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Top 5 Things to Consider in a Watch Movement

1: Mechanical or Quartz?

Through hundreds of years and a rich horological history, the watch industry has innovated, evolved, and pushed the boundaries of watchmaking. It was only relatively recently, though, that a watch movement could be categorized into two distinct groups.

The Quartz Watch

A quartz watch movement uses an electronic oscillator synchronized by a quartz crystal to power it, allowing for extreme accuracy, as well as the potential for features just not possible with the more traditional, mechanical watch movement. It's relatively new to the game, first hitting the market in 1969, in the form of Seiko's Astron. The introduction led to a crisis for the Swiss watch industry, as the quartz far exceeded the accuracy of the traditional mechanical watches and could also be produced fairly cheaply. Quartz watches of today, are way ahead of what they were back in 69, and the Astron of today, has capabilities far surpassing its predecessor, including solar power and gps-linked time. Importantly, for many collectors and enthusiasts, the quartz movement's inner-architecture, is visually similar to other electronic devices and has few moving parts.

The Mechanical Watch

Mechanically-powered movements, whether automatic or hand wind, contrast dramatically, with a whole system of tiny moving parts, that work in principle, much like a wind-up toy car. Parts such as the mainspring, the balance-wheel, the gear train, all expected to work efficiently and harmoniously, to measure time, faithfully and with real practical accuracy. The impressive engineering employed, to produce mechanical timepieces, inspire awe and respect (and a few other emotions perhaps) amongst enthusiasts who will tend to favor the traditional art of mechanical watches to the modern functionality of quartz.

Other Watch Movements

In addition to these easily definable movements, exists what may be considered, hybrids of sorts. For example, in Seiko's Spring Drive system, the traditional parts of a mechanical movement are all there minus the conventional escapement, which is substituted with an electronic regulator system and achieves superior accuracy to a typical mechanical movement. Still, most would categorize it as mechanical, as it's every bit as intricate and complex, as a regular mechanical movement.

Consumer Preference

Comparing the movements is to compare preferences and ultimately, it is up to consumers, as to what's important to them. Some like to purchase a watch that requires little or no service, has maximum accuracy, has a host of features and is accessibly priced. For such a watch, the Quartz would fit the bill nicely. For those that yearn the traditional fine art of horology, their appreciation of mechanical pieces far transcends the advantages and sheer practicality of the modern Quartz.

2: In-house or Outsourced?

Producing a movement, and in particular, a mechanical movement is challenging and poses all sorts of engineering obstacles. To create a mechanical movement in its entirety is quite rare. In fact, historically, different companies specialized in specific parts of a movement and so a single watch could be produced by many different brands. Nowadays, this still happens, but there are brands that can produce the entire watch and movement, entirely in-house. Nevertheless, the vast majority of mechanical watches, utilise parts of differing origin and that includes even very high-end pieces. Parts that are difficult to produce, such as the mainspring, will be outsourced and more often than not, the entire movement will be outsourced. Many brands will also modify outsourced movements to varying degrees. They may customise a rotor, improve on the specs and sometimes, even add an extra complication.

Criticism of Outsourced Movements

Many collectors take issue with the usage of outsourced movements by luxury brands and especially those capable of building in-house movements. It's mostly seen as a profit-building exercise using a brand's prestige but none of their expertise. Movements such as the ETA 2824 and the Valjoux 7750, have been used prolifically throughout the industry, and despite enthusiasts' frustration towards offending luxury watch brands, the movements themselves hold their own and certainly have endured the test of time.

The Benefits of Outsourced Movement

Outsourced movements that are commonly used by brands like those mentioned above, do tend to have lower service costs and minimal headaches compared to most in-house movements. The average watch repairman should be familiar with most ETA movements, but you wouldn't afford him or her the same faith for an in-house Jaeger Le Coultre. If you want to own a watch with an in-house movement, be prepared for the in-house costs. If it's a boutique watch band, be sure they are not disappearing anytime soon, as parts and repairs down the road could really prove to be problematic.

