One of the major reasons why the watch world feels like a stuffy boy’s club is because of the array of terminology used by wearers and manufacturers which often sound like a foreign language to non-watch people. These terms are important on two fronts.

For starters, they can be used to explain basic mechanics (how a watch works). Secondly — and perhaps even more important when thinking about making a major watch purpose — watch parts are often trumpeted by heritage brands as a justification as to why a watch costs so much money.

One doesn’t need to be an expert to enjoy the world of watches. But once you have a greater understanding of the terminology used, it makes it that much easier to consider what you like, and of course, what you can even afford.

Since “popping the hood” — like on a sports car — isn’t usually an option for the average watch person — we’ve utilized 3D modeling of a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Chronometer to give you a look at what is both on the surface level, and what is also beneath the dial.

The user experience works like this: While hovering over the image, you’ll notice white dots that reveal what the specific watch part is, and an explanation of its functionality. There are also more general terms below which will aid in the education of people new to horology.

Bracelet detail 02 Blue audemars piguet rolex daytona swatch


The bracelet is the metal band that connects around the wearer’s wrist and fastens into the lugs.

Case Back

The front side of a watch is where the display appears. Conversely, the case back often hides the inner workings on a watch. There are different ways in which a case back can be fastened closed; by either screws or by threading into the case itself.


Frequency is the speed at which a watch ticks, measured by the number of semi-oscillations the balance spring makes.


Powered either mechanically (hand wound or self-winding automatic) or by battery. the difference is sweeping in mechanical, and ticking with battery (with rare exception on either side).


Caliber is a word synonymous with a watch movement and denotes the diameter of attributes like casing size and the shape and layout of the bridges.

Cannon pinion

Using the wheels on the back of the watch, the cannon pinion most commonly uses the friction created to move the hands on the front.


The amount of parts that make up a watch movement can vary greatly. But even the most basic mechanism can have over 100 parts. As a result, there are very few companies who can produce every single piece that goes into a finished product.

One would naturally think that a watch touting an “in-house” movement would be the rare example of a brand producing everything. Yet, a brand can still make this claim even if they utilize outside parts like hair springs and screws.

This can occur because many brands fall under an overarching umbrellas (like Swatch Group, which owns Omega and Blancpain, among others). As a result, they can mix and match parts while maintaining an “in-house” designation.

It should be noted that some watch experts believe that “in-house” is primarily a marketing term that brands use, and contrary to popular belief, it does not translate to a better or higher quality timepiece than one without an in-house movement.


ETA references Switzerland’s largest movement maker which is a subsidiary of The Swatch Group Ltd. As a general rule, it’s easier to ask which companies don’t use ETA movements rather than who does. Amongst those that don’t are Rolex, Patek Phillipe, Panerai, Omega, Cartier, A. Lange & Söhne, and Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Power reserve

Since mechanical watches need to be wound, there is a finite amount of time in which it can continue to run. Thus, the power reserve is the available energy stored in a watch’s mainspring. Depending on the quality of the watch and size of the mainspring, a watch can last for days, a week (IWC Big Pilot’s Watch), or longer like in the case of the Officine Panerai Luminor 1950 10-Days Ceramica (which as the name suggests offers 10 days). In some instances watches have built in complications to show just how much time is left on the original wind.


A quartz watch uses battery power to send an electric signal to a quartz crystal which vibrates at a precise rate. This exchange of power regulates the stepper motor that moves the watch hands.


After CNC machine components have been completed, a number of techniques are utilized to embellish the watch like hand-engraving, Côtes de Genève, stippling, and beveling which can in some instances serve utilitarian functions (like collecting dust), but are more often purely for decorative purposes.


An automatic watch is able to keep correct time by utilizing a flat blade positioned in the back of the movement that oscillates to put tension on the mainspring through the random motion of the watch wearer’s arm.

Yes, the watch world can be intimidating. But part of the fun in collecting is arming yourself with more and more information along the way. While the learning curve is decidedly steep, the above terms for the most important watch parts to know will give you a baseline for the type of questions you can ask potential sellers.

  • Art Direction: Maria Ferraresi
  • 3D Animation & Design: Manuel Carvalho
Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.