Quartz vs. Automatic Watches: Which Should I Choose?
If you are shopping for a new watch, you are likely to come across the terms quartz and automatic. Both types of watches have clear advantages and disadvantages. Of course, any watch you pick will need to meet your criteria for accuracy, reliability, and performance. It will also need to offer functionality that fits your specific needs and a design that you like. So which type of watch is best? While there is no easy answer to this, we hope this overview will help you make the right choice for your needs.
What is the difference between quartz and automatic watches?
Simply put, a watch needs 3 key elements: a power source to make it work; a timing base to track the passage of time accurately; and a display to allow you to read the time.
A quartz watch has a battery as its power source.
An automatic watch is a type of mechanical watch, made with wheels and levers and springs. It is powered by a large spring (called a mainspring). Modern mechanical watches are mostly “automatic”, which means they have a rotor that spins and winds up the mainspring, whenever you move your wrist. (Mechanical watches can also be “manual wind” models, which require that you wind them at regular intervals, by turning the crown, but these represent a small part of the market, so we will focus on automatic watches for this overview.)
How does a quartz watch work?
In a quartz watch, an electric current from the battery is applied to a small, man-made quartz crystal. When an electric current is applied to it, its “piezoelectric” properties mean that the quartz crystal oscillates at a set frequency (32,768 Hz, or oscillations per second), this gives a highly accurate timing base.
The “brain” of the quartz watch is an IC chip, which counts the oscillations and records 1 second for every 32,768 oscillations.
The watch shows you the time on an analog display (a dial with an hour, minute and second hand), or digital display (numerical, usually LCD).
Do quartz watches need batteries?
Yes, the battery in a quartz watch is typically a silver oxide “button” cell, or sometimes a larger lithium cell. These batteries need regular replacement. Battery life can vary from 1-2 years on a smaller model with a smaller battery to as much as 8-10 years. (e.g. on our M50 watch with its Longlife lithium battery system.) Most quartz watches have a battery life of 2-5 years.
Do automatic watches need batteries?
No. Automatic watches do not require a battery. As mentioned, automatic watches are powered by a spring, which winds automatically as you move. Once the spring is wound up, a sophisticated combination of wheels, levers and springs releases the power of the mainspring at a steady rate. Most good quality automatic watches operate at 6 beats per second (referred to as 21,600 bph or beats per hour). More expensive movements have a higher beat rate, operating at 8 beats per second (28,800 bph), or more. Generally, an automatic movement with a higher beat rate is a little more accurate, consistent, and easier to tune.
Quartz vs automatic: Reliability
As a quartz watch has very few moving parts, it is more shock resistant than an automatic watch.
Quartz vs automatic: Accuracy
Quartz watches use a quartz crystal as a “timing base”, essentially translating 32,768 oscillations into 1 second, by sending a pulse to a “stepping motor” that moves the second hand forward one step every second.
In an automatic watch, a combination of wheels, levers and a fine “hair spring” combine to make an “escapement” mechanism, which releases the power in the wound mainspring at a steady rate of 6 or 8 beats per second.
Quartz watches with their timing base of over 32,000 beats per second are naturally more accurate than an automatic watch, with its timing base of 6 or 8 beats per second. An analogue quartz watch will typically be accurate to +/- 15 or 20 seconds per MONTH on the wrist, so might vary by around ½ second per day. A well-tuned and lubricated automatic watch will be accurate to between -20 to +40 seconds per DAY for a regular movement, or -10 to +30 seconds per day if it has a higher beat movement.
Quartz vs automatic: Performance
A quartz watch will keep time consistently and reliably for many years, requiring only an occasional battery replacement.
While less accurate than a quartz watch, an automatic watch will tend to be most accurate when it is new or freshly tuned, and all the moving parts are lubricated with a fine watchmaking oil. Unlike a quartz watch, which will maintain the same accuracy, as long as it is running, an automatic watch will tend to lose accuracy over time as the fine watchmaking oil used to lubricate it dries out and thickens.
Both quartz and automatic watches are widely considered to be accurate for most practical purposes. However, quartz watches offer more reliable accuracy, because they are consistently accurate to within approximately half a second per day, while automatic watches can be off by a few seconds per day. Accuracy on an automatic watch will also be affected by a variety of factors. E.g. How completely the mainspring is wound; how fresh the lubrication of the moving parts is; what angle the watch is at; and even by large temperature variations. Quartz watches generally run accurately and reliably until the battery runs out: then they stop. As it can be inconvenient if your watch stops suddenly, many new quartz movements feature a low battery indicator, to warn you 1-2 weeks before the battery dies. (This is usually done by making the second hand “stutter”, jumping 2 or 3 seconds every 2 or 3 seconds, instead of jumping at one beat per second. The watch will still keep time, but the second hand stopping, then jumping 2 or 3 seconds is visually very noticeable and lets you know you will need a new battery soon.)
Quartz vs automatic: Maintenance and Cost of Ownership
A quartz watch requires battery changes at regular intervals. This is not expensive, but the costs can add up over time. A simple battery change may cost as little as $10-15, but if you want it done by a qualified watchmaker, using fresh, brand-name replacement batteries, this can cost a little more. If a quartz watch is opened, even for a simple battery change, it is also a good idea to make sure it is resealed and waterproof tested after the battery is installed, particularly if you have a waterproof sports or diving watch. As not many local facilities have expensive waterproof testing machines, this might also mean you need to send your watch away to a suitably equipped service centre, which will add shipping, insurance, and packaging costs to the cost of service.
