October 2021 11 Min Read

Have We Been Too Quick To Dismiss Quartz?

By Josh Sims

Michael Benavente doesn’t pull any punches. “It’s propaganda,” laughs the president of Bulova. “When people asked why they were spending on a mechanical watch, the [Swiss watch] industry responded by pushing the idea that a quartz movement was cheap and unimpressive. But I think we’re seeing work now to build a reappraisal of quartz. Its reputation is changing.”

Certainly, ask any serious watch aficionado and it’s almost a knee-jerk response to dismiss quartz, if not to actively denigrate it. Let’s say it: there’s a snobbery about quartz, much as, say, an Aston Martin driver might look down on the man behind the wheel of a Hyundai, regardless of perfectly dependable that is.

“The problem is that when you say ‘quartz’ there’s a temptation for the first thing you think of to be some department store fashion watch, because quartz has been the movement of choice for any ‘disposable’ watch,” suggests Nicholas Bowman-Scargill, managing director of the re-born Fears watch brand.

Indeed, he reckons there’s still a latent fear of sorts, broadly across the Swiss watch industry, in even considering quartz, as though that would somehow bring down a curse upon their houses. “People in the industry are still talking about ‘the quartz crisis’ and it was a crisis for a reason,” he says, referring to the impact the advent of quartz technology in 1969 had on Swiss mechanical watchmakers – many of them subsequently going to the wall, with two thirds of jobs in the Swiss industry gone within 20 years.

A vintage Bulova advertisement for the Accutron that sums up the watch industry’s worst fears in two pithy sentences, courtesy of Bulova.

“But really quartz was a catalyst of change in an industry that wasn’t operating efficiently anyway – yet the crisis association still gives quartz a bad name even 50 years on,” he marvels. “It’s like the Spanish flu – it had very little to do with Spain but there’s tainting by association.”

And yet a quartz movement is undeniably superior to a mechanical one in many ways. It’s more robust than a mechanical one – Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1980, did so wearing a Rolex Oysterquartz. It’s easier and cheaper to service. too.

A Oysterquartz and Oyster Perpetual Datejust, courtesy of Sotheby’s and Christie’s respectively.

So far, so prosaic. But quartz has also allowed some world record-beating watches to be created: at just 1.98mm thick, the Concord Delirium of 1979 was, thanks to a specially developed ETA quartz movement, the thinnest watch ever made; a decade later, Seiko introduced its 9A85, which is still the world’s thinnest watch movement , at just 0.85mm thick. Brands the likes of Piaget and Bulova especially have capitalised on quartz’s slender dimensions. Quartz has also afforded the only curved movement.

“[Importantly] the lower cost of this technology also allows the valorisation of the watch exterior, using, for instance, nobler materials, traditional or cutting-edge techniques, while maintaining a reasonable retail price,” notes Mattieu Baumgartner, vice president of marketing for Longines, which can trace its development work in quartz movements in clocks back to 1954.

A vintage rendering of an early Longines electronic quartz chronograph, courtesy of Europa Star.

Of course, it’s in accuracy that a quartz movement will always most obviously surpass to a mechanical one, even if the mechanical watch industry – somewhat futilely in one respect – continues its own arms race for ever more precision. It’s in its accuracy that the technological wonder that is the quartz watch, when understood, should be better appreciated than it is: using a battery to produce a current in the circuit, causing a literal piece of quartz to vibrate at precisely 32,768 times a second, counting those and converting them into a one second electric pulse. At its very best, to date, a mechanical watch – like Zenith’s Defy Lab of 2017 – beats at 108,000 vibrations. Per hour. That vast gulf truly matters if – and it’s highly questionable – a watch is, first and foremost, a time-telling machine.

A single piece of silicone from the Zenith Defy Lab watch, courtesy of Zenith.

It’s these qualities, unique to quartz movements, that still see them garnering long-term investment from some of the watch industry’s more esteemed makers: among them Longines and Omega, Breitling, Audemars Piguet, Girard-Perregaux, and Patek Philippe, producing quartz pieces priced in the thousands. Esteemed independent makers the likes of F.P. Journe are not so attached to the purely mechanical that they won’t experiment with electro-mechanical movements either. Watches from Urwerk and Ressence have also devised mechanical systems able to match an electronic timing source.

F.P. Journe’s “Elegante” watch, which makes use of an electro-mechanical movement.

While many Swiss makers throughout the 1970s rushed to produce a quartz movement as an alternative to the rising and revolutionary tide of Japanese products, some have, as it were, refused to throw the baby out with the bath water. With many of these Swiss makers later retrenched in mechanical movements only.

“And likewise, people in the know will appreciate the difference between the quartz movement in a Grand Seiko and one in a Hello Kitty watch,” reckons Bowman-Scargill, “much as they might, more recently, make the distinction between a watch having an in-house mechanical movement and ‘just an ETA one’. You have different mechanical movements, at different prices, to meet whatever needs you have.”

