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Movement Showdown: Automatic vs. Quartz vs. Hand Wound Watches

After reading the terrific bio Steve Jobs by Walter Isaccson, there was one thing that I was taken aback about Steve Jobs design style that I had never known (coming from an avid Apple fanboy for several years), and it was that he cared deeply about the internal design of their computers just as much as the external design.

It really struck me.

Not many people tend to care per se how things work beneath the surface.

That was, of course, until you meet a watch collector.

Watch movements can vary greatly between one watch and the next.

The most popular movement types are automatic, quartz, and hand wound.

Today we wanted to highlight some of the key aspects of each of these movement varieties that are found within most wristwatches.

While we will go over their key differences on how they actually work, we will also take it a step further and go over some of the faults they may have (so you can avoid this when selecting your next watch), their reliability, and of course their prestige.

Let’s get started with the automatic watch:

what is a automatic watch

Automatic Watches

Automatic watches were first made back in 1776 (or early 1777) by the highly revered Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet (source).  While a breakthrough at the time, the watch itself wasn’t regularly made for the masses due to its complex internal structure.

What made the automatic watch so groundbreaking?

It could self-wind while the person had the watch on their arm.

Based on the movements of your body, you could always have accurate time at just a glimpse away.  This means that you didn’t have to wind the watch daily nor replace batteries (which became common in the mid 1900s as you will discover in just a minute).

Automatic watches are still sold to this day and are considered by many to be a luxury piece as they often demand a higher price point.

While the mechanics on the inside of the automatic watch truly are remarkable, there are nevertheless common questions that many men have when considering adding an automatic watch to their personal collection.

How To Wind An Automatic Watch When It’s Not Worn

One common accessory that all men must own when purchasing an automatic watch is a watch winder.

Watch winders help to replicate the same motion made by your body for the watch in order to keep accurate time between wearings.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest drawbacks that men encounter when wearing an automatic watch is when they own more than one and wear them for specific occasions (i.e. dress watch for formal events, casual watch for daily wear).

automatic dress watch

When a watch isn’t worn regularly, it will have no movement when you initially put it on.

This means that you must reset the time accordingly.

To prevent this minor annoyance, men who have several automatic watches will often place them onto a watch winder.

Winders come with many different options.

Whether it’s to house one watch or 16, you can find one that will have the appropriate slots for you.

Secondly, all automatic watches are different and require specific settings from the winders to achieve optimal performance.

Therefore, when considering watch winders, you will often see manufacturers stating the TPDs (turns per day) the winder makes along with the directional settings available (clockwise, counterclockwise, or bi-directional).


All of the optimal settings for an automatic watch can typically be found online or in the owners manual you received with the watch.

Can You Overwind An Automatic Watch?

Beyond the initial question of determining how to wind an automatic watch, the second concern men often have is if they can overwind their automatic watch.

After all, you don’t want to invest a couple hundred dollars for a watch only to place it on the winder and accidentally set it to the wrong settings and destroy your watch.

But check this out:

Automatic watches CANNOT be overwound…

…but you shouldn’t overwind it, here’s why:

Watch makers put a safeguard in place that will allow the mechanisms in the watch to slip in the event it becomes wound too tightly.

Like anything mechanical, constant stress on a particular switch or coil may degrade the performance over an extended period of time.

This is why quality watch winders aren’t delivered with only one speed setting.

So, if you accidentally leave it on a winder once for too high of a speed, you probably won’t break your watch.

But if you do that for 20 years, you probably should expect to see some signs of over winding (i.e. inaccurate time keeping).

automatic watch stopped working

Automatic Watch Stopped Working?

Within watch enthusiast forums and elsewhere, you may sometimes see that some men suffer from their automatic watch ceasing to keep time on occasion.

There may be a couple of reasons for this:

Either a faulty design (not likely) or that they haven’t fully initialized the watch.

Some watch manufactures require that you initiate the watch when you first open the box.

Initiation may be something as simple as winding the hand of the watch roughly 50 times to get the watch spring fully set and ready to go.

Once its initiated, then the watch will run from the movement of your body (or watch winder).

Secondly, if you put a watch in storage for several weeks, you may need to go through this initiation process again.

