Quartz Watches: Precision, Performance & Parity Explored

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Quartz watches are popular, reliable, inexpensive pieces which can be seen in the 71% market share they have, over double the share of mechanical watches. Unlike the later, quartz watches use a quartz crystal oscillator to keep time. First introduced in the 1960s, quartz watch movements have revolutionized the industry providing timepieces that are more accurate, more affordable, and more durable than their traditional spring run counterparts. This is no knock on the classic mechanical timepiece, but there are certain advantages that quartz watches boast, however not all of them are created equal. While the major Swiss and Japanese brands use high-quality movements that ensure longevity and precise timekeeping, others opt for cheaper, less reliable movements which suffer in performance and lifespan. In this article we will explore the benefits of quartz watches while addressing the pitfalls of low-quality quartz movements found in many fashion brands out there.

OMEGA Seamaster Professional 300M Quartz Mens Watch 2265.80

In 1962, Max Hetzel invented the first quartz watch movement while employed by Bulova, an American watchmaker. The movement was based on the principle of the quartz crystal oscillator. The stable, high frequency of this oscillator allowed for a highly accurate and reliable watch movement, however it was a large and expensive device so further refinement would be needed before it became useful for the masses.

1967 saw a consortium of Swiss watchmakers come together to develop a more useful quartz movement. This group, led by Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH), started working on the project resulting in the Beta 21 which was unveiled at the Baselworld watch fair in 1969. The Beta 21 was smaller, more efficient, and less expensive than Hetzel’s movement, and soon it was adopted by several Swiss brands including Omega, Rolex, and Patek Philippe. It did not come without its own limitations however, as it came with a short battery life and required exceptionally complex electronic circuitry to regulate the frequency. 

The 1970s saw several Japanese watchmakers join the hunt for watch quality quartz movements. Seiko, Citizen, and Casio all started developing their own smaller, more accurate, and more reliable quartz movements. Seiko in particular became a leader in quartz technology. The Astron model, released in 1969, became the first quartz wristwatch to hit the market. These Seiko movements were innovative and featured several new technologies such as tuning fork crystals, stepper motors, and low-power circuitry. These Seiko watches quickly gained in popularity and helped establish the brand as a global watch powerhouse.

In today’s watch market, quartz timepieces are omnipresent and come in a large range of styles, designs, and price points. The Swiss has taken over the high end quartz business while Japanese brands completely dominate the entry and mid-level range of watches. Most of these are due to the affordable, reliable, inexpensive movements the Japanese have pioneered over the years. 

Not every quartz watch movement is created equal. There is a huge gap in quality between some of the most basic mass produced watches and the highest quality swiss quartz timepieces, and just looking at how it was assembled will give you a quick idea of the quality of the contents. There are several requirements to be labeled a high quality quartz movement. Among them are:

  1. Accuracy: A quality quartz movement should have a high degree of accuracy with a variation of less than a few seconds per month. Some come with an accuracy of less than a few seconds per year. To achieve this, a better quartz crystal oscillator will be used with a precise frequency, usually 32,768 Hz.
  2. Reliability: A quality quartz movement should be durable and reliable. This encompasses a few ideas, mainly high quality materials, including jeweled bearings on the highest wear pivots, and a well designed movement with tight tolerances. This allows a quartz movement to last for decades.
  3. Power Efficiency: A quality quartz movement should have a long battery life, in some cases up to 10 years. Most of the technology that allows this feat comes from highly efficient stepper motors and low-power circuitry.
  4. Resistance to the Environment: A quality quartz movement should resist external factors such as shock, change in temperatures, and magnetic fields. To achieve this feat, high quality quartz movements incorporate shock absorbing mechanisms, temperature compensation circuits and anti-magnetic materials.
  5. Serviceability: A quality quartz movement is assembled in such a way that you can service them and repair them to keep them running for decades. Many times, the parts can be standardized and the design will be well-documented. This allows warranty repairs if it fails and future service/repair from qualified watchmakers in the future

Not only will a quality quartz movement follow these steps, but most of the time they will be aesthetically pleasing as well. A maker of any quality movement, whether quartz or mechanical, will pay attention to the overall design and appearance of each movement before it even gets installed in a watch.

Low-quality quartz movements generally work the same as high quality ones, albeit with significant differences. Unlike the quality movements, the quartz oscillator will be of lower quality and will lack some of the control circuits that stabilize the frequency, compensate for temperature, etc. You may have two identical movements with different frequencies which can result in lower accuracy. The electronics will also be lower quality and less efficient. Battery life will be shorter and there is a higher risk of malfunction. Most of these budget movements will not have a shock system either which can quickly escalate into a non-running watch before the first battery even dies. These low quality movements are all about cutting costs and suffer for these savings measures.

Since we’ve just contrasted the difference in quality between movements, we can finally talk about which movements are considered the best of quartz technology. These include:

ETA caliber E01.001
Source: https://watchbase.com/eta/caliber/e01-001
  1. ETA E01.001 and E20.321. This Swiss company makes high-quality workhorses in both the mechanical and quartz space. These are reliable and accurate and are used by some of the best mid-range Swiss watchmakers such as TAG Heuer, Tissot, and Longines.
  2. Seiko 9F series. Quartz turned Seiko from a quality Japanese watchmaker to a global powerhouse in the watch world. This 9F series of movements have exceptional accuracy, durability, and power efficiency. There’s a reason this movement series is used in the high end Grand Seiko lineup.
  3. Citizen Eco-Drive. The first rechargeable battery use on the list comes from Citizen. This Japanese company is another that has pioneered quartz technology and the Eco-Drive is no exception. Solar charging allows less battery waste over using classic battery technology. Make no mistake, these movements are also very accurate and reliable.
  4. Bulova Precisionist. Having dabbled in electric watches with the Accutron, Bulova developed quartz pieces in the 70s alongside the Swiss and Japanese. The Precisionist, released in 2010, was decades in the making with a unique three-prong quartz crystal which resonates at 262 kHz, about 8 times higher than the 32 kHz of industry standard quarts. It’s accurate, reliable, and has a sweeping seconds hand, unusual in the world of quartz.
  5. Breitling SuperQuartz. After years of sourcing high quality quartz movements from ETA, Breitling developed the SuperQuartz. Released in 2014, this caliber has a patented thermocompesated design system that is 10 times more accurate than most quartz movements and supports both digital and analog functions. 

These movements are all well respected due to following the general rules for a quality movement of any design. 

While quartz watches do offer several benefits that make them a popular choice for both enthusiasts and casual fans, not all quartz watches are created equal. While high quality quartz movements are going to be more accurate, reliable, and easier to maintain, the lower quality quartz watches don’t have the same features and are designed to save cost. This results in lower accuracy, reliability, and shortened life. While it may be tempting to pick up that budget quartz watch, it is worth spending a little extra and picking up a quality quartz watch that will last a lifetime and make watch collecting a much easier hobby.

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