As Clemence Dubois, chief product and marketing officer for Girard-Perregaux similarly stresses, there are quartz movements and then there are quartz movements – the latter often referred to as HAQ or High Accuracy Quartz. And, she argues, it’s those Swiss manufacturers who have stayed the course with quartz – those which have a long and demonstrable history of producing very high frequency quartz movements – that consequently retain a legitimacy to use the technology that’s hard to challenge. It’s why the relaunch over recent years of its 1975 Laureato collection, or the re-issue of its Casquette, came, like the originals, with quartz movements too.

“That was important [for us], though [the problem for many] other Swiss brands is that the perception of quartz is that’s it’s inherently not Swiss,” Dubois explains. “As a result, manufacturers have [put effort] into communicating the value of a mechanical movement but not that of quartz. Perhaps because that has been so dominated by Japanese companies there’s a sense that even Swiss manufacturers are not ‘allowed’ to do quartz, because it doesn’t carry the same status. [But the fact is that] really you can have quartz components beautifully made with the same level of attention [as found in many mechanical movements]. What this goes back to is how you define ‘manufacture’ – for us it’s being in the now, to keep developing watchmaking across all [aspects].”

Certainly, stroll through recent decades and it’s clear that quartz does not always belie great case construction – as Grand Seiko’s Zaratsu polishing, or Audemars Piguet’s tapisserie dials suggests – nor efforts to drive the movement technology forward well beyond the Hello Kitty standard. It’s resulted in some products of historic importance to watchmaking, ones that go some way to answering whether spending big on a quartz watch can ever be worth it.

The Concord Delirium, the thinnest watch ever made at just 1.98mm, powered by a quartz movement, courtesy of Hodinkee.

There’s Bulova’s heritage in its ingenious ‘electronic tuning fork’ movement, for example, built on to bring us the likes of the quartz Precisionist with its ‘sweeping’ seconds hand (one more reason for watch fans not to reject quartz). There’s Grand Seiko’s 9F, for which each crystal is individually grown to match the integrated circuit with which it will work, and with a twin pulse control motor that allows larger hands to be powered without compromising battery life – it’s pretty enough to justify a case-back window too. Or Seiko’ Spring Drive, 28 years in development and using a quartz crystal-regulated control mechanism to regulate the way the spring unwinds.

And there’s more. There’s Junghan’s radio-controlled quartz, accurate +/- eight seconds a year. Or Breitling’s Superquartz movement, with integrated thermo-regulating system that measures and regulates the quartz crystal’s temperature to maintain COSC-standard accuracy. Or Citizen’s white gold-cased caliber 0100, launched in 2019, with its specially-cut crystal, making it the world’s most accurate light-powered, autonomous quartz watch, correct to just +/- one second a year.

Let’s remember that it was a Swiss, not a Japanese manufacturer, that first put a quartz movement into a wristwatch either. Back in 1969, Longines launched its Ultra-Quartz, the first commercial quartz crystal watch, a full four months before Seiko’s Astron Cal.35 came along and stole its thunder. “Longines deserves to be congratulated for this magnificent result which shows once again that in the field of watch technology Switzerland reigns supreme,” noted the Europa Star journal at the time.

A Longines Ultra-Quartz advert from a 1969 issue of Europa Star, alongside a vintage advertisement for the Seiko Astron, courtesy of Plus9time.

The technology had long existed – the first electronic quartz clock was actually devised by Bell Telephone in the US in 1927 – but had been deemed too impractical for commercial sales. The question was how to miniaturize it. Longines did so – assisted by new quartz innovator Bernard Golay – but a production version of its Ultra-Quartz watch, unfortunately, never really happened and the whole event appears to have been largely lost to history, soon overshadowed by commercial models from Seiko.

Making a quartz movement smaller was also a challenge for the Swiss Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) consortium – and specifically engineers Jean-Claude Berney, Andre Cachin, Armin Frei and Max Forrer – when, from 1965, they set to work on their Beta series of quartz movements. Its chunky, rectangular Beta 21 quartz movement of 1970 has come to be seen, in historic terms at least, as the definitive quartz movement – exemplary of a level of innovation more readily associated with haute horlogerie.

The Patek Philippe Beta 21 movement.

The Beta 21 appeared first in the Electroquartz from Omega – one of the companies that would soon spin off from CEH to develop its own in-house quartz movements – and then in pieces from Rolex, IWC, Rado, Patek and others. There was no snobbishness about quartz then, just the admirable exploration of the many possible roads by which a maker may come by the ideal ratio of size, accuracy, and battery life.

Where does this brief history lesson get us? Perhaps to the conclusion that the Swiss watch industry used to innovate in movement design wherever the latest science took it. And to a sense then that it is all the more remarkable that most, if certainly not all, of the big names consequently disavowed quartz.

