One of the big considerations you need to make while buying a watch is what movement you want inside your watch. In case you don’t know what a movement is, I will go over the basics and all of the pros and cons of the Automatic vs Quartz debate. My best advice is if you want to be a serious watch collector, you should own an automatic watch, but not every watch you own needs to be an automatic.
Automatic vs Quartz: What’s a Movement?
The movement is what makes a watch work. It moves the hands around the watch face and powers any complications, such as a chronograph or a calendar window, that the watch might have.
For many people, a watch is a fashion accessory. As long as the watch looks good and works, who cares what’s inside? However, for the watch enthusiast, the movement is, in many cases, is the most important part of the watch. It’s knowing the craftsmanship and the quality of the watch on your wrist.
Automatic vs Quartz: Mechanical Movements
A mechanical movement is simply a watch that is powered using wound gears and springs to store energy. There are two types of mechanical watch movements: manual and automatic.
Manual movements were what powered the first wristwatches. In order to power the watch, the wearer would first have to wind the watch by hand and then set it to the correct time before use. Early manual watches had 12 hours of power, so the hand-winding of your watch became part of your daily morning and evening rituals.
Automatic movements differ from manual in that they do not require hand-winding. These self-winding movements are powered by the natural wrist actions over the course of a day by its wearer. By the 1960’s, as they were much more convenient, automatic movements had overtaken manual movements as the industry standard in mechanical movements. While manual movements are very rarely used today, there are many automatic movements, such as Vostok and Seiko’s NH35, that included the ability to hand-wind manually as well.
Automatic vs Quartz: Quartz Movements
Quartz movements are different in that they are powered using a battery and electricity. The short story is that you can vibrate a quartz crystal with an electrical current. The frequency of this vibration can then be translated by a microchip to tell the watch to tick. This results in an incredibly accurate timepiece.
Quartz movements were first commercially produced by Seiko in 1969 and through the wonders of mass production have become incredibly cheap and thus drastically driven down the price of quartz watches. Today, quartz movements have evolved with kinetic and solar technology to get rid of the need to replace batteries as often.
Automatic vs Quartz: Why Should You Buy a Quartz Watch?
The two big reasons for buying a quartz watch are cost and accuracy. According to Hodinkee, of the 1.46 billion watches that were produced in 2015, 97% (1.42 billion) of those were quartz. This flood of watches and the fact that a quartz movement is much simpler than all of the moving parts of a mechanical watch has resulted in very cheap production costs. There are some types of watches, like chronographs, that are only accessible to consumers in the under $100 price range because of low-cost of quartz movements.
Quartz watches are also easier to maintain than their mechanical counterparts. In the short term, quartz watches just work. There no need to wind. You can just put it on and go. In the long term, most quartz watches just need a battery change every 2-3 years while some kinetic and solar-powered quartz watches can last as long as 10 years due to their ability to recharge the battery. This is something that you can either do yourself, or a watchmaker will usually do for free or at a low cost. While mechanical watches do not need a battery, they do need to be serviced every 5-7 years, which can be very expensive. Metal parts grinding on metal parts cause wear even for the best mechanical watches. For watches under $100, it’s usually much cheaper to replace outright.
The other big advantage of a quartz watch is the accuracy. Pretty much any quartz watch is going to keep time better than a mechanical watch. Even the best mechanical watches will lose or gain about 5 seconds day, while it is not uncommon for budget mechanical movements to lose or gain 20-30 a day. The typical quartz watch might lose 10 seconds a month. One of Citizen’s high-end quartz watches (they’re not all cheap!) is said to only lose or gain 5 seconds a year. Other quartz watches use radio-controlled GPS signals to maintain and keep accurate time.
Automatic vs Quartz: Why Should You Buy an Automatic Watch?
Despite all the advantages of quartz, most watch collectors prefer automatic watches for a number of reasons. First is the primary reason why most people wear a watch. A watch is more than a tool to tell time. If accuracy is the most important aspect for you, you probably would not want to own a watch, as your cell phone would be more accurate than any watch you could buy. It’s like buying a car. You can get a great budget 4-cylinder compact car that will get you from Point A to Point B with great fuel-efficiency. A muscle car with a 300hp V6 will also get you from Point A to Point B, but fuel-efficiency is not going to be the reason you buy that muscle car.
You should get an automatic watch because they are cool. There is something special about the mechanical movement that you can connect to horological history. There is craftsmanship and artistry behind the fact that a mechanical watch is basically a small machine on your wrist featuring dozens and dozens of small working and moving parts. Some of my favorite automatics feature display case back so you can see the mechanisms at work. You will never see a quartz will a display caseback. You can soup up a Honda Civic on the outside, but no one is going to open your hood and compliment you on your 4-cylinder engine.
If you want a watch that is more than a nice looking fashion accessory, you are going to want a watch that is as nice on the inside as it is on the outside. The cheapest of quartz watches have unfortunately also created a cottage industry of overpriced watches from fashion brands (Fossil, MVMT, Daniel Wellington, Skagen, Guess, Gucci, Armani Exchange, etc.). they make a nice looking watch but in some cases have very suspect quality control and a very cheap outsourced quartz movement that is not worth a fraction of their price tag.
Automatic vs. Quartz: Closing
This is something really special about an automatic watch, but I don’t want to discourage you from quartz watches. There are a number of quality watch companies that produce great quartz watches like Casio, Citizen, Seiko, and Timex, that are not overpriced and give you a lot of watch for your dollar. The watch movement is one factor of many in choosing a watch. Now that you are better informed, make sure you check out my reviews and buying guides to see your best quartz and automatic options.
I would love to hear from you about any questions you have about Automatic vs Quartz watches. Leave a comment below, and make sure you subscribe in the sidebar if you liked the article!