How SHOULD Automatic Watch Lovers Feel about Quartz Movements Today?
Automatic watches have an intricately-driven mechanical heart, while quartz movements are cheap, soulless silicon brains that should be viewed with derision by “real” watch lovers.
This is how most automatic and manual winding mechanical watch aficionados view quartz watches. This is in spite of the fact that quartz movements are almost universally less expensive and better timekeepers than mechanical watches – and often by an exponential degree. It is not an overstatement to say that a favorable mention of a quartz timepiece is capable of stirring anger in the heart of a mechanical movement lover.
I get it — some people (including myself) prefer balance wheels, hairsprings, mainsprings, escapements and gear trains over a battery, microchip and quartz crystal oscillator. But is it inappropriate for mechanical watch lovers to make room in their hearts for a quartz watch or two? BlumSafe makes its livelihood from producing wall safes specifically designed for owners of automatic watches, but I feel it is fair to pay quartz its due.
The Quartz Attack of the 70’s
First, a little history about the quartz-mechanical movement relationship, and why some of the old-timers (no pun intended) have such an emotional prejudice against quartz. Basically, during the 1970’s, when the quartz movement was first commercialized, its introduction led to the near-death experience of the mechanical watch industry.
The introduction of quartz watches as the simplest, default time-telling implement meant that there was no longer a purpose in life for the lowest priced mechanical movement watches – as quartz could do it cheaper with much greater accuracy (recall, we did not have smartphones back then to tell us the time – it was either wristwatches or wall clocks, making a watch almost a necessity and not simply an optional wrist-worn curiosity).
Mid-level watch makers like Breitling also found trouble finding their place, and barely scraped by (not a bad thing for Sinn-lovers like myself – Sinn was able to license the iconic Navitimer design from a near-bankrupt Breitling for some much-needed cash).
The higher end watchmakers like Rolex, Patek and Audemars Piguet were most successful in adapting, by turning their fine watches into luxury products through marketing and price increases. Prices on many of these watch brands have gone up exponentially in real terms over the past 20-30 years (but so have the price of another luxury good, fine handbags, my wife reminds me).
Bottom line — the era that introduced quartz watches en masse resulted in the effective death of many great watchmakers (even if, in some cases, the brand name lives on today like a zombie), such as Doxa, Elgin, Waltham, Universal Geneve and Wittnauer, and – almost – the end of a great industry. In a well-told story, the Zenith El Primero movement came very close to its end, but-for the near-heroic effort by watchmaker Charles Vermot, head of the El Primero movement workshop. Upon being ordered by company bigwigs to dispose of everything in his mechanical movement workshop, he ignored the order and surreptitiously moved to his attic over a ton of equipment, spare parts and plans for the El Primero, thereby saving an iconic movement for all to enjoy today.
Accordingly, many of us take quartz personally.
What does Quartz Have to Offer Beyond Price? More Affordable Innovation.
So we have the much easier-to-manufacture quartz electronic movement, with fewer parts than a mechanical movement. Almost by necessity, this results in a big price differential between the types of movements, where quartz can wholesale at $10-50 a movement vs $150-500 or more for a mechanical one. You begin to understand how a unique or interesting, well-designed quartz can have relative appeal to a fashion watch buyer today – that is, not a buyer who needs to be able to see turning gears through a sapphire exhibition case back, though certain quartz movements have their own technological appeal, as described below.
When one combines the price of a quartz movement with the revolution in the often-outsourced watch design, manufacturing and distribution chain, quartz turns into a facilitator of aesthetic and functional watch innovation. This level of innovation is simply not often economically feasible with mechanical movements. This observation is especially true for smaller, so-called quartz-based microbrand manufacturers, usually direct internet and Instagram-marketed, and often Kickstarter-funded (at least at the beginning). By starting with quartz they can expend much less capital than a mechanical-based microbrand, allowing them the chance to ultimately develop the market presence to sell volumes far exceeding the 100-300 watch batches at which they start. This ability ot develop their brand also permits them to eventually get into the more expensive mechanical movement business as well, if they wish (Farer, Dan Henry, Autodromo and others come to mind).
