Quartz vs. Automatic - which one?

Despite both being distinctly different from each other, quartz and automatic watches have been compared to each other ever since the quartz technology emerged in the ‘60s. Still today, after all these years mechanical purists undervalue and even debase quartz technology. At some point, every aspiring young horologist delving into the world of watches is bound to encounter an argument on this topic online. To understand both sides of the argument objectively, we need to take a step back in time and dig in to the history of both mechanisms.

The first automatic watches date as far as the American revolution. Pocket watches were already popularized by the 17th century. Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Perrelet is credited to be the first to create the movement in 1776. Having heard of Perrelet’s design, Abraham-Louis Breguet worked on improving it up to 1810, though his design proved to be too expensive to make. Back then, the closest movement to the modern design in automatic timepieces was created by Hubert Sarton in 1777/8, though there is no evidence linking the blueprints. From the 1780s and onwards into the 19th century, many patents for different delineations of the automatic movement, yet the invention failed to gain any serious traction due to its costly production. That is, until the popularization of wristwatches in the aftermath of the first World War.

Towards the end of WWI, the wristwatch had already gained widespread usage among people. In 1917, John Hardwood invented the center-weight system This was the first design to note commercial success. That, however, could not save the Harwood Self-Winding Watch Company from going bankrupt in 1931 as a result of the Great Depression. Rolex improved upon the design in its Oyster Perpetual in 1930, though it is not clear whether they were inspired by the 18th century design. The last improvement before the surge of quartz movements was the invention of ball bearings by Eterna, an element still found in auto watches today.

Quartz clocks were invented in 1927, but the quartz movement for wristwatches was developed in 1969 by Seiko. We use Seiko movements in most of our watches. Quartz movements have gained widespread popularity especially since the 1980s. At that time, the rising usage of solid-state digital electronics enabled watchmakers to make inexpensive and compact watches. This is where the conflict between the two movements begin. As a result of popularizing cheaper alternatives, the mechanical watch market nearly collapsed in the 80s. This event is today known as the ‘Quartz Crisis’ and is the reason why many Swiss watch manufacturers went under.

Now that you know the history behind both movements, one can easily deduce why mechanical watches in general are held in higher regard than quartz watches. The automatic movement has a much richer history, though the modern design is just around 40 years older than the quartz watches. To achieve a more objective standing in the argument, let us go through the inside and outs of the mechanisms.

In automatic watches, the mainspring, which is a spiral spring that moves the gears, is powered by the natural motions of the wearer. Waving your hand while walking, even ever so slightly, translates into pivoting the rotor, which in turn winds up the mechanism. Quartz technology is another way of just saying that the watch is battery powered. It provides a much more accurate alternative. Electric currents power the silicon dioxide, more widely known as quartz, and is regulated by an electronic oscillator, which in turn produces a precise frequency that makes the watch on a whole other level of reliability and correctness than their mechanical counterparts. Vibrations are produced that cause the movement to oscillate and in turn - powers the motor, The result is the movement of the hands on the dial.

As you can see, through the introduction into the history and mechanics behind both watches, we’ve already encountered some differentiating properties that might already set your mind on one of the two. The quartz watches are less expensive to produce and have far better accuracy than the mechanical automatics. Furthermore, because of their complex build, mechanical watches, not only automatics, break more frequently and fixing one might prove to be costly and time-consuming. Durability, accuracy and price - the main properties a horologist has to take into consideration and the properties where the quartz prevails.

So what does it all come down to in the end? Despite being inferior to the quartz technology, the automatics are held in higher regard, because of its traditional roots. Yet, its roots in reality are just less than 40 years apart from the creation of the first quartz clock. The quartz technology continues to dominate the watch market, while automatics and mechanicals are revered for their complexity and history. At the end of the day - it all comes down to taste. Which one is the one for you? Join the Paul Rich VIP Facebook group and share your thoughts with us and your fellow group members

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