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Automatic Watches vs. Quartz Watches

You’ve just started shopping for a watch and are facing the inevitable question, how to choose between automatic watches and quartz-powered timepieces. Let’s look at the merits of each and how they stack up against each other.

Quartz v. Automatic: Overall Impressions

Before getting into fine details of watch movements, let’s look at the general reasons people choose either quartz or automatic watches.

Quartz is usually less expensive, more accurate and requires less maintenance. Are you sold on a quartz watch already? Before you answer, consider the mechanical watch’s craftsmanship, heritage, and that this thing you wear is not just a collection of silicon microchips like all of your other devices. No, you will not hear the sounds of buzzes and beeps that have no place in the natural world with a mechanical watch. Instead, you have a tactile, functioning, real-world mechanism that you can see, hear and even feel at work.

What is Quartz Movement?

Let’s take a quick peek back in time, back to the late 1960s in Japan. Seiko was (and still is) the leader in wristwatches on the island nation. On Christmas Day 1969, Seiko released the quartz-powered Astron and the watch world immediately knew this was a seismic shift that would affect them for the foreseeable future.

Seiko Astron

This game-changing nature of quartz movement was not lost to traditional Swiss watchmakers, who were soon to follow. In the 1970s we saw the Rolex Datejust Oysterquartz, which ended its run in 2001. Today one of these quartz Rolexes fetches a fine price at auction. Another Swiss entry from the 70s, the IWC Da Vinci boasted the first fully Swiss-made quartz movement, and if you can come across a vintage Patek Philippe 3587 quartz watch, be prepared to shell out around $30,000 bucks. While top Swiss watchmakers never totally sided with quartz over mechanical movement, their rapid acquiescence was an unquestionable acknowledgment of the power of quartz.

So How Does Quartz work?

The simplicity of quartz technology is its brilliance. A conventional battery produces a small electric signal that’s sent to a piece of quartz, which is a piezoelectric material. That just means the quartz can hold and transfer electric voltage. Quartz also vibrates at a precise frequency of 32,768 times per second, creating a signal that’s so exact you can (pardon the cliché) set your watch to it. So Seiko decided they would use this reliable timing element to power and regulate its watches.

Pluses of Quartz Movement

Lasting Power. If you’ve got a quartz watch from a well-established watchmaker, brands like Casio and Seiko, you’ve got some serious durability under the hood. Batteries can last up to five years before needing to get replaced. That’s for basic watch functions. When you get into features like dual readouts with LED screens alongside traditional hands, lots of illumination or stopwatch features, the battery can wear down sooner.

Tag Heuer Formula 1

Cost Less. This is generally true. Quartz watches are usually cheaper to produce and come with lower retail price tags. But there are exceptions. A TAG Heuer Formula 1, which has battery-powered quartz movement, will cost you north of $1,000 (though, true, a TAG Heuer Carrera with automatic movement can cost triple that). An Omega Speedmaster Skywalker X-33, which features traditional hands and an LCD readout on its quartz-powered face, can go for up to five grand. But you also have top brands such as Braun, Bulova, Tissot, and Hamilton that offer solid quartz watches in the mid-$300 range.

Is Quartz More Accurate?

The short answer is yes. Experts can argue by how much but in general, a quality quartz watch will only lose about 20 seconds per month. A good automatic, even a high-end Swiss offering, is apt to lose a few minutes each month.

Why is Mechanical Movement Such a Big Deal?

There are purists who will only wear mechanical movement, automatic or manual. Powered by mainsprings just like the world’s first clocks in the 17th century, mechanical movement uses the ever-diminishing power of a wound spring to drive gears. That’s it! It sounds so simple and yet watchmakers have been honing, experimenting and perfecting this simple concept for centuries. That tradition is what goes into a mechanical watch and that’s what their wearers appreciate.

IWC Portugieser

The downside of mechanical? Well, they have to be wound for one. Automatic watches takes care of most of that, with a rotating weight to use the movements of the wearer to wind the spring. But we are still talking about wear and tear here, metal twisting and turning on metal, and that will wear down eventually. But to see that delicate ballet of gears whirl away, each playing an individual role for a unified purpose, well, it’s a thing of beauty to many watch lovers.

There’s also the beauty of fluid movement on the face to consider. With a few exceptions, the Seiko Spring Drive being one of them, quartz watches have second hands that have the more rigid “tick-tick” motion, moving once per second with the steady beat produced by the crystal. Automatic movement, conversely, features hand movements that are sweeping, smooth, and many would say, a thing of pure art. It’s why they’ll never go quartz.

But the Masses Have Spoken

Most of the watches out there in the world (and we’re talking over 90%) are quartz watches. There’s little question that for affordability, longevity, and accuracy most folks want a quartz watch.

So choose automatic watches for the tradition and art of engineering or go with quartz for something less design-driven but more practical. Just go with a good brand and you should have a watch worthy of your weighing the question of automatic versus quartz.

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