3: Does 'Swiss Made' Matter?

Often a point of contention for wristwatch enthusiasts and collectors is the associated sanctity with the 'Swiss made' label. So the question is, does Swiss made actually matter, or is it simply clever marketing? Does the higher premium you expect to pay for watches that are 'Swiss made' (for watches of comparable features), really justify itself? There is no one answer, of course, as the market is so broad, and the sheer number of watch brands is huge and growing. Attempting to answer the question, requires one to understand what defines a watch as 'Swiss made.'

Definition of 'Swiss Made'

For a wristwatch to carry the 'Swiss made' logo, the watch movement must be Swiss, had final inspections completed in Switzerland, as well as being cased there too. For the movement itself to be considered 'Swiss made,' 60% of the parts must be Swiss, and it must be assembled in Switzerland. (The laws were changed relatively recently, and up until the beginning of 2017, they were only required to comprise of 50% Swiss parts.)

The Swiss Reputation

The Swiss reputation continues to flourish, as wristwatch collectors the world over, validate the Swiss logo with their wallets and brands still proudly proclaim their Swiss origin on the face (or dial) of their watches. This comes as no surprise, considering the centuries of development and history congested in this small country. The hundreds of watch brands that have maintained a presence there and contributed to the wealth of knowledge and expertise. Legendary brands such as Patek Phillipe, Audemars Piguet, Bovet, Breguet and relatively more accessible luxury brands like Rolex, Omega, Breitling and Tag Heur, have all based themselves in Switzerland. The Swiss name does matter and has standards implied, that very naturally instills a certain level of respect and security, on the part of the consumer.

This won't negate some of the excellent examples of timepieces produced elsewhere. The Japanese have created an excellent alternative to the Swiss Rolex, with their Grand Seiko, and it commands respect it deserves amongst enthusiasts. German luxury watch brand, A Lange & Sohne, have produced what many will assert, is the most beautiful chronograph in the world, the Datograph. In fact, there are several watch brands outside of Switzerland, both historically and currently, that not just hold their own, but are at the forefront of innovation in the industry and to overlook them because of their country of origin, would be a severe mistake. What bothers some collectors, though, is the inaccessibility of Swiss watches because of high pricing, and that frustration is further exacerbated, when, for example, Japanese brands like Seiko or Orient, can produce highly affordable, yet very reliable, timepieces. Nevertheless, the Swiss still hold the crown to the luxury watch industry, and that's evident in their expertise, their history and simply in the size of their share of the market.

4: Features and Complications

Watch movements of all stripes will vary in their capabilities, so when considering your preference, let your habits and actual use, weigh heavily on your choice. Both mechanical and quartz movements may serve as invaluable tools beyond just telling the time, and if real thought is invested, can prove very useful, indeed. Of course, the quartz will offer a host of features, just not in the realm of possibility in mechanically powered watches or at least presents them at a relatively low cost. Even more of a newcomer to the watch industry, smart watches presents a challenge to the quartz watch, reminiscent of how the quartz challenged the mechanical watch. A far superior and more useful alternative, seemingly to render the quartz watch obsolete. Time will tell, if this is where the parallels end, and if quartz will disappear from production, or like mechanicals, simply maintain their own particular place in the market.

Mechanical Complications

Mechanical movements can be more difficult a decision, as the limitations that are to be expected on a mechanical watch, can make it very expensive to tick all boxes on your checklist. Complications, by definition, are difficult to produce, hence, will command higher prices. Some, are so much so, that they remain out of reach for the vast majority of consumers and can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, even without the use of precious stones and metals. Still, the market accommodates a variety of price brackets for all the types of complications so that a highly complicated IWC, will be a tenth of the price of a similarly equipped Patek Phillipe. The much loved 'el primero' chronograph by Zenith, can cost a fiftieth of a Richard Mille chronograph.

