What Matters #5

Quartz VS Mechanical

Date Published
Feb 12, 2022
Author
Zong Lie
Category
Gnomon Viewpoint
SponsoredAcme Inc.

In this series of “What Matters,” we’ll share the determinants that affect our watch collecting. Everything might seem at a personal level, but we find it an excellent opportunity to share our love for the horology stuff that matters most to us. From the particular type of complications that the watches possess to our indulgence in strap-changing or simply our personal enjoyment with quartz and mechanical timepieces. 

This series will open with our own journey in this niche hobby to better understand what keeps our passion fired up. We’ll cover our own obsessions, which keep drawing us back to these and ways to inform people into watches, so they might have a consensus with us. Without any further ado, let’s get things started with “what matters” to us in our voyage of watch-collecting.

The Most Controversial Question Ever

In the vast world of wristwatches, there are seemingly endless choices for us watch lovers to pick from, to a point where we are too spoiled with options, and the collection ceaselessly grows uncontrollably. Sound familiar? There are just too many factors that affect purchase decisions when it comes to watches. It goes without saying that everyone has their very own preference of timepieces that resonate with them personally. However, at the most basic level, watches can be fundamentally broken down to fall under two main categories – quartz and mechanical. Perhaps one of the most mind-boggling and heatedly debated topics that has managed to divide the horological community is the question of which is better. 

(Quartz watch is it good?) (Left: Seiko Dolce; Right: The Citizen Eco-Drive)

Like many controversial subjects across various watch forums, this is an eternal question with no definitive answer, just like deciding on a universal pick for the best clothing brand or favorite food choice. In an attempt to find the most satisfactory answer for this, exploring the benefits, drawbacks, and major differences will bring you closer to deciding what’s best for you. On What Matters #5, I’ll be breaking down and comparing the good, the bad, and the ugly about quartz and mechanical timepieces. Without further ado, let’s talk movements. 

What is a Watch Movement, Exactly? 

Think of a watch movement as the heart or the engine that drives the hands on the dial to accurately tell time or to power any other functions a watchmaker requires it to do. At its core, the movement, also known as the “calibre” is often the most intricate and sophisticated aspect of a timepiece. This integral component is protected by the watch case. Needless to say, the movement is a watch’s most crucial element that allows it to keep on functioning. 

(The Caliber Yema3000, an in-house automatic GMT movement found within their watches)

Why Movements Matter 

Depending on one’s lifestyle, hobbies, fashion preferences, profession, or a whole range of other factors, a watch’s movement can significantly influence the entire experience of wearing. For instance, an infantry soldier’s movement in the watch may greatly differ from a movement that dwells inside the watch of an ultra-powerful CEO. In this case, a robust, inexpensive quartz movement is certainly more practical for the soldier. Emphasizing accuracy and durability is key here (more on this later in the article). This isn’t to say a mechanical watch isn’t reliable; a watch like an exorbitant collectors’ timepiece with a tourbillon on a CEO’s wrist simply serves another purpose of portraying wealth and power instead of simply telling the most accurate time in the world. 

Of course, what watches that get to be on one’s wrist are not set in stone. Anyone can wear any and every watch they want. Nevertheless, to determine which watch with the right movement best suits a person, distinguishing the right characteristics of a movement and how it plays a part in affecting the overall value proposition of a watch is part and parcel of the hobby. For newer audiences who are just getting into watches, having this fundamental knowledge will serve as a valuable platform to understand your favorite choice of watches before finally pulling the trigger on them. 

(DIfferent movement might befits different purpose)

Personally, a movement residing in a watch is one of the most important aspects for my watch purchasing decisions as a notable indicator of a watch’s longevity. Like many readers here, my collection of watches revolve predominantly around mechanical timepieces. There’s just so much to love about a watch that runs on a set of intricate gears and mechanisms without the need for any electrical power and could very well last for decades if well taken care of. But before I offer my personal, biased opinion about my very own preference for a movement preference, let’s dive deeper into quartz and mechanical movements. Movements can be a rather broad term for a whole spectrum of categories and complications such as chronographs, moon phases, hybrid mechanisms, and a seemingly endless world of technicalities. I know, it’s a lot to take in, but I’ll break down the major differences for you. 