Automatic Watch Running Too Fast or Slow?

As great and reliable that automatic watches are, it’s important to always remember that these are mechanical devices that aren’t powered by a battery.

Therefore, its common to come across oddities that you wouldn’t normally expect.

One common issue that you may face with an automatic watch is too fast or too slow of time keeping.

This may be caused by a couple of factors – either it’s been magnetized (rarely happens) or that you dropped the watch and threw the hairspring off balance (much more common).

If the hairspring gets impeded, it won’t be able to regulate the mainspring, so folks often try the DIY fix by ‘tickling’ the hairspring with a needle or by bringing it into a jewelry store for repair.

Depending on the jeweler and the parts needed, its largely a judgement call on whether to pay for the repair or try yourself.

While these issues are rare, they are worth mentioning if you are considering an automatic watch.

Entry Level Automatic Watch

While everyone’s budget can vary wildly, it’s hard for us to fully recommend a specific automatic watch.

However, we found that men tend to gravitate to brands like Invicta, Bulova, and Victronix to name a few.

Where To Buy An Automatic Watch

Given the popularity of automatic watches you can find them at a wide array of online retailers like Amazon as well as more traditional brick-and-mortar stores as well (I.e. think jewelry stores, Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, etc.)

While you can definitely get a better selection (and often better prices) through online retailers we do recommend that men check out their local shops for a few reasons:

  1. You can find out what case diameter will look best on your wrist.
  2. Find a style that suits your personal taste
  3. See if the thickness of the automatic watch is comfortable (more on this in a minute)
bulova automatic watch

Affordable Thin Automatic Watches

While automatic watches are beautiful timekeeping instruments, many men may find themselves grappling with the thickness of the watch case.

The reality is this:

Automatic watches are complex pieces of machinery.

That complexity need to be store in as small of a case as possible so it can remain both stylish and functional.

Based on our experience we found that watches like the Hamilton Intra-Matic (10mm thick) and Orient Bambino (11.9mm thick) are both thin and affordable automatic watchs when compared to some of the more luxury brands.

mechanical watch

Hand Wound (Mechanical) Watches

Whether you are a horologist or simply a man that appreciates fine craftsmanship, then hand wound watches may catch your attention.

Simply put, hand wound watches are incredible pieces of technology that transcends time.

Whether you recently inherited a watch from your grandfather or you want to hand one down for several generations, hand wound watches will withstand the test of time.

How Does A Hand Wound Watch Work?

As the name would suggest, hand wound watches require you to wind them manually.

When you twist the crown of the watch, the mechanical spring will tighten and then gradually release throughout the course of the day.

After a watch has been fully wound, you can expect to get around 40 hours of performance.

This additional buffer beyond the 24 hour period gives you room should you forget to wind your watch on a given day.

Design Characteristics Of A Hand Wound Watch

Many hand wound watches will have a glass backing allowing you to view the intricacies of the watch itself.

High-end watch makers will make the window out of Sapphire (second hardest natural mineral on the Mohs scale) so it will be extremely durable and shouldn’t scratch easily when the watch is set down on a surface.

Where To Buy A Hand Wound Watches

Despite their old-school style, hand wound watches are still being produced by watch makers today.

Like the other watches we covered in this article, you should be able to find hand wound watches at both online retailers and your local jeweler.

For more vintage watches, we would recommend checking out marketplaces like eBay as well.

quartz watch movement

Quartz Watches

In the grand scheme of time keeping, quartz watches are considered to be modern.

Developed in the mid 1900s, quartz watches run via battery in order to keep time.

This makes them incredibly convenient as they don’t rely on a watch winder between uses or a daily hand wind.

So, if a quartz watch is battery powered, then how did it get the name?

How Does A Quartz Watch Work

If you open up a quartz watch, you are going to be greeted with not only a battery but also a small circuit board, some wiring, and an actual piece of quartz (among other intricacies).

Through the power of the battery a signal is translated from the circuit board to the quartz to make it vibrate an astonishing 32,768 times a second.

These vibrations are then sent back through the circuit board and are then translated into seconds – which are subsequently displayed on the watch face.

Through this complex design, quartz watches are able to attain accuracy through a variety of conditions and for long period of time.

