Review: Is Mechanical Really Better Than Quartz?
It is the rule of the world that all things must eventually become electrified. Lights, cars, toasters—and of course watches. When the spring was swapped for the volt en masse in the 1970s, you could’ve sworn the mechanical watch was as dead as disco—but that doesn’t seem to be the case, its revival going down in the history books alongside the resurrection of Christ and, well, disco. So, is mechanical actually better? Or are we all barking up the wrong beat?
How Does Quartz Work?
In order to determine if a quartz watch is better or worse than a mechanical one, first we need to understand it. We’ve explored the innards of the mechanical watch in a previous video—check it out if you haven’t already—but what about its battery-powered cousin?
It all comes down to the piezoelectric effect, which is the conversion of electrical to physical energy using a crystal. Whilst amethyst disperses negative energies and selenite cleans the aura, it turns out quartz is actually rather good at regulating the time. Whilst the properties of the first two stones can be attributed to an ancient Egyptian discovery in the Summer of 1969BC, the understanding of piezoelectricity is credited to brothers Jacques and Pierre Curie. Yes, the very same—Marie was Pierre’s wife. They’re just one of those overachieving families like the Von Trapps or the Kardashians.
What the brothers Curie found out was that if you pumped a bunch of leccy into a crystal, you could get it to do stuff. Playing and recording sound, taking pictures of atoms, and inkjet printers are all possible thanks to piezoelectricity—and of course, keeping time. A quartz crystal, when electrified, vibrates exactly 32,768 times a second. It’s not the number of times per second that’s really of interest, but the exacting nature of it. If it does that each second, every second, then a simple computer can divide that by 32,768 and have a reliable measure of a second, from which a watch can be driven.
Gone is the need for springs. No longer needed is the escapement. Over 150 incredibly precise parts that move together in harmony, mere nanometres separating operation from failure have been thrown in the bin, replaced by components numbering less than twenty—and one of those is the battery itself.
The really damning part is that a quartz movement isn’t just as accurate as a mechanical watch—upon which its credibility lies—it absolutely blows them out the water. A mechanical watch could be forgiven for losing ten seconds a day. A quartz movement would be ashamed to lose that per month. Throw in thermocompensation—where a quartz movement adapts to the changing performance of the crystal in different temperatures—and those ten seconds will stay in check for a whole year.
A quartz movement can be reliably, cheaply and—most importantly—voluminously produced by machine without the need for skilled human input. That’s one of the main reasons it nearly wiped out the entire Swiss watch industry. Sounds like the stickiest pickle since a glue van crashed into the gherkin factory. But the story isn’t over yet …
Is Mechanical Better Than Quartz?
And so to answer the age-old question: is a mechanical movement better than a quartz one? Well, no. It isn’t. It’s less accurate, more expensive, harder to service and requires more parts. To make or service one, you have to be a million years old and live up a Swiss mountain. At least, that’s how it seems in comparison to the automated process of manufacturing a quartz movement.
We see this all the time, the shift from man to machine. A computer has the ability to play every song ever recorded all at once. It would sound awful, but as a technological achievement, it is no doubt impressive. We all have the ability to reach into vast libraries of music and extract sound that could have been recorded yesterday or a hundred years ago with something that fits in a pocket. It’s the peak of what’s possible, and yet people, many people, still prefer a wobbly PVC disk that barely holds a few tracks from one artist.
If you were to be particular and call out quartz on its biggest flaw, it would be that it is limited to its battery capacity. You’ll get two, maybe three years of operation if you’re lucky, a lifespan expanded by limiting the second hand to a single tick per second. But that’s not the reason people don’t buy them. After all, it’s hardly an inconvenience, especially if you have the wherewithal to change the battery yourself.
Objectively, then, quartz is better, just like digital music is better, but that kind of thinking overlooks the single defining factor that separates humans from computers: the warm, fuzzy wuzzies. Digital bits and bytes are an abstract, machine-like concept. Setting the balance on a tone arm is a pleasing interaction that takes everything that’s rubbish outside the front door and puts it to one side for a sweet, fleeting moment.
It's not that quartz watches are all badly made without care or attention. Grand Seiko has some very highly regarded quartz movements that are as clever as they are beautiful. They sing to a watchmaker’s tune, created by hands as expert as any Swiss master. What they lack is in the intangible, something inexplicably extracted by the part of our brains located just next to the bit that still thinks long, girthy vegetables are funny.
In all honesty, it’s probably an evolutionary disadvantage that we do prefer mechanical things in the way that we do. There’s a simplicity to it, a comfort in the known. You don’t have to understand exactly how it works because you could probably figure it out if you needed to. It’s parts, working together, a chain reaction that can be seen and understood. Technology, on the other hand, is different. It’s scary, unknowable by all but a very few. People are naturally suspicious of science.
One of my earliest memories of playing a video game is Monkey Island. I loved those LucasArts games. They were fun, simple and exciting. I can’t profess to know how the game worked or how the computer it ran on worked either, but fast-forward to today and the release of Unreal Engine 5, the ability to contain whole worlds right down to the smallest pixel in a box that lives with the cobwebs under my TV and—well, trying to figure it out makes me feel like an inferior human being. Just to think, there are people out there who create this kind of stuff, and I’m struggling to put the cap back on the orange juice.
By comparison, the mechanical movement is a place I’m comfortable with. We’ve had several centuries to get to know it after all. I wind it and I can feel the tension building in the spring. I hear it ticking in tune with the second hand as it traces the dial. I watch the escapement and I know that, if it fell apart, I’d have a solid chance of being able to put it back together again. A quartz watch can’t replace that. It can outperform it, but it can’t replace it. I’m just too stupid.
The wonderful thing about human beings is that each and every one of us is different, and that means that your outlook on life might be entirely different to mine. That means that if I prefer the whirr of springs and gears to the tick-tock of a quartz instrument, that’s right—for me. For you, I can’t say. That’s your journey to have. Just know that there is no one answer, no ultimatum. There’s just a series of parts that work in harmony to achieve an outcome unique to you—your brain. Now, what’s really going to bake your noodle later on is—what if you combine both quartz and mechanical together to create Spring Drive?
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