Rolex Daytona Rainbow

The A-Z of Watches: A is for... Automatic

By Jessica Diamond
As part of Sotheby's series of articles explaining everything you need to know about watches, Jessica Diamond introduces the history and inner workings of automatic watches, the most desirable and complicated timepieces.

N ot all watches are born equal. Quartz or battery-operated timepieces are considered the least superior – they’re accurate, but technically inferior. Hand-wound is next – a huge mechanical leap forwards, but not the best. That accolade is reserved for the automatic timepiece – the watch that essentially winds itself.

Patek Philippe, Nautilus, Reference 5711P, A Fine and Rare Platinum Bracelet Watch with Date and Blue Jeans Dial, circa 2014. Estimate HK$1,600,000–2,400,000.

Englishman and watchmaker John Harwood is credited with its invention, having secured the patent for the first automatic watch in 1923. So how does it work? Kinetic energy is required, of course, but here it’s the inadvertent movement of the wearer that powers the watch. Located on the back of the mechanism (and often visible through a sapphire crystal case back) a weighted-rotor swings backwards and forwards as the wearer’s wrist moves. This in turn winds the mainspring, storing energy that in turn powers the watch.

Rolex, Daytona Rainbow, Reference 116595rbow Pink Gold Diamond and Sapphire-Set Chronograph Wristwatch with Diamond, Sapphire-Set Dial and Case with Bracelet, circa 2018. Estimate £140,000–240,000.

In theory an automatic watch would never need winding if it were never taken off. The power-reserve, or how much energy the watch can store while static, is therefore key – otherwise those reserves will simply run out requiring the time to be re-set (a watch that can be removed on a Friday and put back-on on a Monday morning without this happening is considered particularly useful). Either way to choose an automatic watch is to own a piece of micro-engineering at its best.

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