A Revolutionary Technology: Quartz Movements 

The history of quartz movements can be traced back to the 1970s and early 1980s amid the global Digital Revolution, a groundbreaking technology that shook the Swiss watchmaking industry or otherwise known as the ‘quartz crisis’ or ‘quartz revolution. Quartz movements are essentially movements that draw electrical current from a battery through a small quartz crystal in order to create precise vibrations and frequencies in the circuit to drive an electronic oscillator, which subsequently powers the hands on the dial consistently to fulfill the task of telling accurate time. To put it in technical terms, an estimated 32,768 vibrations would result in one electric pulse, which we know as 1 second or 1 ‘tick’ of the second hand. 

This rather simple yet revolutionary technology eliminated the need for winding, required minimal servicing, and kept extremely accurate time. Moreover, they were incredibly inexpensive to manufacture, compared to their mechanical counterparts, and were easily replaceable. Without question, it is clear that quartz movements are inherently better in so many aspects. 

On the 25th day of the month of December 1969, Japanese watch manufacturer Seiko gave birth to the world’s first-ever quartz analog wristwatch—the Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ. At the time of its release, it was priced at a whopping 450,000 Japanese yen, a substantial amount of cash that could easily get you a popular car model in the period. This sparked an era of quartz watches, with brands such as Hamilton, Omega, Patek Philippe, and Rolex embracing an interest in developing their very own quartz timepieces. 

(Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ, the world’s first quartz analog timepiece) (Photo Credit: Seiko)
(Movement within the Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ — the Cal. 35A, or also known as the Cal. 35SQ, produced by the Suwa Seikosha factory) (Photo Credit: Grail Watch Reference)

Technically speaking, quartz movements were considerably superior to mechanical movements, hands down. There was a time where quartz watches were believed to be the future of watchmaking. It brought many traditional mechanical movement manufacturers down to their knees, creating one of the most significant impacts on the watch industry ever. Brands were going bankrupt. It was a really dark yet forward-looking time in horological history. 

Like myself, I’m almost certain most of us crossed paths with a quartz timepiece in the early days of getting into watches; they were simply everywhere. If you have never heard of mechanical watches, a quartz piece would fully satisfy the fundamental function of telling accurate time, and you’d never really worry about it until it is due for a battery change. As I go deeper into the rabbit hole into the fascinating world of mechanical timepieces, my appreciation for quartz watches has admittedly grown a great deal for their effortless ‘plug-and-play’ nature. Having a watch that you can strap on the wrist on the fly straight out of the watch box even after not wearing it for a month without worrying about setting the time is a real treat. 

On the flip side, while it may be a delightful experience to have a quartz movement running constantly and accurately with minimal tweaking, one of the most notable downsides of quartz movements is its relatively short life span. The longevity of a quartz movement is significantly shorter than mechanical movements, lasting about 20-30 years on average if you really baby them. Other times, it may be easier to swap out the quartz movements for an entirely new one if the movement fails. Therefore, quartz watches may not be the best choice for precious hand-down heirloom pieces you want to stay in the family for generations. In addition, the majority of quartz watches may be frowned upon as watches that are considered “inferior” to their mechanical counterparts lack a strong, complex manufacturing complexity that many watch collectors go for in an exquisite mechanical piece. 

Not All Quartz Movements are Made Equal

Nevertheless, there are certainly exceptions, such as the Patek Philippe high-precision Caliber E23-250 S C, one of the finest Swiss-made quartz movements, and the Grand Seiko 9F series of quartz movements. These are truly works of art and can be considered the epitome of quartz movements manufactured, assembled, and finished using high-quality metal parts, designed to be long lasting and serviceable. 

(Patek Philippe Cal. E23-250 S C) (Photo Credit: WatchBase)
(Grand Seiko Cal. 9F86) (Photo Credit: Deployant)

While being more of a mechanical person myself, these high-end quartz movements definitely evoke a great deal of fascination and admiration for the impeccable craftsmanship put into creating a sophisticated quartz caliber in pursuit of perfection. Needless to say, these movements are extremely accurate, with the Grand Seiko Cal. 9F86A having an accuracy rating of a whopping +/- 10 seconds a year, for example. Contrary to popular belief, these exquisite quartz movements are proof that quartz movements can, in fact, have a ‘soul’ that mechanical watch fanatics ramble on about all the time. It is really revitalizing to see big players such as Breitling, Tag Heuer, Longines, Citizen, and of course, Seiko embracing quartz movements despite mechanical movements being considered the main attraction for the majority of avid watch enthusiasts. With that in mind, here are some of my favorite quartz pieces that I absolutely enjoy on the wrist during the times I’m not wearing a mechanical watch. 

