Table of Contents
- 1 What is an automatic watch?
- 2 History of the Self Winding Watch
- 3 Best Automatic Watches for men:
- 3.1 Under $100 price: Seiko, Forsining, Assute
- 3.2 Over $100 and under $200 price: Orient
- 3.3 Over $200 and under $300 price: Bulova
- 3.4 Over $300 and under $500 price: Seiko and Hamilton
- 3.5 Over $500 and under $1000 price: Citizen and Rado
- 3.6 Over $1000 price: Omega and TAG Heuer
- 4 How do Automatic Watches work?
- 5 How to Wind an Automatic Watch?
- 6 Quartz Movement versus Automatic
- 7 Are Automatic Watches Worth the Price?
Well not really…
What is an automatic watch?
An automatic watch (also known as a self-winding watch) is a type of watch that can operate as a result of the natural motion of the watch wearer. It is a type of mechanical watches (timepieces that require no batteries) and does not require a watch winder to jump start its operation.
Inside any mechanical watch, a mainspring turns on the watch gears. The “energy” that powers the watch resides in the mainspring by turning the knob or crown on the side of the wristwatch. The watch user will need to turn and turn this knob (winding the mainspring), powering up the watch. Then the energy is released, jump starting the watch movement until it runs down. At which point, the crown would be required to turned again.
A self-winding or automatic watch has a system which winds the mainspring by employing the motions of the watch wearer’s body. The self-winding watch has a weight that turns on a pivot. As the watch wearer goes about his or her daily activities, the motion cause a rotor to pivot on its staff, which is attached to a winding mechanism.
A complex system powered by a series of gears will eventually wind the mainspring. Hence, the natural motion of the wearer’s body constantly refills “energy” to the automatic watch’s mainspring. This is in stark contrast to a mechanical watch that requires a watch winder to power up the watch.
For many automatic watches, a fully powered mainspring can store enough energy to allow a watch to work for two days straight. Hence, it can be left on a stationary position, such as sitting on a couch. However, if unworn for 24 to 48 hours, the watch will likely stop functioning.
Finally, the automatic watch can be manually powered as well. The user can simple turn the knob on the side of the watch. Most self-winding watches can be wound with 30 rotations to get it working again.
Automatic watches have fairly accurate movements. Like mechanical watches, an automatic watch can be plus or minus two seconds of time a day. It varies by watch, and it varies by brand. Hence, it’s important to do your research and read this review on the very best automatic watches.
Automatic watches have a storied history and highly sought after. Since it has a complex mechanism to power and operate the watch, the craftsmanship is key. The movement is of paramount importance. Hence, watch enthusiasts and collectors alike spend a good deal of time researching and testing various watch brands available for sale.
Automatic or self-winding watches come in all varieties of sizes and prices. In this guide on automatic watches, my hope is that I can cover the voluminous material on this topic to help you make an informed buying decision.
Whether or not you’re a casual buyer or a serious watch collector, a good automatic watch deserves consideration and a place in anyone’s wardrobe.
History of the Self Winding Watch
According to a history book on watches, a fellow by the name of Joseph Tlustos managed to create a watch in 1773, and it required no watch winder. In 1776, a Joseph Gallmayr also claimed that he was the first to make fully functional automatic watch. However, both claims are still in doubt.
According to Wikipedia, it was Abraham-Louis Perrelet, a Swiss watchmaker, that has the earliest credible claim on being the first to create a self-winding watch. Between 1776-1777, he created a self-winding mechanism for pocket watches, and it only needed 15 minutes of walking to wind the watch to its full potential.
From this time to the 20th century, almost all the automatic watches manufactured was pocket watches. In the 1920s, the very first automatic watches were becoming more prominent for the average watch user.
With the help of Swiss manufacturer Fortis, John Harwood created “Bumper” watches and went on sale in 1928. It sold well over 30,000 timepieces, making it the very first commercially successful line of automatic wristwatches. The company eventually collapsed in 1931, during the Great Depression.
In 1930, the Rolex Watch company improved upon John Harwood’s design and created the Rolex Oyster Perpetual line of automatic watches. Rolex made a slight tweak to the Harwood’s mechanism, which resulted in much longer lasting watch. Rolex’s version allowed the automatic watch to run constantly for up to 35 hours.
