Quartz Movements: A General Overview

Much has been made of the “Quartz Crisis”, and the implication that Quartz watches are not as good as mechanical ones. 

The Quartz Crisis was devastating to the watch industry to be sure, and I do agree that mechanical watches are much better than Quartz, but as is always the case, there are exceptions to the rule, perspective matters, and its always a good idea to at least try to have some knowledge to back up your claims.

So, what is Quartz?

By definition, a watch that runs with a Quartz movement is one that uses an electronic circuit that is regulated by a Quartz crystal to keep time. A Quartz movement consists of a Quartz crystal that is made in the shape of a tuning fork, which is usually about 4mm long. This tuning fork vibrates at exactly 32,768 Hz. This frequency is exactly 2 to the power of 15, which is easily divided in 2, thus making it extremely easy to digitally divide this frequency to get the 1 Hz needed to drive the watch’s second hand. The frequency 32,768 Hz is also a good balance between low frequency crystals, which are physically too big for watches, and high frequency crystals, which drain the battery too quickly.


The first Swiss quartz clock, which was made after WW II (left), on display at the International Museum of Horology in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

The first Swiss quartz clock, which was made after WW II (left), on display at the International Museum of Horology in La Chaux-de-Fonds.


The technology began all the way back in 1880 when Jacques & Pierre Curie discovered that Quartz crystals had Piezoelectric properties, meaning they discovered that quartz crystals are able to convert mechanical signals into electronic signals, and vice versa. The first quartz oscillator or circuit was built by Walter G. Cady in 1921. Then in 1923 D. W. Dye at the National Physical Laboratories in the UK, along with Warren Marrison at Bell Telephone Laboratories in the US, produced the first signals of precision time keeping using these quartz oscillators, and in 1927 they built the first quartz clock. Over the next several decades, development of quartz timekeeping technologies remained in laboratories. The overall size of the equipment was too large to be commercially practical, and of course these were far too expensive as well.

Having said that, the technology was useful and between the 1930s and the 1960s the National Bureau of Standards (now the NIST), based the time standards of the US on quartz clocks, until they switched to atomic clocks. Then in 2014 they began using a quartz clock so precise and accurate, they only use the atomic clock to update it every 24hrs.


Seiko Quartz caliber 35A used in the 1969 Astron

Seiko Quartz caliber 35A used in the 1969 Astron


That brings us to 1958, which was the year that Seiko started working on Quartz clocks that eventual led to their first Quartz wristwatch prototype of the Astron in 1967. That same year, Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) introduced a prototype of their own called the Beta1. Then in 1969 Seiko introduced the first commercially available Astron. Interestingly enough, just afterwards the Beta21 was released, which was developed by 16 (not 1), Swiss Watch Manufacturers. The Beta21 was used by Rolex, Patek Philippe, and famously by Omega in their Electroquartz models, and with that, the Quartz Crisis officially began. 

The Quartz Crisis

In a nutshell, the Quartz Crisis refers to the era right after Seiko and other brands began selling quartz wristwatches. Quartz was the latest greatest thing, certainly much more precise than mechanical watches, and given the state of mind during the early 70s (we were flying to the moon, color TV was happening, HiFi was a common buzz word, etc.), it was inevitable that sooner or later (turned out to be sooner), people would dump their mechanical watches for quartz ones.

That dumping, which caught essentially the entire watch industry off guard, led directly to the collapse of literally hundreds of brands in Switzerland, US, etc. as their sales collapsed. Many brands were gobbled up by conglomerates The Swatch Group and Richemont, but the world of watches would never be the same again — and what I’d give to find a time machine, go back to that era and buy literally every single mechanical watch I could find. Even when adjusting for inflation, those watches, the ones people pay sometimes hundreds of thousands for today, were dirt dirt cheap, but anyway…

So, why are Quartz watches inferior if they are more precise, and more economical?

It is true that under any circumstance a Quartz watch is more precise or accurate than any mechanical watch. In fact, a Quartz watch, when worn close to he body, and at typical temperatures will only lose or gain 0.5 seconds per day. In comparison, COSC certifies watches that run within a -4/+6 seconds per day. Thats a 9.5 second advantage for Quartz.


All members of the JLC Master Control series, such as this caliber 896 are subjected (as a completely finished watch) to 1000 hours of rigorous reliability testing in 6 positions, over a temperature range of 4->40 Celsius. Testing includes magnetism (5000 amperes/meter), shock, vibration, and pressure tests. Each watch is then signed and dated by the responsible watchmaker.

All members of the JLC Master Control series, such as this caliber 896 are subjected (as a completely finished watch) to 1000 hours of rigorous reliability testing in 6 positions, over a temperature range of 4->40 Celsius. Testing includes magnetism (5000 amperes/meter), shock, vibration, and pressure tests. Each watch is then signed and dated by the responsible watchmaker.


