FREE Shipping and Returns Worldwide

Quartz vs mechanical

Which one’s for you?

There are two basic ways to make a watch go – its engine, if you like. There’s the mechanical movement – which we’ve been using since the 16th century, when portable clocks mutated into the first pocket watches – and there’s the quartz movement, developed by Seiko in the ’60s and making a real impact worldwide in the 1970s. But which is best? At Christopher Ward, we think offering a variety of movements allows our customers to find the watch most suited to their own needs. The answer – in the same way that a Ferrari is better at going around corners and a Range Rover is better at climbing up mountains – is that it rather depends on what you want it for…

A little bit of history

It was German craftsmen who first made watches to be worn around the neck in the 1500s, but they were more like small clocks, really, and very much a specialist taste. Indeed, watches didn’t become much used – or popular – until the tail end of the following century, with innovations like Thomas Mudge’s lever escapement (1759) having considerable impact on their practicality.

The British had dominated watchmaking in the 17th and 18th centuries, but in time the Swiss industry started to take over, with Abraham-Louis Breguet often – though not strictly accurately – credited with creating the first wristwatch. Initially, wristwatches were for women only – men would use pocket watches – but this changed rapidly in the early 20th century. Action men like aviators started to find wristwatches far more practical, but they really became popular during the First World War. Every soldier had a wristwatch or coveted one, and by the 1930s the pocket watch was virtually extinct.

Later, at the very tail end of the ’60s, came another watch revolution: the introduction of quartz movements, which were cheaper, more accurate and faster to produce – and generally Japanese. The Swiss watch industry shuddered, and nearly broke, during the so-called Quartz Crisis, and even today – with the industry more or less back in its pomp – some continue to ridicule quartz. It’s a stance party based on fear – they know how close quartz got to killing them.

Though the first quartz clocks had been around since the 1920s, we didn’t see the first mass-produced quartz watch until 1969. The Seiko Astron was a revelation, though not cheap – the first models cost about the same as a family car. By the mid-’70s though, quartz watches were cheap, plentiful and hugely popular; indeed, in 1978 they began to outsell mechanical watches, and soon romped ahead. The Swiss were slow to react, but eventually did so en masse, a consortium of 20 top Swiss watch brands launching the famous Beta 21 quartz movement, a high-end answer to cheap Japanese and American quartz that was used in such timepieces as the Omega Electroquartz, the Rolex Oysterquartz, the IWC Da Vinci, and the Patek Philippe 3587. Later came the Swatch Group – born out of various mergers that included famous names like Omega and Tissot, and which had great success with cheap Swiss quartz watches.

By this point there were any least three parallel lines of development in quartz watches – the cheap, accessible units used in Citizens and Seikos; the populist Swatch line; and the more expensive Swiss-made movements, which today give Breitling’s SuperQuartz models, say, ten times the accuracy of a standard quartz movement. With all this runaway success of quartz in the ’70s and ’80s, it had looked like mechanical watches would soon be obsolete – and, indeed, as many as 1,000 famous old Swiss watch brands went to the wall in this period, or nearly did. During the ’80s, the Swiss industry lost over two thirds of its work force.

These days, of course, mechanical watches don’t seem quite so obsolete any more…

So, what are my choices today?

The case for quartz

Today quartz powers around 90% of the world’s watches – but very few of the most expensive and desirable ones – and has considerable advantages: it’s reliable, super-accurate, highly durable, and cheap to make.

Quartz watches are powered by a battery which vibrates a tiny quartz crystal around 33 times each second. When you run a current through quartz, it oscillates at an almost perfectly constant frequency, which gives the watch something constant to measure time against. A tiny computer chip then converts these vibrations into impulses which drive an electronic motor that moves the watch’s hands. The result requires hardly any maintenance, with few moving parts to go wrong, and the movement itself takes up very little room – meaning a watch can be as slim as you like, or an odd shape if you prefer. And, of course, the display can either use traditional hands, or a digital display of some kind, with numbers appearing on a screen.

And they’re accurate – the qualities of quartz, in fact, ensuring better accuracy than even the most expensive, most sophisticated mechanical movement. (The best quartz watches can be accurate to within a few seconds each year – our C7 Rapide Chronograph COSC Limited Edition, for example.) They’re much cheaper to manufacture – and buy – than any mechanical watch and, beyond changing the battery every two or three years, you can basically forget about them.

All of which makes them the obvious choice for many people. Indeed, any objective view would say that, surely, they’re the best.

