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Everything You Need to Know Before Buying a Quartz Watch

Why are quartz watches affordable? How do they work? Why are they controversial? Find out here.

quartz watches
Henry Phillips

Before it became ubiquitous and before it became the subject of many a watch enthusiast’s ire, quartz was once upon a time a cutting-edge technology that nearly upended an entire industry of watchmaking. Ushering in what’s called either the Quartz Crisis or the Quartz Revolution (depending on your feelings on the technology), quartz quickly proved that the most reliable, most accurate way to tell time was not with an intricate network of gears, but with a small crystal, a battery and some tiny motors. Utilizing this methodology for timekeeping was apparently unforgivable to some, hence quartz’s four-letter-word status amongst many watch enthusiasts.

But never mind that a quartz watch, save for the occasional battery change, requires much less servicing than its mechanical counterpart. Forget that it’s more accurate than even the most expensive, most expertly-tuned mechanical timepieces. Forget that they’re more affordable than mechanical watches. Once you dig under the hood a little and understand how the technology works, however, it becomes utterly fascinating — and many a watch snob has come to realize that a cheap, quartz-regulated watch isn’t so bad after all.

Better yet, quartz technology is incredibly simple and can be scaled down and augmented with other electronics and smart functions. "Hybrid" smartwatches, for example, use quartz as a base for analog timekeeping, then add on other elements like step trackers and heart rate monitors. Other watchmakers have been able to incorporate atomic timekeeping into their quartz timepieces and smartphone connectivity as well, making a watch that is super-accurate to begin with even more accurate. In short, it’s far from an old, simple and soulless technology — it continues to evolve.

Some Great Quartz Watches to Shop

Milestones In Quartz Technology

1880: French physicists Jacques and Pierre Curie discover piezoelectricity in quartz.
1927: Warren Marrison and J. W. Horton create the first quartz clock at Bell Laboratories.
1952: Both Elgin and LIP present prototypes of electronic watches, though neither uses quartz.
1957: Hamilton introduces the first consumer electronic watch.
1967: The Swiss Centre Electronique Horloge produces the Beta 1 quartz wristwatch prototype.
1969: Seiko produces the Astron, the first commercially-available quartz watch. It costs 450,000 yen, more than $8,000 today.
1971: Girard-Perregaux introduces the Caliber 350, which sets the standard for quartz oscillation at 32,768Hz, is faster than previous quartz watches and proves to be more accurate and consume less energy.

How Does a Quartz Watch Work?

Any clock needs an oscillating, regulating element to keep accurate time; on a mechanical watch, this takes the form of a balance spring and balance wheel. On a quartz watch, however, there’s a tiny quartz crystal, cut out in the shape of a tuning fork. Quartz naturally vibrates at a precise frequency and also has piezoelectric properties, meaning that when pressure is exerted upon it, it produces a small volt of electricity.

The inverse of this property is also true, in that when an electric current is passed through quartz, it vibrates at a highly regular rate, usually 32,768 times per second. The watch movement’s microchip circuit then reduces this frequency into one electric pulse per second. This impulse drives a motor, in turn moving the seconds hand and giving the quartz watch its signature once-per-second tick.

changing watch battery
The only real drawback of quartz is the occasional need to change a battery.
HajohoosGetty Images

What Is ‘High Accuracy Quartz’?

Most watches rocking a quartz movement are guaranteed accurate to around 15 seconds a month or so. This is still much better than even the best mechanical watches, but there’s a breed of quartz watches out there that can do even better: the High Accuracy Quartz (HAQ). HAQ’s still operate under the same principals as standard quartz movements, but they take into account the one major threat to quartz accuracy: changes in temperature. HAQ’s are, thus, thermo-compensated and can detect these changes and adjust themselves accordingly, which typically results in a guaranteed accuracy rate of around 10 seconds per year.

What is Meca-Quartz?

You'll sometimes see the term "meca-quartz" or "hybrid" associated with quartz chronograph watches. Don't be confused: these are still battery-powered watches regulated by quartz crystals. This type of technology has an interesting history and does incorporate a mechanical element, but marketing it as "mechanical" or "hybrid" is going a bit too far (in our humble opinion). A truly hybrid watch technology would be Seiko's impressively innovative Spring Drive movements.

Here's how it works: It uses a single step motor and connected gears to power all the chronograph hands instead of separate motors for each. This achieves two things for the user: it allows the hands to snap back to zero when reset (instead of slowly sweeping back) and it offers a feeling similar to that of operating the pushers on a mechanical chronograph (if you love that feeling then maybe meca-quartz watches are for you). The meca-quartz watches you see today mostly use affordable movements made by Seiko and provide companies ways to offer cool chronograph designs for only a few hundred bucks or so.

Quartz Watches Can Be Collectible, Too

You'd be forgiven for thinking that "collecting" is all about mechanical watches and Rolexes. There are, however, some very interesting and high-quality and vintage quartz watches that many will consider collectible. They can not only offer unique stories and represent pivotal moments in technology, but those from the '70s and '80s especially can also offer aesthetics quite different from a lot of what's out there. Best of all, though, vintage quartz offers a far more affordable way to approach collecting. A renewed interest in these watches has also seen watchmakers reissuing vintage quartz watches that are aimed at enthusiasts and collectors.

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