Even when you compare Quartz to higher-end brands internal standards, for example those at IWC that were one of the first to make watches that never ran slow (slow = late and thats a no-no in watchmaking), they still had ratings of 0/+2 or so, meaning there is still about a 2 or more second advantage to a Quartz movement. Last year, Rolex introduced their 3200 series of movements, and cleverly used the marketing tagline that their new movement was “twice as accurate as COSC”. The problem is that “twice as accurate” is still just -2/+2. They still don't match IWC or Jaeger, or Patek’s (etc., etc.) internal standards of 0/+2, let alone get close to Quartz accuracy.

In addition, the fact that even the absolute best, most accurate mechanical watch will require regular maintenance and regulation, and one quickly realizes this isn’t even a close fight. It’s quartz via knock out!

But mechanical watches are still better, and here’s why:

I once read that a mechanical watch is a lot like a painting, where the painter requires countless hours/days/weeks/months/years to complete his/her masterpiece, while a quartz watch is like taking a photograph with a camera that takes literally seconds to develop the impression. In no way, shape, or form can the painting, even the best of the best of the best compete from an accuracy point of view with a photograph. A photograph by and large is exact. A painting is not.

A painting; however, takes serious skill. It takes time. It takes love of the work itself in order to happen. Yet, anyone can grab a camera, press the shutter button, and voila, a photograph.

The flip side of this metaphor (which represents the exception to the rule), is of course the fact that there are some lousy painters out there, and some fabulously creative, talented photographers that rival any art form.


The gorgeous Seiko 9R96 Quartz Movement

The gorgeous Seiko 9R96 Quartz Movement


Case in point the Grand Seiko Quartz with their Spring Drive Quartz Caliber, the 9R96. I guarantee anyone who looks at this will not only be amazed at how beautiful it is, but most won’t realize that its a Quartz movement.

Exceptions like the 9R96; however, represent a very tiny percentage of the Quartz movements out there. In general terms, the overwhelming majority of Quartz movements are the equivalent of me taking a decent photo with a decent camera, and not like a master painter painting a masterpiece. In fact, one could even say that the vast majority Quartz watches on the market are essentially disposable.

Mechanical watches are the exact opposite. There’s an appreciation of old world engineering that has stood theist of time. What is essentially an obsolete way of doing things, but that we really appreciate anyway. In other words, even if the end result is not quite as accurate as Quartz, a mechanical watch to even function qualifies (in my mind) as a technical wonder of our world. To think that in some cases, movements can have hundreds and hundreds of parts, all within an area that covers around 33mm x 8mm (give or take), and sometimes, as in the case of Jaeger LeCoultre’s caliber 849 which is only 1.85mm thick, but somehow is made up of 123 parts, is mind boggling - Piaget too, are masters of thin and now hold the record for the thinnest mechanical watch in the world, which is 4mm thick. Jaeger used to have the record with their Jubilee Ultra Thin, which contains their caliber 849 and is 4.05mm thick.


This IWC Siderale Scafusia Grande Complication watch is an absolute mechanical marvel!

This IWC Siderale Scafusia Grande Complication watch is an absolute mechanical marvel!


Then there are the Grande Complication watches. Watches that can tell you Sidereal time, show us the stars in the night’s sky, calculate not just the day and date, but which months have 30 days, or 31 days, as well as leap years. Some provide chronograph functionality including split chronograph capabilities, and some are even minute repeaters, which means there is a bell inside these works of art to help announce the time with sound.


The Patek Philippe "Henry Graves" Supercomplication Pocket watch completed in 1933 with a total of 24 different functions. It took 3 years to design and another 5 to manufacture. To say it is a masterpiece is the understatement of the last 300 years!

The Patek Philippe "Henry Graves" Supercomplication Pocket watch completed in 1933 with a total of 24 different functions. It took 3 years to design and another 5 to manufacture. To say it is a masterpiece is the understatement of the last 300 years!


At the highest level, many of these marvels would have all of those complications and more in one single movement (see above!).

Now think about the thousands of hours of research and painstaking craftsmanship to even begin making these amazing machines and all of it functions mechanically. No battery, no electricity, no Quartz crystal, nothing. All those calculations are somehow done with nothing but gears, wheels, springs, etc. are from "disposable". These machines will outlive us all!

So, to conclude, as masterful as Seiko’s Spring Drive Quartz movements are, not even they can rival what has been done, and continues to be done (even by Seiko themselves), with mechanical watch movements.

This is why the true watch aficionado, despite having a great Quartz movement or two in their collection, will by and large only collect mechanical watches, and so should you.