In 1948, the technology for automatic watches improved even further with the introduction of the Eterna Watch. This particular watch was the first to use ball bearings as part of the watch’s mechanism. This feature provided a strong support for a heavy object to rotate smoothly. Thereby, improving the auto-winder of a self-winding watch.
By the 1960s, the automatic watch became the standard for mechanical watches. And today, almost all mechanical watches are automatic and only few exceptions require a watch winder.
Best Automatic Watches for men:
Under $100 price: Seiko, Forsining, Assute
Seiko has been around a long time. Founded in 1881, this watchmaker from Japan has an extensive line of watches. From chronograph watches to minimalist watches, they have a watch for everybody.
Seiko watches use the Japanese movement, which powers a lot of the watches of the world. They make wristwatches for both men and women.
One of the most popular automatic watch for Seiko is the Automatic Stainless Steel Watch. It’s built for the outdoor type and is ready to partner with you on many outdoor adventures. It’s also classy enough for a night out or clubbing with the guys and gals.
It has a fashionable green strap with a traditional buckle. The green dial matches with the strap to complete its suave look. It looks almost camouflaged with its green color. Perfect – if you’re the Rambo type who likes to spend days hiding in the bushes and hunting for game.
Beneath the watch dial contains a 21-jewel automatic movement which keeps this watch functioning without a battery. Since its built for the outdoor type, you won’t ever have to worry about this watch running out of battery.
Main features of this watch:
- Imported from Japan
- Military inspired watch with a green dial and matching strap
- Case is 37mm with a strap length of 7 inches
- 5 ATM rating and good for up to 30m underwater.
The watch has an average of four stars with over 2,000+ user reviews on Amazon. It’s a great value for the outdoor Rambo type, yet elegant enough for social functions.
Priced under $100 (sometimes less than $50), the Forsining Automatic Watch would work for the price conscious. Just who is Forsining?
The Forsining Brand was founded in 2006 and has emerged as a leader in the design, production, marketing and sales of automatic and mechanical watches. It’s line includes Winner, Jargar and of course, Forsining. They have watch designers and experts all over the world: France, Italy and Hong Kong.
This particular automatic wristwatch has all the convenience and durability of a fashion watch and can be worn at the office. As an automatic watch, it requires no battery so as long as you’re typing away at your desk, your Forsining timepiece will keep on ticking and tocking.
The bank is made of leather with a durable stainless clasp. It is backed by a 90 day limited manufacturer’s warranty.
Main features and functionality of this watch:
- 21- Jewels Automatic movement and tourbillon on the dial
- Stainless steel crown and special dial design
- Comprehensive calendar and protective mineral crystal window
- Comes with Original Gift Bot and 2-year warranty.
It has close to 5 star reviews from a dozen users. It’s greatest selling point is the price. If you’re unfamiliar with automatic watches and have a limited budget, then this watch brand could be an option for the price conscious.
Another automatic watch that comes in under $100 (a shade below $50 in fact) is the Affute Luxury Men’s Automatic watch. With this fancy leather watch, you can still buy all the accessories to build a nice fashionable ensemble.
This watch has a shock-resistant and automatic movement that will work for the underwater adventurer, as it has a 5 ATM rating (good for up to 50m underwater).
It is powered by a quality Japanese-automatic self-wind skeleton Tourbillion Movement.
- Imported Japanese movement
- Automatic so no battery needed only an active wearer
- 5 ATM rating so good for up to 50m underwater
- Has day/date, and moon phase function
- 1 year warranty with 24/7 customer service
This watch has average of four star from about 50 users on Amazon. If you’re price conscious and curious about the automatic watch, this or the Forsining could be an option that will not put a big hole in your wallet.
Over $100 and under $200 price: Orient
Orient has been manufacturing, developing and specializing in mechanical watches for over seven decades. It is considered by many as one of the top mechanical watchmakers from Japan. Hence, the moniker “Orient.”
Since they are based in Japan, they primarily rely on the Japanese movement. This reliance on this movement allows them to create watches of the highest quality, which “speaks to Orient’s true passion in watchmaking.”
The Orient Ray II is a follow up from their original Ray, and was designed to be a big seller worldwide. The new Ray Ii has a 22-jewel, Caliber F69 automatic movement. Hence, it requires no batteries and can be powered by an active watch wearer.
