3 Ridiculously Satisfying Watch Mechanisms
A watch movement may be small, but when you get up close the gears and wheels inside are amongst the most incredible, satisfying things to watch in action. But not all watch movements are born equal—here are three of the most satisfying watch movements ever created.
Patek Philippe 5170J
Patek Philippe is of course known for its class-leading watches, simply designed and utterly timeless. But what’s going on under the hood is just as impressive as the gorgeous dial upfront, and it’s inside the 5170J chronograph that we get a hint of just how impressive it really is.
The calibre CH 29-535 PS inside the 5170J isn’t your ordinary chronograph movement; there are quite a few differences between it and your everyday, run-of-the-mill mechanical stopwatch. First of all, it’s old-school, getting started with the horizontal engagement of two big wheels meshing together. They look like they’re going to jam, teeth on teeth, but no—a perfect, fluid interaction is nothing less than you’d expect for a movement made by such a legend of watchmaking.
But the really satisfying part sits to one side of the bulk of the gear train, hiding discreetly beneath the famous double “P” logo of Patek Philippe. What you may not know is that because a mechanical movement ticks multiple times per second instead of just once, like a quartz does, that the activation of the minute hand on a mechanical chronograph doesn’t usually happen instantaneously. Instead, as the minute wheel is slowly driven by the ever-ticking movement, it creeps into position, taking a few seconds to find its final resting place.
Not so with the CH 29-535 PS, because Patek Philippe has built in a buffer mechanism to take all that slack out. Instead of feeding the minute hand directly, a lever with a pivoting tooth makes the slow, ponderous journey instead, snapping back at the turn of the minute, giving the chronograph a hand that jumps almost imperceptibly.
Zenith Defy El Primero 21 95.9000.9004/78.R582
Our next most satisfying movement is another chronograph—and this one’s even more unusual. A watchmaker regulates a movement—that is, controls the speed to make it accurate—with the escapement, a locking mechanism with a bouncing wheel that lets a bit of power from the watch’s mainspring through at a time.
It’s this escapement that determines how many times a watch beats per second. The less beats per second, the less power the movement uses; the more beats, the better accuracy a function like a chronograph can offer. If a watch beats eight times per second, as is standard, you can record time to an eighth of a second. On some watches, the escapement ticks ten times per second, offering a far more useful tenth of a second measuring capability.
The Zenith Defy El Primero 21 beats a staggering one hundred times per second. You might wonder how that doesn’t simply drain the power in a matter of minutes, and the answer is that it does. That would, ordinarily, make the watch completely useless, but Zenith thought about that and decided that it was indeed possible to have their cake and eat it too.
Here’s how it works: for the time, there’s a movement that beats ten times per second, fairly standard. That lasts fifty hours, winds from the automatic rotor, all nice and normal. The chronograph, however, doesn’t run from that same movement—it gets its own movement, with its own winding mechanism via the crown and its own power reserve on the dial. When it’s full of juice, it’ll go for almost an hour, the second hand flying around the dial once per second, separate escapement thrashing away a hundred times per second. It’s incredible to observe in action.
A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk 140.032
You can tell right away that the A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk is not your normal watch. As far removed from the classic Patek Philippe as is possible, this German giant of watchmaking has gone all out in the stakes to completely reinvent mechanical watchmaking.
How this has been done is with a display usually considered the staple of battery-powered watches: digital. Yet, this is still very much a mechanism of wheels and gears, despite the strangely unfamiliar dial. On the left you have your hours, one through twelve, printed onto a rotating disk, framed by the large window. On the right you have the minutes, this time split over two disks—zero to five on the left, zero to nine on the right.
This gives you the effect of a fully digital hour and minute display, but without a screen. What really sells the illusion is the turn of an hour or a minute. When the traditional analogue second hand reaches zero, the digital readout snaps into action, changing from one time to the next in the blink of an eye.
It’s the same mechanism as the Patek Philippe’s instant minute hand, you might be thinking—but you’d be wrong. The scale is so much greater with the Zeitwerk because instead of turning a tiny, slender, lightweight hand, it’s got to shift some pretty substantial disks instead.
Using a remontoir system, the Zeitwerk allows power to build over the course of a minute in a separate spring, placing the mechanism that feeds the disks under greater and greater pressure. Then, when the time comes, the spring is released, allowing the disks to explode into action, shifting from one minute to the next before you even know what’s happened.
But the story doesn’t end there, because when something big moving fast needs to stop quickly, you have a problem. An instant stop would be fatal to a movement like this, so the disks need to be decelerated. Simple, A. Lange & Söhne has thought about that too, a large, spinning fan working against air resistance to slow everything back down again.
To the naked eye, a watch movement can be an indecipherable maze of parts that the average human being has no chance of getting to grips with. But when you get in closer and see these fantastic mechanisms in isolation, the truth is revealed. These incredible, satisfying, unbelievable machines have so much to offer, so much to enjoy—even if they are only the size of a coin.
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