Quartz or Mechanical? My Take on the Age Old Argument

A mechanical watch from the company that triggered the Quartz Crisis, and a quartz watch from a Swiss company. The irony.

“Huh. Isn’t a watch just a watch?” Indeed, for those not in the know “quartz” or “mechanical” is hardly a debate. As long as the watch works, no one’s the wiser. In today’s context, one might even ask if “mechanical” or “quartz” are features of a smartwatch.

Ask an enthusiast however, and you might be opening a can of worms. Watch lovers all over have been arguing about which is better since time immemorial. Well, not technically immemorial but 1969, when the first quartz watch was brought into existence by Seiko.


A Little History

There are plenty of articles covering the in-depth history of watches; I’m no historian so I’ll spare you. Instead, here’s my quick summary:


For the longest time ever, watches were mechanical devices, powered by an intricate combination of springs and gears working cohesively as a single unit to give their wearers a measurement of time.

Seiko Astron brochure, as seen on plus9time. Check them out for an English translation of the brochure.

Then came Seiko in 1969, with the world’s first quartz watch: the Astron. This sparked off a new wave of quartz watches, which would soon dominate the industry. Things were looking so bad for the Swiss watchmaking industry, people named it the “Quartz Crisis”.

Fast forward to the present day, mechanical watches have thankfully found a way to survive. If anything, quartz technology has made watches more affordable as well. Now you get more choices to choose from. Hooray!


Hopefully I got most of that right.


A Little Science

“Okay, but I still don’t know what’s the difference between a mechanical and quartz watch.” Right, I hear you fam. Here’s another quick crash course, minus the complicated jargon.

A mechanical movement from a vintage watch of mine. Compare it with the quartz movement below!

A mechanical watch has a movement (the heart of the watch, like what an engine is to a car) that is essentially made up of a series of springs and gears. You wind up the watch, typically by rotating the crown of the watch, which in turn winds up a mainspring. As the mainspring unwinds, the energy is transmitted to the other wheels (gears) within the movement, helping to move the watch hands around. Some mechanical watches are self-winding; a weight within the watch rotates as the wearer goes about his daily activities. As the weight moves about, it winds up the watch, hence the idea of “automatic”.

There are no electric parts, and as long as you keep the watch wound (AND hypothetically assuming no wear and tear), it can technically run forever! In a world where “high tech” seems to be the solution for everything, I say that’s pretty amazing.

If you’re interested in the intricacies, this video does a great job of explaining the physics behind it all:

A look inside an affordable quartz movement

On the other hand, a quartz watch has a movement that is made up of electronic parts. The watch is powered by a battery, which sends a current to a piece of quartz crystal, causing it to vibrate. A circuit translates these oscillations into electrical pulses – one per second, driving the motor of the watch. This results in the second hand moving once per second, unlike in a mechanical watch where the second hand sweeps continuously.

This video sums up the technology behind a quartz watch pretty neatly:


So Quartz or Mechanical?

If you’re getting your first watch and choosing between a quartz or mechanical piece, the technology that goes into it probably isn’t that important for you. Most people don’t bother delving that far into the details; I myself have much to learn. Here are some differences from my own experience, that may help you to make a decision.

The Seconds Hand

The most immediate difference you will notice is the movement of the seconds hand. The seconds hand moves continuously in a mechanical piece, while in a quartz watch, it ticks once per second.

Some people prefer a smoothly sweeping seconds hand. Perhaps they find it more aesthetically pleasing; some find it soothing. I do agree that there is simply something mesmerizing about it.

The Power Reserve

As mentioned above, mechanical watches rely on a spring being wound up as its power source to keep it running. When the spring unwinds fully, the watch stops. Power reserves typically range anywhere from 40 hours to 31 days. That sounds impressive, til you realise there are quartz watches that can easily run on the same battery for 10 years.

If you wear your automatic piece everyday, or keep your mechanical pieces wound (either with a watch winder or manually), the watch won’t stop running. However, if like me, you own multiple watches and no watch winder, you may find your mechanical watches having stopped for some time while you were wearing other pieces. It’s a minor inconvenience to have to set the time again before each wear; something I don’t face with quartz.

Accuracy

Quartz watches are far more accurate than mechanical watches. Even that cheap $2 made in china watch is likely to be more accurate than some $10,000 Rolex. It’s a matter of the technology being used. The best mechanical watches have an accuracy of -4~+6 seconds per day, while my $20 Casio has an accuracy of ±30 seconds a month. If pinpoint precision is your thing, you’re better off going quartz.

The Experience

And here’s where it gets a little subjective. Fans of mechanical watches often describe the experience of wearing a mechanical watch as special, almost as if you were forming a relationship with the watch itself. Even a simple mechanical movement has ~130 components; knowing that your watch is powered purely by these tiny parts coming together through ingenious engineering brings on a sense of wonderment. The craftsmanship and effort that goes into a mechanical movement is something that is easily appreciated.

What does a watch from the 60s have in common with a watch from today? A mechanical movement.

There is also a connection to history; mechanical watches have been around for a long time, worn by great people doing equally great things. For some, they evoke a sense of nostalgia – a throwback to “the good old days”.

Quartz watches on the other hand tend to feel a bit more utilitarian; pop a battery in and they just work.

Personally, I feel a greater sense of connection with my automatic watches; I find it fascinating that my own motion is what keeps the watch going. Does that mean I don’t like my quartz pieces? Well, not exactly. Ultimately, it’s what you do with your watch that counts. It’s not the destination, but the journey that counts right?

My Verdict

As it is with all things in the world, there will always be a difference of opinions. There are those who swear they would rather be dead than seen with a quartz watch, while others denounce the impracticality of mechanical timepieces. I say, why choose when you can have both? They each have their merits. Quartz is more accurate, more reliable (you just grab them and go; as long as the battery has juice it just works), and usually cheaper. Mechanical timepieces on the other hand offer a different experience; one where an appreciation for craftsmanship takes the spotlight, and a different approach at interpreting time is taken.

The best way to decide would be to pick up an inexpensive mechanical watch alongside a quartz, and give them both ago. If I were you, I’d keep both.

That’s right; have your cake and eat it too

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