The new movement has a self-winding, hand-winding function. Furthermore, the new Ray II contains an improved uni-directional bezel with 120 clicks. It’s case has a sleek new design for a slimmer and minimalist look.
Highlights of the Orient’s Ray II:
- Imported from Japan
- Orient F6922 Automatic, hand-winding, Hacking movement
- Has date and calendar functions
- Uses the world renowned Japanese watch movement for accuracy and reliability
The watch has an average of 5 stars out of 5 (!) from close to 200 customers on Amazon. It’s a great step up from someone who is looking to get a second automatic watch for their collection.
If you’re curious about other watches from Orient, or don’t like the stainless steel style, then consider the Bambino automatic wristwatch from Orient. This update on the original Bambino has a dial that features a light, metallic sunburst that’s offset by polished hour markers and hands.
It contains a date window and sits at the 3’oclock marker. It has a very simple dial but is powered by the Japanese movement. Finally, instead of a stainless steel strap, you have an elegant leather strap. Some people don’t like the stainless steel style. If you are one of them, then this particular style could work for someone looking for a watch under $200.
Over $200 and under $300 price: Bulova
Based in the United States, Bulova has been making watches since 1875. Joseph Bulova founded the company on Maiden Lane in downtown New York City. Their motto is:
“A Bulova Watch is not only a timepiece; it is a piece of history.”
One of their best sellers in the automatic category is the Bulova Automatic Black Leather Strap Watch (Model 96A135). It is part of their self-winding automatic watch collection. It has a 21-jewel movement, visible from the watch dial.
Since it’s an automatic movement, it requires no batteries only an active user. The stainless steel dial contains a domed metalized crystal, patterned black and gray.
Here are the main highlights of this watch:
- Automatic movement
- 21 Jewel Movement visible through the domed crystal
- Stainless steel case
- Exhibition case back
- 24 hour subdial
- Black leather strap
- 5 ATM rating, providing water resistance for up to 30 meters.
The watch has average of 5 stars from over 100+ customers in Amazon. It’s an elegant watch for someone who is already familiar with the automatic watch style.
Over $300 and under $500 price: Seiko and Hamilton
If you’ve read our guide on chronograph watches, then you’d have learned about the rich history of Hamilton chronograph watches. As part of the Swatch Group, they are world renowned for their comprehensive and quality line of watches.
Hamilton is based in Switzerland and has powered by the reliable Swiss watch movement. If you’re unfamiliar with the Swiss movement or with Hamilton, the Khaki King Series Stainless Seel Automatic watch. For a price of under $500, this would be a great watch to introduce yourself to the Hamilton brand.
This Hamilton watch has a stainless steel case with a brown croc-embossed leather strap. It has a fixed stainless, metallic bezel. It has a scratch resistant synthetic sapphire crystal.
Here are the main highlights of this watch:
- Stainless steel watch with a round black dial
- Day/date display and a 24-hour time on innder dial
- Automatic self-wind movement with analog display
- Leather trap with contrast stitching
- 5 ATM rating on our water resistance schedule.
This watch averages 4.5 stars from over 150+ user reviews on Amazon. Hamilton is a world famous brand and has been known for high quality. At this price point, it’s a great way to introduce yourself into the world of Swiss watches.
Going back to another Seiko watches, they do have a popular automatic watch in this price range. If you want to stick with the Japanese movement, then consider the Japanese Automatic Stainless steel casual watch.
This particular watch is powered by the self-winding movement, which also powers many of the Seiko Prospex line of watches. When fully powered, the watch has a 50 hour power reserve. The date display is located at the 3 o’clock position. It has a stainless steel bracelet.
Here is a quick overview of the watch:
- Imported from Japan
- Automatic, Japanese movement with a 50 hour power reserve
- Sapphire crystal dial
- A case diameter of 38.4mm
- Water resistance of up to 10ATM.
This is a step up from the Seiko automatic watches already covered in this guide. This is one of the few watches that has over 10ATM, which means it’s water resistant for up to 330 feet. Seiko again has a storied history and is world renowned for quality.
This would be a great addition to your Seiko watch collection.
Over $500 and under $1000 price: Citizen and Rado
Citizen (officially known as the Citizen Watch Co., LTD) is a watch conglomerate company, based in Tokyo Japan. They are one of the main reasons why the Japanese movement has become one of the best in the world.