Popular complications, such as day/date, are much more accessible and established watch brands are producing Swiss timepieces with such complications at less than $500 (on the grey market). Similar quality watches with a chronograph function can be double that, at least. Calendar complications, whether annual or perpetual, will cost even more, for the privilege. But at the pinnacle of modern watchmaking, there are watches with certain complications, which make them untouchable, for most. Complications that might seem impossible within such tight dimensions, and yet they are, and progressively with more fantastic examples, every year. 

Tourbillions and minute-repeaters are typically out of bounds for the average consumer with budget constraints, but for those who are happily willing to pay the price, understand what macro-engineered marvels they are.  The tourbillion was first patented way back in 1725, by Louis Breguet, to essentially counteract inaccuracies caused by a person's physical movement. Arguably, the technology is not relevant at this point in history, with current systems and materials available. Still, it very well may be, visually, the most impressive demonstration, of fine watchmaking expertise. Minute-repeaters, on the other hand, do retain a certain usefulness, beyond just being an incredible manifestation, of watchmaking skill, and passion. They can indicate the time through sounds with the use of gongs, which produce various tones in a pattern, that allows for the wearer to hear the time. As one can imagine, just how complex this system can be, and how hard it would be to manufacture it to fit comfortably on your wrist. 

To date, the most complicated watch created was by the long-respected watch brand, Vacheron Constantine, with their pocket watch, the Tivoli. With a price tag in the millions, it boasts a total of 57 complications, a truly inspiring feat of engineering.

5: Why Size Matters

Generally, any discussion about a watch movement's size is more relevant and perhaps, interesting with the mechanical variety, as quartz watches, just don't suffer the same limitations. While size of any watch movement, whether quartz or mechanical, matters to an extent, the challenge of making desirable size movements, lies with mechanical pieces.

A mechanical movement's size can say as much about the quality or superiority of a timepiece, like any other visually elevating feature, such as a movement's finish. To begin with, the concept of mechanical timekeeping on your wrists implies and requires a certain level of difficulty, directly related to the miniaturization of the parts. From conception, to finish to assembly, the process requires time, patience, skill and ultimately, passion. Consequently, the main thrust of innovation in the industry, historically, was directed towards the size of movements, and specifically, at making them smaller. It was roughly in the 1980's, after quartz overtook mechanical technology, with superior accuracy, at accessible prices, that watch brands needed to reinvent a mechanical watch's purpose.

The Big Watch Revolution 

Status has always been intrinsically linked to the fine art of watchmaking, and always have existed luxury brands, creating pieces that should inspire respect. Still, when quartz hit the market, it set off a trend to capitalise on the status element, specifically, with mechanical pieces. Quartz would inhabit the lower end of the market, whilst mechanical watches, on the higher end, and a larger diameter allows for enhanced visibility and serves better the status factor, as well as providing a larger canvas, for designers to work their magic. It took off, and over a span of several decades, the typical diameter went from being in the low 30s (in mm) up to the low 40s, and it's not unusual nowadays, to see a wristwatch in the high 40s and beyond.

The Thinner Winner

Be it a chronograph, a dress watch or some multi-complications timepiece, being thin is not just a fashion statement, it's the culmination of many years of investment and development. It is with that understanding, one can start to determine and categorise watch movements, into potentially being generic or cheap, or perhaps, into something finer. Some brands have invested considerable energy, into further thinning their movements and brands such as Piaget and Bulgari, have excelled in this department in particular, and succeeded in producing some of the thinnest watch movements ever created. The record for the thinnest mechanical movement is held by Piaget, for the Altiplano 900p, which measures a total of 3.65 mm thick, and that's including the case! Bulgari holds titles for both, the thinnest tourbillion, with the Octo Finnisimo measuring at 1.95 mm, and the thinnest minute repeater, at only 3.12 mm thick.

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