Automatic Vs. Quartz Watches – What’s The Difference?

Automatic Vs. Quartz Watches – What’s The Difference?

‘What is the difference between a mechanical and quartz movement?’ A very common question among those starting to dive deeper into the world of watches.

Quartz and mechanical are two of the most popular types of watch movements. Quartz is a battery powered movement that uses an electrical charge to power the watch. It is more accurate and more popular than mechanical movements. Mechanical movements are powered by a tightly wound hairspring that tightens when wound and slowly releases over time, causing the watch parts to rotate and power the watch.

How does a Quartz watch work? 

Quartz watches consist of four primary components:

  1. Battery
  2. Quartz crystal
  3. Microchip
  4. Motor

The quartz crystal is known as a piezoelectric material. When a piezoelectric material is subject to mechanical stress, such as bending, it acquires an electrical charge. If a quartz movement is provided an electrical charge, it’ll vibrate. The amount it vibrates depends on the size and shape of the quartz crystal. The energy of this vibration is then transmitted to the microchip in the watch.

The microchip is programmed to power the motor of the second hand once every second. This is why you’ll see most quartz watches with a seconds hand ticking only once every second, while most mechanical watches tick way more. More about that in the next section.

Quartz movement (left) & automatic mechanical NH35a movement (right)

How does a Mechanical Watch Work?

As a mechanical watch is powered, through being wound in the case of a hand winding watch, or worn if it’s an automatic. This then winds the balance wheel, a small, tightly wound hairspring that keeps a beat inside of the movement by oscillating back and forth. As this wheel moves back and forth, it’s regularly allowing and disallowing what’s called the escape wheel to engage and stop.

Each engagement of this escape wheel starting and stopping causes the second hand to sweep once every fraction of a second. Some refer to this as the “smooth second-hand sweep” you see in many automatic watches. This is usually not perfectly smooth sweep, but rather, it sweeps so many times per second (usually at least 6, or more, in higher end watch movements), that our eyes perceive it as almost perfectly smooth.

Automatic vs. Handwinding Watch

Mechanical timepieces will always be either an automatic or hand winding watch and sometimes both.

A hand winding watch is powered by turning the crown to tighten the spring, giving it power for a certain amount of time, depending on the watch’s power reserve, aka the amount of time a manual watch can run when manually wound fully. The average power reserve is somewhere around 40 hours, more or less.   

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak With Automatic Movement by Openworked

An automatic watch, on the other hand, uses a weighted rotor which turns as the wearer moves. This then powers the spring just as it would in a hand wound watch. A mechanical watch doesn’t exclusively one or the other, it can have both features.

Some watches such as the Seiko SKX007 are strictly powered by the automatic movement and don’t have hand winding capabilities. This means you can only power it through wearing it, or by giving it a decently firm shake, powering the springs. The Orient Ray and Mako II, on the other hand, have both automatic and a hand winding watch features, it can be powered either way. In fact, I’d argue the Orient Ray and Mako are a couple of the best mechanical hand-winding watches you can buy at an entry-level price, it costs even less than the SKX!

Neither hacking nor hand-winding is particularly “better”, it’s just a matter of preference. Some enjoy the feeling of connection with a timepiece when manually hand winding a mechanical watch, while others couldn’t care less, and prefer the convenience of an automatic.

Read more about hacking and handwinding here.

Quartz vs Mechanical Watch – Which Should You Buy?

When contemplating whether you want a watch with quartz or mechanical movement, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of each.

Pros and Cons of Quartz Watches

Quartz watches tend to be more affordable, even when compared to their otherwise similar mechanical watch counterpart. They can go a lot longer without a servicing since they rely on an electronic circuit board in cooperation with a few mechanical pieces, so there’s less likelihood of a point of failure.

Read more about getting your watch serviced.