A group of Swiss investors founded the company in 1930. It acquired the Shokosha Watch Research Institute and various other watch manufacturing facilities in Yokohama in 1912. From there, the very first Citizen watches were manufactured for sale.
For automatic watches under $1000, Citizen has a great product for this price range. Consider the Citizen Men’s NB0040-58A (the Signature Collection Grand Classic), which is a stainless steel automatic watch.
Here are the main highlights of this watch:
- 42 hour power reserve
- Automatic, self-winding mechanism with 24 Jewels
- Date settings at the 3 o’clock location
- Dual coated, anti-reflective and sapphire crystal face
- Available with a clear dial, black dial and even a leather strap
- 10 ATM water rating (water resistance up to 100 meters)
At this price range, I found this Citizen watch similar to the Baron watches from Heritor. They are both similarly priced, except the Heritor Baron watches have a more hexagonal shape. You can read my Heritor watch review for further details.
Based in Switzerland, the Rado watch company was founded in 1917 and is known for launching the first scratch-resistant watch called Diastar in 1962. This watch company has gained worldwide fame and recognition after winning various awards, including the Red Dot Award, the iF Design Award and the Good Design Award.
They make over 500,000+ watches per year with an employee count of about 470 worldwide. Their watchmaking process was one of the very first to utilize a polycrystalline diamond. Finally, their watches are run by the world renowned Swiss movement.
If you’re new to Rado, then consider their Centrix Stainless Automatic watch. It has a stainless steel case with a stainless steel bracelet. The Rado brand name is placed at the top of the dial with minute markers around the outer rim.
Don’t let the minimalist design fool you. This is a well-made watch that runs on the Swiss movement.
Here are the main highlights:
- Rado Centrix L
- Swiss Automatic movement
- Fancy dress watch for work or play
- Scratch resistant sapphire crystal face
- Round case shape
- 38mm x 42mm case dimensions
- Band width of 16.3 mm
- 5 ATM rating
This Rado automatic watch has an average of 4.7 stars from six users on Amazon. Again, Rado is a great brand renowned for its quality. It’s another great entry point for anyone interested in Swiss watchmaking or someone looking for an automatic watch under $1000.
Over $1000 price: Omega and TAG Heuer
This price range is broad which encompasses everything from Omega to Patek Philippe.
I’ve covered the Omega brand before in my guide to the chronograph style. They are the official brand for James Bond, and I highly suggest you take a look at their 007 watch, especially if you are a collector or serious watch enthusiast.
Omega was founded in 1848 and was rebranded as “Omega” in 1903. They have gained fame because they are the official brand for NASA, and has been a preferred brand for famous aviators of the past.
They make everything from chronograph watches to automatic watches. If you’re considering an automatic watch from Omega over $1000, then consider the Omega Seamaster Analog. It has the looks of a classic Omega watch.
It has the branding on top of the watch dial. It’s adorned with a stainless steel bracelet.
Here are the main highlights:
- Steel case with a stainless steel bracelet
- Uni-directional rotating blue ceramic bezel
- Luminous silver-tone hands and dot hour markers
- Date display at the 3 o’clock poition
- Omega caliber 2500 automatic movement with a 48-hour power reserve
- Scratch resistant crystal.
This automatic watch from Omega has near perfect reviews from 30+ users on Amazon. Again, Omega is the official watch for NASA astronauts. If its built for space, then it’s definitely durable for someone with an active lifestyle.
Finally, it’s sleek and stylish look makes it worthwhile to wear at formal and casual settings.
TAG Heuer Brand
TAG Heuer is another Swiss luxury brand. Founded by Edouard Heuer in 1860, this watchmaker officially began operations as Uhrenmanufaktur Heuer AG. In 1985, the TAG Group purchased a controlling share of the company and formed what is now known as TAG Heuer.
Finally, the French luxury clothing company LVMH acquired TAG Heuer in 1999.
Needless to say, TAG Heuer is synonymous with quality and prestige. It’s on the same level as Rolex and Omega in terms of its target market and brand positioning. Since its from Switzerland, it’s powered by the world famous Swiss watch movement.
If you’re in the market for a TAG Heuer or interested in a luxury automatic watch, consider the Stainless Steel Automatic Watch (Model WAZ2113.BA0875).
