What is a Quartz Watch and How Does It Work?
September 16, 2021
Quartz watches have been around since their launch in 1970 - and they were immensely successful, so much so that for a while, people thought that traditional mechanical watches might disappear altogether.
Luckily, it did not happen, but to tell you the truth, quartz watches have so many qualities: they're accurate, inexpensive, thin, and they work all the time. So, let's explore them together!
What is a quartz watch?
As we said, quartz watches were born in the the beginning of the 1970s, when Seiko launched its first quartz wristwatch model, the Seiko Astron, at Christmas 1969 in Tokyo. It made a limited edition of 100 yellow gold-cased pieces which were sold almost overnight.
Quartz watches represent an evolution of electromechanical watches, hybrid watch systems which debuted in the Sixties and sought to improve the traditional watch mechanism to make it more accurate or increase its autonomy. The most famous watch belonging to this niche - still appreciated today in the vintage market - is the original Bulova Accutron.
All electromechanical watches mainly exploited the energy emitted by a button battery. But it was only with quartz that they managed to create a truly revolutionary solution since the mechanism, in addition to being very precise, was also very robust - given that fragility was one of the most significant problems of electromechanical watches.
Compared to the traditional mechanical watch movement, quartz is more accurate, reliable, cheaper, and has a longer power reserve than any automatic watch movement. But where do all these qualities come from?
How does a quartz clock work?
Without going into too much technical detail, the difference between a traditional mechanical movement and a quartz one lies mainly in the regulating organ, which is what makes a watch measure the time reliably. In traditional mechanical watches, this is the balance wheel, which oscillates at a rate of 3 to 5 Hz, or oscillations per second. Its mechanism is designed so that each beat of the balance wheel allows the hands connected to the gears of the wheel train to move gradually forward.
On the other hand, quartz watches instead use a quartz crystal. Quartz is an abundant mineral which has some peculiar characteristics. For example, when crossed by a light electric current, it vibrates at a regular frequency, which is much higher than that of traditional mechanical watches. The frequency traditionally used in quartz mechanisms is 32,768 Hz - orders of magnitude quicker than any mechanical-based regulator - which results in better accuracy of the watch.
In a standard quartz watch, once the crystal has vibrated this number of times, it means that a second has passed. And so, the electronic chip installed onboard the watch orders a tiny magnetic motor to advance the second hand by one step. This "burst" action is one of the most apparent visual features of the quartz movement. However, there are some modern systems created by Citizen that make the second hand move smoothly across the dial, similarly to what happens with a mechanical watch.
How long do quartz watches last?
One of the significant advantages of quartz watches - which sometimes becomes a disadvantage - is where it draws its energy. Most quartz watches depend on a small button cell mounted inside, which usually lasts a couple of years. So, a quartz watch will normally run smoothly for that long. But if the battery dies, and you do not have a replacement ready, you are out of luck.
On the other hand, automatic watches duration is way lower. A mechanical watch with an automatic movement typically has a power reserve that can range from two to four days, depending on the type of movement. But does not need a battery to run.
When a watch battery is low, most of the chips that control quartz movements go into an energy conservation mode. This is noticeable because the second hand no longer moves every second but every two. When you see a quartz watch doing this, it's time to change the battery.
Quartz watches accuracy - how accurate is quartz watch?
Automatic watches accuracy might be good, but quartz watches are extremely accurate, much more so than mechanical watches. Even an average quality quartz caliber will probably beat easily the best mechanical movement out there.
To say how accurate the quartz technology is, a standard modern quartz movement has an accuracy of plus or minus 10 seconds per month, which means about 0.3 seconds per day. A COSC-certified mechanical chronometer has a maximum permissible deviation of -4/+6 seconds per day - 30 times less precise, on the average.
These exceptional results are the result of two features: the first is the high oscillation speed of the quartz; the second is that the quartz is constantly monitored by the electronic chip inside the watch, which checks the accuracy of the timepiece and makes adjustments if necessary.
Do quartz watches need batteries?
The answer to this question is yes: quartz watches need batteries or accumulators to function. In fact, some quartz watches offer different charging modes, such as solar watches, or hybrids, as in some movements (such as the Seiko Kinetic) that combine the precision of quartz with a rotor winding mechanism, as it happens in automatic watches.
But in all cases, if the watch movement includes the use of a quartz mechanism, there will be electricity involved, which is often provided by disposable button batteries. So, be aware that these batteries are of very different types - there is a practically infinite variety of them - so you must be careful to employ precisely the battery your watch needs.
Also, you have to be careful not to leave spent button batteries inside the movements of quartz watches. Like regular batteries, they work on an electrochemical principle, and therefore, over time, they might leak liquids and substances that could corrode and harm the watch mechanism and circuitry.
How much does a quartz watch cost?
Despite all these benefits, a standard quartz mechanism has a very low cost, less than a mechanical equivalent. It sounds almost incredible, as the Seiko Astron, when it was first launched, was extremely expensive, with a price equivalent to a car, and the first quartz movements were mounted with much fanfare in watches from the most important Maisons.
Despite that, Seiko never patented the quartz system, making it available to everyone free of charge to design his calibers - and this decision set in motion a technological advancement that led quartz movements to become the most popular in the world.
The technological evolution deriving from this decision, and the growth of electronic circuits over the last fifty years, have rendered quartz mechanisms what they are today: efficient and precise. And above all, so cheap that they are disposable: today, in case of failure, and unless it is a vintage caliber, it is usually preferable to discard a faulty quartz movement rather than repair it.
This also affects the cost of watches fitted with this type of caliber, which cost less than their mechanical equivalents. And thus. it makes it possible to enjoy important timepieces at very affordable prices.
Is quartz a brand name watch?
Quite often, watches bear different types of indications on the dial in addition to the brand name, and sometimes, the model. Generally, the use of these indications must comply with specific rules, which are of several types.
The first concerns diver watches, which are specific to diving. If this term is indicated, it means that the watch complies with the relevant ISO specifications. Another case is that of the indication of the watch as "Chronometer," which can only be reported by watches certified according to particular standards of excellence. Finally, a third case indicates provenance, generally found at the six o'clock position - it is a tiny inscription that attests where the watch was made.
That said, the "quartz" indication is instead totally optional and indicates only the type of movement mounted in the watch. So, when you see watches with the indication "quartz" or "automatic," you can have an expression of the type of caliber mounted inside them. But as we said above, since today the quartz movement represents a less prestigious alternative to the mechanical movement, several manufacturers no longer display the "quartz" inscription on the dial as proudly as they did back in time.
As we have seen, quartz watches are beautiful, comfortable, cheap, and accurate timepieces. And I would add, they are also practically indestructible since the quartz movement is less subject to the shocks and stresses that could ruin mechanical ones.
Therefore, they are suitable for any type of activity, especially sports, and because of their precision, they are excellent chronographs. So, if you want to pamper yourself or gift someone a nice watch without burning a hole in your bank account, why not choose a lovely quartz? In the Davosa lineaup, you will find some beautiful ones!