When one thinks of watch complications, one tends to think of the surreal and the unusual. That’s because those are the complications that watchmakers tend to use to show off in the marketplace.
These days, new models come along on a regular basis with an increasing number of fascinating features. You’ll see perpetual calendars, and minute repeaters, and all manner of astronomy-related mechanisms showing you the relative locations of the sun, the moon, the planets and who-knows-what else.
It’s enough to make us wax nostalgic about the “old days” when a moonphase display was considered to be an exotic complication.
With the race on to see who can create the most elaborate watches with the most unusual features, people tend to ignore what may be the single most common watch complication of all – the automatic watch.
In fact, the automatic watch movement is such a common complication today that it, like the tourbillon, is often not regarded as a complication at all. Still, by the most common definition, that being a watch feature that does something other than tell the time, the self-winding automatic movement should qualify.
Self-winding pocket watches were first made experimentally more than two hundred years ago, though they never were produced on a mass scale.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the self-winding movement began to appear in wrist watches and even then, it took several decades to come up with a movement that was reliable and which didn’t have drawbacks. Early models had “knocks” which occurred when the rotating weight hit a spring that was installed to cushion the rotor as it hit the end of its stroke.
Obviously, no one would want to own a watch that either made noise or which had a weight that you could actually feel moving while you were going about your day. These early models used a mechanism that modern automatic watches use, but one that had yet to be refined.
Eventually, someone patented a method that worked well and then, as these things usually go, someone else got a hold of that method and improved it. In the case of the automatic watch, that movement was improved by Rolex, which began working on it in the early 1930s. By the mid-1950s, they were using it in most of their watches.
Of course, other companies picked up on it, too, as no one was going to allow Rolex to be the only company that sold a watch that didn’t need to be wound on a daily basis. By the mid-1960s, the automatic watch was so common that few people found it remarkable anymore.
There have been a few refinements since, mostly involving making the movement as thin as possible. Anything that adds complexity to a watch movement will also add size, and in the case of automatic movements, which require a moving weight to wind the watch, these movements usually resulted in a thicker watch. Over the years, however, many companies have developed a way to make a self-winding movement that isn’t noticeably thicker than one that is manually wound.
Fortunately for buyers, automatic watches are now common enough that the addition of that complication also adds little to the cost of the watch. In fact, in addition to being the most common watch complication, a self-winding movement is also likely the most affordable and most useful.