Here are the main highlights of this TAG Heuer watch:
- Imported from Switzerland
- Black dial with notched bezel and logo under the 12 o’clock position
- 41mm stainless steel case with sapphire dial window
- Swiss automatic movement with analog display
- Only watch in this review with 20ATM rating (up to 200 meter water resistance!)
Pricing in just a little over a $1000, this automatic watch provides excellent value for its price. It has an average of 4.5 stars from 20+ customer reviews.
TAG Heuer is a well-regarded brand and you can rest easy, knowing this watch will last you years.
How do Automatic Watches work?
The automatic watch is composed of five major parts namely the time indicator, wheels or gear train, balance or controller wheel, escarpment and energy source. These parts merge to achieve the watches timekeeping function and their working is as follows:
1. Energy source
The hands definitely require energy from some source so as to move and the mainspring is tasked with the duty of providing that energy needed for operation. According to physics, energy cannot be destroyed but it is simply transformed from one form to another. And this is the principle upon which the mainspring (a long steel strip tightly rolled and concealed within a barrel) operates as it steadily transfers the potential energy when it unwinds to kinetic energy required to move the hands.
2. Gear train
The gear train, also known as the wheel train, is actually just as its name suggests: a set of gears physically linked together through contact via their teeth and shaft interfaces. Akin to how a train moves people from one point to another, so too does the gear train transfer energy from the mainspring to the remaining watch mechanisms.
A single shaft revolution translates to a small rotation of its linked teeth. Therefore, depending on the number of times it can rotate, the mainspring barrel can generate numerous rotations from small amounts of energy and consequently turn the set of wheels that govern hours, seconds and minutes. This aspect where a tiny amount of power generates massive rotations is what gives the watch a high power reserve.
The escarpment’s function is the equivalent of brakes to a car. Aided by the balance wheel, it works to ensure the wheels do not spin out of control by steadily regulating the wheels’ rotation speed. So the accuracy of the watch can also be credited to the escarpment.
The escarpment is composed of a forked lever and an escape wheel where the latter’s teeth are linked to the forked lever while its shaft is connected to the gear train. The forked lever controls the locking mechanism which, in turn, causes the stepwise movement of the escape wheel.
4. Controller Wheel
An impulse pin, which controls the motion of the forked lever, swings from side to side in line with the controller wheel which rocks back and forth because of its accompanying hairspring. This hairspring releases and absorbs constant energy regularly and any slight change in its work will result in the watch’s malfunction.
The controller wheel, escape wheel and forked lever are basically the vital components that define the watch’s accuracy. They are also responsible for another aspect i.e. the watch’s characteristic tick-tick sound which is down to the locking mechanism of the escape wheel and the forked lever colliding with the impulse pin.
5. Time Indicator
Different wheels are connected to different hands so as to give the various aspects of time. For instance, the hour and minute hands are connected to wheels that rotate once in an hour and 60 times within that period respectively. The second hand is, of course, connected to another separate wheel that can turn 60 times in a single minute.
Basically, that’s all about the inner workings of the automatic watch and the answer to the question ‘how do automatic watches work?’ can essentially be narrowed down to these five components.
How to Wind an Automatic Watch?
While automatic watches are generally self-winding, they do need a little push down that slope from time to time hence why we take a look at how to wind an automatic watch:
1. Manual winding via the crown
Manual winding is particularly recommended when the watch is just fresh off the shelf and the hand movements are yet to start ticking. At this point, the mainspring is completely unwound hence devoid of any energy and mere shaking as most people often do, would not fully wind the spring.
This winding can be done by simply pushing in the crown, which you might need to first unscrew in the case of a screw-down crown, and turning it about 30 to 40 times in the clockwise direction. By this number of turns, the mainspring ought to be completely wound and the watch can be worn on the active wrist without needing further rewinding any time soon.
If you inadvertently pull the crown out too far and thus interfere with time settings, then reset the watch using clockwise motions only. The watch is designed to operate this way and turning the hands anticlockwise could interfere with the gear mechanisms. Also important to note is that date alteration should be done when the hands are in the 6 o’clock position because it is at this time that the delicate gear discs are certainly disengaged.
