Quartz or Automatic, Mechanical Watch?

You’re online, browsing around on the internet, looking at all these wonderful watches that are for sale.  Maybe, you are awake at 2:00 am, and you’re watching QVC, and they are selling watches that can be at your doorstep in the morning.  Some are mechanical, others are mechanical automatics, and others are quartz.  Oh no, more choices, which do you want, which is better, and what to do…

Laughing, I hope, but lets put this into perspective so that you have a bit more knowledge of these watch types, and what are the best choices.

Quartz Watches, the good, the bad, and the truth…

Without going into a whole lot of detail, I’ll explain a bit about how a quartz watch works, generally, and this way, with some basic understanding, you will be able to add this information to your next purchase.

Quartz watches, or most watches that run from the power of a battery or capacitor supply power through a coil and a piece of quartz, which is regulated electronically to drive a small stepper motor.  The motor in a quartz watch isn’t actually a motor that you might think about when visualizing a small electric motor, but more of a pulse motor.

The quartz is manufactured to a specific size, and the type of quartz used is important.  These factors are necessary so that the coil and quartz working together pulse at a pre-determined beat, or rate, to drive the mechanics of the movement.

Over the years, the manufacturing process and the research that has gone into developing these watch movements has helped to make them the most accurate time pieces that are available.  Some of you may remember that back in the 1960s, Bulova created the Accutron watch.  This watch, at the time, was said to be the most accurate watch in the world.  Maybe it was, but it is still somewhat susceptible to motion and shock.

The quartz watch movements, especially the newer and better quality movements, are now even shock resistant.  This is important because while wearing a watch on your wrist, it is important to remember that the watch takes a beating, both while just wearing it, and if you knock it into something by accident.

When referring to shock resistant watches, here I’m referring to the sudden shifting of position and motion that a watch movement takes, not dropping it on the floor.

Lets continue…  The quartz watches of today are far different from the 1960s, when they where first developed and mass produced.  If you take a quartz watch apart, you will discover that it is not just electric, but has many of the same mechanical DNA of a mechanical watch.  The difference is that the power to drive these gears is supplied by a regulated stepper motor.  Many of these quartz watches are now produced out of both metal and plastics.  This is what gives them their shock resistant properties, and makes them less  susceptible to errors in operation.  Keep this in mind.

Some of the less desirable features of a quartz watch, is that they are made of plastic and metal.  This makes them far less serviceable then a mechanical watch.  While some watchmakers will attempt to repair these, I don’t.  I feel that in 95% of all cases, it is much less expensive for the customer to have the movement in the watch replaced.  The cost is often small, and there is far less time spent in labor, which is the larger part of most repair costs.

In some cases, it is actually better to replace the movement.  I’ve see hundreds of quartz watches that came in broken.  Here are the most common problems, and the suggested solutions that I use.

  • Not running, or the second had moves erratic:  Change the battery
  • Watch exposed to water:  If the movement is wet, and has been for more then 5 hours, change it.
  • Rust:  Change the movement
  • Not running:  Bad or dirty battery contact.  Clean, adjust, replace battery

You get the hint I’m sure

Mechanical and Automatic Watches, the good, the bad and the truth

Mechanical and Automatic watches, (these are mechanical, with an automatic winding mechanism), are far different then quartz watches.  Mechanical watches where developed in their current iteration, a few hundred years ago.

We almost all have seen pocket watches from the 1800s, and these big, bulky watches, which were even larger in the 1600s, are representatives of the first portable clocks.  Obviously, improvements in manufacturing and quality have now reduced these mechanical wonders to fit into something the size of a dime.

In today’s market place, mechanical watches have made a huge comeback into the collectible and fashion markets. Designers tend to make somewhat more attractive, and sometimes much more radical designs using mechanical movements, and these trendy styles sell well.

Again, I’m going to give you the brief description of the function of a mechanical watch, so that we can compare it to the quartz counterpart.

