Automatic vs. Manual Wind Watches: The Differences

Ari Pham
Ari Pham
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When you set out to buy watches online, it can be a bit confusing when you encounter all of the industry jargon. Luxury watches are often extremely complex, and can come with a number of added ‘bells and whistles’. These variances can make buying brands like Omega, Breitling, Seiko, and others seem daunting. That is why it can be beneficial to understand how watches work at their core before you get started. 

Every mechanical watch can be broken down into two categories--automatic, and manual wind. Even the famous James Bond Watch has come in manual winding and automatic versions. So, before you get started to dive into the difference between automatic vs. manual wind watches, it’s crucial that you understand the manufacturing and operating types. Let’s talk about that for a moment. 

TL;DR: watch this short video (1:30) where Carson Chan aka The Watch Professor explaining in just minute and a half to undertand the difference between self-winding and manual winding.

Still not sure? Keep reading


The Mainspring

In mechanical watches, there is a small little mechanism known as the ‘mainspring’. The mainspring is a central spring that is wound tightly, and through a series of gears and screws, that tension in the spring is slowly released. Through various component interactions (which are incredibly complex), this mainspring is wound and released over-and-over in order to create the mechanical movement of the clock hands. This is how they ‘tell time’. 

I love this animated video from Animagraffs so much I have to share. This is not your average expensive shots and abstract concept. They did a great job visualizing the complicated and breathtaking engineering inside a mechanical watch:


Automatic Watches

Automatic watches are designed in such a way that a rotor is attached to the movement of the watch itself. When you move your wrist, the rotor winds the mainspring automatically. This is why automatic watches are also known as ‘self-winding watches’ in some cases. This is very convenient as generally the natural movements of the body--through walking,eating, etc,.--allow the rotor to wind the mainspring. 

Automatic Wristwatch: Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea 116660 Steel
Photo by John Torcasio on Unsplash

The primary benefit of automatic watches is that they are very low maintenance. If worn daily, they will almost never need to be hand wound. However, if an automatic watch is allowed to sit dormant for too long, they will need to be hand wound to get them ‘jump started’ again. 

A contrasting drawback to automatic watches is their bulk. Automatic watches weigh more due to the weighted rotor inside. This can be a downer for those who like to keep their watches lightweight and less cumbersome. 

Most popular self-winding or automatic luxury watches

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona 116500LN

IWC Portugieser IW371480

Vacheron Constantin Overseas 5500V/110A-B148


Manual Winding Watches

A manual wind watch works in the very same way as an automatic, apart from the lack of a rotor. Manual wind watches need to be wound up manually in order to build the tension in the mainspring. This means that before you put your watch on every day, you will need to do some work to get it ready. This can often require the use of specific crown winding tools. 

Hand winding for a Timex
Photo by Sean Paul Kinnear on Unsplash

For many, the process of hand winding a watch might sound absolutely tedious. However, many lovers of luxury watches swear by them, and wear only manual wind watches. This is typically due to the fact that they are able to be much thinner, and sleek in design. In addition, those who love the mechanics and engineering behind watches might find the process of manually winding their watch fun, or even cathartic. 

Allen Farmelo of Worn and Wound curated some great hand-wound watches under $1,500 I absolutely love to share:

  • Archimede Handwound Pilot 42
  • Nomos Club Campus 36
  • Junghans Max Bill Hand-Wind

Final Thoughts. 

Now you’ve known the difference between automatic vs. manual-wind watches. Ultimately, the choice between automatic or manual wind is going to come down to personal preference. Automatic watches are by far the most popular choice for consumers, but that does not mean that manual winds are without their own niche. 

Just remember that manual wind watches will be a bit more work, but they can also be more fun. By contrast, automatic watches are less maintenance, but are also more bulky. 

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