The Wonder of Manual Wind Watches

To many laypersons who have begun their fascination with luxury watchmaking, the terms “mechanical watch” and “automatic” are interchangeable. They eagerly look for a “sweeping” second hand to tell them that the watch is an automatic, and therefore fine or valuable. That sure described me. Remember the 80’s, when the “reliable” way to verify the authenticity of a Rolex Perpetual was to examine the second hand? If it swept, well, it had to be genuine, right? Of course, today, automatic-winding movements representing all degrees of luxury are produced in places from Switzerland to Japan, in quality ranging from the cream to the crud. I want to take a moment to extol the virtues of that most purist of mechanical watches, the kind which must be wound by hand to remain animated.

Before I begin, don’t get me wrong: automatic-winding mechanical watches are marvelous; some of the great auto-wind movements such as the Patek 240, Audemars/JLC 2120, and the Chopard 1.96 demonstrate both great beauty and sophistication with the added practicality brought about by our arm movements keeping them ticking. But, hold on a minute…..if we only wanted maximum efficiency for minimum output of effort, might’nt we choose a good ol’ reliable quartz watch, or maybe even our cellular phone, either of which would require no interaction (beyond maybe a mere battery change now and then for the watch) and keep excellent time?

No, of course not! The devotee of horology chooses the anachronistic mechanical watch because it possesses “soul” and the stamp of its creator. Which brings me to my point – the manual wind, even more than the automatic, takes this love of the intangible and romantic to its most satisfying conclusion. It is a delicate machine with which we must daily interact with, in the same way our bodies require nourishment to survive.

The list of distinguished horological masterworks which are manually wound is a long one and for brevity’s sake, I offer only a few examples. Consider the magnificent Grande Sonneries of both past and present by Audemars Piguet, or the original Girard Perregaux Three-Bridge Tourbillon. Or the “Tour de l’Ile” wristwatch from Vacheron Constantin which features 16 complications, including a rotating star map. Then there’s the Caliber 89 from Patek Philippe, a pocketwatch which combined a mind-boggling 33 complications. Three of the world’s currently most coveted chronographs – the PanoRetroGraph from Glashutte Original, the Datograph from A. Lange & Sohne  and the Ref. 5970 from Patek Philippe – are all manually wound, their virtuouso mechanics blessedly free from the distraction a rotor or automatic winding bridge would create for the admiring gaze of their owners.

Patek Philippe – Caliber 89
A. Lange & Sohne – Datograph

IWC’s pinnacle acheivement, the Destriero Scafusia, is also wound by hand. In the day of chronometer competitions, a grand time when various notable manufacturers submitted observatory movements for testing and ranking, painstakingly adjusted manual-winds ruled the day, despite automatic-winders being in production and increasingly gaining the favor of the public.

Independent watchmakers considered the greatest of our age also revere – and often prefer – the purity of the manual winding concept for their individually produced masterpieces. This roster of genius would include George Daniels, Philippe Dufour, Kari Voutilainen, and Daniel Roth, to name a few. Of course, exceptions exist with all things, and there are certainly amazing high complications and technical acheivements which utilize automatic winding; the Blancpain 1735, the Astrolabium from Ulysse Nardin, and the Audemars Piguet Grande Complication are prime examples. In general, however, a lions share of historically notable pieces have been manually wound.

Blancpain 1735

Briefly consider, also, the beautiful slender simplicity of classical manual winds, from vintage delights such as the Patek Philippe Ref. 96 Calatrava to modern watches of distinction from great companies like Audemars Piguet, Piaget, or Vacheron Constantin. Even better, the joy of hand-winding is not the sole preserve of heirs, monarchs or plutocrats; watches like the Omega Speedmaster Professional or Daniel Jean-Richard Bressel provide great satisfaction for a very reasonable expenditure.

There will always be something special about savoring the smooth hum of perfectly crafted gears as the manual wind is brought to life for a special occasion and then laid to rest until it is called for again. Like popping the cork from a bottle of wine, trimming a cigar, or clicking through the sequence of gears in a gated shifter, the act of manually winding a watch is a ritual of affirmation for those who prefer to savor life’s fine details.