What’s The Difference: Quartz Vs. Mechanical Watch Movements

The inner workings of wristwatches are complicated, to say the least. And the terminology used within the horological world can seem similarly daunting. Often, it feels like a secret club where only those with an in understand what is going on. We don’t think it has to be that way, however. Hence, our ongoing series on different watch complications.

This article, however, looks to take a stab at something a little more overarching than the additional functions of watches – the differences between two of the major categories of watch movements. If you’ve ever heard it mentioned that a watch is either mechanical or quartz-powered and you weren’t sure what that means, this is the piece for you. In the following article we will break down what exactly those two categories of watch movements are, how to tell the difference, and even delve into some of their sub-categories.

Beneath The Hood

Nuts & Bolts

The defining difference between mechanical and quartz watches is the manner by which their movements operate and their power source. The defining difference between mechanical and quartz watches is the manner by which their movements operate.This intrinsic difference also stretches across all of the other functions and complications, as well as defines the very value of the timepiece (in most cases). While it would take a horological expert to truly explain all of the differences between the two, the following definitions should do well to give you an idea of what distinguishes one from the other.

Mechanical

The original watch movement, mechanical watches feature no battery of any kind within their construction. Rather, they get their energy from a wound spring. This spring, once tightened, comes unwound in regular increments that can be measured as – you guessed it – time. While these watches are quite sophisticated, they are not without their drawbacks. For instance, they only keep time for a set period before needing to be re-wound (generally by rotating the attached crown). Now, this has been somewhat circumvented with the invention of automatic mechanical movements, but even these self-winding watches require a tune-up every so often to ensure that their mechanisms, gears, and springs are all in tip-top shape and remain accurate.

Quartz

Invented in the 1960s, quartz watches use a vastly different source of power. Rather than operating with a wound spring, they use a battery to vibrate a quartz crystal. Like the unwinding of a spring, these vibrations are then measured as fragments of time. The benefit to quartz watches is that they are absurdly accurate, more so than their classic mechanical counterparts. In fact, they lose as little time as a half-second per day. Now, they aren’t infallible and still require maintenance for their accuracy to be kept in check, but that is balanced out by their longevity and inexpensiveness.

The Second Hand

Watch It Tick

There is one surefire way to tell the difference between a quartz and mechanical watch – so long as you can actually observe the dial of a functional watch. All you have to do is watch the second hand – no pun intended. With mechanical watches, the movement around the dial is more fluid – All you have to do is observe the second hand.either a smooth sweeping motion or a number of tiny ticks that don’t directly line up with the seconds around the outside of the dial. By contrast, quartz watches look jerky and deliberate – typically with each second marked by a pause and then a jump to the next. So, if you’re trying to tell the difference just by watching the movement, remember that mechanical movements sweep, whereas quartz ones jump.

Other Movements

Begging The Question

To the hardcore watch enthusiast, the distinction between sub-categories might seem as obvious as the sun in the sky. But, to the rest of the world, terminology in the horological world can get a big murky. As such, we feel is necessary to point out the differences between some of the sub-categories of different types of movements.

Manual

Patek Phillipe Calatrava Manual Watch ($19,495)

The original mechanical watch, manual movement timepieces require the user to wind them – typically by rotating the crown – at regular intervals. The rotation of the winder will, in turn, tighten up the spring within the movement that causes the hand to move and, therefore, re-energize the watch to continue ticking until the tension in the spring has again run its course.

Automatic

Hamilton Khaki King Automatic Watch ($349)

These watches fall under the umbrella of mechanical movements. The big difference between an automatic and a manual mechanical watch is pretty simple. You see, a non-automatic watch will require the watch to be deliberately wound at regular intervals, whereas the mechanisms within an automatic cause the watch to self-wind as a result of the natural movement of the wearer. Without motion, these watches will stop – but so long as the watch is worn at regular intervals, it will keep right on ticking.

Kinetic

Seiko 5 Sports Kinetic Watch ($157)

Not to be confused with automatic movements, kinetic watches are actually quartz-powered movements that absorb motion energy and transfer it to an onboard battery. That battery, of course, goes on to keep the watch ticking. This watch is probably the closest thing to a hybridization of both automatic and quartz watches, but the battery will still eventually degrade and require replacement – even though it can be recharged many times.

Solar

Casio G-Shock MT-G Solar Watch ($735)

Not entirely dissimilar to kinetic movements, solar watches use the same principle. That is, they are quartz-driven watches that also function to utilize the power of the sun to recharge the onboard battery. In another similarity to kinetics, these watches have a battery that will degrade over time and repeated recharges and eventually require replacement.

Other Identifiers

How To Tell

Perhaps the most obvious way to tell whether a watch features a quartz or mechanical movement is to check the specifications – provided either by the brand or the retailer. If it’s not immediately presented, there are still other ways. For instance, mechanical watches tend to be on the more expensive side of the spectrum. That’s not to say that there aren’t reasonably priced mechanical watches out thereWatchmaking is an art and, as such, watch makers take pride in their craft. – as there are plenty within a reasonable budget – but you can certainly assume that the more expensive wearable timepieces in a brand’s catalogue are mechanical.

Another fairly simple way is to check the dial and/or the watch case. Watchmaking is an art and, as such, watch makers take pride in their craft. That means, most often, you’ll find the type of watch inscribed somewhere on the surface of the instrument. If a watch doesn’t have any inscription on it, the likelihood is that it’s a quartz movement. This is not a 100% reliable means of telling the difference, as some watch makers may very well choose a clean aesthetic over pride, but those examples are much fewer and farther between.

Of course, as a last resort, you can always open the watch up. If the guts of the watch has a tiny battery situated inside of it, then you have your answer: it’s a quartz. Still, we can’t reiterate the importance of knowing what you’re looking at before making a purchase enough – as the answer isn’t always clear. Take someone’s word for it and there’s a chance you’ll be overpaying for something that isn’t being delivered. As always, do a bit of research and you can better make an informed decision as to which type of watch is best for you.

40 Best Watches For Any Budget

Whether you’re looking for quartz or mechanical, aviation or racing, standard or chronograph, you’ll find the perfect watch on our list of the best watches for any budget.

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