rare and cleverly designed clocks that were created by jeweler Cartier in collaboration with clocksmiths.

The one that strikes our fancy is an unusual tripod clock.  There is little known about this particular item, other than the fact that it was likely made for an exhibition that took place around 1958.

What is known is this:

The clock is a polyhedral desk clock, signed “Cartier London.”  It was designed by “R. Emmerson” and was made in 1958.

This isn’t your ordinary desk clock, however.  This particular model is made from 18 karat gold, silver, and is set with diamonds.  The timepiece stands 10 inches tall, but don’t let the size fool you.  The expected price range for the auction is $80,000-$120,000.

Cartier Crash watch

Cartier Crash watch

Rupert Emmerson was the designer, and he reportedly made no more than two or three of these pieces.  Emmerson was a longtime designer for Cartier who did some key work for the company from the 1940s through the 1960s.  He also worked on the famous Cartier “Crash” watch, a piece that is highly reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory,” which included a melting clock.

Other clocks to appear at the Christies auction are earlier pieces, several of which evoke a modern, Art Deco look.  We particularly like this silver, lead glass and Lapis Lazuli clock, which is expected to sell for a far more modest $6000 or so.

While the piece does look Art Deco and would appear to be from the 1930s, it was actually made in 1980 as part of a limited edition of 150 pieces.  It stands but 4 inches high and has a quartz movement.

It’s still a nice looking timepiece, though we’re quite taken with the tripod ourselves.  Unfortunately, it’s not only out of our price range, but it’s out of the price range of most everyone we know.



The World’s Largest Cuckoo Clock

Cuckoo clocks don’t have a particularly good reputation among clock collectors.  They’re usually viewed as more of a gimmick than they are as an example of fine clockmaking.

That’s fine; everyone is entitled to an opinion, and while people who really like clocks aren’t necessarily fans of the cuckoo clock, lots of other people are.   Thousands of them are sold every year, and a recent exhibit in China sold out all of the cuckoo clocks that were available for sale in a very short time, which suggests that the interest in this odd timepiece is universal.

biggest cuckoo clock

The World’s Largest Cuckoo Clock

The designs for the cuckoo clock date to the 17th century, though the versions that most people would recognize are largely a 19th century invention.  Modern examples are quartz powered and a few even have a sensor that can turn off the chirping bird when it’s dark.

Most models, however, are small enough to hang on the walls of people’s homes, and that’s why they’ve become a popular souvenir of people who visit the Black Forest area of Germany, where the modern cuckoo clock has evolved.

It’s there, in Germany, where you can see the world’s largest cuckoo clock.  This one is big enough that you can walk inside it; it’s 60 times the size of the traditional wall model.

Five years in the making, the clock at the Eble Uhren-Park in german is the work of Ewald and Ralf Eble, and they built this clock in the late 1980s and early 1990s to demonstrate their clockmaking skills and to give tourists something fun to see.

The mechanism is huge; the works are fifteen feet tall and weigh more than six tons.  The fully-functional pendulum is 26 feet long, and the bird itself, the cuckoo, weighs more than three hundred pounds.

Obviously, none of the parts for this monstrous clock were available off the shelf; everything had to be constructed by hand.

As with the traditional home models, this clock is driven by two weights on pulleys and chains.  One of them powers the clock mechanism, and the other one provides power for the bird, which cuckoos every 30 minutes.

The giant cuckoo clock is just one of many clocks that you can see at the park, which shows off the best of the Black Forest clocks from the Eble workshop.  You can also see wall clocks, grandfather clocks, and other merchandise that features a clock theme.



How Many Clocks Do You Need?

There was a time when owning a clock was a special thing that was reserved only for the wealthy.  Back in that time, most people didn’t really need to know the exact time; knowing the approximate time of day was usually good enough.

Eventually the high price of clocks came down through mass production and quantities of scale, and clocks became inexpensive enough for most households to own at least one.  The use of wristwatches didn’t really become popular until after World War I, so prior to that, most people got the time of day from one or more clocks placed prominently in their home.

mantle clock

A mantle clock looks great everywhere.

Today, of course, most people get the time from their cellphone or watch, making a household clock less important than it used to be.  Still, it’s convenient having clocks around the house, not just to give you the time, which remains a useful function, but also to serve as decorative items.

So – how many clocks do you need?  That answer varies, depending on the person being asked.

If you just need to know the time, then carrying a smartphone or a watch is probably good enough.  But having a few decorative clocks around the house can add a nice touch to your home’s decor, and having a highly visible clock in a prominent place in your home’s living quarters can spare you the trouble of digging your phone out at inconvenient times.

Grandfather clocks, large wall clocks, and mantle clocks are classic examples of timepieces that are both decorative and functional.  A grandfather clock can take up an important place in your living room, and an attractive wall clock will look good in a living room, kitchen, dining room or den.

A mantle clock looks great over a fireplace, but truth be told, they also look good on desktops or shelves.  You don’t have to have a mantle or a fireplace to make good use of a mantle clock.

If you’re going to use clocks around your home to actually provide the time, rather than serve as decorative items, then you should have at least one that is not powered by your home’s electricity.  A battery operated clock or one that is manually wound is convenient for those times when your home might suffer a temporary loss of power.

If you’re a clock collector, you might find that you own dozens of clocks, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But even people who aren’t collectors but have a good sized home might still have occasion to have anywhere from six to ten clocks in their house.  You’d be surprised at how many places you can find in your home where it might be convenient to hang a wall clock, for example.

You may also want to have an alarm clock in your bedroom.  While a cellphone can work for that, a good alarm clock can provide a suitably loud alarm, as well as give you the time of day at a glance should you need to know the time in the middle of the night.

Clocks are no longer rare items and can now be purchased by just about everyone.  But they still have their place in the home, both as timepieces and as beautiful home decorations.

wall clock

A nice wall clock makes any home attractive.