What Are The Best Watch Movements?

Zen L. from Shanghai, China asks:

I have become pretty knowledgeable about watches in a relatively short time thanks in no small part to your wonderful site. But movements are still largely over my head. I understand that such technical knowledge comes with experience over time, but I would like more guidance. For example, I would like to be able to compare side by side many watches using the same ETA (or other) movement, but I have not yet found an internet source that quite achieves this. Prices often vary substantially between watches with the same machinery inside. So what characteristics make certain movements particularly good? And why specifically are Japanese (and others) so much cheaper? So I know there are many variables, but I am trying to phrase this in the form of a question, like on Jeopardy... As a relative novice, what should I look at in a watch's movement?

There is no straight-forward answer to this because for one thing the answer depends on what you value in a watch movement. Some people want the most accurate movements, some people want the most complicated. Others want the most beautifully decorated movements, while others want those that will work and work for years to come. Few movements are able to incorporate all of these things.

Having said that there are a few things that we can state. Also, we aren't watch makers so we can't go ultra in-depth comparing machine to machine as that level of insight isn't our forte. Swiss ETA movements produced by the Swatch Group are mostly excellent. From a sheer quality perspective these are hard to match. They may be common, they may not all be complicated, but they are durable and mostly very reliable. ETA produces a huge volume of movements each year, and has had decades to work out small issues in them in order to make some of the best mass-produced mechanical movements around. All things equal, they are fantastic.

To a large degree, those same qualities apply to Rolex movements, which are known to be accurate, dependable, and easily serviced. Something that is very important to know is that mass produced movements that do the same thing (say, three hand with date) but made from different companies are going to be technically very similar. In a way, it is like a car engine. If three movements are designs with the same functions and require the same level of performance - assuming they each use the same technology, how different are they actually going to be? In reality, not very different at all.

Then you have lower production and exotic watches. As a rule, the lower the production, the more expensive the movements are going to be. That is because the producer cannot earn revenue with volume and must recoup their investment on a limited number of produced items. There is also less incentive for low-production watches to be properly engineered or tested. The watch industry is full of horror stories of highly exotic watch movements not working from day 1 - and then the manufacturer asking for the clients to pay for the repair of defective movements. This is not the norm, but it happens a lot.

So going back to our original thoughts, The more simple and higher production movements that have been produced for the longest are the best. Even the same movements are available in many grades. The famous Swiss ETA Valjoux 7750 movement comes in many grades that increase in price for better parts and decoration.

Japanese movements are cheaper because of their production philosophy. For the most part, if you compare a mass produced ETA with a Miyota the ETA will have a higher level of performance and more attractive parts. But, of course, be much more expensive. Japanese movements are produced much more efficiently, and some of them actually come very close to Swiss performance, even if they don't look as pretty. Japanese movements are often produced outside of Japan where labor is cheaper, while the "Swiss Made" designation requires a more Swiss labor, and the price thereof. Those are some of the reasons that Japanese movements tend to be cheaper.

As you can see, a comparison of movements would be complex, and require a serious level of watchmaking and engineering that few people have. People who buy mechanical watches accept that they aren't as accurate as quartz movements, are more beautiful, and as machines will need to be serviced from time to time. If you are worried about quality and performance, go with brands that use high-grade movements from ETA, or have produced their own movements in-house for a long time offering them the ability to perfect the manufacturing process and work out any kinks in their movements.

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  • YadaZhu2

    Well, I think if you choose a famous brand like JLC, Patek, Lange, Zenith or something the movements will  be fine. When I spend 5k+ for a watch I really don’t want a generic ETA.

  • ZL

    Thank you, great answer! I guess a respectable level of accuracy, long term durability, and user experience are my top priorities. I think a lot of knowledge is just gained from handling various watches. Currently, my pitiful mechanical watch collection consists of TagHeuer Carerra, Hamilton (ETA 2892-2), Sea-Gull ST2130, and a Seiko 5. All but the Sea-Gull have skeleton case backs. Just as the Tag feels like an expensive watch to handle, the Seiko feels cheap in various ways. But that probably has to do with various elements other than the movement itself. I guess movements are so mysterious because they’re on the inside and very complicated. And I guess that in the end, the watch must be evaluated as a whole package.

  • Mindforge

    It is simply not true to characterise all Japanese movements as mass produced and of lower quality and performance than mass produced Swiss movements.
    Grand Seiko in Japan has been producing hand made movements with higher specification and performance than any Swiss offerings since the 1960s, usually at a price far below comparable Swiss movements and often with innovations which do not exist in Japan

    • JackForster

      Mindforge I’m a huge Grand Seiko fan but I wouldn’t say the GS movements are necessarily better than anything from Switzerland since the 1960s.  The GS movements are excellent, and benefit from care in manufacturing and assembly that has to be seen to be appreciated (I’ve been lucky enough to visit the GS workshop in Morioka where they’re made.)  Case and dial work in GS is absolutely amazing as well, especially for the price point.  Rolex has made significant strides in making excellent, very high precision movements though –the Parachrom balance spring, for instance, is a very high tech bit of work.  It’s a niobium/zirconium alloy with an interesting story behind it –it’s a very similar alloy to the one IWC used in the late lamented Ingenieur 500,000 A/m (so named because it was resistant to magnetic fields in excess of half a million amperes per meter.)  IWC made very few of them because making the balance springs was too difficult but Rolex (which has one of the best funded R&D departments in the entire watch industry) seems to have figured out how to produce them in industrial volumes, and they’re essential to the performance of the new Milgauss.  That said, as I mentioned for sheer value to cost ratio, the Grand Seikos are very, very hard to beat.

  • JackForster

    There are actually significant differences between Rolex and ETA movements, including the automatic winding system and the escapement and balance, including the use by Rolex of in-house Parachrom hairsprings with a mathematically correct terminal curve, and free-sprung adjustable mass balances.  ETA movements are as good as they need to be and can give excellent results although there are of course concessions to reducing manufacturing costs, including the use of wire rather than tempered steel springs (just one of the many differences between a mass produced and a high grade movement) and the use of a tilting pinion and cam-and-lever system in the Valjoux/ETA 7750.  They’re extremely reliable but to call them the best in any sense obscures the major differences between movements of various grades, from various manufacturers.  Unfortunately unless you can actually tear down movements yourself, and unless you know what you’re looking at and looking for, it’s very difficult to evaluate movements objectively; developing the necessary technical knowledge takes a long time and a lot of exposure and there’s no fast way to do it.  Keeps the hobby interesting though 😉  Incidentally, there are Japanese movements and Japanese movements; basic Miyota, Orient and Seiko calibers are absolutely not finished to anything other than industrial, functional standards but then again, a basic ETA movement isn’t either; it depends on what the end-user decides to do with them.  And of course Seiko’s higher end movements are functionally at least as good as anything made in Switzerland –they’re one of the few companies to make all their own components including balance springs in-house don’t forget.

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  • flawed

    Cool, show me a automatic Rolex that loses less than 4 seconds a month and I’ll believe they can almost be as good as a Spring Drive… on occasion… if you’re lucky…

    Though — in your defense — since the 1960’s is a bit of a stretch…