I know that watch movements can degrade if they’re not regularly wound. But why is that? Shouldn’t they simply stay the way they are?
Time doesn’t stop just because you’re not wearing the watch. Would you expect your car to start up instantly and run like a top if you left it in the garage for a year? Two years? Five? Watches are machines. They’ll wear like any other machine; they require maintenance even if you use them on a regular basis. And especially if you don’t.
Lubricants deteriorate over time, as do gaskets. But the biggest place you’ll see a loss of performance is in the escapement. Most watches have a lever escapement, which needs oil to run properly. The other problem with leaving a watch alone for too long comes in if you decide to wear it regularly again. Gears in a watch running in dry pivots will run fine until they don’t, and by the time you notice problems, the cumulative wear may leave you stuck with an expensive repair bill – or worse, if it’s a vintage watch, with hard-to-find parts.
Why should I care how many jewels my watch has? I can’t even see them.
Jewels in watches are usually synthetic rubies, and they are used as bearings for the steel pivots of gears in the gear train; steel against ruby, with a good oil, is almost frictionless. Using jewels for pivots started in the early 18th century, although it didn’t start to become really widespread for another hundred years. A simple, time-only watch movement usually has 17 jewels, for every pivot in the gear train, plus three in the escapement.
Giving a jewel count is a little bit of a holdover from the days when not every watch had jeweled bearings – cheap, mass-produced watch and clock movements often had few or none, depending on the design. High jewel count became associated with quality by consumers, so boasting about it became something brands did as well (it got taken to ridiculous lengths; at one point, some companies would actually glue non-functional rubies into the case, just to up the jewel count. Shame…shame.)
Yeah, it’s something of an anachronism, but so is mechanical horology. And by the way, a watch is absolutely chock-a-block full of things you should care about that you can’t see.
Will my laptop magnetize my watch?
Magnetic fields come from two places: Permanent magnets, and electrical current flow. You have both in your laptop; the speakers in your laptop use permanent magnets, and depending on the model, there might be magnets above the screen, to hold the laptop shut without a mechanical latch. My MacBook Pro has magnets in the speakers and above the screen powerful enough to hold down a pair of steel tweezers, so it’s not nothing.
Whether or not those permanent magnets, and/or the induced magnetic field from current flow, are strong enough to affect the balance spring depends on a huge number of variables, including the configuration of the computer, case material of the watch, and so on. You might get into trouble putting your watch on a speaker magnet when the computer’s open, or maybe not; you might be fine putting your watch on a closed laptop that’s turned off completely, but not one that’s in sleep mode, or maybe not. The amount of current running through your laptop varies with what it’s doing, which will also affect the strength of the magnetic field induced by current flow.
Short of ponying up for a magnetometer and testing your own laptop, there’s no easy way to know how strong a field it’s generating, on or off, open or shut. Why not just err on the side of caution, and avoid putting your watch down on it? The balance spring you save may be your own.
What does a tourbillon actually, ya know, do?
The tourbillon is a complication whose function is to separate a client from as much money as possible.
Okay, seriously. Gather ’round, children, and hear the tale of watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet: Swiss-born, did biz in France with the aristos before and after the French Revolution, and invented more stuff before breakfast than most other watchmakers could in a lifetime (he made what was at the time the most complicated watch in the world, for Marie Antoinette, which she was unable to collect when it was finally finished, on account of by then having no head).
Breguet, and every other watchmaker then and now, knew that watches tend to run a little fast, or a little slow, depending on the position of the watch: Gravity tugs on the regulating components (mostly the balance and balance spring) differently whether the watch is crown up (as it would be in a pocket; wristwatches didn’t exist 200 years ago) or in some other position.
His idea was this: Put the balance, balance spring, and escapement inside a rotating mechanical cage, and instead of a bunch of different rates in different positions, you’ll get a single average rate in all positions. The average rate is the average for all the so-called vertical positions, and if you then adjust the rate of the watch when it’s lying flat (on your ormolu-decorated dressing table in your chateau, par example) to match, why, theoretically you should have a perfect timekeeper. And this rotating gizmo is the tourbillon – the name refers to the rotation of the cage; it’s French for “whirlwind.”
Sounds good – but whether or not this actually works is something people have been arguing about ever since Breguet got his patent in 1801. For most of watchmaking history, tourbillons were made by hand, one at a time, and they were extremely rare. Nowadays, thanks to modern computer-programmed machine tools, they are a lot easier to make, and they are pretty much obsolete as practical aids to accuracy. But they look super cool. Mechanical watches in general are obsolete tech, so you can’t really hold that against the tourbillon.
And watchmakers still love making them; really well-made tourbillons are still a rarity. In mechanical horology, it’s how you do what you’re doing that counts.
Fun fact: A tourbillon is usually called a “complication,” like a chronograph or perpetual calendar, but some purists balk because tourbillons do not show any additional information. It is, they say, not a complication, but a regulating device. These folks are probably about as much fun as the people who wait around until someone mentions Van Gogh so they can correct their pronunciation, but they’re in fact correct, if not necessarily the life of the party.
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