Interesting Quartz Innovations
As a mechanical watch lover examining quartz watches, I focus on several categories of interest – movement aesthetics, movement design and innovation and finally, broader watch design and unique capabilities facilitated by quartz.
Quartz Movement Aesthetics
There are a number of quartz movement manufacturers that build “quality” movements for broad use, such as the Seiko Group, Casio, Miyota/Citizen, Ronda, ETA. When it comes to innovation though, I don’t think anyone beats Seiko, which began making quartz watches in 1969 with the Quartz-Astron 35SQ
(accurate to 5 seconds per month in 1969!). Seiko has built some of the most robust movements out there (i.e., not just some electronics on a chip and lots of plastic). The 7a48-7000 Seiko chronograph quartz movement found in some 80’s watches has 15 jewels and a lot of metal under the plate, and is quite a movement to look at. Other attractive quartz movements have been produced by Jaeger LeCoultre, the old Citizen Campanola (some with exhibition backs), Girard Perrigeaux, Grand Seiko, Omega and Rolex (the Oysterquartz models). Some of the meca-quartz chronograph movements described below can also be very attractive to a mechanical watch lover, due to the gears and wheels of the chronograph assembly.
Movement Design Innovations
There are a number of pure quartz design elements and innovations in which a mechanical watch owner could be interested. Most obviously, quartz movements can be made much thinner than most but the highest price mechanical movements, providing many interesting design options. The Bulova Precisionist line (owned by Citizen) beats at 262 kHz, or 16 beats per second. This feature offers the type of smooth second hand that generally evades quartz watches (in contrast, think of the second hand of Swiss railroad clocks). Basically, a smooth second hand makes us mechanical watch lovers feel comfortable.
High Accuracy Quartz movements involve various innovations designed to achieve accuracy of 10 seconds per year or better. For example, the Longines Conquest V.H.P. (Very High Precision) has a gear position detection system that allows the watch hands to automatically resync if they are accidentally displaced by a shock or a magnetic field. Another innovation used by Seiko, Breitling, Omega and others, adds thermocompensation to the quartz mechanism. A thermocompensating movement typically measures the temperature hundreds of times per day and then uses the information to adjust the frequency of the quartz’s vibrations to make up for any irregularities.
Marriage of Mechanical and Quartz
If you love mechanical movements but also love accuracy, one of the absolutely coolest “traditional watch” quartz innovations out there is the Grand Seiko 9R Spring Drive movement family, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. Is it a quartz or is it a mechanical? It’s actually both, and because it is a Grand Seiko, the finishing is superb. It generates energy like every other mechanical watch (from a mainspring). The mainspring provides power to an electronic speed control with a quartz oscillator, which controls the rest of the watch’s mechanical movement. This system delivers a level of precision that no mechanical watch can match (and no batteries!). One variant of this movement, the Caliber 9R86 Automatic Spring Drive 3 Day Chronograph, contains 50 jewels and delivers accuracy of ±1 second per day (±15 seconds per month). The chronograph uses a vertical clutch, eliminating the chrono shutter we are accustomed to seeing on a certain omnipresent ETA chrono movement.
The more recent Ressence Type 2 “e-Crown” is also a mechanical/electronic hybrid with some differences and an additional twist – smartphone app connectivity that provides, among other things, multiple time zone setting from your smartphone. Instead of following the Seiko and using the mainspring to power the silicone on this unit, the Ressence uses photovoltaic cells under the face. The electronics acts like an “e-crown” interfacing with the modified ETA mechanical movement to set the time and always keep your mechanical movement accurate. This is not, per se, a quartz-enabled watch, as your smartphone (and not an on-board regulating quartz crystal) resets the mechanical movement to keep the time perfect, but I included it because it is electronically-enabled and in the spirit of this article. Other innovations of this movement include a “sleep mode” to stop the barrel and save mechanical movement power after the watch has been off your wrist for 12 hours. While much more expensive than your typical under $10,000 Grand Seiko, the Ressence is quite a piece of innovation for mechanical watch lovers.
