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Quartz vs automatic

‘Which is better, quartz or mechanical?’ It’s a question which splits the watch world, so here are a few answers.




The basics

There are two types of watches – quartz and mechanical. Quartz watches are powered by a battery while mechanical watches are powered by the carefully regulated release of energy from a wound spring and use purely mechanical components to keep time.

Mechanical watches are either manual or self-winding. In a manual watch, the wearer must turn the crown or ‘winder’ to tighten the spring. The watch will then work for about 40 hours on one full winding of the mainspring but a few have a power reserve as long as ten days. In a self-winding watch, the spring is automatically wound by a rotor which turns as the wearer’s wrist moves – which is why self-winding mechanical watches are usually referred to as ‘automatics’ or kinetic.

Quartz watches, which account for around 90% of the world’s watches, contain a quartz crystal that vibrates approximately 33 times per second. A tiny computer chip then converts the vibrations into impulses which drive an electronic motor, powered by a battery, which then moves the watch’s hands.

Craftsmanship cost and accuracy

While quartz watches are more accurate and generally require less maintenance, the craftsmanship and skill that represents the pinnacle of watchmaking is usually associated with mechanical watches. The finest automatics rank among the most intricate machines in the world and watchmakers continue to vie with each other to make mechanical movements ever more elegant and ingenious by incorporating all sorts of added ‘complications’ or features. The most expensive mechanical watches cost several hundred thousand pounds or even millions, another great reason to choose a Christopher Ward watch.

On the other hand, quartz watches are the most accurate in the world and some have complications which rival their mechanical equivalents for a lot less money. They can also be extremely slim (the thinnest ever, Concord’s Delirium IV, was less than 1mm thick) – allowing watch designers much more freedom. Solar-powered Eco Drive quartz watches also have a following. The argument whether quartz or mechanical is better is made even harder by Seiko who have created a series of highly regarded Spring Drive watches which use quartz technology to modulate mechanical power – combining great accuracy with traditional craftsmanship.

Complications

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. A good example of the latter is Girard-Peregaux’s Opera One watch which apart from its other complications, plays excerpts from well-known operatic arias on the hour with four tiny chime hammers (three of which are visible). Such watches can take years rather than months to build.

Girard-Peregaux’s Opera One costs around £310,000 and takes several years to build – none are available.

Tourbillon

Since gravity interferes with the most delicate parts of a watch’s escapement (the mechanism which transfers energy to the timekeeping element of the watch) – especially the hairspring – watchmakers have long struggled to get a consistent result from the escapement no matter what position it is in. A Tourbillon, (French for ‘whirlwind’) aims to reduce the effects of gravity by mounting the balance wheel and escapement in a rotating cage. The idea was conceived by the English chronometer John Arnold before being developed by Abraham-Louis Bréguet around 1795. The first production Tourbillon was in a carriage clock made by Bréguet for Napoleon. In a quest for ever greater accuracy, watchmakers have created ever more complicated Tourbillons including the Thomas Prescher Triple-Axis-Tourbillon Regulator Sport, created in 2004.

Perpetual Calendar

Another complication regarded as one of the ‘historical greats’ is a Perpetual Calendar which allows a watch to display the right date ‘perpetually’ despite the different numbers of days in certain months and leap years. A Perpetual Calendar often displays the day, month and phases of the moon, too. For a watch to do that all that requires a mechanical ‘memory’ made up of several hundred wheels, gears, levers and other parts. Despite the name, almost all watches with Perpetual Calendars will have to be corrected by one day on 1st March 2100. A quirk of the Gregorian calendar stipulates that this year (as well as three century years out of four) will not be a leap year.

Jumping Hour

Another type of complication involves the way in which a watch displays the time – a good example are Jumping Hour watches which only use one hand since the hour is displayed in a window.