Why Do Watches Tick?

By Nic King •  Updated: 05/26/22 •  5 min read

The tick-tock sound of watches has been played out in movies and TV shows for decades signifying time passing ever so slowly. However, the question has to be asked “why do watches tick?” The answer depends on the type of watch.

You may have also heard that nice watches like Rolex and Omega don’t tick. Instead, they sweep. Those who have been close to these watches know though. If you hold them up to your ear, you will hear a very distinct tick-tock sound. First, let’s talk about why it is normal to hear an automatic watch tick.

What We’ll Cover

Why do Rolex watches tick?

Well, if you watch the second hand on a Rolex, you will notice it doesn’t aggressively tick across the dial. Instead, it sweeps. However, if you hold that Rolex up to your ear, a distinctive tick-tock sound can clearly be made out. As a matter of fact, all mechanical watches tick.

Animation of inline lever escapement, showing motion of the lever (blue), pallets (red), and escape wheel (yellow)
Source: Wikipedia

The reason that all automatic watches tick is because of the escapement. The escapement is a series of parts inside the movement of mechanical watches. It is compromised of the escapement lever, pallets, and escape wheel.

These three parts move together at a constant rate. This swinging back and forth of the escapement lever on the escape wheel creates the ticking sound heard on Rolex, Omega, and all mechanical watches.

All of this is what makes the entire watch move forward at fixed amounts. That means the escapement is responsible for your watch keeping time and making the entire watch tick forward.

So why do mechanical watches tick? Because the escapement in the watch is moving back and forth creating the tick-tock sound.

Do quartz watches tick?

Yes, all quartz watches tick. Quartz watches actually make a more distinctive ticking noise than mechanical watches, and with that, they also have an aggressive tick forward motion instead of the sweeping motion that mechanical watches have.

What is a quartz watch? Well, quartz watches are battery-powered. They have electronic oscillators that move the hands on the watch forward creating the aggressive ticking forwarding of the seconds and producing the ticking sound. It is worth noting though that because of the electronic oscillators, quartz watches keep much more accurate time than mechanical watches.

Some quartz watches do have a reduction in the ticking sound. This is usually due to them using high-quality parts. While much less complex than mechanical watches, quartz watches do still have moving parts that will always produce some kind of ticking noise.

What watches don’t tick?

Currently, the only watches that don’t tick are Spring Drive watches. The Spring Drive system is found in watches from a few brands owned by Seiko. Namely, Spring Drive is very common in Grand Seiko watches.

What is Spring Drive? Well, it is a mechanical watch that combines the best of quartz watches with a mechanical movement. This means that Spring Drive watches are more accurate than other mechanical watches and do not make much if any ticking noise and the second hand truly glides instead of sweeping or ticking.

Overall, the Spring Drive system from Seiko is one of the biggest innovations in mechanical watchmaking in decades, and if you want a watch that doesn’t tick at all, this is where you can find it.

Does having the box and papers matter when selling your watches?

Hublot Watches - Why do watches tick?

How long will watches tick?

So we’ve now established that all watches, including mechanical watches from brands like Rolex and Omega, do make a ticking noise while the second sweeps around the dial. With that, how long will these watches tick for?

How long will mechanical watches keep running?

This all comes down to how much wind your mechanical watch has in its main spring. Every mechanical watch has a different power reserve time. Some watches have 24-hour power reserves, and I have seen mechanical watches have power reserves of up to 80 hours. It varies depending on the movement the watch is using.

It is also worth noting that you can keep a mechanical watch running, in theory, forever. As in the case of an automatic watch, simply wearing the watch will wind the main spring keeping the watch fully powered. You can do this for hand-wound watches as well by winding the watch daily. Just be sure you aren’t overwinding as this can damage the timepiece.

How long will quartz watches run?

A quartz watch’s battery will typically last about two to three years. Some quartz watches though do have more efficiency and can last longer whereas others, including those that have more complications such as chronographs, may use more power and last less than the two to three-year average. There are so many different kinds of quartz watches, batteries, and use cases, that giving an exact timeframe is nearly impossible.

With that being said, jewelry stores can replace your quartz watch’s battery for less than $25 in most cases. This will get your watch back up and running like new in minutes when the battery does finally give out.

Nic King

My watch journey started when my dad gave me a quartz watch customized with the company he worked for on the face. From there, it evolved into other quartz watches and eventually to the world of mechanical watches. My first luxury watch was a 1960s vintage Omega, and the collection has only expanded from there.