Have you ever looked at your watch and wondered, "What makes you tick?" Not in the existential sense, of course, but in a functional one. The mechanics of timekeeping have evolved over the years, but the cool part about watch movements is that many of the oldest designs are still in use today. From Swiss automatics to Japanese Quartz, this post will explain what a watch movement is, the different watch movement types, and a comparison section to illustrate the pros and cons of each. Read on to find out which one is going to power your next watch.

What is a Watch Movement?

A watch movement — sometimes referred to as a "caliber" — is the heart of a watch or the engine that powers its hands and other complications. While the casual watch-wearer might not care what type of watch movement their watch has, watch enthusiasts appreciate the inner mechanics and artistry involved in making their timepieces run. Much like performance differences in car engines, watch movements have varying attributes that appeal to different types of watch buyers. There are three main types of watch movements, each with individual strengths and weaknesses. Let's look dive into each and explore why you might choose one over the other.

Types of Watch Movements

The three main types of modern watch movements are quartz movements, automatic movements, and mechanical movements. While there are certainly more than that, these three make up most watches on the market today. Each one plays a role in watch history, and knowing that history can make you a more informed watch collector (and maybe win you some points at the next trivia night).

Woman photographer wears a Nixon Thalia watch

Quartz Movement

Japanese watch manufacturers introduced the first quartz movements in the late 1960s. They caused quite the disruption in the watch market because they used a battery to power the watch instead of mechanical springs, gears, and rotors. The battery in a quartz movement sends an electrical signal to the quartz crystal in the movement, causing it to vibrate. The vibrations move the watch hands and other complications without the need for winding. Nixon uses quartz movements in many of its most loved watch models, including the Time Teller, the Sentry, and the Kensington. Quartz movements are prevalent due to their accuracy and affordability but do require battery changes.

Automatic Movement

Automatic movements are favorites of watch connoisseurs the world over. To buy an automatic watch is to celebrate the heritage and craft of fine watchmaking. An automatic movement refers to a self-winding mechanical watch, where the action of the wearer's wrist generates the energy to power the watch. The watch's mainspring, or the primary power source, is wound by a rotor that spins when the watch is worn, making a battery unnecessary.

The Swiss invented automatic movements in the 1770s, so many people associate automatic watches with being Swiss, though other countries also produce automatic movements. Japanese automatic movements have gained popularity in recent years, thanks to their balance of precision and cost-effectiveness. Automatic movements are intricate pieces of machinery and quite labor-intensive to produce. This makes automatic watches quite a bit more expensive than quartz watches, but watch lovers appreciate the work involved in making them and show their automatic watches off with pride.

Nixon Spectra Automatic watch movement

Nixon uses both Swiss and Japanese automatic movements in our lineup, including in the Diplomatic and the 5th Element.

Mechanical Movement

Mechanical watch movements are the granddaddies of calibers. Mechanical movements predate automatic movements by about 100 years but are similar in that a mainspring also powers the watch hands. The main difference between mechanical and automatic watches is that mechanical watches need to be wound periodically to maintain power. While this isn't as convenient as an automatic movement, most owners of mechanical watches learn to wind their watch before putting it on their wrist.

Watch Movement Comparison

Quartz Movement vs. Automatic Movement

When deciding between a quartz movement and automatic movement, it's important to consider the following differences:

Quartz Movement

  • More accurate timekeeping
  • Lower cost of entry
  • Low maintenance
  • Requires battery replacements
  • "Ticking" second hand

    Automatic Movement

    • No need for battery replacements
    • Artisanal craftsmanship
    • Higher cost of entry
    • Cachet amongst watch enthusiasts
    • Sweeping second hand

    In this comparison, the most important factor to consider is how much you would like to spend on a watch, as the performance of a quartz watch will be almost identical to an automatic movement. Beyond that, if you admire the craftsmanship and engineering of an automatic movement and want to own a piece of timekeeping heritage, you should level up to the automatic movement.

    A collection of gold Nixon watches

    Quartz Movement vs. Mechanical Movement

    When deciding between a quartz movement and mechanical movement, consider these differences:

    Quartz Movement

    • More accurate timekeeping
    • Lower cost of entry
    • Low maintenance
    • Requires battery replacements
    • "Ticking" second hand

      Mechanical Movement

      • No need for battery replacements
      • Needs winding to operate
      • Artisanal craftsmanship
      • Higher cost of entry
      • Cachet amongst watch enthusiasts
      • Sweeping second hand

        Mechanical watches are complex mechanisms that need more care and maintenance than quartz watches, so if a "set-it-and-forget-it" experience is what you're after, mechanical watches are probably not the best choice. But if you want to wear a mechanical work of art and be a part of time-telling history, then a mechanical watch is for you.

        Automatic movement vs. mechanical movement

        When deciding between an automatic movement and mechanical movement, it's important to consider the following differences:

        Automatic Movements

        • Self-winding when worn on the wrist

          Mechanical Movements

          • Needs winding to operate

            In this comparison, your choice boils down to whether or not you want to be responsible for winding your watch to keep it powered. Both an automatic and mechanical watch movement will perform the same way, need about the same amount of care and maintenance, and hold the same respect among watch enthusiasts. To wind or not to wind, that is the question.

            Man wears a black Nixon watch

            What is the best watch movement for the money?

            The difference in price between a watch with a quartz movement and one with an automatic or mechanical movement can be substantial.

            Determining which movement is the best for the money is subjective, as everyone has different budgets. That being said, 99/100 times a quartz watch will be less expensive than either an automatic or mechanical watch. You can have a gorgeous and ornate quartz watch for a fraction of the cost of a similarly appointed automatic. Do you care about the inner beauty of your watch as much as the exterior, though? An automatic will tick both boxes.

            From a longevity standpoint, automatics will last longer than quartz movements but require regular service and maintenance to get the most life out of them.

            Consider the difference in watch movements and liken them to the choice between buying a car with an automatic transmission and manual transmission. The former is easier to drive and requires no special understanding or skill, but the latter is considered a "purer" driving experience with a storied history. Ultimately, both can get you where you want to go.

            Watch Movement Conclusion

            Now you know the difference between the main watch movements offered on the market today. When deciding between quartz, automatic, or mechanical movements, the choices can seem overwhelming at first. But by understanding the differences and your priorities and preferences, you can make an informed decision and get the perfect watch for you. On Nixon.com you can shop our watch collection by movement type, so once you've decided what you want on the inside of your next watch, you can then focus on the outside.

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