2. Manual winding via natural movements
Regular winding is especially advisable for those people whose everyday movements are restricted due to some condition e.g. sickness or old age. Typically, a wound automatic watch can store energy for up to 48 hours so winding ought to be done at least once in that time frame. You can wind the watch by simply shaking your arm back and forth every once in a while.
Alternatively, you could take it off and put your fingers through the enclosed wristband then give it a couple of good subtle shakes. When taking part in faced-paced activities e.g. sports such as tennis, then it is advisable to take off your watch as it is designed to work with regular everyday motions and this fast movement could damage the gears.
3. Watch Winder technique
If you are not going to use the watch for a considerable amount of time, say like a day or two or more, then the watch winder affords a great means of automatically ensuring your watch is constantly wound. It is simply a jewelry-esque box that holds the watch in place and regularly turns it every so often as dictated by a timer. This motion, which mimics the vibrations the watch incurs whilst on the wearer’s wrist, keeps the weight attached to the rotor of the mainspring constantly moving and hence continuously winds the watch.
A good winder should be able to alternate the motion between anticlockwise and clockwise directions so as to ensure that wear is not concentrated on a single side. More important to remember is that a winder is your best at properly and safely winding your watch compared to the manual option which, if done incorrectly, could interfere with the movement.
If you constantly wear your watch and are considerably active, then manually winding your automatic watch is not something you’ll need to worry about.
Quartz Movement versus Automatic
Watch movement is simply the engine that runs the watch and in this section, we dissect the differences between two varieties by delving into the quartz movement vs automatic debate.
1. Source of power
The quart movement obtains its power from a small battery which is normally found within the case back while the automatic watch movement doesn’t need a battery to operate. Its power is obtained through a self-winding spring that generates power by transforming the spring’s potential energy into kinetic energy.
2. Operational differences
The way the movements execute their timekeeping functionalities are as different from each as the north is to the south. The quartz keeps time through a series of vibrations instigated by the electric charge provided by the battery while an automatic movement works to keep time through a mainspring whose unwinding causes gears to turn and consequently moves the time indicators.
3. Winding differences
A quartz watch needs no winding whatsoever as it alleviates the need for a mainspring rather opting for electrically induced vibrations to run a step motor connected to the hands. An automatic watch, on the other hand, needs winding although the winding is automated to occur as the weighted rotor spins in response to wrist movements. However, it can also be wound manually through the crown. Normally, this rotor can be seen through the back of a clear cased automatic watch atop the system of gears.
4. Motion of the hands
The differences stem right from the movement of the hands or rather the movement of the seconds’ hand. If you pay close attention you’ll notice the quartz’s second hand has a sort of a ticking motion where it briefly pauses between intervals. With an automatic watch, the movement is a lot more seamless and can be described as a smooth sweeping motion along the diameter of the face.
Every movement has some kind of an oscillator and for the quartz, that oscillator is the quartz material itself that acts as such thanks to its piezoelectric property. For an automatic watch, that role is taken up by the balance wheel that moves back and forth very quickly as dictated by the hairspring attached to it.
With regards to thickness, a quartz movement is normally smaller compared to an automatic movement. Consequently, the thickness could be as little as 1 mm while for automatic watches, that thickness is hardly ever below the 7 mm mark. While there are no standards for thickness per se, the case is that an automatic movement is always a tad bigger in size.
The accuracy of an automatic movement is no doubt unquestionable; however, when compared to a quartz movement, the quartz wins the accuracy race. Its unrivalled precision is down to the quartz component that is a steadier oscillator compared to the automatic’s balance wheel. Furthermore, quartz experiences very little losses. In the long run, these properties give it an accuracy edge over the automatic movement.
The first automatic movement can be traced back to the 17th century although the first self-winding watch was only invented in 1923. Quartz movement, on the other hand, traces its roots back to the 1960s.
Are Automatic Watches Worth the Price?
The automatic watch style is definitely a step up from the minimalist style of MVMT. It’s not built for aviators like the automatic watch. However, the self winding watch’s ability to power itself through the user’s actions is like magic.
You never have to deal with replacing batteries or defective batteries. Just slap on the automatic watch on your wrist and go!
We’ve covered an exhaustive list (and features) of some of the world’s best chronograph watches by price. It’s not an exhaustive and complete list of all the watch brands out there. My hope is that this review has instilled a curiosity for the self winding watch.