It'll come as no surprise that 99% of men buy watches on based on appearance alone. We rarely consider what makes a watch tick, yet a watchmaker spends the majority of his time meticulously designing the interior.
Once you have an eye for detail, you'll appreciate every aspect of a timepiece – including its innards.
In this article, we explain the difference between quartz and mechanical watches.
- An Introduction To Quartz & Mechanical Movements
- Hand Movement
- Power Source
An Introduction To Mechanical And Quartz Watch Movements
Before we can get into specifics about men's watches, we need to first understand how both of them work. Only then can an aspiring watch collector truly appreciate them both.
How does a mechanical watch movement work?
Mechanical movements fall into one of two subcategories: manual-winding and self-winding (automatic) watches.
In a manual watch, the wearer has to turn the crown (the winder) on the top of the watch to tighten the mainspring. The watch should then work for roughly 40 hours prior to the next winding. Some even have a power reserve that extends it to 10 days.
Automatic variants are powered instead by an oscillator which automatically winds the mainspring to power the watch. The oscillator can be thought of as a type of rotor that spins when the wearer moves his wrist. This means that the watch is powered entirely by kinetic energy.
Both types have a similar construction, however. Winding puts pressure on the mainspring, which creates a force that is transferred through the gear train (the collective term for the components in the watch) to an escapement. This puts out a little bit of power each time.
How does a quartz watch movement work?
First introduced in 1969 by Japanese manufacturer Seiko, quartz movements are much simpler by comparison. They were made with the goal to challenge traditional perspectives on watch production.
Up until this point, there had only ever been mechanical watches, which were difficult for the layman to afford. Cheaper quartz movements changed the watch industry forever.
Quartz movements are powered by a battery. They require no winding whatsoever.
Batteries send electric signals to a quartz crystal, causing it to vibrate 32,768 times per second. These vibrations are then measured through a circuit and converted into singular electrical pulses – one pulse per second.
The result is a quartz watch that is far more accurate than any mechanical watch thus far.
Watch Movement Factor #1 The Cost
Now, let's get down to brass tacks and talk differences. We'll start with cost.
How much do quartz watch movements cost?
Generally speaking, quartz movements will be far cheaper than their mechanical counterparts. There will be some overlap, but mechanical movements can fetch a significantly greater price tag than quartz could ever aspire to.
You could easily find a quartz watch between $5 and $100. This has to do mostly with the mechanism itself. Since quartz movements work electrically through a battery, they are simpler to manufacture.
Don't assume they're all cheap, though. Higher-end quartz movements exist. The Grand Seiko 9F has a price tag of over $2,000 while the Breitling Exospace B55 will run over $8,000. These factors are mainly due to the materials used in the case, crystal, and the number of complications on the watch.
How much do mechanical watch movements cost?
A mechanical timepiece can be found for as little as $50 and you can reliably find a quality automatic for $500 or so. However, the price tag for complex watches by luxury brands can soar to incredible heights. The Jaeger LeCoultre Hybris Mechanica runs for $2.5 million.
Though there are several factors at play, just as in quartz movements. However, pricing in mechanical watches is influenced considerably more by the mechanism itself – being far more complex than quartz alternatives.
Watch Movement Factor #2 Craftsmanship
We talked about cost and touched on the relative complexity of each movement, but let's dive into more detail.
What are the parts in a quartz watch?
These watches consist of a total of 14 parts:
- The stem
- The circuit
- Battery insulator
- Battery strap
- Quartz crystal
- Train bridge
- Dial foot clamp
- Case screw
- Coil cover
The key players in this list are the quartz crystal and the circuit through which the watch is powered. All-in-all, it's a simple amalgamation that relies on technology instead of craftsmanship. It takes less skill and detail to put together, which means there is less attention to the craftsmanship involved.
What are the parts of a mechanical watch?
The simplest mechanical watches have approximately 130 components, far outshining the quartz movement in complexity from the outset. Others can have thousands of moving parts.
A mechanical watch must be designed to fight gravity in order to function. Gravity interferes with the most delicate aspects of a watch's functionality. To mitigate this, Abraham-Louis Bréguet invented the tourbillon around 1795. This mechanism features a balance wheel and escapement in a rotating cage, which is used to better ensure accurate timekeeping.
The first owner of a clock with such a device was emperor Napoleon himself.
Over the years, tourbillons have gotten more and more efficient as well as complex. A notable example is the Thomas Prescher Triple-Axis Tourbillon Regular Sport – created in 2004.
Watch Movement Factor #3 Durability
Are quartz watch movements more durable than mechanical?
Discussing the durability of these movements is a bit simpler in scope. In short, quartz watches can take more of a beating but mechanical watches could last forever.
The strength of quartz movements lies with their impact resistance. The simplistic mechanism means there is less that can go wrong or break. Couple this design with a rugged, waterproof case and you can have a watch that's almost indestructible.
Are automatic watches durable?
Though mechanical watches are more likely to break from a fall, they have the advantage of longevity. Without a battery, mechanical movements are functionally immortal. Though this depends heavily on care and craftsmanship, a quality mechanical watch can easily outlast you and your children!
Watch Movement Factor #4 Maintenance
Let's break down how much attention these timepieces will need.
Do quartz watches need maintenance?
The advantage of a quartz movement is that it requires very little care over a long time. The only maintenance usually occurs every 2-5 years when the watch battery needs to be replaced. Things can get slightly more complicated with water-resistant watches though, as the mechanism will need to be resealed and pressure-tested.
