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Know Your Watches: Quartz Watches

by Jonathan Fairfield
23 January, 2013
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About the author

Jonathan lives and works in Thailand as a writer and English Teacher. He is fanatical about football which makes it all the more strange that he should support Stockport County. In addition to watches, Jonathan has a passion for fitness and nutrition and writes for a blog on the subject.

Rolex Quartz Watch Movement

Know Your Watches is a new series which explores and explains the many different types of watches available on the market, and which often confuses even the people who are supposed to be selling them. Armed with the information provided in this series you should be able to convince people that you’re something of a horology buff at your next sophisticated soiree.

It’s fair to say that if you’re wearing a watch now, it probably features a quartz movement.  In fact, in 2012 it was estimated that out of the 1.05 billion timepieces produced by the global watch industry, just over 80% of the watches were quartz analogue models.

If you follow online watch magazines you could be forgiven for thinking that the world revolves purely around high-end mechanical watches, as it is these intricate Swiss timepieces that grab the attention of watch journalists and aficionados. But in reality, the vast bulk of the watch market, be it Swiss, European, American or elsewhere, runs on quartz. But what exactly has quartz got to do with modern time keeping?

What is quartz?

Are you ready for a brief science lesson? Quartz is a mineral that is present in the earth’s crust and which is most commonly found in sand. The mineral, also known as silicon dioxide, is popular amongst watch makers because it is able to vibrate quickly when it has been stimulated by electricity. It is also very efficient because as it vibrates it experiences very little loss of energy.

It is the frequent and steady vibrations that enable a watch to be able to keep time. Interestingly, the quartz used in many of today’s watches is actually synthetic as it is capable of vibrating at a much steadier rate than natural quartz.

How does a quartz movement work?

A minute piece of synthetic quartz acts as the watch’s oscillator. The oscillator acts as the pendulum in a grandfather clock, by moving continuously it tells the watch exactly how much time has passed. Therefore, the oscillator works as a kind of counter which steadily ticks off the seconds, minutes and hours. The watch then simply displays the time that has been counted.

When a quartz oscillator is powered by an electrical charge from a battery it is able to vibrate in excess of 32,000 times each second. As these vibrations occur the watch’s integrated circuit, which is already programmed to know the frequency of the oscillator, regulates each vibration so that a certain amount of vibrations will equate to one second.

With regards to a watch’s minute and second hands, the electronic pulses are then transferred in to mechanical pulses that are used to drive the gears, setting the watch’s hand in motion. For digital watches, these electronic pulses add up to display minutes, hours and even days.

A brief history of quartz

The quartz watch revolutionised the original concept of wrist watches and in 1967 the first quartz prototype, the Beta 1 was unveiled at the Centre Electronique Horloger in Neuchatel, Switzerland. However, despite the first quartz watch being developed in Switzerland, Japanese watch maker Seiko had been working on quartz clocks and movements for almost ten years prior to the launch of the Beta 1.

This resulted in the Japanese watch maker producing the Seiko 35SQ Astron, which would be the world’s first commercial wristwatch to feature a quartz movement and was released to the Japanese public on Christmas Day in 1969. The original Astron was limited to just 100 pieces and featured an 18k rose gold case. It cost approximately 450,000 JPY, which was even more than the cost of a Toyota Corolla at that time. The watch featured a quartz frequency of 8192 Hz, which is about one-fourth of the frequency that is most commonly used today.

Throughout the 1970’s the production of both quartz watches and clocks increased dramatically thanks to the accuracy and low manufacturing costs involved. By the 1980’s quartz technology wasn’t only found in wristwatches but also in many different household items such as alarm clocks and kitchen timers. Quartz technology was even being used in munitions timer fuses.

Today, quartz timepieces dominate the clock and wrist watch market. Despite a quartz watch being regarded neither as intricate nor as intriguing as their mechanical counterparts, to many watch enthusiasts, they do a significantly better job at accurately telling the time.

