It was the best of time, it was the worst of time – one watch using the vibrations of synthetic stone to keep perfect time, the other using antiquated technology that needs constant maintenance and rewinding.
But people often pay thousands more for the latter.
Like Dickens’ Two Cities, quartz and mechanical watches are similar in function but the movement, price and purpose of both are quite different.
Quartz watches are simple, efficient, and mostly inexpensive. They keep accurate time and only need the occasional battery replacement for maintenance. A quality quartz watch is sleek and functional – they have traveled from the depths of the sea all the way into outer space, being the first watch to fly to the moon.
A quartz watch movement uses modern technology to power the hands of the timepiece. The battery sends small jolts of electricity into a tiny quartz crystal, causing the crystal to vibrate. These vibrations provide consistent power to the watch, allowing for near-perfect timekeeping (losing only about a minute a year). This precise movement is paramount for military personnel, whose operations are centered on exact timing.
To identify a quartz watch, simply look at the second hand. Individual ticks, rather than a sweeping motion, are the key giveaway.
Unlike their battery-powered counterparts, mechanical watches rely on pure mechanics to move the hands. This technology has been around for centuries and is still not perfect, but affluent consumers will often pay thousands for a mechanical watch. Simply put, the purpose of a luxury mechanical watch is to have something nice to look at and showcase to others; telling time is not the highest priority.
The allure of a pricey mechanical watch is the sheer novelty of the design - prestigious Swiss watchmakers often make complex mechanical movements as an art form in their craft. A unique, catchy movement is valuable to the true watch enthusiast.
There are two kinds of movements used in mechanical watches: the first is a manual movement, which derives energy from a wound spring. This energy is slowly transferred through the gears to power the hands of the watch. The mechanics are easily seen if the watch has a “skeletal” movement. The wearer is responsible for winding the watch every 24 hours to keep the time and complications consistent.
Automatic movement is very similar, but it doesn't require the wearer to turn a crown to wind. Instead, a semi-circular plate, called a rotor, spins around the center of the watch whenever the watch moves (i.e. when the wearer reaches for something). This allows for the watch to wind itself, and will stay continually wound so long as there is movement to feed it.
Mechanical movement doesn't make a watch a “far, far better thing” than a quartz movement – it’s just a different mechanism that fits a different style.