One of the frequent questions is whether a mechanical watch owner needs a watch winder. Many times this question is raised after one reads the Sky Mall or other mail order catalog where the “revolutionary” aspects of a watch winder are divulged in a general circulation magazine. Given that most mechanical watches are automatically wound by an oscillating weight inside the watch when the watch moves, watch winders fill a niche when the watch is not being worn. For some watches such as Rolex, simply picking up a Rolex, moving it from side to side to wind is a pretty simple affair, but for more complicated watches where annual calendars and moon phases are knocked out of whack by dormancy makes setting a mechanical much more of a chore.
By and large, watch winders are small boxes with a motor that battery powered or AC powered that slowly spins a cup that hold the watch. It is a pretty simple concept, but for some reason one that is hard to accomplish without spending well into three digits. The construction of the watch winder case, the mechanism that holds the watch, and the quality/type of the motor are all points of failure in inexpensive watch winders, and combined with the relatively small production numbers, the reason why the good ones cost so much.
Inexpensive watch winders have sub-par case materials that can break easily. The mechanism, the clip or cup with a foam pad have been known to break in inexpensive winders, and the motor either giving out, running too fast, or not at all is what makes inexpensive winders not worth the box with which they are shipped.
Good watch winders typically have solid cases and compliment the quality of the mechanical watch inside it. Many companies use fine wood boxes such that they fit well with the house décor, a watch holding mechanism that is trustworthy, and a motor that is silent, can run all day, and can adjust the turns-per-day (TPD), and the direction. Inexpensive winders spin mindlessly without any method for adjusting the TPD, and no method for turning them off other than a switch. Good watch winders are designed such that they can be left on and programmed to turn a certain number of rotations per day, all split within the course of hours. Subsequently, a good watch winder will sit dormant most of the time, but will spin clockwise, counterclockwise, or both, depending on programming that is based on how the winding rotor winds the mainspring in the watch. Lastly, a good watch winder does this quietly. In addition to being dumb (eg. can’t program it), inexpensive motors make your watch winder sound like the old Timex display case at the corner pharmacy.
Winders should be able to sit unnoticed when they are running. Whether a mechanical watch owner needs a winder is really up to the owner. Back in the old days prior to synthetic oils used in watches, watches that sat unused in a drawer would seize because the oil would harden. Modern watches lubricated with synthetic oils don’t have this issue, so it comes down to whether the owner wants to reset the watch and the date every time the watch goes dormant. For a watch owner who is used to a quartz watch that is always running, then perhaps a watch winder is in order. For an owner who has multiple mechanical watches, a winder makes it easier to made game day decisions on which watch to wear.
Yes, winders are worthwhile an important to a watch collector, as long as they are the good ones; buying a winder is like buying a watch, cutting corners never pays.
UPDATED: 10 Apr 2015