Seiko Dolce Gold Ref. SACM150 

(True elegance with this dress quartz model from Seiko)

Essentially a distant descendant of the first-ever quartz analog watch, this Seiko packs a ton of value when it comes to movement performance, looks, and execution. As a dress watch, the Seiko Dolce Gold Ref. SACM150is a watch that looks like a million bucks on the wrist with its brilliant gold plated case, incredibly slim case profile, and stunning dauphine hands. Normally, a watch with a 33.5mm case is not something that I would often wear, with my personal preference for dress pieces being in the range between 36mm and 38mm. However, the Seiko Dolce truly expresses a formal, traditional dress watch that looks stunning on the dressiest occasions. Furthermore, the finely textured dial underneath the sapphire crystal beautifully showcases Seiko’s exemplary watchmaking skills. Seiko just does some pretty amazing dials, even at this relatively affordable price segment. 

(Such thin case is achieved through a quartz caliber)

While not as substantial and sought after as the top-of-the-line 9F calibers, the Seiko caliber 8J high-accuracy quartz movement within the watch Seiko Dolce Gold Ref. SACM150 was also, in fact, used in higher tier Grand Seiko models such as the Ref. SBGF019 and Ref. SBGF017, as well as the Credor Ref. 8J81. It is astonishing to see this performance-driven quartz movement in an offering priced considerably lower than even the most entry-level Grand Seiko models. Performing with an accuracy rating of an astonishing +/- 10 seconds a year, this is one of the hidden gems of the Seiko catalog. Perhaps this is why it is only meant to be sold in Japan as a JDM (Japanese domestic model). 

The Citizen Eco-Drive Sunray Blue Ref. AQ4080-52L

Talking about quartz movements, I definitely can’t miss out on the illustrious Eco-Drive solar quartz movements from Citizen, another leading Japanese watchmaking brand that could very well go head-to-head against Seiko. Looking at the Citizen Eco-Drive Sunray Blue Ref. AQ4080-52L, you can easily see why it is one of my favorite quartz watches ever—it is one gorgeous watch. Starting right from the impeccable case finishes, the transition between satin brushing and mirror-like polishing looks visually flawless with sharp, defined lines that showcase Citizen’s fine Japanese craftsmanship and close attention to detail. That’s not the only thing that shines here; the graceful 37mm is another factor that captured my heart, a beautiful size seemingly perfect for an elegant everyday timepiece. 

(A perfect example of a “perfect” daily-beater)

For those of you who have never experienced an Eco-Drive movement, it is essentially a light-powered movement that captures light and converts it into electrical power to drive a quartz movement—a revolutionary technology pioneered by Citizen that eliminates the need for a regular battery change, one of the downsides of the usual run-off-the-mill quartz movement. The Eco-Drive A060 high-accuracy quartz movement that powers the Citizen Eco-Drive takes things to a whole new level with a remarkable accuracy rating of +/- 5 seconds a year. A true feat that even the very best mechanical watch movements may never achieve. 

(Japanese quartz watchmaking at its finest) (Left: Seiko Dolce; Right: The Citizen Eco-Drive)

Even more than 50 years since the introduction of quartz watches to the world, the Japanese are still perpetually perfecting and refining this technology as leading manufacturers of quartz watches. These newly developed quartz calibers never fail to amaze me when it comes to accuracy and technological innovations. 

Embracing Tradition: The History of Mechanical Movements 

Mechanical timekeeping movements have been around since as early as the 16th century, a historic craft of assembling an intricate series of springs and gears that work to convert stored energy into the regulated movement of the gears to tell the time. A little horological history lesson, it is widely believed that the “Nuremberg Egg,” an ornamental spring-driven clock invented by Nuremberg clockmaker Peter Henlein in 1510, was one of the earliest examples of wearable timepieces. 

It was a rather chunky egg-shaped device made of iron or steel that was intended to be worn on the neck more as an ornament rather than to keep accurate time. Unlike modern-day mechanical watches, these early-day variations of mechanical timekeeping tools were terribly inaccurate. While not entirely practical, the development of the “Nuremberg Egg” was a truly significant and paramount part of horological history that served as the foundation for the advent of modern-day wristwatches. Subsequently, this invention shaped timepieces that were notably more compact and weren’t so cumbersome to carry around; the era of pocket watches has arrived. 