But that’s before you take the whole issue of heart and soul into consideration.

The argument for mechanical

Mechanical watches are the polar opposite of quartz. They’re less accurate, far more expensive and involved to make, and work best if treated to regular maintenance – but they’ve got soul.

You’ll find the craftsmanship and skill that represents the pinnacle of watchmaking in mechanical watches, which rank among the most intricate machines in the world. Indeed, the top watchmakers continually vie with each other to make ever more elegant and ingenious mechanical movements, powering ever more detailed and beautifully finished watches.

Mechanical watches are powered by the carefully regulated release of energy from a wound spring, which turns gears, a regulating mechanism and, finally, the hands; basically, they use purely mechanical components to keep time.

This is technology that’s essentially many hundreds of years old, and comes in two basic versions – manual (or hand wound), where the wearer must regularly turn the crown to tighten the spring, and automatic (or self-winding), where the spring is automatically tightened by a rotor which turns as the wearer’s wrist moves – as well as a million ‘complications’, which add additional (sometimes esoteric) features. Generally a mechanical watch will run for about 40 hours on a fully-wound mainspring, but a few have a power reserve of many days – for example our in-house movement Calibre SH21 can run for 120 hours when fully wound.

As even a simple mechanical movement will have at least 50 parts – some will have many hundreds – there’s more to go wrong, and plenty of wear and tear to account for. The use of jewels – generally synthetic rubies – to reduce the effects of friction at points where metal would otherwise rub against metal is partially to thank for the longevity of many mechanical movements though, and, properly maintained, a good mechanical movement will last a very, very long time. We’re talking centuries rather than years here, folks, meaning many are handed down through the generations as family heirlooms.

Tell me about complications, then

Your basic watch tells the time, but over the last 200 years watchmakers have managed to bestow watches with a mind-boggling array of complications – some of which aim to improve accuracy, while others are simply a way for them to show off their inventiveness and extraordinary micro-engineering skills. Generally, the more complications you add to a watch – especially a mechanical watch – the longer it will take to make, and the more expensive it will be.

At the simplest end of things, basic complications might involve adding a third hand to count seconds, either running from the centre like the hour and minute hands or as a ‘small seconds’ separate display (generally a little sub-dial at the 6 o’clock mark), or a small window to indicate the date, and sometimes the day as well. Another practical addition is the chronograph, which adds a stopwatch function (and numerous cool-looking sub-dials to facilitate this) and which tends to have a rather macho, technical feel.

Then you get to the really serious stuff. Christopher Ward, for instance, offers mechanical chronographs like the C60 Trident Chronograph Pro 600, as well as watches with a GMT function (which show the time in more than one time zone at once) and watches like the C1 Grand Malvern Moonphase, which indicate the state of the lunar cycle.

And above all these, in terms of cost and complexity, are such features such as alarms, minute repeaters, perpetual calendars and tourbillons. Tourbillon is French for ‘whirlwind’, and these watches aim to reduce the effects of gravity by mounting the balance wheel and escapement (the mechanism which transfers energy to the timekeeping element of the watch) in a rotating cage. This is a complication that’s been around since the late 1700s, and is theoretically slightly more accurate than a regular watch – and certainly much, much more difficult and expensive to make.

Of course, quartz watches can have complications too – including many of the above, achieved at rather less trouble or cost – as well as additional features ranging from electronic compasses to barometers, altimeters to even GPS.

So, what should I buy?

There’s no right or wrong answer here. Do you care more about ultimate accuracy, a trouble-free life, a relative low entry price or the possibilities of modern high-tech gadgetry? Then you’ll probably be more drawn to quartz – and a mechanical watch will seem to you like a bizarre and eccentric dinosaur that’s somehow still thriving in our connected, digital world.

If, however, you care about traditional and craftsmanship, and enjoy amazing micro-mechanics and the idea of a living, beating thing – a watch that feels almost alive – sitting on your wrist, then a mechanical movement is for you. And quartz? That may seem to be a throwaway tool, something to use and discard rather than to treasure.

We love both, of course. Our first two watches, the C3 Malvern Chronograph and C5 Malvern Automatic, covered both bases, and both are now in their third iterations over a decade later. The reason for their longevity lies with the respective movements within: quartz, because it appeals to our common sense, and mechanical because it appeals to our hearts. And both deserve a place in your watch collection.

This article was written by Matt Bielby, the editor of Loupe, our quarterly free magazine. If you enjoyed reading it, you can sign up to receive Loupe here.