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How does the Swiss Watch Movement Work?

Updated on October 10, 2012

When we look at a Swiss watch that has a window through which we can admire its mechanics we are often mesmerized by its beauty and seeming simplicity. Although all mechanical watches work by using the same 6 basic parts (mainspring, mainspring barrel, center wheel, third wheel, fourth wheel, and the escape wheel) the operation of a watch is particularly intriguing. When we look with admiration at the delicate gears we may ask ourselves, how does a Swiss watch actually work? Swiss watches work by the movement of tiny meticulously built and organized gears, each one working in a sort of choreographed dance:

The watch mechanics are broken down as follows:

  • The mainspring is wound with the balance wheel and timed with the movement of the lever.
  • The center wheel rotates once per hour.
  • The 4th wheel rotates once per minute.
  • The escape wheel regulates the speed at which the mainspring moves and sets the others gears in motion.

These parts are involved in the operation of all mechanical watches. The training to learn how to build mechanical watches is equally as involving as the mechanics of the watches are intricate. To become a watchmaker to the highest level one must attend a school to learn micromechanics and watchmaking. This is usually a two year program. If that is too time consuming you can still keep an interest active by joining local watchmaking and horologist clubs. At clubs such as these you can learn the terminology, mechanical details and perhaps the history of watches.

What does horology mean?

  • A Horologist is defined in Webster’s dictionary as a person skilled in the practice or theory of time.
  • Horology is defined as the science of measuring time and the art of making instruments for the indicating of time.

The basic history of mechanical watches, and specifically Swiss watches, harkens back to the mid-16th Century. At time there was a ban on the wearing of Jewelry by the churches so jewelers had to find another craft they could do that was acceptable to the church. So, they developed and honed the craft of building watches. Initially, watches were on chains held in pockets, but eventually they were worn on the wrist (most histories indicate the era of WWI).

The industry of watchmakers currently boasts 40,000 workers. The average company that manufactures Swiss watches employs approximately 70 to 100 people. Watch manufacturers are the third largest exporter of goods in the world, so there is no shortage of customers for the product. The many shops have developed specializations. Some create very valuable watches made of gold, silver and valuable gems. Others specialize in Steel casements and more or less indestructible instruments. There are companies that have developed “green” watches that are made of wood and other materials.

Watchmaking as a career is unique and steeped in history and tradition. A person with the right training and enthusiasm will find a career path unlike no other, and protected from the nuances of national economies. Watchmaking schools can be found in the USA, Hong Kong, China and other locations, but what is important to factor in is that for a job in a swiss watchmaking repair centre the course you complete should be certified by wostep. Some of the most famous watch brands include: IWC, Cartier, Montblanc and Baume et Mercier and their histories are a testament to the time they tell to people that wear their watches.


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