Ask for the Time, Find out How a Watch Works

I’m researching a watch purchase and I ran across this episode of Timothy Hunkin’s British TV show, The Secret Life of Machines, that details the history of timekeeping culminating in the invention of the quartz movement and LCD.

The Secret Life Of Machines – The Quartz Watch Part-1

Part 2 (if you don’t watch anything else watch the kick-ass demonstration of LCDs starting at 6:10)

Part 3

Quartz vs. Mechanical Movements

One nitpick. In the last video Hunkin says “Today, dial watches are back in fashion, but they’re all quartz-controlled.” It’s true that the vast, vast majority of them are quartz, but some are still mechanical. A few of those even have to be manually wound, but most are automatic AKA self-winding movements. They convert the motion of your arm into energy they can use to wind the mainspring.

The question in my mind as I research watches is, why do people still buy non-quartz watches?

Quartz movements seems to have all the advantages. They’re much simpler mechanically, which ceteris paribus makes them much cheaper, more reliable, and smaller. They’re more resistant to impacts in sports like baseball, golf, and tennis. And they typically keep better time, to boot. For all these reasons Mr. Marketplace has chosen the quartz over the mechanical movement.

What’s interesting is that the most sought-after, expensive watches like the Rolex Submariner and Omega Speedmaster are mechanicals. This even though they tend to be less accurate and require more maintenance than the $100 quartz watches in  the local department store display case. Rolex recommends servicing their watches every five years. The full-on tuneup is about 500 clams at an authorized service center. Even getting a cheaper lubrication and adjustment on a Roley at a local watch shop may cost more than a mid-range Seiko or Citizen quartz.

One advantage of mechanicals is that they never need batteries. So if you’re stranded on a desert island you may want a mechanical as opposed to a quartz whose battery could die. This is somewhat offset by things like the Citizen Eco-Drive and Casio’s Tough Solar that massively extend battery life, possibly to the life of the watch, but it’s still an undeniable advantage for mechanicals.

I recently had an experience that gave me one good reason to avoid battery-powered watches. When I graduated college my mother gave me a gold Seiko. I wore it in my twenties, quit wearing it in my thirties in favor of getting time from a cell phone, and decided to wear it again recently after my mother passed away. When I took it in to get a new battery I discovered that the old battery had leaked, ruining the watch internally. Financially, I’d be better off buying a new watch, but it has sentimental value. I’m sending it to Seiko to see if they can replace the entire mechanism.

A disadvantage of automatics is that if you don’t wear them for a few days the spring will unwind completely and you’ll have to reset the date and time. You can solve that problem by storing the watch in a watch winder that moves the watch, keeping it wound, though it’s still a hassle and expense quartz watches have made unnecessary.

I can’t decide if there’s a good, sensible reason that the most exalted and expensive watches are automatics.

It could be a matter of tradition, the way many gun enthusiasts stuck with Colt 1911s even after Glocks came along, or the way some motorcyclists prefer Harleys to their faster, more reliable Japanese equivalents. Anyone who has a thing for watches and wears a dial watch is at least a little bit of a traditionalist and a lover of mechanical things.

So maybe in some cases it’s the romantic versus classical points of view Robert Persig wrote about in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. If you just want to know what time it is, a quartz watch will more than do the job and do it better. If you appreciate machinery and how things work the mechanical movement reveals its inner workings better.

I also wouldn’t dismiss the snob appeal for a watch enthusiast of having something the masses don’t have and can’t appreciate.

If I was looking for an heirloom watch to pass on, I’d buy an automatic, but for a watch for daily wear I’m having a hard time coming up with a practical reason most people would want to to buy anything but a quartz.

6 Responses to Ask for the Time, Find out How a Watch Works

  1. I can’t come up with any good reason why most people should not want to just go with a quartz. As you say, they are cheaper, cheaper to maintain, and more accurate. Some of us can’t wear quartz though. I don’t care how good a watch it is, a quartz watch will last about six weeks with me wearing it. Then, it’s dead. No amount of battery replacement will bring it back from the grave at that point. My son gave me a watch for Christmas one year. I milked that one out to about five years of life by only wearing it annually on Christmas day. It was my Christmas watch!