Unlike automatic watches that are susceptible to timekeeping errors if the hairspring is set off kilter, quartz watches are fairly resilient.

Furthermore, the vibrations that are sent to quartz crystal require very little power.  It’s not uncommon that a single battery powering a quartz watch to last several years which make these one of the most low maintenance time pieces you can add to your collection.

Japanese Movement Watch Meaning

When looking at many of the more popular or luxury brand quartz watches, you will often see that they feature ‘Japanese movement’ or ‘Japanese quartz’, but what does this really mean?

…and more importantly, should you care?

While the most obvious notion between Japanese and Swiss quartz is the country of manufacturer, it tends to go a bit deeper than that.

When it comes to quartz watches, Japanese variants tend to be built through an automated production process.

This means that, while the watches perform spectacularly, the essence of the artisanal aspect of watch making is lost.

Whereas with Swiss watches (including quartz), the intricacies are hand-made, which not only increases the overall prestige of the watch, but adds a bit of character as well.

While there is much debate over the accuracy of the time-keeping between both of these types of quartz movement, one aspect that is firmly settled is the price.

Given the more automated nature of Japanese quartz watches, you can expect them to cost a fraction of the price of their Swiss counterpart.

Quartz Watch Running Too Fast Or Too Slow?

While it can happen, the probability is relatively rare that quartz watches get out of sync with the time that was initially set.

Sure, extreme swings in temperatures can cause the quartz to not vibrate the 32,768 times per second that may cause a loss/gain in a second or two, but anything greater than a minute or two is considered abnormal.

Given the non-mechanical aspects of this watch, there is often very little you can do in the way of fixing them (whereas in an automatic watch it may be a simple replacement of a hairspring or mainspring) other than simply changing out the battery.

Some men have found that a low battery may cause some erratic behavior in a quartz watch over time.

If regular battery replacement still doesn’t yield perfect results, you may either need to replace the watch completely or bring it to a jeweler to see if they can make the time keeping accurate again.

prices of quartz watches

Prices of Quartz Watches

When compared to their automatic counterparts, quartz watches do tend to be a bit more affordable.

However, depending on the brand that you purchase your watch from is a larger factor in the price than the components themselves.

Therefore, if you buy a Swiss quartz watch, don’t be surprised if you see one like Tag Heuer Carrera that carries a $1,700 price tag.

On the other end of the spectrum, the classic Casio Calculator Watch rings up under $20 bucks and is considered to be a classic casual wear for many men.

The point being is this:

Labels, exclusivity, and craftsmanship make up the lions share when it comes to quartz watches.  Therefore, you are guaranteed to find one to fit any budget and style.

Where To Buy A Quartz Watch

Given their widespread availability, you can find quartz watches anywhere you turn.

For those watches carrying a price tag greater than $100, you will normally want to check out either jewelry stores and company specific stores.

Like automatic watches, the selection and prices are usually a fair bit better online than at a traditional brick and mortar store.

So, if you are looking to save a few bucks off of your next watch, we would recommend to get sized for a watch and then look for the same one or alternatives online.

Automatic vs. Hand Wound vs. Quartz Watches In Summary

Each time piece is truly unique and it comes down to personal design taste coupled with lifestyle in order to determine the best type of movement for you.

Automatics are incredibly convenient with their self-winding mechanisms making them a favorite of watch collectors everywhere.

While a novice can definitely love an automatic watch, the additional purchase of a watch winder may be a deal breaker for some.

However, if you don’t mind the regular maintenance and care for your watch, then a hand wound watch could be perfect.

Being able to fully appreciate the intricate gear design makes this movement type perfect for men who appreciate craftsmanship.

Lastly, quartz is a perfect balance of both function and style.

Not having to worry about regular battery replacement coupled by a thinner case makes this watch perfect if you regularly like to swap out styles or want a more streamline appearance.

Coming at a wide variety of price points, quartz remains one of the most accessible movement types available for men.

Adam Williams

As the lead editor of Tools of Men, Adam loves men's grooming products. Particularly of interest is managing facial hair and perfecting the art of the modern man's skincare routine. His work has been featured or quoted in several publications, including New York Magazine, Vice, Sharpologist, MIC, Elite Daily, and more.

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