Here at The Young Horologist, we have come to discover the fact that we penetrate the news feeds of a group of people with a differing knowledge and understanding of all things horological. We love this but this poses the challenge of engaging readers who are season collectors and are proper horny horologists and those who are just starting to become interested in watches. The later are those who I have written this article for. So why is a mechanical watch (Automatic or manual wind) far superior to a quartz even though a quartz movement is way more accurate and doesn’t require winding of any sorts……? It just is alright?
A quartz movement utilises the energy from a battery to send an electrical current to a quartz crystal. This then creates vibrations that power the watch's hands. The tell-tale mark of a quartz watch is the ticking movement of the second hand.
The quartz mechanism burst onto the watch scene in 1969 when Seiko released the first ever commercially produced quartz watch, the Seiko Astron. Around since the 1920s, in labourites deep underground, Quartz was a revolutionary idea that meant a watch would be more accurate, wouldn’t require winding and could be left for weeks on end and wouldn’t stop or really loose time.
This almost killed the watch industry in the 80s, in a dramatically named “Quartz Crisis”, after the invention of Solid State Digital Electronic made producing these movements and watches far far cheaper. This period saw big and respected brands such as Heuer and Universal die a death. This period also saw the likes of Omega, Rolex, Jaeger Le coulter, IWC and even Patek Philippe start making quartz movements in a desperate hope to compete with the tsunami of much cheaper quartz powered watches coming out of China and Japan. I am a massive fan of Seiko and Grand Seiko but bollocks to you because a Heuer Autavia used to come free with a packet of Cigarettes…… now they are pushing £10k….
A true art form and craftsmanship, mechanical movements serves as the engine room of most luxury watches. Submerge yourself under the dial of a mechanical watch and you'll find an intricate series of components that work in perfect harmony, synchronicity and effortlessness to translate the passing of time to us mere humans. Looking at the movement in an A. Lange & Sohne Datograph, through its display back, is like looking at a miniature city from the future. Google it.
In a mechanical movement, a coiled mainspring is wound up to store energy. In a manual wind this winding is done by hand everyday by the wearer. This is one of my favourite things about a manual wind. It’s like a manual transmission car: its not as practical and it can be a pain in the arse but it connects you to the engine. It makes you one with your machine. As the mainspring unwinds, a set of gears drive the hands to show the time, oscillating at a constant speed thanks to a balance wheel. The smooth-sweeping second hand, as opposed to the more common ticking motion, gives away its mechanical status. The higher frequency the beats per minute the smoother the sweep, very simply put. At first glance you wouldn’t really be able to tell if a watch is manual or automatic, unless the movement is exposed and you can see there is/ isn’t a rotor. More on that to come.
This traditional method of watchmaking has been used by horologists and the human race alike since the 16th century. Some could argue that the mechanical watch/ clock movement is one of the most important inventions in history. Since then, it is been tinkered with and developed to keep up with innovative advances. (reference my pilot watch article…)
An A lange & Sohne manual wind Calibre. The bevelling and engraving are all done by hand on every A lange watch. Absurd attention to detail.
Fp Jeourne demonstrating as usual how hand made manual wind movements are so special. God damn.
Patek Philippe, no surprise, demonstrating absolute class in their 21 jewel manual wind movement powering their calatrava series. This is how its done.
One of the twats I work with keeps getting automatic movements confused with Seiko and Citizen’s eco-drive or Kinetic watch moments. Hopefully this shall clear it up.
Part of the mechanical movement family, automatic watches (also known as self-winding) are based around a mainspring system also. A coiled mainspring is wound up by the constant movement of an rotor to store energy. The rotor is a small plate that rotates perpetually (you’ll see where I am going with that word soon) every time the wearer moves their wrist, which is all the time, unless you’re dead or an accountant. This plate winds a cog which, in turn, winds the mainspring. As the mainspring unwinds, a set of gears drive the hands to show the time, oscillating at a constant speed thanks to a balance wheel. As with the manual wind movement, the smooth sweeping second hand gives away the fact it is a mechanical watch.
The kinetic watches are the same as a quartz except a rotor charges the battery so, in theory, the battery will never die if always worn like an automatic. Cool idea. Still Quartz. Solar movements are the same idea except that they use solar energy to charge the battery. Cool idea still quartz.
Automatic watch movement was invented by John Harwood during the 1920s. However, it wasn’t commercial used until Rolex invented the perpetually moving oscillator in 1931. Prior to this there were “Bumper” movements that had a rotor of sorts that rocked back and forth as the wearer moved their wrist. This ingenious Perpetual rotor system lead to the automatic movement we recognise today. And thus, we have the Rolex Oyster Perpetual. Now you see where I was going earlier…
Watches with mechanical movements tend to cost significantly more than those with a quartz ticker, as they are meticulously created by hand and revered for their quality craftsmanship. Quartz watches tend to be put together in a factory in China where Hover Boards and Drones are also made. However, obtaining your first mechanical movement watch doesn’t have to cost more than a Daniel wellington: modern watch brands such as Seiko, Tissot and orient make a huge range of quality watches for sub-300 quid. Seiko, in fact, use only in-house movements (made by the brand themselves in their own factories opposed to buy a third-party supplier) which, if a Swiss brand does as well, cost a far far bigger premium. The best part is that you can pick up manual wind vintage watches for under 100 pounds. For example, I have a vintage Russian military watch from the 40s that still works perfectly after going through Stalingrad. This watch cost me 50 GBP in a Budapest street market.
Rolex's first ever "oyster perpetual" movement using the ground breaking perpetual rotor. This movement idea is still used in every single automatic watch made today.
This is a modern example of an Oyster Perpetual movement as seen in every time-only Rolex model from the Submariner to the Milgaus.
For reference: one of the greatest movements ever made, The Datograph, from A Lange & Sohne. YES, its a chronograph and that's a different story but. Look at it. Unbelievable. A small, perfectly precise and synchronised minurature metropolis inside a 40mm case.....
For me, what made me fall in love with mechanical watches is the fact that you essentially have one of the most important engines that humans have ever created. Think about how much our lives are ruled by time. You can wear this machine on your wrist. In theory it’ll never die or stop. A Quartz battery needs replacing after a few years or so (this differs) and if you’re in war or Armageddon or lost on a dessert island, you screwed if your Quartz watch needs replacing. Worn regularly, this type of watch requires minimal maintenance. Forever.
Other reasons I don’t like Quartz include, but are not limited to:
Quartz is not the proper hand-made art of mechanical watch making. It is not the traditional, beautiful, artistic and historically important method of watch making. It’s like comparing a modern photo with a traditional realist portrait….
I love the idea of a tiny and precise engine working away and 35,000 BPR on my wrist as I sit in a meeting or have a pint or go kayaking or fighting zombies in the post-nuclear war world with no worry of the battery dying.
We live in a world where absolutely everything is electronic. Our lives rely on electronics completely. Electronics will even take our jobs…. (like the jobs of Quantity surveyors…..) So having something completely mechanic and beautiful is like comparing a tesla to a Porsche 911: One is faster, cleaner and more responsible but one is far cooler and more satisfying.
I like the smooth elegant sweep of the smooth second hand…..
Editor and Co-Founder