Horology 101

How to Set a Watch, and Two Things You Should Never, Ever Do


June 13, 2019 Watches By Photo by Chase Pellerin

Setting the time on your mechanical watch is deceptively simple, but it’s possible to unwittingly damage the delicate movement inside with seemingly innocuous actions. There are just a couple basic rules to remember: 1) don’t turn the hands counterclockwise; and 2) don’t change the date within 3 hours of midnight. That’s it. But you should also understand why not to do these things, and how to set your watch the correct way.

Mechanical watches require regular attention from the user, such as setting the time and winding. These are the times when you interact most directly with the movement inside, and different watches offer different tactile feedback that is determined by the movement itself as well as how the watchmaker has constructed the case and crown. If you wear the same automatic watch daily or keep it on a winder it will require less frequent setting, but at the very least, most simple automatic watches with a date (that are not perpetual calendars) will require periodic adjustment.

Watch newbies should definitely be aware of these important watch-health guidelines along with other watch maintenance — mostly very simple stuff. Even many longtime watch enthusiasts who follow these rules, however, might not know exactly why they follow them. Gear Patrol spoke with the excellent watchmakers that work with Analog/Shift and got the technical details. These principles should generally apply to most common watches and movements.

Video: How to Set a Watch

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Don’t Set Your Watch Counterclockwise

How to Set a Watch the Right Way: Pull the crown out to its second position (unscrewing it first, if necessary) to set the time. If it’s the kind of movement that stops the seconds hand (“hacking”), you may want to wait until it reaches zero — you know, just for OCD precision’s sake. Then turn the hands clockwise to set the time — this is often (but not always) done by turning the crown towards yourself.

How It Works: It’s called “clockwise” for a reason: that’s the way it’s designed to go! Unlike setting the date incorrectly, this does not risk immediately breaking your watch. Rather, it causes undue wear on the gear train, much more so than normal operation. If done regularly over time, this wear can have adverse effects on the watch’s overall health. If you space out and overshoot the exact time you’re aiming for (it happens), turning it back slowly a couple minutes isn’t such a big deal and far easier than spinning through another 24 hours and cycling through the date (see below) again. Consider this a best practice.

Don’t Set the Date Within 3 Hours of Midnight

How to Set the Date Safely: To be safe, it’s a good idea to just make it a habit to set the date when the hour hand is traveling somewhere along the bottom half of the dial. On the vast majority of mechanical watches with a date function, the date is set by pulling the crown out to the first position. But first, you’ll often want to pull the crown out to the second position to set the time and make sure you’re nowhere close to midnight, when the date will change automatically.

How It Works: When the time approaches midnight, you may notice that the date disc appears to be gearing up for the change, and that it sometimes doesn’t actually click over until, say, 15 minutes past the hour. That is the case for many watches, using, for example, movements like the common ETA 2824-2, though some higher-end ones have dates that change instantaneously at midnight.

As watchmaker Harris Freedman explains, a pin sticking off of the date wheel (a gear) pushes the date disc (which displays the date) forward each 24 hours. As the pin comes in contact with the disc, quickly turning the date disc via the crown can cause it to jam or, in a worst-case scenario, cause the wheel to actually break. If that happens, you’ll not only have to replace the wheel, but also probably have a full service in case any debris got into the movement. That’s why you want to get that pin clearly out of the way before changing the date by keeping the hour hand toward the bottom of the dial.

Got it? Good.

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