(The “Nuremberg Egg”) (Photo Credit: Chronos Maximus) 
(Portrait by Maso di San Friano, ‘A man holding a watch’) (Photo Credits: Pro Watches)

In later years, King Charles II of England popularized portable pocket watches designed to slip into waistcoats after the Restoration of the British monarchy in 1660.This gave birth to numerous innovations that greatly improved pocket watches, most notably the invention of the balance spring by Dutch physicist, astrologer, and mathematician Christaan Huygens in 1675. (Fun fact: He was also the inventor of the pendulum clock). The man was a real hero in the history of horology. 

(Colored portrait of Christaan Huygens 1629-1695) (Photo Credit: Science Photo Library) 
(Drawing of a balance spring) (Photo Credit: The Seiko Museum Ginza) 

The balance spring, also known as hairspring, is a spring that connects to the balance wheel, the ‘beating’ heart of the movement, enabling the balance wheel to oscillate in regular intervals or frequency to control how fast or slow the watch hands move. This allowed for mechanical timepieces to be considerably more accurate with the ability to conduct some level of regulation. 

The Basic Architecture of a Mechanical Watch

Mechanical movements are made up of a complex series of gears that work with each other to effectively tell the time through the distribution of energy within the components. It is certainly an engineering marvel that captivates many of us watch enthusiasts, even for a technology that has been around for more than 500 years. In contrast to quartz movements, which draw electrical energy from a battery, mechanical movements are driven by potential energy stored in the mainspring powered by manually winding the movement via the crown or a rotor that spins with the natural movement of the wearer’s wrist for self-winding automatic timepieces. 

(This robust diver lies within a robust Swiss mechanical movement)

The mainspring is a spiral spring that coils to act as the main power source of a mechanical movement, unwinding at a constant pace through regulation to keep accurate time. Being housed in a barrel, the mainspring connects with a set of toothed wheels that drive what is called the escapement, which intermittently controls the transfer of energy from the mainspring to the counting mechanism using a pivoting lever device, otherwise known as the lever escapement. The escapement wheel’s teeth are specially designed to catch and push the pallet fork to create a constant ticking noise that we sometimes hear in mechanical watches, often referred to as a ‘beat’. Common watch beat rates we see very often include 6 beats per second (21,600 beats per hour) or 8 beats per second (28,800 beats per hour), resulting in a satisfying sweeping second hand that watch lovers indisputably find joy in seeing. 

(Latest Swiss caliber from the powerhouse ETA, an automatic movement used in Mido, that beats at 21,600BPH and carries a power reserve of 80 hours)

That barely only scratched the surface on the mechanisms of a mechanical movement. It all gets rather complicated, especially for us non-watchmakers. Movements can have on average about 130 different parts and over a thousand for those with complex complications. On that account, mechanical watches are not the most robust type of movements. They require regular maintenance and regulation compared to quartz movements which consist of fewer moving parts, which translates into lesser wear and tear. 

The Beauty of Mechanical Watches 

Mechanical watches are pretty much a purists’ game. Some collectors suggest a watch collection with only mechanical watches. So why is a centuries-old traditional piece of technology that may be conceived as outdated or old-school still well-loved and highly sought after by watch lovers all around the world? At their core, mechanical watches embody the rich heritage of watchmaking and the intricate craftsmanship required to make a fully functioning mechanism that tells the time by simply moving parts together. 

The love for mechanical watches does not always look at things on a rational level. It takes a different kind of enjoyment that stems from deep in our hearts using our emotions. Mechanical movements are, in essence, a work of fine art that requires a whole lot of attention to detail, technique, and expertise. It takes significantly more time to produce a mechanical movement, which is predominantly done by hand, compared to your average quartz movement. Just like appreciating paintings or sculptures, mechanical wristwatches are objects that have a significant connection to history (this aspect on its own can drive people to spend a fortune on them). 

(Photo Credit: Time and Tide Watches) 

As a person who enjoys mechanical watches more than quartz watches, one of the main attributes that I truly appreciate about a mechanical timepiece is its longevity. If a mechanical watch is well taken care of, it could pretty much last a lifespan or even multiple generations. This is why mechanical wristwatches are popular heirlooms to pass down as timeless objects with sentimental value. For the most part, modern mechanical movements are built with some form of shock protection and are generally serviceable if it gets damaged. Although mechanical watches are, for the most part, pricier than quartz pieces, there is just something magical about mechanical movements. This inexplicable feeling cannot be achieved with a quartz timepiece. It definitely goes deeper than merely telling the time. Having said that, here are some of the mechanical watches that I have been spending some quality wrist time with. 

