Wristwatch Repair 101

Keep your timepiece ticking like clockwork with this guide on wristwatch repair.

*NOTE: In this blog, we’ll be discussing the functionality of mechanical watches and automatic watches — those powered by winding, as opposed to quartz watches, which run by battery power.*

Having trouble with your mechanical or automatic watch? With a machine so intricately detailed, it’s no surprise that things can sometimes get off-track. From running too fast to not running at all, issues can arise from even the smallest mechanical errors. Due to the specialized nature of these amazing machines, most watch issues call for the assistance of a professional.

But before you take your watch in, it helps to know a bit about how its mechanisms work so you can better communicate with your watch repair technician or horologist. Read on for a basic breakdown of a timepiece’s functionality, and a list of common issues that can arise. Once you have a sense of how your watch keeps ticking, you’ll be better equipped to talk shop with the pros — including our staff of certified watch experts at myjewelryrepair.com.

Image Showing Wristwatch Repair in Action

How it Works

While luxury watches like Patek Philippe, Rolex, Omega, and Tag Heuer often come with many bells and whistles (“complications,” in watch-speak), their basic functionality is the same as the simplest wristwatch. And while the simplest wristwatch may appear plain, behind its face lies an intricate system of springs, gears, wheels, and bearings that work together to keep you on time.

This system is known as the watch movement, and it consists of 4 main components: the mainspring, the wheel-train, the escapement, and the balance wheel. While every brand has its own unique approach to constructing its watches’ respective movements, all watches contain the same general mechanisms. Here’s an overview of how each component works, and how to diagnose a problem:

1. Mainspring

This tiny coil serves as the power source of your watch. When you wind a watch — either by hand in mechanical models or by wrist movement in automatic pieces — the mainspring tightens, storing up mechanical energy that, when released, activates the gears that operate the second, minute, and hour hands of your watch.

What can go wrong:

Over time, the mainspring of a watch can warp and deteriorate. Experts refer to this as a “tired” or “set” mainspring.

How to diagnose a problem:

If you find your mechanical watch is requiring more winding than usual, your second hand keeps getting stuck in one place, or your watch has stopped running altogether, you might be having issues with your mainspring.

What the pros will do:

A tired mainspring requires a replacement. Your horologist (watchmaker / watch repair specialist) can install a new one, and also check the watch for other maintenance issues.

2. Wheel Train

The wheel train is a set of 5 gears that work together to temper the power provided from the mainspring. When the mainspring coil releases, it provides energy that sets off the first of these five gears. The gears are structured in different sizes, with different numbers of notches to convert this power into controlled units of time. The second, minute, and hour hands of your watch make up three of these five gears.

What can go wrong:

Gears require constant contact to move properly. If a gear falls out of place, either by friction within the watch or a change in gravity (i.e., too much movement or flipping of the watch), this contact can be interrupted.

How to diagnose a problem:

If your watch hands are operating abnormally (hands misaligning with the numbers), you might be having an issue with the wheel train — specifically a component called the dial washer, which prevents the gears from falling out of alignment.

What the pros will do:

A professional watch repair technician will peek inside the watch, replace the dial washer if necessary, and re-align the hands to accuracy.

3. Escapement

The escapement is essentially a “stopper” that divides the motion of the wheel train into regular, measured increments of time. It interacts directly with the fifth gear of the wheel train — the escape wheel — and the balance wheel (see below) to temporarily obstruct motion of the gears in a fixed rhythm. It is the escapement’s interaction with the escape wheel and balance wheel that gives the watch its distinctive “tick-tock” sound.

[The balance wheel/escapement is easier to view in a clock]
[Balance wheel/escapement in a watch:]

    What can go wrong:

    The escapement works directly with several components that may affect its efficiency. If any of these malfunction, it will impair the proper functioning of the escapement, and as a result, the accuracy of your timepiece. Friction is also a common culprit in escapement issues. As with the mainspring, wear over time can require a replacement escapement.

    How to diagnose a problem:

    If you find your watch running too fast, or not running at all, this may indicate a problem with the escapement.

    What the pros will do:

    Sometimes, a bit of lubrication is all the watch needs to get back on track. Other times, the escapement must be replaced.

4. Balance Wheel

Set on a tiny torsion spring (hairspring), the balance wheel works directly with the escapement in a cycle: As the escapement temporarily stops each gear of the escape wheel, it transfers energy from the gear to the balance wheel, moving the wheel back and causing the hairspring to coil for half a second. As the spring uncoils for another half-second, the balance wheel moves back to reactivate the escapement, which, in turn, moves the escape wheel gear one notch forward per second. This back-and-forth motion between the balance wheel and escapement creates the “tick-tock” of a watch.

    What can go wrong:

    Lots! This is one of the more delicate components of a watch, and one of the most important, as it is integral to the watch’s timekeeping accuracy. Like other components, the hairspring, balance wheel, or escapement can experience wear over time and may eventually require replacing.

    Other problems include friction and external factors like temperature — which can change the torsion of the hairspring — and jostling, which can shift the balance wheel into an undesirable position.

    What the pros will do:

    A professional watch repair technician will be able to lubricate the mechanism, diagnose and replace any faulty parts, and realign any components that have shifted out of place.

Image Showing Wristwatch Movement

How to Keep Your Watch in Order

Most of these problems can be avoided with regular maintenance. Experts recommend getting your watch serviced every three to five years — especially for luxury watch brands, heirloom watches, or antique watches. A short visit every few years will maintain the efficiency and value of your timepiece. Take care of your watch, and you can be sure it’ll keep time for a long time.

For watch maintenance or repair, it’s imperative that you take your timepiece to a vetted watch professional. Myjewelryrepair.com works with certified horologists all over the country to ensure your timepiece gets the best treatment, with minimal effort on your part. Simply fill out our online form, schedule courier pickup, and send in your watch. Within weeks, you’ll receive your watch, in tiptop, tick-tock shape.

For more information about our watch repair services, please visit: Watch Repair Services.