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Quartz Watches Bring Big Power Without The Wind

Battery-powered quartz movements are a mainstay in the watch industry nowadays, but that wasn’t always the case.

While battery-powered cars have been a reality for about two decades, and despite being better for day-to-day driving, they’re still a distant second to their gas-powered counterparts. If this were true of battery powered watches (a.k.a. those with quartz movements), the world of watches as we know them today would be completely different. It took less than a decade for the “quartz revolution” to essentially destroy the Swiss mechanical watch industry, and even less time for quartz watches to help revive the companies it fundamentally changed.

That’s why any current brand that’s serious about its customers will usually offer a mix of movements. There will be quartz options for consumers who like affordability but appreciate design and classic complications; for true purists, though, nothing but classic mechanical movements will do. The reason? Most admire the core designs used by most mechanical movements, and the fact that they’ve remained largely unchanged for almost three centuries as the world of technology continued to advance almost hourly. That’s why we offer collections that are both automatic/mechanical and quartz/battery-powered—including a full selection of classic complications like chronographs, moonphase watches, and more.

To understand what “powers” these watches—and their owners today—a bit of history is in order.

The Monaco 933.
The StarSea 3977.
The Northstar 892.

 

 

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A NEW LEVEL OF ACCURACY THAT BEGAN WITH A FORK

When most of us think about the role battery-powered watches play in the history of horology, we think of big names like Seiko and Swatch. Seiko was the brand that gave the world the first quartz watch, after all. They also coined the term “quartz”, which sounds way more impressive than the toylike “battery-powered” used before it.

To understand the jump, you need to understand a bit of the science of the movement. An odd thing happens to quartz when it’s subjected to tension: the microscopic crystals that comprise it begin to vibrate. Not just at any random rate, but at a constant 32,768 times per second. Tracking these vibrations and ensuring the second, hour, and minute hands all have the power to advance after the appropriate number of vibrations is where the battery powered movement comes in.

While Seiko gave the world quartz technology, Swatch made it cool and accessible thanks to a line of fashion-forward products that used centuries of Swiss watchmaking know-how to create a timepiece brand designed (and priced) for true mass appeal.

Quartz movements pack a ton of power without adding bulk, perfect for slim cases like the Cabaletta 3969.

If you want to be truly accurate, though, the inspiration that begat quartz watches actually began in 1866. That’s when Louis-Clement Breguet—grandson of Abraham Louis Breguet, the inventor of the tourbillon and the founder of the brand that still carries his name—integrated a tuning fork into one of the company’s mechanical wall clocks to regulate the movement using the vibrations of the tuning fork instead of the standard balance wheels and pendulums. In theory the idea made sense, but it wasn’t without flaws—like a level of power consumption that made it impossible to envision these time-keepers ever getting small enough to fit on a wrist. In short, keeping the tuning fork and quartz humming demanded a power source that was anything but compact.

94 years later though, it was time for a difference approach.

GOOD VIBRATIONS AND GREAT ACCURACY: MEET THE ACCUTRON

A contraction of ACCUracy and elecTRONic, the Accutron came to market in 1960, beating Seiko to the punch by over half a decade. It was a definite cousin of Breguet’s original design, with over 100 years of innovations including transistors, batteries, and integrated circuit boards coming together to make the move from wall to wrist. This process created a timepiece that was 5 times more accurate than the best certified mechanical chronometers of its era. Impressive to be sure, but nowhere near as impressive as quartz whose accuracy was clocking in at ten times that of chronometers. This enhanced accuracy—along with ironclad IP patents protecting their tuning fork technology—was also the reason the pragmatic folks at Seiko were focusing their resources on the far superior quartz.

Complications like the moonphase dial on the Celestia 897 rely on quartz movements to maintain their accuracy.

Seiko was an older brand than Sony, Panasonic and other up-and-coming Japanese consumer tech brands of the era—but that didn’t stop them from working with these companies and adapting their advancements in design, engineering, and production for timepiece-related applications. This all came together in a rather flawless way on Christmas Day, 1969 when they launched the Astron—the world’s first battery powered, quartz-controlled wristwatch. With engineering that lost less than a minute a year (and despite a $1250 price tag—the equivalent of about $10,000 in 2018), the Astron was more than a world class watch, it was a world class statement like the types that Sony and Panasonic were making against old-line US brands like Zenith, Magnavox, and others.

Instead of embracing the potential of battery-powered watches and adapting their facilities to make the most of it, the Swiss were circled the wagons and looked for ways to fight off a growing movement technology that provided increased accuracy and thinner silhouettes (which also meant more design options), all at a substantially lower cost per movement. By the time they realized the reality of their situation, they almost lost everything—before using it to fund a renaissance for traditional Swiss mechanical watchmaking.

The Lily 995.
The Celestia 898.
The Astraea 3909.

 
 

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SWATCH: THE REASON “SWISS” AND “QUARTZ” CAN APPEAR IN THE SAME SENTENCE

Between 1969 and the early 80s, the Asian-based quartz watch revolution had cost the Swiss watch industry 30% of its highly-skilled workforce. In addition, many of those who survived only did so because they succeeded in convincing the “powers that be” at places like Omega, Longines, Girard-Perregaux, and others to invest in quartz options rather than keep denying the impact it was having on their industry.

Thanks to the limited (though definite) success these ventures were showing, the decision was made to repurpose centuries of production expertise and create a brand that delivered the best of both worlds: legendary Swiss craftsmanship, and a level of precision and accuracy that even the best Swiss mechanical chronometer could never hope to match. The fact that this new brand’s parent was also Switzerland’s third largest watch manufacturer didn’t hurt, as this represented “Swiss cachet”—a pedigree and value add that Asian brands like Seiko couldn’t match.

This new venture, called “Swatch” (from SWiss and wATCH), took off in ways brands like Seiko never imagined. Aside from production know how, Swatch had a world class, international retail infrastructure already in place thanks to their Swiss parents. From jewelry boutiques to department stores, the Swiss had their products everywhere—and “everywhere” was very receptive to a brand with the cachet of Swiss watchmaking and a price point that was would appeal to both new and existing consumers. The people behind Swatch also took a page from their classic brand playbook in terms of marketing with star power. Instead of hiring sports and entertainment icons to simply “endorse” the watch, they commissioned artists like Keith Haring to design limited edition collections—a trend that continues to this day as is evidenced by their recently released Disney/Damien Hirst collaboration.

More than just game changing, Swatch was also industry changing. Its success helped fuel the rebirth of the non-quartz Swiss watch industry as well. Today, the Swatch group is a holding company that owns close to 20 other (mostly old-line) brands in addition to its namesake. The Swatch group represents the likes of Hamilton and Omega, and even marquee brands like Blancpain, Glashutte and Breguet. Yes, the same Breguet that launched the first salvo in the “quartz revolution”—and then ended up saving the very industry it almost destroyed.

While today’s quartz watches function in much the same way as their late 60s predecessors, improvements in technology have allowed manufacturers to engineer timepieces with impossibly thin silhouettes and impressively robust complications and battery life—like those found throughout our Monaco, Symphony, Aviator, and Aquadiver collections. Quartz movements fulfill a variety of functions, all while still delivering a high level of form at prices their mechanical counterparts could never hope to match.

 

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