YEMA Navygraf Heritage – Bracelet 

(The French diver clads an in-house automatic movement)

With the strong connection between mechanical watches and watchmaking history, YEMA is a French watch manufacturer that delivers both of these aspects. Like many fellow enthusiasts, vintage-inspired mechanical watches are a category of watches that really captures my heart. The Navygraf collection flaunts an attractive 70s retro appearance with modern materials we’ve come to expect from a modern timepiece. From the sapphire bezel to the striking yellow hands, the YEMA Navygraf Heritage – Bracelet is a winning formula that manages to look stunning without trying too hard. However, my favorite aspect of this watch is its attractive 39mm diameter, a case size that many would agree is the perfect size for a watch of this nature. 

(One of my favorites and a value proposition)

The value provided by YEMA here is phenomenal, housing an in-house automatic caliber in this price range, which is incredibly rare to see. The 29-jewel YEMA2000 movement truly delivers when it comes to performance, beating at a rate of 28,800 beats per hour and a power reserve of approximately 42 hours. Furthermore, the movement is checked by YEMA’s own watchmakers to ensure a high level of precision, quality, and accuracy. The effort YEMA takes to present a package that considers the movement, which may sometimes be an afterthought for other brands, is something that I really appreciate from the brand. 

Evant Polestar Terra Green – Ltd Production

Here’s a watch that I find myself constantly grabbing whenever I would pick a watch for the day. The Evant Polestar Terra Green brings a unique style with its own attractive charm as a dive watch that carries retro and modern design inspirations. Like the YEMA Navygraf Heritage, the 39.5mm diameter of the Polestar exhibits an elegance on the wrist (sub-40mm watches are really my cup of tea). Despite being a rather young brand in the market, Evant Watches has one of the most fascinating designs, making it such an impressive offering. 

(Loving the unique green dial of the Polestar Diver)

The Swiss-made Sellita SW-200 that lies within the watch is no stranger to those who are familiar with the mechanical watch world. It is a true ‘workhorse’ engine that countless watch manufacturers have confidence in. When I see this movement on the specifications sheet of watches under the $1000 mark, it certainly evokes excitement as I can expect a performance-driven timepiece with a ton of value. 

The Best of Both Worlds – Seiko’s Spring Drive: Seiko Prospex LX Landmaster

(This Seiko gives you the taste of both worlds with its Spring Drive movement)

Merging both quartz and mechanical in one movement? The Seiko Spring Drive unites the high torque of a mechanical watch and a high precision integrated circuit control system of a quartz watch to create a technology that delivers remarkable accuracy, unlike any other traditional mechanical movements. Like all other mechanical movements, the Spring Drive is similarly powered by a mainspring which stores up energy to drive the movement. However, the quartz oscillator sends extremely precise vibrations and takes advantage of the high torque to result in a seconds hand that glides smoothly along the dial, a signature attribute of the Spring Drive movement that is exceptionally satisfying to see. 

(Mechanical works with Quartz accuracy)

Part of Seiko’s LX collection, the Seiko Prospex LX Landmaster Ref. SBDB029 is a real beast, packing a powerful Spring Drive movement in a case hand-finished with Seiko’s Zaratsu mirror-like finishes. The Landmaster brings a wholly different character from many other Seiko or Grand Seiko models, equipped with a Spring Drive movement. The bold and valiant look of the watch is truly appealing. As mentioned above in the article, Seiko was the manufacturer who first released the world’s first quartz analog timepiece. The Spring Drive results from them perfecting the quartz technology and transcending what was possible with a conventional quartz movement with the implementation of the mechanics of a mechanical movement. 

The Golden Question: Quartz or Mechanical? 

(I’d still love my fine quartz watches)

It all really boils down to what one is looking for in a watch. Both quartz and mechanical movements have their own strengths and tradeoffs that better fit different kinds of watches. Quartz watches are undeniably better in terms of accuracy, robustness, and reliability, whereas mechanical movements offer a complex beauty, a work of fine craftsmanship that can last for generations. Despite having a deeper appreciation for mechanical watches for their traditional charm, quartz timepieces can be really fascinating, especially with brands like Seiko and Citizen producing impressive quartz movements that will sweep anyone off their feet. If you’re in doubt on which type of movement to pick for a watch, here’s a really blatant answer for you that would also apply to me: get both, and you won’t have to choose. 

Gnomon Watches first opened her doors for business online in early 2002, founded by bona fide horology suitors who share a profound passion for watchmaking and fine craftsmanship.

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