This is increasingly stranger, one might argue, because for all of its charms – the hand-craft, the history, the amazing engineering feat of precision time measurement through no more than carefully calibrated and assembled little bits of metal – the mechanical movement has long been the regressive choice in an increasingly advanced world.

A Patek Philippe Ref. 3597 powered by the Beta 21 movement.

There’s a nostalgia in choosing it, as there is, for example, in favouring steam engines over diesel ones, in choosing vinyl over the efficiency and accessibility of streaming; as, in time, there will be in driving a combustion engine car in the coming age of the electric vehicle. But if, because of the need for physical interaction with the technology, the former is often characterised as warm and more human, against the latter’s cold competence – “audiophiles get very ethnocentric about their vinyl, but that doesn’t mean streaming is bad,” Benavente notes – it’s easy to forget that even the retrograde was once cutting-edge itself.

Perhaps then what quartz requires today is some re-branding. “Quartz has such connotations that I think if we stopped using that word it would change people’s gut feeling about it,” suggests Bowman-Scargill. He cites the likes of Cartier’s light-powered Solarbeat, or Citizen’s Eco-Drive. And he speaks from experience too: rather than put ‘quartz’ on the dial of one Fears model, the company stamped ‘electronic oscillator’ instead. That’s not obfuscation. “That’s just much more exciting, much more of an encouragement to think about what an incredible piece of technology quartz is,” he says.

A vintage Bulova advertisement for the Accutron that capitalises on the technological advancement that quartz represents, courtesy of Bulova.

Certainly, Benavente argues that a move into what feels like a new technological age – not just electric vehicles, but the internet of things, artificial intelligence, robotics and commercial spaceflight – is likely to spark a more balanced regard for quartz, even as that technology passes its half century mark. “We’re all excited about these technological developments,” he says, “but they’re all dependent on circuitry. So, I can see how quartz might be repositioned as the more progressive choice. After all, it no longer has to be presented as a technology that threatens to wipe out mechanical watches. That fear has long passed.”

It’s why, as its vice president of product Jean-Claude Monachon, notes, Omega too considers the “extremely advanced” quartz movement of the kind used in its Speedmaster X-33 Skywalker to be one “critical to the watch’s role in space, offering functions that can’t be achieved with mechanical watches. And, considering the current interest in space exploration, there’s huge scope for the future of quartz. That sort of potential should really boost its image.”

The Fears Redcliff Date with its 'electronic oscillator' movement, courtesy of Fears.

There are broader cultural shifts that may well see quartz rescued from its black sheep status as well. There’s the on-going gender divide in watches. Yes, more women are interested in mechanical than used to be the case, but most remain more than satisfied with the ease of quartz if the watch in question looks the part – and, it might be argued, more men, seeing the watch predominantly as a style accessory, are likely to think this way too. “The Carter Tank Anglaise has a quartz movement and, you know what, nobody cares,” reckons Bowman-Scargill. “Take away any knowledge of what’s inside it, even take away the brand, and it’s still a desirable watch because it’s a beautiful object. Watch companies often overlook the simple appeal of that.”

“There is what I think is a generational divide too – younger consumers just aren’t so focused on the distinction between mechanical and quartz,” reckons Benavente. “They’re less ready to buy into this idea that mechanical is automatically superior, so much as to take each movement based on their needs. The smartwatch revolution hasn’t displaced the mechanical watch either, but it has driven a reappraisal of quartz [in being a reminder that there are other wrist-worn devices with other benefits].”

That’s why even owners of the most prestigious mechanical watches are often also owners of a smartwatch. Intriguingly, Bowman-Scargill characterises the quartz movement as a technological stop-gap, a bridge between mechanical and fully electronic watches the likes of which Apple sell in their millions, much as hybrid vehicles are the staging post between the combustion engine and the “spacecraft feel of a Tesla”. The quartz movement, in other words, may be heading towards the same historic relevancy as the mechanical one.

Perhaps this too explains why owners of the most prestigious mechanical watches are, contrary to expectation, often also owners of quartz watches. They’ve moved beyond that propaganda to embrace watchmaking in all of its various colours. “I think most watch enthusiasts follow a similar path,” reckons Bowman-Scargill, “in that they start with a quartz watch when young and then are educated [Benavente might say brainwashed] to focus on certain brands and certain design qualities – Swiss-made, and mechanical, being most important. But the thing is, then they get through this...”

Indeed, it’s the growing knowledge these enthusiasts attain over the years - thanks to the internet, thanks to experience, thanks, maybe, just to growing older and caring less what other people think – that “leads them to start to appreciate all kinds of watches, be that a Swatch or a Casio G-Shock or a Philippe Dufour,” he says. “They like all kinds of watches for all kinds of reasons. Surely that’s what makes for a proper watch guy: they take each watch on its own merits. How it’s powered is not the be all and end all.”

We would like to thank Michael Benevente, Nicholas-Bowman Scargill, Clemence Dubois, and Jean-Claude Monachon for lending us their insight and expertise on the history of quartz watches.