Michael Benavente doesn’t mince words. He is the CEO of the watch brand Bulova. And he calls it all “propaganda”: the ongoing marketing effort that ensures that, if you own a watch with a quartz movement (one, in other words powered by microchip and battery), you aspire to own one with a mechanical movement (one with all those little gears and wheels). And that if you already own a mechanical watch, you almost certainly look down on anything with a quartz movement.
This attitude, he argues, is the product of a deep-seated, reflexive – one might say institutional – fear of quartz. After all, it was the arrival of this technology in the last week of the 1960s that led to what the watch industry still calls ‘the quartz crisis’. This was when this groundbreaking new Japanese technology, which tried to easily emulate many of the very high-end Swiss brands now associated with mechanical timepieces, saw many smaller watch companies go to the wall.
In reality, Benavente argues, there were too many watch companies that didn’t make products distinctive enough; the industry needed a good clean up. But after half a century of austerity, the attachment to mechanical timepieces – and in turn the rejection of quartz – proves impossible to change.
Well, not quite. Quartz movements are still used for some models by big guns such as Omega, Grand Seiko, Breitling, Piaget and Longines. Even elite independent makers like Francois-Paul Journe aren’t so attached to the mechanical movement that they won’t create designs with an electromechanical one instead.
What is the attraction? It’s natural to take advantage of the specific benefits that quartz timepieces offer: not just slimness, with the world’s thinnest watch powered by quartz, but accuracy. The battery produces a current in the circuit, causing a literal piece of quartz to vibrate exactly 32,768 times per second; the circuit counts those 32,768 vibrations and converts them into a one-second electrical pulse. Tick goes your second hand.
That certainly makes the quartz movement a marvel of (relatively) modern technology and design – harnessing the physics that is a property inherent in something found in nature to regulate a display is clearly a impressive scientific achievement. Indeed, if the main purpose of a watch is to tell the time exactly, no mechanical watch will ever come close to a quartz watch.
The problem with it? It’s cheap. That doesn’t mean the watch it’s in is necessarily cheap—those aforementioned Omegas and Grand Seikos can run you thousands. Rather, the quartz timepiece is considered cheap because the technology – which has matured and become more accessible and affordable, as all new technology eventually does – can also be found in “disposable”, promotional, novelty or £10 kids watches. That’s a hard picture to shake off, especially when there’s a superpower industry, like Swiss watchmaking, that’s so invested in maintaining that negative perception.
That’s also why some have suggested that quartz needs a new name: For example, replace “quartz” with “electric oscillator,” as Fears has done, and it suddenly sounds a lot sexier, much more appealing science – a twist the creators have done. of combustion cars with an engine have also learned to use in recent years. It would be a quick way for us to re-evaluate what a miniature marvel the quartz movement really is.
That is, of course, if you really care about what powers your watch. One of the mind-boggling features of the Swiss watch industry is how fixated it is on what’s going on inside your watch, sometimes at the expense of the design of the case it contains and the dial that expresses its action. The Swiss watch industry is obsessed with the intricacies of its mechanical timepieces, sometimes forgetting that our relationship with our watches from day to day, moment to moment, is with how they look.
In the same way that we have a romantic attachment to the history of the maker of a movement or to the excellence of his handiwork, we can also have a romantic vision of those buzzing little gears and wheels beneath them. Still, we can’t see any of it happening (unless our watch has a viewing window on the back). What we are really attached to is the look of our watch. And that has become all the more the case as mechanical watches have crossed the line from the realm of specialist interest to a part of fashion. In many ways, that was the genius of Swatch – a quartz watch that puts all the emphasis on style.
Indeed, just as mind-boggling is that in almost every other aspect of life we privilege the most advanced, the technologically brightest. We are constantly upgrading and swapping for the newer model. As such, holding onto mechanical timepieces in watches is starting to feel more like nostalgia – and nostalgia is usually experienced by individuals as a longing for a time they almost always never experienced. That’s why some love their vinyl records in the age of streaming, why others love the growl and smell of a combustion engine in the age of electric vehicles. The former are, against the latter, extremely clumsy, inefficient and cumbersome. But for some, despite all that, they have an unspeakable appeal. Could the same be said about the mechanical movement in watches?
Ironically, that nostalgia often comes with a good dose of snobbery: Despite their shortcomings, these technologies are somehow considered superior to their shiny, compact, modern alternatives. There is a perceived coolness to them, an exclusive clubbingness in their appreciation. The particular problem for watches, however, is that technology has made such a quantum leap that, beyond perhaps the age-old appreciation for something well-made, the mechanical watch looks increasingly odd.
Strangely enough, instead of embracing these inefficiencies, accepting them as a simple fact that comes with outdated technology, there is an arms race within the high-end watch industry to make increasingly precise mechanical watches – that is, in some sense to compete with quartz . It is a battle that can never be won. And it’s the wrong battlefield to fight on in the first place. Yes, it would undoubtedly be a modern-day wonder if someone could build a mechanical device with something approaching the processing power of a laptop. But what, would it be fair to ask, would be the point? After all, the same differences between mechanical and non-mechanical will only increase after the arrival of the smartwatch.
It is indeed interesting how the smartwatch does not carry the same stigma. Why? Because at this early stage of their existence, smartwatches embody modernity, like quartz once did. That’s why so many mechanical watch enthusiasts also wear a smartwatch, sometimes even at the same time.
And therein lies perhaps the answer to this division between mechanical and quartz: better instead to accept both approaches and enjoy them for what they are, rather than favor one over the other. And guess what, this is what many serious watch collectors already do.
As Benevente argues, the idea that people who really love watches grow beyond quartz and never go back is a pure myth. On the contrary, the Swiss industry may present the idea that this is what you should do – move from quartz to mechanical as your tastes become more sophisticated – but in reality there is another stage where the watch fan appreciates each watch on its own merits. For example, a Patek Philippe can no more be compared to say a Casio G-Shock, than a Rolls Royce can be compared to a Humvee just because they both have four wheels. That’s worth remembering the next time you’re tempted to spot something without a big seconds hand.