Mechanical watches are powered using a small, long and flat spring, which is made into a coil, but coiled in two different directions on each end.  Once this spring is wound into a small barrel,  the barrel will spin on its access.  (There is much more to this, but I’ll explain it in a different article).

Lets get to a part you already know about.  When you wind the stem of the watch, you are effectively winding the spring in its barrel.  As the spring releases, and tries to unwind, it drives a series of small gears, (the train).  These gears spin, rather slowly, and drive what is called the escapement.  The escapement is made up of three parts, the escape wheel, which for most of you resembles a saw blade.  That in turn powers a small fork, called a pallet.  The pallet clicks back and forth, this is the ticking noise you hear from the watch.  The pallet is also driven by the balance wheel.  This is the part everyone likes, because they get to watch it spin back and forth.

Out of those three parts, lets focus on the balance wheel.  The spinning back and forth drives the pallet fork with a small jewel, the pallet fork in turn clicks on the escape wheel, which gets its power from the spring.  All the gears in the watch, are Regulated with the oscillation of the balance wheel and the pallet.  The mechanical timing of the balance wheel is served by what is called a hairspring, (a small coiled spring about the size of a human hair).  The length of that spring and the resistant power of that spring are what regulate the watches timing.  Yes, it is that complicated, and even more…

Mechanical watches are like expensive sports cars.  They are marvels of mechanical engineering, beautiful to look at, and when they work, they work great.  This is much of the allure of a fine mechanical watch.

Some of the issues of a mechanical watch are important to understand.  While many watches are now made with non-magnetic components, most are not, and therefore subject to magnetic current.  Watches that become “magnetized” do now run well.  Even quartz watches can become magnetized, but mechanical movements are much more susceptible.

Because almost all mechanical watches run on an oscillating balance, they are effected by movement.  If you’ve ever played with a gyroscope, and spun it around, you can see that the physics of nature wants to keep the gyroscope in an upright position, and as it slows, will fall over.  If you’ve spun the gyroscope, and then try to tilt in one way or another, you’ll notice that friction on its pivot points, cause the gyroscope to pause or slow momentarily, causing a deviation in the rate of spin.  This is the same for the balance wheel in a mechanical watch.  When it is running, and ticking away, and you twist the watch, the balance wheel has the same effect as the gyroscope, it will pause.

Generally, this pause is so short, no one will notice, but it does cause the timing of the watch to slow down, even it is only for a 1000th of a second.  If you wear a mechanical watch while playing tennis, imagine the number of times the oscillation of the balance is thrown off.  That being said, this is an area where the mechanical watch is prone to errors in beat, and thus will have an effect the proper timing.

While there are many manufacturing steps made to mitigate this problem with physics, it still exists.

The shockproof mechanical watch…  does not exist!  The delicate nature of the escapement on a mechanical watch makes it subject to shock and damage. Thankfully, as a watchmaker, I’m happy to say that all good mechanical movements have no plastic parts in them.  This makes them easy to service, but, if it drops, something will almost always break.  While jewels are put into the watch movement to reduce friction, and allow better accuracy, they break just as easy.

Keeping these factors in mind, just try and avoid high risk environments while enjoying your mechanical or automatic watch.

So, Which is better… Mechanical or Quartz?

Ok, I’m going to answer this it the best way possible, without offending too many other people, and maybe a few other watchmakers.

From a practical perspective, if you want a watch that keeps near perfect time, can be worn in just about any environment, and is very inexpensive to maintain, buy yourself a quartz watch.  Almost all quartz watches in the market today, keep extremely accurate time and are very well made.

If you appreciate the fine engineering and quality of a piece of art, and enjoy the visual effect of small parts running in unison, then get yourself a good mechanical watch.  Keep in mind, they can be delicate, and susceptible to many uncontrollable environmental factors.

If you are like me, you have a vast collection of both.  Enjoy them all, and appreciate each one for what it is meant to be.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *