They both tick; one quite frequently and the other less so. We’re talking, of course, about mechanical and quartz watches. But how can you tell them apart?
Whether powered mechanically or with quartz, we use watches to tell the time. The main differences only appear when you take a look inside. Mechanical watches are the more classic version and, generally speaking, function today as they did 100 years ago.
Every watch requires some form of energy storage. In a mechanical watch, this is usually achieved with a spring located inside a barrel. The length of the spring determines the watch’s power reserve, which is how long a watch can operate before it runs out of energy and stops. Most models have a power reserve of around 40 hours, though power reserves of multiple days or even weeks are not unheard of.
Without going into too much detail, a system of gears transfers the energy to the oscillation system. This is the true beating heart of every watch and is what sets it in motion. In mechanical wristwatches, the oscillation system is usually composed of a balance, an escapement wheel, and a lever. The interplay between these components is what is responsible for the ticking sound—the higher the balance frequency, the faster the tick. The second hand also glides more smoothly as the frequency increases. Most mechanical watches have a frequency of 28,800 alternations per hour (A/h), or the equivalent of 4 Hz.
Quartz watches feature an entirely different mechanism. Most use a battery to store their energy. If the battery isn’t rechargeable, it can power a watch for several years before you have to put in a new one.
A small quartz crystal powers these watches. It begins vibrating as soon as electricity runs through it, which is referred to as an inverse piezoelectric effect. The shape of the quartz crystal often resembles that of a tuning fork. It usually vibrates at a frequency of 32,768 Hz. This significantly higher frequency is why quartz watches are so much more accurate than mechanical timepieces.
A circuit divides the frequency in two until it reaches an electric pulse of one second. This is also why the second hand ticks forward once per second. If the watch lacks hands, the time is usually displayed digitally using LCD screens.
Quartz watches offer many advantages: They’re affordable, accurate, and relatively long-lasting. Many models sell for as little as $100, deviate by only 30 seconds a month, and have batteries that last around 1-2 years.
That being said, you have to throw out the dead batteries and replace them with new ones. This not only harms the environment, but also has adverse effects on your watch’s water resistance. Once you remove the case back to change the battery, the indicated water resistance is no longer guaranteed. At this point, it is advisable to have your watch’s water resistance checked.
Quartz watches with solar cells charge themselves using the power of the sun, thus eliminating the need to regularly change the battery. Even so, the energy storage still has a limited lifespan and will eventually need to be changed.
What’s more, most quartz watches don’t make good investments. By paying such a small sum for a new wristwatch, the likelihood of it increasing in value is slim at best. This is why you can find quartz watches that would have cost a few hundred dollars a couple years ago at extremely affordable prices.
Mechanical watches never run out of energy as long as you wind them regularly. This type of watch works completely without batteries and is much more environmentally friendly. You can also go for years without opening the case back. However, it is worth seeing a watchmaker every 5-10 years since the small components wear down over time. The greases and oils can also crystallize, especially when the watch is left sitting for longer periods of time. At the tune-up, the watchmaker will inspect the whole watch, clean the movement, and apply new grease and oil.
You will have to make some sacrifices when it comes to accuracy. Even chronometer-certified watches, which are exceptionally accurate, can deviate by +6/-4 seconds per day. This adds up to +42/-28 seconds per week. Compared to quartz watches, they obviously fall short in this category.
That said, each mechanical watch has the same charm inherent in all hand-crafted items. This charm carries with it a certain nostalgia that fascinates many watch fans. It has also contributed to the recent boom in interest in mechanical watches, which has resulted in ever-increasing prices.
Intricate timepieces from Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Vacheron Constantin contain high levels of craftsmanship. This affects both their desirability and, of course, their prices. Industrial production methods are used for affordable models from other manufacturers. However, in the last century, little has changed about the basic principles of mechanical watches.
Generally speaking, mechanical watches can be split into two basic groups: watches with manual calibers and those with automatic calibers. The latter features a winding system that winds the watch automatically while it is being worn. This system usually includes a rotor that swings back and forth as the wrist moves, thus winding the spring. This means you don’t have to remember to wind your watch by hand every few days, as is the case with manual watches. Theoretically speaking, an automatic watch can run perpetually as long as you wear it every day.