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Feature: Quartz vs Mechanical

There’s no point dragging this out; mechanical watches are not better than quartz—quite the opposite in fact. Quartz is objectively, categorically—and by a considerable margin—better than mechanical. It’s as simple as that.

It was apparent from the get-go that electronic watches were better than mechanical. Even as early as 1928, when Bell Telephone Labs engineer Warren Morrison discovered that he could keep a steady beat by putting a charge through a quartz crystal, quartz movements have been capable of accuracies of at least one hundred times greater than mechanical.

That’s pretty damning for the mechanical movement, a technology that was supposedly at its peak, developed and refined for centuries and immediately decimated by a prototype made by an employee of a phone company. Of course, Morrison’s device was far too big to wear on the wrist, but still it struck the first chime in the death knell of the mechanical watch.

Compared to a mechanical watch, quartz operates in, surprisingly, much the same way, with power and regulation. Where a mechanical watch uses a spring for power and an escapement for regulation, a quartz watch uses a battery-powered motor and a quartz crystal to do the same job.

It’s thanks to the piezoelectric effect that the quartz movement works at all. It’s like this: deform a quartz crystal and it generates a charge. The reverse is also true: put a charge through a quartz crystal and it deforms. Make that charge continuous and you’ll have an oscillation, a vibration, one that’s uniform enough to set your watch by.

With some electronic trickery, that signal is amplified and sent to a motor, which drives the hands. Quartz watches used to have a high beat like their mechanical brethren, but this used too much battery, so it was decided that one tick per second would do. Makes sense.

And that’s just the beginning: with the ability to build on the processor nestled inside what is, compared to a mechanical movement, a very compact assembly, the options are endless. Want a calendar function? No problem. Hands or a screen? Doesn’t matter. How about a high-beat just for a chronograph, say 1/100th or even 1/1,000th of a second? Easy. Really, the quartz movement makes mechanical unequivocally, unquestionably and undeniably obsolete.

But wait a minute—if quartz were really so much better, then this 2015 platinum limited edition Reverso wouldn’t exist; yet here it is. And not only does it exist, it wears its mechanical movement with pride, skeletonised and visible from both sides of the reversible case. What nonsense is this? To repeat what was said at the beginning: quartz is better than mechanical. Nothing’s changed, so why is this Jaeger-LeCoultre so proud of its inferior technology?

Let’s take a closer look. Quartz has its battery, a small vessel containing an electrolyte liquid sandwiched between two metals, the anode and cathode. It’s a chemical reaction that causes the discharge of electricity, invisible to the naked eye. Mechanical is far more crude: it uses a coiled strip of metal about 50cm long, and … well, that’s it. You can see it tighten as the watch is wound.

Back to the quartz, and the crystal, embedded in a hermetically sealed package just a few millimetres long, resonates imperceptibly, providing a signal to the chip for amplification. It’s so neat and tidy, with minimal moving parts to grind or wear. The battery then sends a charge through a coil, creating a magnetic field that’s translated into the movement of the hands.

To say that the mechanical movement is agricultural by comparison is an understatement. It’s bigger for starters, much bigger, and has multiple moving parts, introducing friction, gravitational discrepancies—not to mention wear. With the drive coming from a series of stepped gears—amplification the quartz can do without a single moving part—an overly complicated chain of events is required to keep the mainspring from splurging its power in one go.

And by complicated, I mean really complicated. See if you can keep up. Power goes from the mainspring through the centre wheel—which drives the hands—to the third wheel, then the fourth wheel—the last and fastest in the chain before the escapement—which drives the escape wheel, whose angled teeth engage with a pivoting, y-shaped piece called the pallet—that’s fitted with ruby jewels to try and reign in the friction caused by the sliding of the two components—one end locking the escape wheel to prevent the mainspring from unwinding while the other knocks the balance wheel, which spins, coils the balance spring, bounces, flicks the pallet back, unlocks the escape wheel—and the process starts all over again.

It’s messy, convoluted, inefficient—and yet, somehow, fascinating. Watching the train of parts mesh and turn and bounce is nothing short of mesmerising, even in its most basic form. There’s something cerebral going on, a primordial itch in the brain that’s scratched by these mechanics, that motionless, electronic components simply just can’t get at. It’s completely counter-intuitive and without reason, and it only becomes more prevalent with complexity; add a chronograph or a calendar and the movement gets bigger and bulkier—and even more satisfying.

If super-intelligent aliens were to discover Earth, it’s this kind of behaviour that would put them off making contact. We have the atomic clock, an orbital space platform, nanotechnology—yet we still derive pleasure from an antiquated mechanism that should have died out half a century ago. So, yes, quartz is unequivocally better than mechanical—we just don’t care!

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