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The debate that often occurs between proponents of quartz movement and those in favor of mechanical movement often boils down to whether a watch is supposed to be an instrument that must be absolute in its measurement of time, or if the the wrist-worn accessory can be beautifully imperfect like centuries-old paintings in a museum.

There are certainly good arguments to be made for both which speak to inherent reasons why a watch may cost a certain price, the accuracy of the time being told, and of course, the prestige that the piece has for both the wearer and those that admire it.

For those considering a wristwatch purpose, here’s the difference between quartz and mechanical movements.

The Rolex GMT-Master II.
Getty Images / Leon Neal

What is a “movement?”

First and foremost, we must first understand what a “movement” actually means in the context of watch functionality. At it’s most basic, a movement is the mechanism which allows a watch to be able tell time. Much cache is often given to a watch which features an “in house” movement – meaning that the crafting of technical attributes occurs under the same banner as which the watch company is named.

Even the most “basic” mechanical movements boast upwards of 100 intricate parts. In contrast, a quartz movement relies mostly on the power of a watch battery.

If you wanted to immediately identify the difference, check out the second hand. With mechanical movement, the “sweep” occurs in a seamless glide (thanks to multiple ticks occurring per second), while with quartz it’s more an absolute “tick-tock” movement.

Mechanical movement

We live in a world now where everything is seemingly powered by a battery. Whereas days of yesteryear gave said battery a finite time of usage, our most vital items like cell phones, cameras and laptops are all rechargeable.

So what does that mean for watches that don’t rely on batteries/quartz movement? Does it always mean they’re old? Are they less reliable? Are they always more complex? Is that why watches cost so much?

The Swiss have always been “watch royalty” thanks to heritage brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, TAG Heuer, Cartier, Omega, and Longines. Despite their impressive track record throughout history, during a nine-year period following the introduction of quartz movement, Swiss watch production fell from a record 96 million units to 45 million and saw the workforce reduced from 89,450 in 1970, to 28,000 in 1988.

Rather than chasing the new quartz trend, the Swiss remained steadfast in their commitment to producing watches with mechanical principles. This resulted in several mergers and the now ubiquitous “ETA movement” which continues to rely on stored energy rather than battery power.

As for the reliability of mechanical watches, Hodinkee reports that, “Rolex, Grand Seiko, and many other brands routinely publicize their accuracy and precision requirements; if you buy a Rolex today, you should expect it to be accurate to +2/-2 seconds per day, at most, full stop. Grand Seiko Hi-Beat movements are spec’d to +5/-3 seconds per day, and that’s what you should expect.”

A good example of mechanical principles and modern sensibilities is the Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical which retails for under $500 USD and features a Swiss-made, hand-wound movement and a font which harkens back to older, military-style watches.

The difference between manual & automatic

There are two types of mechanical watches: manual and automatic. The former uses a mainspring – initiated by the wearer when they wind the crown – which in turn is distributed to elements like the wheels, pinions, escapement, pallet fork, oscillator, and more.

In an automatic watch, manual winding isn’t needed thanks to a flat blade positioned in the back of the movement that oscillates to put tension on the mainspring through the random motion of the watch wearer’s arm.

Popular examples of the former and latter are the Rolex GMT-Master II which has a GMT movement (in which two timezones can be tracked), oyster bracelet, and date magnifier, and the IWC Pilot Black Automatic Chronograph with a 44-hour power reserve.

Many of the reasons why people make the blanket statement that “watches are too expensive” are usually referring to mechanical watches and don’t have a firm grasp on the ingenuity, time spent on research and development, and team of craftspeople it takes to make something run on stored energy.

Quartz movement

The introduction of quartz movement is attributed to Seiko – who first introduced the Astron in December 1969 – and was as notable a development as when Bill Bowerman introduced the waffle iron sole into the footwear marketplace which resulted in the formation of Nike.

With a price tag of ¥450,000 at the time ($4,252 USD based on a current conversion), the limited edition (100 pieces) watch was the very first that utilized battery power over the more traditional hairspring/balance wheel combination which regulates how a watch is able to keep time.

The move certainly paid dividends for Seiko. By 1977, the company was the world’s largest watch company based on revenue of $700 million USD on a production of 18 million pieces – buoyed by quartz technology which met demand in both the analog and emerging digital sphere where people were enamored with the digital glow from the new LED screens.

But what exactly is Quartz movement, how does it differentiate from Pin-lever movements which accounted for 44% of Swiss production at the time, and why was it such a groundbreaking discovery for Seiko?

To achieve a measure of time, quartz movement watches rely on an electrical current – created in this case by the usage of a small watch battery – which is sent through a small quartz crystal and subsequently vibrates at a rate of 32,768 times per second which then drives the motor to move the watch hands.

Findings in the Horological Journal deduced from a series of tests on four different quartz-driven watch models, “that even the humblest quartz wristwatch can maintain time accurate to within less than 1 second per day with the aid of inhibition compensation. And due to the surprisingly good stability of 32 kHz quartz crystal oscillators, the accuracy of quartz wristwatches can be expected to change by only a small amount over time.”

Quartz watches are more often than not less expensive than mechanically-driven watches simply because they require less parts – and less man hours – in making something that works. This is ideal for a person who only wants to think about their watch in the context of putting it on, changing the battery when it dies, and potentially only ever having to adjust the time in a situation when the wearer’s time zone changes.

Popular examples of quartz-driven luxury watches include the Bulova Moon Watch (with a smooth sweep), Tissot PR100 COSC, and the Longines Conquest VHP.

While the majority of the world’s quartz movements are products of automatic assembly, there are instances – like with Grand Seiko’s 9F quartz movement – that are assembled entirely by hand. For those looking for a middle ground between craftsmanship and accuracy, one should look for something similar like Brathwait’s Swiss Made Automatic or Marathon’s Search & Rescue Pilot’s Automatic Chronograph.

The main takeaway

Although a watch is simply an instrument that helps us tell the time – and could have but never was replaced by carrying a cell phone – the choice between quartz and mechanical movement speaks to showcasing one’s individuality.

A watch after all isn’t just a story you tell to yourself, but also something that will be projected out to the world as well.

For those enticed to buy, here are the watches mentioned above.

Mechanical

Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical

Rolex GMT-Master II

IWC Pilot Black Automatic Chronograph

Quartz

Bulova Moon Watch

Tissot PR100 COSC

Longines Conquest VHP

Grand Seiko 9F

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

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