Understanding the different watch movement types can be a confusing ordeal, especially if you’re new to the topic. With that in mind, we decided to put together this handy guide on the difference between quartz and automatic watch movements.
If you’re in the market for a new wristwatch, you may have found yourself a little lost trying to navigate the intricacies of each type of mechanism. There’s a lot of information about the strengths and weaknesses of quartz movement vs automatic, but it often doesn’t communicate things in a digestible way. After all, it’s all very technical.
In this article, we’ll cover the key differences between quartz and automatic watches, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and how they compare for price and value, as well as a brief overview of how we got from the earliest pocket watches to where we are today. If you’re less concerned about the difference between watch movements and just want to know which are the best luxury watch brands, be sure to read our article on the best luxury watch brands for men.
History of Watch Movements
Before portable timekeeping devices were invented, we had the pendulum clock – concocted in the mid-1600s by inventor Christiaan Huygens. Pendulum clocks like the grandfather clock rely on gravity to measure time by swinging a weighted pendulum.
However, when sailors tried to take clocks out to sea, they quickly realized that pendulum clocks were hopelessly ineffective at keeping time on the waves due to the constantly changing direction of gravity. This posed Huygens with a unique challenge to which he responded with the first ‘marine chronometer’ – a clock that used a special ‘balance wheel’ attached to a spring to measure time in place of a pendulum.
This balance wheel design formed the basis of the first pocket watches, as it provided a way to keep time on a device that was subject to all kinds of movements as you went about your day. However, they were still fairly unreliable, only offering a vaguely accurate hour dial and no minute or second dials.
The first true wristwatch was a pilot watch invented by a famous watchmaker called Louis Cartier at the request of Alberto Santos-Dumont – a Brazilian aviator. He wanted a more practical way to tell the time while flying a plane. These designs weren’t popularised until a few years later, during the first world war. Soldiers were equipped with wristwatches so that they would have a more convenient way to tell the time without needing to reach into their pocket for a pocket watch, forcing them to lower their guard during a battle.
In the 1880s, brothers Pierre Curie (the husband of Marie Curie) and his brother Jacques managed to successfully demonstrate the newly discovered ‘piezoelectric’ properties of quartz crystals, which meant they could emit specific frequencies when exposed to an electric current. It didn’t take long for engineers to utilize this phenomenon as a timekeeping technology, leading to the first quartz watches invented in the 1930s. These watches were so effective that they nearly bankrupted the traditional ‘mechanical’ watchmaking industries as they were so inexpensive to produce.
While quartz crystal movements are exceptionally accurate, three decades later, an even more precise method of timekeeping was discovered in the form of the ‘atomic clock.’ Scientists discovered that if you measured the resonant frequency of an atom of cesium nine billion, one hundred and ninety-two million, six hundred and thirty-one thousand, seven hundred and seventy times (say that ten times fast), you could measure one second with almost perfect accuracy.
These atomic clocks were so accurate that they would be correct within one second in over a million years. Unfortunately, this kind of measurement is far too complex for a device that would fit on your wrist, but it did lead to the invention of ‘atomic watches,’ which receive a radio transmission each night that perfectly synchronizes them with a much larger, remote atomic clock.
How does a Quartz watch Movement Work?
Quartz watches work using a clever series of electronic components, a battery, and a quartz crystal. They have relatively few components compared to their mechanical counterparts but rely on electronic components that can sometimes fail.
A quartz watch relies on a phenomenon named ‘piezoelectricity’ which takes advantage of the fact that if you dissect a quartz crystal in a particular way and feed an electric current through it, it will begin to resonate at a very specific frequency (much like a tuning fork). The frequency — which is silent to humans as it sits above our audible range — is then divided down to a frequency of one Hertz (once per second) using a series of electronic circuits which halve the frequency over and over. This one Hertz frequency is then used to power the ticking of the clock to great accuracy.
How Does an Automatic Watch Movement Work?
Automatic watches are mechanical watches that use hundreds or sometimes thousands of small mechanical components that are all fine-tuned to work together and produce accurate time. Automatic watches are entirely mechanical, which means they don’t need a battery or any form of electronic components.
Unlike traditional mechanical watches that need to be winded up, automatic watches have a (mostly) self-sustaining power source. They use a mechanism that captures the natural movement of your wrist throughout the day and stores that kinetic energy for future use. This stored energy is then slowly fed into a ‘power reserve’ that can last for several days and powers the mechanism used to tick the watch.
Which is more reliable?
Because the movement of your wrist powers automatic watches, they will lose time when not worn for extended periods. Most automatic watches come with a specified power reserve time, e.g. 48 hours which means they will keep ticking for two full days even without any motion to charge them. This means that automatic watches are more prone to falling out of time — particularly if you don’t wear them often.
Quartz watches, however, rely on an internal battery to supply power to the mechanism. This means that — while the battery will inevitably run out — it will usually be several years or more before your watch begins to lose time, thanks to the low power consumption of the mechanism.
Quartz watches also have far fewer moving parts, which means they require less periodic maintenance. Electronic components are prone to stop working, especially in cheaper watches. Still, due to their low cost, it’s usually more affordable to replace the entire watch than to get these components repaired.
Which is more accurate?
You might be surprised when it comes to quartz vs automatic accuracy of timekeeping. Despite what you might think, the less costly quartz watches are far more accurate than mechanical or automatic watches. This is because the technology inside relies on an absolute frequency with a wavelength at a specific fraction of 1 second. Automatic watches rely on precision engineering, and if each piece is only microscopically faulted, those faults can accumulate into a larger time discrepancy.
Automatic watches — especially the high-end ones — are certainly a marvel of engineering with levels of accuracy that are not to be scoffed at. Still, they can’t compete with the precision of a quartz watch movement. That being said, a high-quality automatic watch will maintain time very well for a very long time so long as its power reserve is kept topped up with regular movement.
Automatic vs Quartz: Cost considerations
When it comes to cost, quartz movement-type watches are far more affordable than automatic watches. This comes down to the very limited components required for quartz movement compared with hundreds or sometimes thousands of tiny, precision-engineered components required to make an automatic watch tick.
For this reason, you would usually replace a quartz watch rather than trying to get it repaired because of its low-cost factor. Conversely, automatic watches often require periodic maintenance to keep them working and are far too intricate to replace cheaply.
However, the electronic components in a quartz watch are prone to disrepair, meaning they need to be replaced more often, compared with a well-engineered automatic watch which can literally continue working for generations with proper care and maintenance. If you have your heart set on an automatic watch, but budget is a big consideration for you, it’s worth checking out our article on the best automatic watches for under $500.
Is Automatic better than Quartz? Benefits of Automatic
The main reasons to choose an automatic watch over a quartz watch are longevity, style, and passion for the highly specialized watchmaking craft. If you’re looking for a watch that can be passed down through the family as an heirloom, a well-engineered automatic watch will be much more likely to survive the test of time. Automatic watches also obviously require no battery that needs replacing, and the intricate mechanisms that are sometimes on display can make for a very visually compelling accessory. For more info, see our guide on the best automatic watches.
Is Quartz Better than Automatic? Benefits of Quartz
Quartz watches are more than sufficient for this purpose if you’re just after something that works well at a reasonable price point and don’t mind swapping out the battery every few years. They’re more accurate than automatic watches, more reliable (generally speaking), and are far less expensive than their automatic counterparts. Just be prepared to need to replace it now and then when the electronics inevitably fail.