Review: Three Quartz Watches You Should Like
Even if you've only been interested in watches a short while, you'll likely already know that mechanical is king. It's traditional, exceptional, nostalgic; a far cry from the cold, industrial efficiency of quartz. Quartz watches nearly destroyed traditional watchmaking after all, and is the bastion of the cheap, plastic digital watch that took over the industry in the 1970s.
But what if I told you there were quartz watches you should like? Bear with me here. Let's take a look at three watches that will make you change your mind about quartz.
Rolex Oysterquartz 17000
Let's start at the start. In 1928, Warren Morrison of Bell Labs revealed that the natural frequency of a quartz crystal could be used to keep time in a clock to an accuracy hundreds of times greater than a traditional mechanical movement. His quartz device was too big to be used in a watch, but as technology always does, it began to shrink as time went by. 34 years later and it had become small enough to give the Swiss enough concern to establish the Centre Electronique Horloger—the Centre for Electronic Watchmaking—to study this new technology and develop something of its own.
The luxury quartz watch from Rolex
That something was the Beta-1 prototype, which was closely followed by Japan's repost—the Seiko Astron. At this point, quartz was considered highly advanced and desirable, and that was something Rolex wanted to get in on. The Beta-1 was developed into the production Beta-21, which appeared in Rolex's first quartz watch, the 5100.
Big, bold and very seventies, the all-gold 5100 was the dawn of a new era for Rolex. But the Beta-21 was not without its problems—size being one of them–and so Rolex took the opportunity to develop its own quartz movement, the calibre 5035. The Oysterquartz was the watch that got that movement.
The calibre 5035 is one of the most impressive quartz movements ever
Its Royal Oak-esque styling is unlike anything else made by the brand (5100 aside), and the movement is decorated with the same attention to detail as its mechanical counterparts. Actually, that's not quite right; it was finished to a higher standard.
Manufactured for over a quarter of a century, yet with production only numbered at some 25,000, the Oysterquartz was one of Rolex's least successful watches. When the floodgates were opened on cheap quartz watches from the Far East, the technology lost its appeal, making the Oysterquartz one of the very few proper luxury quartz watches.
Breitling Emergency E76321
This is a quartz watch, just like the others here, however there's a line in the instructions that you won't see anywhere else: "The owner is exclusively liable for any consequences (including prosecution) of misuse."
The watch for adventurers, thanks to the emergency beacon built in
Sounds needlessly severe until you find out that this Breitling Emergency carries on board a 121.5 MHz transmitter that can beam a distress signal up to 400 kilometres away. The single-use aerial—designed so on purpose to discourage abuse—unscrews from the lower cylinder and extends arm's length to broadcast in an emergency. There's also a secondary aerial at the top for a signal boost when deployed vertically.
This is the real deal. Use this and you'll have a search-and-rescue team turn up at your door, Sea King buzzing overhead. That's why Breitling is so insistent on placing the responsibility squarely onto the owner. Helicopters don't come cheap.
The 121.5 MHz transmitter has a secret morse code 'B' in the signal
Use it properly, however, and Breitling will bring your watch back to new for free. Simply cut the antennae or wrap it around the case to short it once you've been rescued and you're good to go. And the bods at Breitling will know that one of their watches has been activated, because buried in the emergency signal is the Morse code for 'B'.
Since the Emergency was launched, the 121.5 MHz frequency has been replaced by the more accurate 406 MHz, however both are still monitored, which still makes the Emergency a great backup tool for the more adventurous outdoorsy types. Breitling has also recently released an updated Emergency II that caters for the new frequency.
Omega Speedmaster X-33 3291.50.00
While this is the furthest removed of the three watches from the traditional mechanical timepiece, it could be argued that it's the most important. Ever since astronaut Wally Schirra wore his CK2998 Speedmaster during the 1962 Mercury-Atlas 8 mission has Omega been closely associated with space travel, and the X-33 is no different.
Built to give astronauts additional functionality over the Speedmaster
This futuristic watch was unveiled in no less than space itself, on board the Russian MIR space station where testing had been undertaken. Developed by Omega alongside Apollo 10 astronaut General Thomas Stafford, the X-33 was never designed to actually replace the Speedmaster, only supplement it with additional functionality, the mechanical composition of the Moonwatch more resilient to the extremes of space.
Where the X-33 could be no replacement for the older generation Speedmaster, its namesake, the Lockheed Martin X-33 suborbital spaceplane prototype, failed completely to replace the shuttle. The plane was eventually discontinued, with transport to and from space falling to the ageing Russian Soyuz rockets, which, like the Moonwatch, was a throwback to the sixties.
The full size ana-digi display makes this the least traditional watch here
The X-33 watch fared better than the X-33 space plane, however, entering active use with both NASA and the ESA in 1998. Testing was rigorous, including an unplanned MiG-15 fast jet crash that occurred outside of the safety perimeters for ejection. While the pilot suffered, amongst other injuries, a broken back, and his plane was rendered a complete wreck, the X-33 prototype he was wearing continued to function without fault.
On the International Space Station, the X-33 has become as much of a staple as any other piece of equipment. While the watch was discontinued for civilian customers in 2006 for a brief period, it continued to serve pilots and astronauts alike. You can even find videos of astronaut Don Pettit carefully performing a field repair of his X-33 on board the ISS. Who knows—there could be a few X-33s up there right now.
Yeah, mechanical watches rule the roost when it comes to watchmaking, but quartz has its place, too. From Warren Morrison's first quartz clock to the workhorse Omega X-33, quartz watches fulfil a professional role that requires more precision and more functionality than afforded by traditional movements, and that should be acknowledged. Perhaps if a quartz movement looked as good as a Lange chronograph, we'd all be singing a different tune ...
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