Ask for the Time, Find out How a Watch Works
April 25, 2012 6 Comments
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.
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.