    On my wrist right now is the Seiko Automatic that Jennifer bought for me when we were dating, some fourteen years ago. It has been overhauled once and is probably about due for a second overhaul. After going through so many soft bands of various material make, I finally fitted it with a stainless bracelet that I bought on eBay. I’ve worn this watch way more often than not since she gave it to me. I also have a Tag Heuer automatic chronograph, but it needs to be overhauled and I’m afraid that if I wear it any more before its maintenance, I’ll mess it up.

    I have long suspected that this is due to an unusually powerful bioelectromagnetic field, but haven’t really conceived a good way to test this idea. I have, however noticed various oddities about my body – unusually high hematocrit, unusually low electrical resistance, the ability to feel some magnetic fields and materials, to name a few. I wrote about this at length back in 2009 here: http://evylrobot.com/?p=541 and here: http://evylrobot.com/?p=644.

    I know it sounds crazy, but there are a lot more of us out there than you might think. Most people hesitate to bring it up because it makes them sound crazy! 😛 Yes, there is something beautiful and romantic about a well made mechanical watch, but that’s not the only value in them even still. If they weren’t available, I’d likely resign myself to keeping time on my cell phone. Sorry to get wordy in your comment section, but I hope this is informative.

  2. Mike S says:

    I’m wearing a Seiko Kinetic Auto Relay I bought over 12 years ago. It uses an automatic-type action to keep a battery charged, from what I understand. It hasn’t required any maintenance at all so far. Plus, it’s quieter than any quartz my wife has owned. She goes through one or two a year, and has spent more on watches than I did, despite mine costing $357 in 1999 dollars.

    I wanted an automatic in case of an EMP event, because I was reading too much doomsday stuff around Y2k. But still, I like automatics for the mechanical marvelousness. I didn’t realize the Kinetic was still electric when I bought it. :'(

    I think automatic movements are inherently more expensive than quartz, but in addition, there is the whole craftsmanship, complication, and exclusivity aspect. I’ve heard it said that Rolex is the poorman’s way of displaying wealth. I don’t know if you ever leaf through International Watch Magazine (http://iwmagazine.com/) while loafing around bookstores, but there are a lot of very expensive, very fancy automatics. Complications are impressive, and add greatly to the price of an automatic.

    I think it appeals to those who choose a Ferarri over a Corvette – same performance, different price, different asthetics, different market.

  3. pdb says:

    Hello, mild watch enthusiast here.

    My two favorite watches right now are a couple of older Seiko 5 automatics. They generally retail for around $150 new, but I got mine for under $50 apiece on ebay.

    If I really have to have an accurate timepiece, I’ve got a cellphone. I like the way the watches look and work, and in my experience, a $150 automatic is more durable than a $150 quartz. If my automatic runs down, I just swing it around a few times and put it on. I’ve got 2 dead quartz watches in my drawer that aren’t worth the effort to get running again.

    You didn’t ask, but if I was going to pick up a new watch at the moment, I’d probably get this one: http://www.ashford.com/ashford/browse/productDetail.jsp?productId=SNZG13&_requestid=815938

  4. Les Jones says:

    Michael, that’s pretty interesting. My uncle Bob always swore he couldn’t wear a watch because every one he bought would die within weeks or months.

  5. Mike says:

    I was never happy with watches, until I finally just decided to treat them as disposables.

    Strap something on my wrist for any length of time and it will get scratched, dropped, lost, oil-soaked or magnetized. And I do not lead an exciting life – I’m just sort of clumsy in that ordinary middle-aged guy way. I destroy things quite by accident.

    If it has a battery, the battery will quickly fail. I will be annoyed by the process of installing a new one, the watch will not be waterproof after that, and the new battery will quickly fail, too. That’s just how it is.

    Just go to Wal-Mart or Amazon and drop $10-$15 on whatever looks the least tacky. As an added bonus, if you end up with one that you don’t really like, it will unaccountably last forever.

  6. Les Jones says:

    pdb, I think you’re right that the mechanical will last longer if you’re measuring in decades, which is why I say it’s better for an heirloom.

    The quartz breadboard might be repairable by someone in the world, but you might or might not be able to find them, and you might or might not be able to get a battery to drive it. There’s no infrastructure or culture equivalent to the watch repair craft that’s available for mechanicals. The basic watch mechanism hasn’t changed much since its invention and there will be someone around in 50 years who can fix it even if the manufacturer is long gone.