The Quartz Crisis

The technology of the quartz movement almost heralded the death of the Swiss watch industry. The 1970’s saw the market flooded with scores of cheap quartz watches produced by mostly Asian watch brands. During this time large numbers of Swiss watch makers went bankrupt as there was suddenly little or no need for mechanical movements, chronograph certificates, or for spending considerable sums of money on a timepiece.

Despite having somewhat of a head start in the quartz watch revolution following the development of the Beta 1, the Swiss watch industry was generally rather slow to respond to advances of Japanese watch makers who were leading the way in the new quartz watch craze.

It wasn’t until 1982 when the Swiss developed a new timepiece that would help them to recapture some of their market share. The new timepiece, which featured a quartz movement and was aimed at entry level watch buyers, was called Swatch.

Through Swatch, the Swiss hoped that analogue watches would once again become popular. In 1983, the latest version of the Swatch was redesigned to incorporate a new bold style. This version also included a revamped quartz movement that contained fewer parts and offered improved efficiency.

The Swatch was an incredible success and in just over two years had sold in excess of 2.5 million watches, which helped to restore Switzerland as leaders in the world of watch making.

Today, Swatch is the largest watch company in the world and in recent years has seen the organisation acquire a number of leading luxury Swiss brands. Some of the brands that are part of the Swatch Group include Breguet, Omega, Tissot, Longines, Mido, Certina and Endura.

The first Swatch Quartz Watches

Whilst these watches might not be too much to look at today, they almost single handedly saved the Swiss watch industry. The very first collection of Swatch models were launched in 1983. Thanks to a successful advertising campaign and because they were reasonably priced, the watches became an instant hit. Compared to more conventional watches, these Swatch’s were almost 80% cheaper to produce as they consisted of only 51 components, compared with the usual 91.

At the peak of their popularity, Swatch’s were an important part of a number of different 80’s fads, which included wearing one as a ponytail band, with some folks feeling it necessary to wear two Swatches at a time, one on each wrist.

Later on the watches were produced in a multitude of bright colours and designs, which only further increased their popularity amongst the younger generation of watch buyers.

The Rolex Oysterquartz Datejust

At the other end of the scale to the original Swatch watches, the Oysterquartz Datejust was very much Rolex’s battery operated response to the Japanese invasion during the ‘Quartz Crisis’. The design of the watch is quite different from many classic Rolex timepieces, as it features an angular case and integrated band, which is completed with a polished finish.

Despite originally being overlooked somewhat in Europe, the Rolex Oysterquartz proved to be very popular in America and throughout Asia. After going out of production in 2002, this particular quartz movement is much sought after today and is quite a collector’s item.

Breitling Emergency

Now there are plenty of famous quartz timepieces and we couldn’t possibly cover them all in this article. However, another of the more famous quartz watches is the Breitling Emergency, which is arguably the most famous pilots watch ever made. Powered by a SuperQuartz movement that features in a number of other Brietling watches, it is well known for its accuracy and precision.

Besides this, the watch’s standout feature is a built in micro transmitter that can broadcast a signal on the aircraft emergency frequency (121.5 Mhz) by unscrewing the watch’s protective cap and pulling out its antenna. It’s a pretty incredible feature that you probably hope you never have to actually use!

Tissot T17152652 PRC200

A popular men’s quartz watch from 2012 is the Tissot T17152652 PRC200. The attractive design features a 40mm stainless steel case and black leather strap.  The case also incorporates a screw down crown and stainless steel bezel. The watch is water resistant to 200m and scratch resistant sapphire crystal that protects its face.

The black dial offers good readability with its white Arabic numerals and stick indexes. The dial is then brought to life by a yellow seconds hand, which complements the white hour and minute hands. The watch also features a tachymeter scale around its edge.

Forty years on, and as far as the watch industry is concerned, even though they might not like to admit it, quartz is still king.

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Jonathan Fairfield | Website

Jonathan lives and works in Thailand as a writer and English Teacher. He is fanatical about football which makes it all the more strange that he should support Stockport County. In addition to watches, Jonathan has a passion for fitness and nutrition and writes for a blog on the subject.

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