Watches are a classic accessory, stylish and functional. Still, even those that have been wearing one their whole life often don’t know how a watch works. Do you?

There are several methods that watches use to track time. So learning how watches work requires more specificity.

Here we will cover the most common watch styles in order to answer the question, “how does a watch work?”

Continue reading to learn how watches are powered, how they tick and even how to use them.

To learn about a specific watch type, click that type here to be taken directly to that section:

Automatic

Manual

Quartz

Solaire

The Basics

Broadly speaking, the majority of watches use either Quartz or Mechanical movements. There are some exceptions, but Quartz and Mechanical are most common.

Quartz movements require a battery to power. Mechanical movements, including Automatic and Manual watches, rely on the wearer to keep the watch powered.

In general, there are four common types of watch movements. Here are the basics behind how each of these watches works.

Silver and white Spectra Automatic watch on a female car driver

Automatic Watches

  • Are self-winding: Watch is powered by arm movements of the wearer and don’t need batteries
  • Have rotors: The rotor, a small metal weight that winds the watch, is unique to Automatic
  • Store energy: Energy is stored in a power reserve which keeps the watch ticking for a short period after wearing
  • Require ‘oiling’: Wear this type of watch regularly to ensure that they continue to operate well

How They Work

An Automatic watch (like the Nixon Spectra) is unique because it stays powered by capturing the energy generated by the body movements of the wearer. That’s why they’re often referred to as self-winding watches.

This type of Mechanical watch utilizes a small metal weight called a rotor that is unique to an Automatic watch.

Each time the wearer moves their arm, this rotor also moves, spinning around a fixed location. This spinning rotor then twists a part known as the mainspring. As the mainspring twists, energy is created.

Leftover energy becomes stored within as a power reserve to be used to keep the Automatic watch ticking in between uses. Eventually that energy will run out and the watch won’t tick again until it’s moved.

The movements powering an Automatic watch are most like those in Manual watches.

How to Use Them

An Automatic watch is extremely easy to use, especially if it’s your daily watch. You only need to do three things to use an Automatic watch:

  1. Check the time: Before putting it on, make sure the time is right. If it’s been a while since you’ve worn it, the time will likely need to be set again.
  2. Wear it: As mentioned above, wearing an Automatic watch is how you keep it running. No need for batteries!
  3. ‘Oil it’: To ensure that your watch continues to work well, wear it regularly. This is like keeping your car engine oiled.

Manual Watches

  • Must be wound: You’ll need to regularly wind your Manual watch for it to work, but won’t need batteries
  • Store energy: Like Automatics, Manual watches have power reserves that can keep the watch ticking for a period
  • Require ‘oiling’: Use your Manual watch regularly to ensure that it continues to work how you expect it to.

How They Work

Manual watches, like Automatic watches, do not need batteries to stay powered. However, unlike an Automatic watch powered by movement, a Manual watch needs to be wound... manually.

Besides this difference, Manual watches work identically to Automatic watches.

Like Automatic watches, the energy stored in the power reserve can keep the watch ticking for some time before it requires winding again. A full power reserve might hold 24-48 hours of energy, depending on the watch.

How to Use Them

Manual watches require slightly more work to wear than their Automatic cousins. Instead of converting your movement into energy like in Automatic timepieces, you have to wind it up before you wear it.

Here’s how to use a Manual watch:

  1. Twist the mainspring: Yep, that’s the same mainspring from the Automatic watch above, except this time, you’re the rotor.
  2. Adjust the time: If you haven’t worn your Manual watch for a while, the time is likely wrong. Once you’ve got its gears turning, set the time and get to wearing it.
  3. Repeat: Later, if you check your Manual watch and the time is totally off, it probably needs another wind. Repeat step 1 as often as needed!

Gold and black Sentry watch on a guitar player

Quartz Watches

  • Battery powered: Unlike Mechanical watches, Quartz timepieces use a battery to power movement.
  • Most common watch type: These days, Quartz watches are one of the most common.
  • Quartz crystal: Quartz crystal keeps time based on its vibration.

How They Work

Mechanical watches use intricate movements to store energy in a mainspring and use that energy for power.

A Quartz watch uses batteries and a quartz crystal to source its energy.

The first thing to know is that quartz has an interesting property: When an electrical current is applied to quartz, it vibrates at a constant rate of 32,768 times per second. This is where a Quartz watch gets its reliability.

A circuit within a Quartz watch applies constant electrical currents to a quartz crystal. The oscillations of the quartz are timed, and an electric pulse is created each time the quartz reaches its 32,768th oscillation – one second.

This electric pulse is what powers the movements of Quartz timepieces (like the Nixon 51-30 Chrono).

How to Use Them

Watches with quartz are easy to use because they are battery powered. Simply make sure your battery is charged, your time correct and you’re good to go!

Man wears a Nixon Light-Wave Solar watch

Solar Watches

  • Convert light energy: Solar watches use small solar panels to collect light and convert it into power.
  • Use quartz crystals: Power collected and stored is used to power a movement identical to Quartz watches.
  • Sunlight or artificial light: Certain Solar watches can be powered with artificial light indoors but direct sunlight works best for all types.

How They Work

Solar watches (like the Nixon Light-Wave) are growing in popularity because they are sustainable in their ability to store energy to power movement and then recharge by absorbing light.

These watches work by using a variety of styles of solar cells to store energy captured from sunlight as well as artificial light. Solar cells can be placed along the perimeter of or behind the watch dial.

Energy is then slowly released to power a quartz watch movement.

Depending on the technology, a Solar watch can last between 10 to 20 years before a replacement battery is required.

How to Use Them

Like Quartz watches, Solar watches require very little action from wearers. Simply expose your watch to appropriate light to charge, make sure your time is dialed in, and enjoy!

Check out this post to learn more about how solar watches work.

The Nixon Thalia watch on a female painter

How Watches Work FAQs

Here are answers to two questions we commonly hear about how watches work.

How does a watch keep time?

Watches work by converting light, kinetic or electrical energy into the movement of watch parts. The mechanism that tracks time is called the “movement” and is comprised of many small parts including, gears, springs and more. Different watch types use different watch movements.

How does a watch work without a battery?

The only watches that work without a battery are Mechanical watches, including Automatic and Manual. Mechanical watches use a part called the mainspring to store and release energy. In Automatic timepieces, the wearer’s natural body movements oscillate a rotor, which then twists the mainspring. In Manual watches, the wearer must manually wind the mainspring. Other watches, like Quartz and Solar watches, use batteries to store power.

Now, next time someone looks at your watch and asks, “how does that watch work?” you’ll know the answer!