Anyone who’s been on a watch forum or two will have come across the deep divide between mechanical watches and quartz watches. There’s also no getting past the infamous “quartz crisis,” which played an operative role in the rise, fall, and rebirth of the mechanical watch as a status symbol.
Today, quartz watches are cast aside as cheap timepieces for people with little regard for mechanical complexity and history. But believe it or not, there are high-quality watches with quartz movements, and inexpensive mass-produced watches with mechanical movements are not all that hard to find.
In its early days, quartz technology was considered exclusive and superior to traditional watch tech. In fact, it is indeed superior, if we’re talking about performance. There are technical facts that support that bold statement, but there are also emotional factors that explain why the quartz watch holds a weak footing in the high-end segment. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s start from the beginning.
What is a quartz watch?
Separating watches into mechanical and quartz suggests that these technologies must be radically different. While this is true to some extent, there are also clear parallels in their basic operation. That said, there’s little point in addressing how a quartz watch works without first laying out the bones of the mechanical watch.
I ran through the basics of mechanical watches in another article. It’s a good idea to read that one as well, as I’m only going to touch on the aspects of mechanical timepieces that are absolutely necessary for understanding the quartz watch in this one.
A mechanical watch needs the following components to work:
- An energy store to power the watch
- A regulating mechanism to set the watch’s rhythm
- A gear train to transmit and transform forces
- An escapement to link the regulating system and gear train
- A display to show the time
Now let’s see how these mechanics are achieved in a quartz watch.
How does a quartz watch store energy?
The energy in a quartz watch is stored in its battery. Batteries are ideal because they’re not exactly rare, and with a couple of trusty tools, anyone can swap one out. They’ll also keep the watch ticking for several years. The environmentally conscious can turn to rechargeable batteries, mostly found in solar watches. These batteries are manufacturer-specific and hard to change, but since they’re constantly being recharged by the sun, you’ll only really need to do so if there’s a defect.
How do quartz watches work?
As the name suggests, the regulating mechanism in quartz watches is a quartz crystal. These precisely-shaped quartz crystals oscillate at a specific frequency when voltage is applied. In wristwatches, this frequency is typically 32,768 hertz, or 32,768 oscillations per second. While other frequencies are possible, frequencies are normally powers of two. This is because of the electronic frequency division, whereby high-frequency oscillations are repeatedly divided by two until they reach one signal per second. This arrangement is ideal for controlling the movement of the watch hands.
What’s the difference between quartz watches and mechanical watches?
This is where the fundamental distinction from a mechanical watch becomes evident. The watch’s display, i.e., the hands, are driven by the signals derived from the oscillation on a second-by-second basis. Unlike a mechanical watch, there is no escapement or mechanical link between the regulating mechanism and energy store. This eliminates the need for a gear train, with its many gears and bearings. As a result, a quartz watch experiences significantly reduced forces and moves with a lot less friction.
Rather than relying on a mechanical connection, stepping motors kick in to control the hands of the quartz watch. A liquid crystal display can also be used as a more efficient (digital) alternative. Regardless of the display type, the underlying technical principle of time measurement remains the same.
Quartz crystals are highly efficient oscillators, meaning they are barely damped oscillating systems and require minimal energy to sustain their oscillation. This, along with the lack of a mechanical escapement, is one reason why quartz watches can have power reserves that last for years. The high frequencies of oscillation also provide an added advantage by minimizing the impact of external accelerations that could throw a mechanical watch out of sync or even damage it.
Can quartz watches be considered luxury watches?
Despite having the edge in terms of accuracy, power reserve, and durability, quartz watches are not very popular among watch enthusiasts. While brands like Citizen, Grand Seiko, and Casio have quartz timepieces in the four-digit price segment, most customers need a lot of convincing to buy one. These companies, being leaders in quartz technology, equip their high-end models with exclusive quartz movements. Through additional optimizations like temperature compensation, these movements can achieve accuracies as impressive as +/- 2 seconds per year, all without relying on radio connectivity or synchronization with smartphones.
High-end quartz movement from Grand Seiko
Such movements are mostly assembled by hand in small batches, similar to exclusive mechanical calibers, while mass-produced quartz movements fly off the production line in highly automated factories. Although a great deal of automation is also achieved in the production of affordable mechanical movements, mechanical watches enjoy a disproportionately higher standing among enthusiasts. Their traditional aesthetics, visible mechanical intricacy, and absence of circuitry and electronics align more harmoniously with the timeless ideal of a watch, even if it means sacrificing some accuracy.
The fact of the matter is that both quartz and mechanical watches can offer exclusivity and expertise – you just need to know where to look.