The Mechanical Soul

Quartz wristwatches were first introduced for sale in 1969 by Seiko; their introductory model was called the Astron. Owing to its electronic oscillator, which is regulated by a quartz crystal (from which this type of watch derives its name), the Astron kept superior time to mechanical watches powered by a wound spring. Because its internal machinery is much less complicated, Seiko’s watch and millions of quartz watches since were able to be mass-produced on a scale that allowed affordability. Later models were made automatic, so that motions of the wrist caused an internal rotor to spin and generate electricity to power the watch.

Like most things electric, quartz watches quickly overcame mechanical ones and, like most things hand-crafted, mechanical watches have become more dear. They rely on a wound mini-spring to activate a balance wheel, which ticks back and forth at a constant rate and is divided by a gear train into hours, minutes, and seconds.

Mechanical watches, via Breguet.

The internal machinery of a mechanical watch is wondrous; in England, a watchmaker’s world is said to be no larger than a postage stamp. Craftsmen pour over magnifying lenses fixed to workbenches and, to the consternation of modernity, spend years assembling miniuture gears and rotors by hand and tweezer. They produce hundreds of beautiful machines, each as unique as the fingers which wound its springs.

That human touch comes at a price. The labor-intensive nature of mechanical watchmaking means pieces retail for thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars. Several range in the hundreds of thousands, or more: a Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon recently sold at auction for $1,240,400.00.

Though a seven-digit price tag is hefty, the appeal is undeniable. Most things people do and enjoy are made to be quick, efficient, and require as little effort as possible. Television shows can be set to record themselves and computers connect to wireless internet signals automatically as soon as they turn on. Modern technology is a world of convenience. Anything that takes a minute longer to perform a task than its competitor, loses. Yet, people lust after Rolexes, not Timexes, and save to afford a Panerai, not a Seiko.

The appeal of the mechanical watch, in a world of computerized simplicity, is its man-made complexity. Mechanical watches need winding and repairing; they’re fussy and, even in the most perfect condition, don’t keep time as well as a quartz watch, or nearly as cheaply. Yet, they’re coveted. They come off a workbench, not an assembly line. Owners enjoy a connection to the craftsmen who labored over them, and appreciate knowing that the gears and jewels and springs inside were placed and wound by human hands. The connection between craft and product is another layer to the watch, a dimension quartz can’t duplicate, not for all the speedy electricity in the world.  

As efficiency spins toward infinity, we recognize that we stand to lose something in the spinning. We stand to lose the humanity of workmanship. The soul of craft is at stake and, as it becomes ever more endangered, we prove ever more willing to pay for it… to our credit.

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