The late 1960s ushered in a new generation of watchmaking with the introduction of quartz movement wristwatches. This technological breakthrough set off a tumultuous time for the Swiss watch industry and almost eradicated it completely. Cheaper, more accurate, and faster to produce than traditional Swiss mechanical movements, the Japanese-made quartz calibers posed such a threat that the period between the 1970s and 1980s is referred to as the Quartz Crisis. Even today, as strong as the Swiss watch market is, quartz movements are often belittled and deemed as less worthy than their mechanical counterparts. However, if you take a step back and examine what a quartz movement really is, these little technological marvels should merit a great deal of respect.
What is a Quartz Movement?
Although Seiko presented the world’s first mass-produced quartz watch—the Astron—in 1969, the first quartz clock was actually invented in 1927 by Bell Telephone Laboratories.
So, what is a quartz movement? It’s essentially a battery. How does it work? In simple terms, an electrical current from a battery gives power to the quartz crystal within the movement, allowing it to vibrate. Then, the vibrations from the quartz crystal cause the movement to oscillate and drive the motor, moving the 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. And finally, 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, a consortium of 20 of the top Swiss watch brands came together to establish the Centre Electronique Horloger. In 1970, the CEH unveiled the famed Beta 21 quartz movement, used in such timepieces as the OMEGA Electroquartz, the Rolex Oysterquartz, the IWC Da Vinci, and the Patek Philippe 3587. Vintage luxury watches equipped with the Beta 21 quartz caliber are now highly sought after by watch collectors.
Fast-forward to today, and some of the best quartz movements can be found in luxury watches created by Breitling, TAG Heuer, Cartier, and OMEGA. For instance, Breitling’s SuperQuartz movements—which can be found in their Colt, Exospace, and Emergency models—boast ten times more accuracy than a standard quartz movement and are COSC-certified.
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—which is why automatic movements are also referred to as self-winding movements. The gathered energy is then released from the mainspring through a barrel to the gear trains, powering the timepiece. As long as the watch is worn, it will 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 cannot be denied. Rather than comparing quartz movements vs. automatic ones, it’s more sensible to examine and appreciate the breakthroughs, discoveries, and advances each have brought to the table.