Quartz Watches are Battery Powered

Unlike mechanicals, quartz watches are powered via a battery. This could be a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it. The battery in a quartz watch will need to be replaced every couple of years. It’s relatively easy and affordable if you go to a jeweler, but you could easily do it yourself if you have the ambition and the right tools for the job.

Having to replace batteries too often can become a bit of a nuisance once you start to build up a large collection. Mechanical watches on the other hand, never need a battery, but they’ll require services more often. Definitely something to consider.

This also means a Quartz watch will NEVER stop running, for years and years, until the battery dies. Most mechanical watches have a maximum power reserve of about 40 hours before they stop if not given any power. Of course, they don’t stop forever once they’ve expended their power reserve, but they’ll stop running until you give them power again. This can become a nuisance since you’ll have to adjust the time on the watch every single time the power drains. Some watch enthusiasts enjoy this ritual, however.

One of the biggest benefits of Quartz watches is its accuracy. Even when compared to some of the finest and most expensive luxury mechanical watches, Quartz watches are usually precise down to a millisecond, while mechanical watches are usually off by at least a couple of seconds, by the end of each day.

Quartz movements are generally a lot more compact, allowing for them to be manufactured much slimmer, providing a usually more “classy” look. The quartz variants of the popular Cartier Tank has some models that are only 5mm thick.

Sounds great, right? After reading all the amazing benefits of a quartz watch, why is it that most collectors and enthusiasts tend to prefer mechanical watches vs. quartz watches?

Breakdown of an IWC 7750 automatic movement by watchmaker_carregalo

Why Do Watch Collectors Prefer Mechanical Watches?

Back before cell phones and modern technology, when traditional clocks and watches were some of the only ways to measure time, they were seen as tools. Since quartz watches have become so cheap and easy to manufacture the past few decades, the market has become completely oversaturated with them, making them cheaper and less rare. Over 90% of watches on the market today are quartz watches.

Between the rise in popularity and affordability of quartz watches and the fact that most of all of us carry a phone with us at all times, it has reshaped people’s outlook on mechanical watches. Watches are now viewed as a luxury rather than a necessary tool.

Watch enthusiasts such as myself tend to enjoy mechanical watches not because of the time they keep, but because of their aesthetic and the history behind them. I love the feeling of knowing my watch is powered by a series of mechanical parts, almost as if I was wearing a car on my wrist, or any other compact and well-engineered piece of machinery I can carry with me at all times. There’s also something very cool about knowing it’s your movement that’s powering the timepiece on your wrist, or the feeling of the spring tightening while manually winding the crown of your hand winding watch. Some even feel the process is therapeutic. 

If you’re just looking for something that is cheap and keeps perfectly accurate time, there’s nothing at all wrong with buying a quartz watch. There are tons of awesome quartz watches across all budgets.

If you just want a basic watch that keeps great time and looks great, I recommend the Timex Weekender. It’s not a Rolex, but it’s simple and clean and looks amazing on almost any strap you want to put it on.

However, if you’re fascinated by the idea of wearing a literal functioning mechanical machine on your wrist, a little work of art, then try out a cheap automatic watch to see if it’s right for you. My recommendation?

My vintage Seiko 5 SNXS79 with an automatic Seiko 7S26 movement

What’s a Good Automatic Watch to Start With?

If you’re on a budget and want to dip your toes in the world of mechanical watches, there’s no better place to start than the line of Seiko 5 watches.

Amazing bang for your buck in terms of specifications and quality. Seiko is known for building watches that can last for decades. Not to mention the sheer amount of variety of styles and colors.

The Seiko 5 line is one of the best cheap automatic watches for men or women you can buy. Want something a little rougher and tougher? Check out the Orient Ray and Mako watches. They’re a few bucks more than most Seiko 5 watches, but they’re also a step up in quality. So much so, we’ve mentioned them in our roundup of the best dive watches. Of course, like most things, when increasing your budget, the sky is the limit. Some of the most expensive watches ever made are mechanical. But these will be a great starting point

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