Rolex, Daytona Rainbow, Reference 116595rbow Pink Gold Diamond and Sapphire-Set Chronograph Wristwatch with Diamond, Sapphire-Set Dial and Case with Bracelet, circa 2018.
Watches

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.
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.
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.

More from Sotheby's

We use our own and third party cookies to enable you to navigate around our Site, use its features and engage on social media, and to allow us to perform analytics, remember your preferences, provide services that you have requested and produce content and advertisements tailored to your interests, both on our Site as well as others. For more information, or to learn how to change your cookie or marketing preferences, please see our updated Privacy Policy & Cookie Policy.

By continuing to use our Site, you consent to our use of cookies and to the practices described in our updated Privacy Policy.

Close