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Quartz Watches Vs. Mechanical Watches

Quartz Watches Vs. Mechanical Watches

This article explores the polar world of watches - Quartz and Mechanical. It explains all that is possible within its confines, the characteristics and the differences between the two for you to help decide what 'watch circle' you want to belong to.
Arun Prabhu
Their digital brother aside, Quartz and Mechanical watches have contested against each other ever since the Quartz watch went into production in the 1960s. Since then, people have debated over the better choice among the two. I introduce you to, and hopefully resolve for you, this dispute about the better watch.

First up, a small list of the terminologies that watch-makers use to make it easier for me to explain.

In Mechanical Watches
  • Balance staff: This is the "heart" of all mechanical watches, as it is upon this shaft that the balance swings back and forth, moving the dials.
  • Cap: This is a metal cap, rounded, used to set a watches time and/or calendar.
  • Movement: The inner construct that moves the dials and calendar.
  • Ebauche: An entire movement made with the intent of assembling it elsewhere.
  • Escapement: The device that controls the rotation of the hands, from within the movement.
In Quartz Watches
  • Piezoelectric effect: The Piezoelectric effect is what makes the Quartz watch tick.
A Chronology of Horology
A brief history of the evolution of watches will explain where both the types come from and essentially, leading to the age-old debate over which one is better. The mechanical watch was the older one, the pocket watch (also called the 'Nuremberg Egg') claimed to have been created by a Peter Henlein in 1510. It was very crude, often times frustrating and would need constant care for winding to get the right time from them. They were brought nearer to precision by John Harrison in 1760 and precision was practically attained by The Waltham Watch Company in 1876. New designs of the Escapement, the beginning of jewel bearings and better winding capabilities are what brought the Mechanical watches closer to what we use today. With the piezoelectric effect discovered in 1880 by Jacques and Pierre Curie, the first quartz clock was built at The Bell Laboratories in 1927, the quartz watches came to dominance in the late 1960s.

Quartz Watches Vs. Mechanical Watches

The Battle
I start by the attribute that most readers have on their minds - price. The quartz watch is cheaper than the mechanical one by leagues. The former prides itself by boasting prices as cheap as 4$ kids' watches or even free giveaways to as pricey as a 25,000$ Chopard for ladies. Another win for the quartz is its accuracy. Today, a good mechanical watch can give an accuracy of at most 2-3 seconds a day. Quartz watches in sale start with a delay of 0.5 seconds a day or better at a fraction of the price that high-accuracy mechanical ones are worth.

Next up is durability and stress-handling. Now, the internal pieces of a quartz are much lighter than that of a mechanical one. This may be why quartz suffers less on impacts while a mechanical one faces some damage. Because of its need to be opened periodically to be maintained, the mechanical watch may not be as water-proof as the quartz watch. It is under more internal stress because it contains more moving parts, another benefit of having a quartz watch; as it can be built with far lighter pieces.

That is as far as the current quartz watches take you. Mechanical watches have been in use for generations, literally. Maintained pieces can last for incredible 200 years of use. The basic difference between the two is in their working mechanisms and that is what decides their strengths and weaknesses - one uses winding springs and the other relies on batteries and electronic circuits. Thus, where distortions in electromagnetic fields can destroy quartz watches, the mechanical ones escape unharmed. Magnetic fields disorient, or sometimes reorient, the mechanical watch. But this effect is reversible. Unfortunately for a quartz piece that relies on permanent magnets in its stepper motor, a strong magnetic field can disrupt it's functions forever.

The ease of finding replacement parts depends on the date of manufacturing as far as mechanical watches are concerned. But even if it's an antique piece that dates back to as far as the 40s, you can find good original parts for it. Even if you can't, a good watch-maker can create one for you, although for astronomical prices. Quartz watches, on the other hand, can fail at getting replacement parts. The largest concern is the battery; old watches, for instance, used mercury batteries that are now discontinued due to health risks. Making batteries is a mainstream and large-scale process, therefore finding a new battery for an old quartz piece is out of the question if they no longer make them.

As far as periods of actual usage are concerned, this area is wide and cannot be generalized. Mechanical watches need to be wound from time to time (except for the self-winding ones), making them hard to use after being shelved for long periods. The usage period of a quartz watch depends on its battery. This is an unreliable aspect, as a battery life is quite unpredictable.

The Verdict
So, in essence, it remains a fact that quartz watches and its internal electronic parts (including batteries) are in an infant stage. Much work remains to be done on them. This means that the constantly evolving technology will lay redundant that watch you got from your father on your 18th birthday. Mechanical watches remain a status symbol amongst many, while a quartz watch is one that simply tells the time for those who follow it closely and don't have the time or money to keep a check on maintaining their watches.