The meca-quartz movement, introduced by Jaeger LeCoultre with their cotes de Geneve-finished 630 and 631 calibers in the late 80’s (later also used by IWC in a range of their models), allows watches to utilize a quartz base driving a mechanical chronograph module that is mechanically actuated and controlled. Basically, meca-quartz give you the accuracy of quartz with the crisp tactile sensation and performance of a mechanical chronograph, and is slimmer, cheaper and more reliable than a pure mechanical movement. The Seiko VK63, 67 and 83 are prime (affordable) examples of this type of movement today.
Innovative Quartz Watch Designs
Some modern, innovative designs that would probably never have happened without quartz movements? There are a number of such watches that utilize quartz movements to enable mechanical complications that would be difficult or impossible with a true mechanical movement.
One of my favorites is the affordable (roughly US$500) Klokers Klok-01 “slide
rule” watch, which evokes the same type of inner geekiness that makes me like mechanical watches so much. Utilizing a Ronda Swiss quartz movement, the KLOK-01 has no hands that rotate, but the whole dial itself. The KLOK-01 uses three rotating concentric rings to display time along a vertical line. The rings −one each for hours, minutes, and seconds− rotate at different speeds counter-clockwise. I first saw this watch in the gift shop at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, and for my money, it belongs in every modern art museum.
The US$285 Eone Bradley wristwatch is another very interesting watch built around a Ronda quartz movement. Designed to provide touch accessibility to the time for the blind, it has raised hour markers that allow you to feel the time by touch and two magnetized ball bearings that travel around the watch face in separate, recessed tracks. One track around the center of the watch face’s surface marks the minute, and one track around the outside edge of the watch face marks the hour (good luck trying magnetized ball bearings with an ETA mechanical movement). To tell the time by touch, simply run your finger over the raised hour markers, feeling the markers where the ball bearings are located. A really cool, menschlichkeit, inclusive design by an MIT student with a great back story.
Of course, building a watch around an electronic quartz movement also provides a ton of electronic connectivity potential today – not exactly “smart” watches, but “smarter” watches. This category, with a genuine analog display, physical hands and indices is often referred to as “hybrid smart watches”. Breitling has been an early leader among better quality Swiss watchmakers at adopting quartz and now connected watches with supplemental displays that communicate with your smartphone. If you are a man’s man and looking for a crazy pilot’s watch, the $7,699 flyback chronograph Breitling Exospace B55 (who names these things?) utilizes Bluetooth connectivity to your smartphone and the Breitling app to “place the smartphone in the service of the watch so as to enhance its functionality”. It possesses a SuperQuartz™, thermocompensated quartz electronic, analog and 12/24hr LCD digital display.
Another connected Swiss Army knife of a watch that even includes a UV indicator? The $995 Alpina Alpinerx Outdoor Smartwatch.
Coming down to more normal quartz price range, The $200 Garmin vivomove HR, representative of the class of hybrid fitness quartz watches, displays messages and fitness data on the screen beneath an analog face with a touchscreen crystal. It has a heartbeat monitor, offers music and photo shutter control, an alarm clock, timer, etc, etc… and is crownless – it syncs its time with your smartphone. Of course, to get the most out of the watch, it also requires yet another app for your smartphone. The Fossil Q is another example of this genre.
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BlumSafe makes its livelihood from producing wall safes specifically designed for owners of automatic watches, so it might sound like heresy to be advocating the merits of quartz watches or even discussing them, but I felt it was worthy of conversation, with some of the more mainstream manufacturers engaging in soul searching and hybrid innovation, at the same time that microbrand movements are producing so many attractive quartz watches today.