Quartz vs. Automatic: The Movements
The late 1960s ushered in a new generation of watchmaking with the introduction of the first quartz movement. This technological breakthrough set off a tumultuous time for the Swiss watch industry. These Japanese-made quartz calibers were less expensive, more accurate, and faster to produce than traditional Swiss mechanical movements. They posed such a threat that the period between the 1970s and 1980s has been dubbed the Quartz Crisis. Even today, as strong as the Swiss market is, many still view quartz movements as inferior to their mechanical counterparts. However, it’s worth taking a step back and examining what a quartz movement really is and how it compares to a traditional automatic movement.
What is a Quartz Movement?
Seiko presented the world’s first mass-produced quartz watch in 1969 called the Astron. However, Bell Telephone Laboratories actually invented the first quartz clock in 1927. A quartz movement is essentially another way of saying a timepiece is battery-powered. In simple terms, a quartz caliber operates via an electrical current from a battery that gives power to the quartz crystal within the movement. This causes it to vibrate, and these vibrations cause the movement to oscillate, which drives the motor. Finally, we see this in the moving hands on the face of a watch.
One main advantage of a quartz caliber is accuracy. Quartz movements are far more accurate than mechanical movements. Another benefit is convenience. Aside from a battery change every couple of years, a quartz watch will continue to run without the need to wear it or wind it. Lastly, watches with quartz movements are less expensive than mechanical watches, especially when you’re considering luxury watches.
Notable Quartz Movements
To counteract the influx of Japanese and American quartz movements, twenty of the top Swiss watch brands decided to join forces. Together, they established the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH). In 1970, the CEH unveiled the famed Beta 21 quartz movement. You can find it in such timepieces as the OMEGA Electroquartz, the Rolex Oysterquartz, the IWC Da Vinci, and the Patek Philippe 3587. Now, vintage luxury watches equipped with the Beta 21 quartz caliber are highly sought after by watch collectors.
Fast-forward to today, and you can find some of the best quartz movements in luxury watches created by Breitling, TAG Heuer, Cartier, and OMEGA. For instance, take Breitling’s SuperQuartz movements. You can find them in their Colt, Exospace, and Emergency models. They boast ten times more accuracy than a standard quartz movement and are COSC-certified.
In 2019 alone, the industry has made some major strides in the evolution of quartz movements. For example, Citizen partnered with Bulova to develop a new concept movement based on the original Accutron. This comes ahead of the iconic model’s 60th anniversary. Citizen also debuted the Eco-Drive Caliber 0100 at Baselworld 2019 – the most accurate wristwatch ever made.
Quartz Movements vs. Automatic Movements
While a quartz movement gets its power from a battery, an automatic mechanical movement uses energy from the motion of a wearer’s wrist. Every time the watch moves, a rotor within the caliber spins and automatically winds the mainspring. This is why you may hear someone refer to an automatic movement as a self-winding movement. Next, the gathered energy releases from the mainspring through a barrel to the gear trains, powering the timepiece. As long as someone wears the watch regularly or keeps it in a watch winder, it’ll continue to have power.
The argument for and against quartz movements is usually a passionate one among watch enthusiasts. However, the innovation that quartz movements have brought to wristwatch production is undeniable. Rather than comparing quartz movements to automatic ones, it’s more sensible to examine and appreciate each as individuals. Both types of movements have brought breakthroughs, discoveries, and advances to the field of watchmaking.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated in June 2019 for clarity and material