You may find your way into watches through history, movies or via the horological one-upmanship playing out in NBA tunnels across the land, but however you acquire your love for timepieces, at some point you’re probably going to find yourself wondering what exactly makes them tick. The answer, nine times out of ten (at least where luxury watches are concerned) is an automatic movement. While the precise makeup of a watch’s tiny gears, springs, and myriad other components quickly descends into advanced levels of nerdery (we’ll save the conversation on escapement design and guilloché finishing for another day), you don’t need a degree from MIT to appreciate the basic principles behind automatic watches. And while you definitely don’t need to know how your watch works to enjoy wearing it, there’s actually some pretty cool stuff going on in there. Here’s the basic rundown, along with our top picks for men’s automatic watches for every budget—from slick dress watches and Swiss-made chronographs to retro dive watches and stainless steel classics.
What is an automatic movement?
Mechanical watch movements fall into two basic categories: hand-wound and automatic. Before the invention of automatic wristwatches in the 1920s (and long before the invention of battery-powered quartz movements in the 1960s) all watches were hand-wound. That meant you needed to manually wind up your watch every day to keep it running. An automatic watch (also called a self-winding watch) doesn’t require this because it winds automatically with the movement of your body as you wear it.
How does that work exactly?
Most automatic watches wind themselves via a weighted rotor, which you’ll be able to see if your watch has a see-through case back (it’s the half moon-shaped piece right on top). When you wear the watch and move around, the rotor winds a spring, which turns the hands, date wheel and everything else that moves on a watch. To keep your watch from stopping when you’re sitting still (or when you take it off at night) automatic movements also store excess energy and slowly release it over hours or days while the rotor is stationary. This is called a “power reserve,” and it typically ranges from 40 to 80 hours, with some going as high as a week or more. They’re useful if you don’t wear a watch every day, and don’t want to have to reset the date and time every time you put it on—particularly with annual or perpetual calendar models that can be complicated to set.
Is there a downside to automatic watches?
It’s not a downside, per se, but they do require some upkeep. Unlike a quartz watch that requires nothing more than a new battery every few years, a mechanical watch is a finely-tuned machine consisting of many tiny, precisely calibrated parts. Watchmakers have made huge advances in shock-and waterproofing over the years, but there’s still only so much abuse a mechanical movement can take. And that’s the thing: repairs to automatic watches can be expensive.
What’s the best way to keep my automatic in good shape?
If you stick to the manufacturer’s recommended service schedule (it’ll need an overhaul and lube every 4 to 10 years, depending on the brand and model) and don’t make a habit of wearing it in the sauna, you’ll probably be fine. Whether it’s a $200 Amazon special or a $200,000 grand complication, automatic watches are designed to be worn, so the best way to take care of your watch is to wear it as much as possible.