An automatic watch does not require regular battery changes and unless damaged by abuse or an impact, it will not stop suddenly or unexpectedly. On the other hand, it has a lot of moving parts and, as the oil lubricating the movement dries out and thickens, it will tend to slow down, becoming less accurate over time. The good thing is that this tends to be a gradual process, with the watch slowly becoming less accurate over many months, or even years. Your watch will not just stop suddenly. Most automatic movement makers recommend cleaning, re-lubricating, and tuning automatic movements every 1-2 years. We find that if the movement is sealed in a good, water-tight case, then the lubrication generally dries out very slowly, and a well-tuned watch with a high quality movement can continue to keep accurate time, without any service, for many years, but of course this will vary significantly from one case to another. When service is required, then there are a lot of moving parts to be disassembled, cleaned, re-assembled and tuned, so the service on an automatic watch costs quite a lot more than the service on a quartz watch. (A professional service on an automatic starts at $150-$250, and can be significantly more, depending on the movement.)
The technicalities behind the two types of watches mean that both have some distinctive pros and cons, with reliability, accuracy and performance being just some notable comparison points.
Let’s start with the battery replacement issue. Of course, this can become a nuisance, but apart from giving it some consideration every few years, quartz powered watches are relatively low maintenance.
Automatic watches on the other hand, need to be worn daily, or at least wound daily for them to keep ticking, if they are not worn for a few days, then they will need to be wound and reset to the correct time, whenever you decide to wear them.
Both watch types can be considered reliable in that sense. While batteries require little effort from the wearer, technological advancements in watchmaking have enabled automatic ones to benefit from days-long power reserves. And if you’ll be wearing your watch daily, winding really won’t be an issue.
Quartz watches are also incredibly accurate. Quartz crystals oscillate at a constant frequency when an electric current is run through them, allowing them to boast astonishing accuracy, losing only a few seconds each year.
That said, the extended time on the market of automatic watches has meant manufacturers have really been able to hone their accuracy. Nowadays, automatic watches can achieve an accuracy of within 4-6 seconds each day, though 10-20 seconds per day is more normal.
Some customers who do not fully understand the difference between quartz and automatic, expect automatic watches to be more accurate, just because they tend to cost more, but this is not the case. If you value split-second timing and like to check the time against an atomic clock, quartz is probably the best option for you. Other customers say to us that being 10-20 seconds slow or fast in a day is easily accurate enough for them, as they do not time their day down to the second. This is all a matter of personal preference.
An advantage with quartz watches is that, with more affordable movements, it is possible to find more affordable luxury watch models that are more accessible due to their more cost-effective manufacture and larger production volumes.
But automatic watches remain models of choice for collectors and watch enthusiasts due to the intricate detail that goes into making them tick. One key point that is often not raised is that, as automatic watches are purely mechanical, it is possible to manufacture a single pinion or wheel and make a watch work “like new”, even if the watch is very old, the movement is no longer being made, and no original parts are available. For a quartz watch, the electronics and IC chip are produced in volume, but if technology moves on, the quartz movement is discontinued and replaced by a newer version, and parts like the IC chip are no longer available, then if these parts malfunction or are damaged, it will simply not be possible to repair the watch.
In today’s world, where almost everything is electronic, a product that is purely mechanical holds a special fascination for many people, with no batteries, no IC chip, no plugging it in every night to recharge it, and no software updates.
This table summarizes the key differences between quartz and automatic watches.
|More accurate - 1/2 second per day
|Smooth "sweep" of the second hand is appealing, but can deviate by a few seconds per day.
|Require regular battery changes, but otherwise generally very low cost.
|Can run for several years with no maintenance, especially if worn daily, but servicing is more expensive.
|Will run for a number of years, until the battery dies
|Must be kept wound to keep running
|Mainspring, (self-winding by wearer's movement)
|More expensive, especially for more complex models
|Typically runs accurately until the battery dies.
|Needs to be worn or wound regularly, but if worn daily, will have few issues. Will start to run gradually slower as oil dries and thickens.
|More shock resistant, with few moving parts
|Modern calibres in a good casing are very shockproof, but have a lot more moving parts than quartz watches
|Tend to be lighter, thinner
|Tend to be thicker, heavier
Finally, if you are torn between the simplicity and affordability of a quartz watch, and the fact that automatic watches do not require battery replacement, then we would recommend that you look at solar-powered quartz watches, like our growing collection of Momentum “Eclipse” solar models. These have all the advantages, simplicity and accuracy of quartz watches, but use special rechargeable cells instead of normal batteries. Under the semi-transparent dials are state-of-the-art solar panels, so that any light hitting the dial will constantly re-charge the cell, eliminating the need for regular battery changes and making for impossibly low cost of ownership. A few hours in the sun will charge the watch enough to run for up to 6 months in total darkness, so regular exposure to any kind of light constantly charges the watch and makes it almost like a perpetual motion machine. This eliminates the hassle of sending in your watch for regular service, saves a ton of shipping costs (and related pollution) and means less batteries in our landfills.