A battery will be relatively inexpensive but services will cost roughly $45-$60.
How do you take care of a mechanical watch?
As you would expect, mechanical watches are more complicated to take care of. It's recommended that you have a service carried out every 3-5 years.
The reason is in the oils that ease the movement of the gear train. They gradually break down regardless of how you handle the watch. In essence, mechanical watches are like cars. It's best to service them regularly instead of having to call a tow truck when they die mid-journey.
Service isn't cheap either. Depending on the make and model of your watch, you might be looking at prices ranging between $100 to $450 or upwards.
Mechanical movements are a commitment, make no mistake!
Now like a budget second-hand car, you may decide that a low-end mechanical watch is not worth being serviced and you will just replace it when eventually breaks down. That's the decision every watch owner needs to make for themselves.
Watch Movement Factor #5 Hand Movement
This is actually the most reliable factor in telling apart a quartz movement from a mechanical movement.
Why do quartz movements tick?
Since the mechanism in a quartz watch experiences a pulse every second, the watch hand moves in individual ‘ticks' – exactly once per second.
This is due to power efficiency. An individual tick consumes far less power than if it were to imitate a mechanical watch.
Why do mechanical movements sweep?
The gear train moves the second hand every time the balance swings. This happens 6-8 times per second. To the eye, this makes for a continual gliding motion or ‘sweep' of the seconds hand on a mechanical watch.
Don't be fooled – it's not a perfectly smooth motion, it just ticks faster in smaller increments. Some mechanical men's watches tick audibly, but most don't.
Watch Movement Factor #6 Power Source
Where do quartz and mechanical movements derive their strength from?
How does quartz power a watch?
The main battery tends to rest in a “nest.” The negative contact strap lies along the bottom of the nest, whereas the positive strap rests against the side. In certain models, the strap that holds the battery down doubles as the positive contact.
However, the straps need to be totally clear of any residue. While residue rarely builds up within the watch, it could be the culprit if the watch starts ticking improperly or irregularly. In such a case, it is recommended that you clean the straps with a piece of sharpened peg wood. If a problem persists, then consider using typewriter eraser.
Care needs to be taken when handling the mechanism. If the battery is held by a screw, loosen the screw as carefully as possible so the screwdriver doesn't damage the entire mechanism.
How do mechanical watches work without batteries?
Mechanical watches are driven by a mainspring which is wound periodically – either by the oscillator in an automatic watch or by hand.
The force is distributed through the gear train to power the balance wheel. This wheel is what rotates back and forth to power the watch.
Watch Movement Factor #7 Accuracy
Is there a difference in how well quartz and mechanical movements tell time?
What is considered good accuracy for a quartz watch?
Quartz watches are the winners as far as accuracy goes. Since they rely on very precise electric pulses, they are able to stay almost perfectly accurate no matter what.
Over time, all watches will start to become a little off in terms of reporting the exact time. With quartz watches though there's no more than a one-second change per day at the very most.
What is considered good accuracy for a mechanical watch?
Accuracy is a more…complicated matter for mechanical watches.
These watches are unfortunately far more prone to variation due to a myriad of reasons:
- The position of the crown on the watch (up or below) can impact its accuracy.
- They can gain seconds due to strong wrist movements or shock.
- How far along it's been wound. Failing to wind consistently will exacerbate the problem.
You should know when buying a Rolex or other mid-range luxury watch such as an Omega that they are off by about 2 seconds a day. Fortunately, both companies are relentlessly pursuing higher standards which make them more accurate than the traditional Swiss COSC standard.
An entry-level luxury watch will typically vary by 4-6 seconds a day. $400-$800 watches by Swiss and Japanese brands won't be certified, which means you'll get significantly more variation. We're talking time that can be off by about 12 seconds a day.
Don't get me started on budget ($100-$200) watches. These are quite unpredictable and require the most attention. They can vary as far as 25 seconds a day.
If you consider a budget watch, always check that they are regulated to keep at least modestly accurate time. Staying within 10 seconds a day is a reasonable target at this price point.
Watch Movement Factor #8 Heritage
Are you looking for a treasured history to be proud of? Mechanical movements are your best bet and I'll explain why.
The first quartz movement was released on December 25th, 1969 in the form of the Seiko Astron. Not only are they relatively young, but their straightforward design also leaves little in the way of heritage.
It's a different story for mechanical movements. The first mechanical clock was produced in 1275. The Swiss preacher John Calvin released the first proper watches for sale in the 1540s. His designs integrated clocks with jewelry for convenience.
In 1773, Joseph Tlustos invented the first automatic, self-winding watch. This took pocket watches to a new level of sophistication and ease of use.
Watch Movement Factor #9 The Case
Even if we leave materials out of the equation, there is still a lot to be considered when comparing watch sizes.
Due to the simplistic nature of a quartz watch's innards, the manufacturer typically has more freedom when it comes to determining case sizes. This means that they can be more creative with designs. Some are just 1mm thin!
The beauty of mechanical watches lies with the mechanism itself. For this reason, they commonly feature an ‘open caseback' so the wearer can admire the gear train. This is a strong indication of pride in craftsmanship – the manufacturer is proud of their work and WANTS you to see it.
The sheer complexity of a mechanical watch means that the case will struggle to be as thin as that of a quartz movement. All but the simplest watches have cases thicker than 10mm and most are over 12mm.