What Is Quartz Movement In A Watch?

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I’m sure you’ve all seen wall clocks with “quartz” stamped on them.

When I was young and clearly uninterested in the matter, I thought this strange German-like word meant nothing more than a simple trademark. It was on every other clock, so it must have been!

But big was my surprise when I realized it stood for a movement mechanism, not a clock brand. Besides typical wall clocks, loads of wristwatches had it as well, which instantly raised questions, like what is quartz movement in a watch, how it works, and why it’s everywhere.

In the following post, you’ll receive answers to these and many more questions that typically arise when searching for this type of wristwatch.

what is quartz movement in a watch

The Core of Quartz Movement

The whole movement comes down to a tiny piece of crystalline mineral of quartz that possesses piezoelectric attributes.

“Piezoelectric” means that quartz accumulates electrical charge in response to applied mechanical stress. Thus, the quartz movement works solely on electrical power, unlike the mechanical counterpart, which is powered by mechanical energy. 

Quartz movement is widely used, mainly due to accuracy and affordability. It contains few moving parts and requires minimal maintenance, aside from the battery replacements. It’s a movement you can find from any price category, from a cheap 20-dollar to a 1,000$ beauty. 

The accuracy of a movement is difficult to achieve. Some mechanical watches, for example, go through a rigid and expensive procedure before receiving a similar accuracy level as the quartz equivalent.

Hence, the attributes of quartz mineral in combination with the technology built around it make quartz watches one-of-a-kind precision beasts. So, why not peak into its working mechanism to understand the hype surrounding the movement?

How Does Quartz Movement Work?

Quartz movement utilizes a battery to power a watch. A battery sends an electrical signal through a small crystal quartz oscillator, which, in turn, starts to vibrate 32,768 times per second with a precise frequency. The electrical circuit then measures the vibrations and converts them into a single pulse every second, thus making the hands move.

The quartz oscillator is pretty easy to recognize from the mechanism – it has the shape of a tuning fork. For providing the required frequency of 32,768, the quartz crystal has to be accurately shaped and positioned.

Quartz crystal oscillator in the shape of a tuning fork
Quartz crystal oscillator

But why precisely 32,768 Hz? The frequency is a power of two value – 32,768/215=1 second, which is a perfect compromise between low frequency and convenient manufacture providing the accuracy needed.

Lower and higher frequency oscillators take more space or cost substantially more, which makes them unsuitable for the cause.

The Quartz movement is highly appreciated and exploited due to the unparalleled pros it has over the other watch movements. However, not a single virtue exists without having some kind of disadvantages.

Pros & Cons of Quartz Movement

The accuracy that a quartz movement presents is beyond comparison, establishing the most substantial advantage over the others.

A typical quartz wristwatch gains or loses around 15 seconds per month, or less than half a second a day. When converting this to an even more tangible illustration, the gain or loss is about three minutes a year.

It’s a discrepancy the majority of us notice, so correcting a quartz watch once a year is common. Comparing it to typical mechanical watches that need adjusting the same gap once or twice a month, not a year, we understand the hype over the accuracy of quartz movement.

Affordability is another factor in favor of the movement. One of the reasons that have helped to minimize the cost is the development of solid-state electronics, also known as semiconductor electronics. The technology-aided watch industry is manufacturing more compact, thus inexpensive quartz timekeeping mechanisms.

The fact a quartz timepiece doesn’t need intricate gear and wheel systems and can be mass-produced is also a reason for its low cost. 

The simple construction of the mechanism takes us to other advantages – low maintenance and convenience.

While mechanical watches consist of multiple gears that need cleaning and oiling, a typical quartz wristwatch doesn’t require much upkeep. Except for the battery replacement, of course, which leads us to the primary concern dealing with quartz movement.

An ordinary quartz watch requires battery replacement every 24-36 months, depending on usage and battery quality.

Although the majority of wearers don’t consider it a problem, it’s still an engagement you’d want to avoid. In that sense, timepieces without the concern, such as solar-powered and kinetic watches, offer more carefree handling. 

Another con on quartz’s side is the demand for disposable batteries for the movement.

The manufacturing process emits greenhouse gases and is not considered eco-friendly. Although there is some hope for environmentally friendly battery production in the coming years, the developments of technologies won’t come easily and quickly. 

loads of quartz watch batteries around a golden watch

Though the simplicity of the quartz mechanism creates multiple pros, there is a group of people who appreciate intricate craftsmanship over the cheapness and modesty. Mass-produced goods usually don’t hold value and are considered mainstream.

Quite often, the cheapness causes a conception that the less something costs, the fewer specialty it provides. Of course, it comes down to the individual perception of the matter depending widely on personal beliefs.

High Accuracy Quartz (HAQ)

Quartz movement is very accurate but still not as much as some would like. HAQ watches offer about 10 seconds of deviation a year, which is more than 15-20 times better than typical quartz movements provide.

The accuracy is achieved primarily through a technology that compensates the effect of temperature variations – the main factor affecting the accuracy of quartz. HAQ watches cost significantly more than typical quartz timepieces.

In 2019, Citizen presented the most accurate quartz movement ever – Caliber 0100 can keep the phenomenal rate of one second (!) per year. With this movement, you can forget any time correction whatsoever!

As the technology keeps advancing with every passing year, it’s only a matter of time before atomic precision in non-radio-controlled watches becomes a norm. 

To get a better glimpse of the evolution a quartz mechanism watch has gone through over the decades, we have to peak into the milestones on the way.

9 milestones in the Evolution of Quartz Watches

what is quartz movement in a watch

✔️ 1880 – Pierre and Jacques Curie discover piezoelectric properties of quartz. It remains a laboratory curiosity for the next decades.

✔️ 1921 – American physicist Walter G. Cady builds the first quartz crystal oscillator that can control frequencies. He soon realizes that such circuits could be useful as frequency standards.

✔️ 1927 – Warren Marrison and J. W. Horton build the first quartz clock. The bulky and gentle electronics that was constructed with vacuum tubes was a laboratory technology and hindered the chances for public use.

✔️ 1960s – Solid-state electronics (or, semiconductor) start to replace energy-hungry and bulky vacuum tubes, which offers the possibility to produce portable energy-dependant appliances.

✔️ 1967 – The Beta 1 and Astron become the prototypes of analog quartz wristwatches.

✔️ 1969 – Seiko produces the first commercial quartz watch – Seiko-Quartz Astron 35SQ. It has a frequency of 8,198 Hz and is accurate to 0.2 seconds per day. 

✔️ 1970s – The so-called “quartz crisis” causes revolutionary changes in the watch industry. Nearly two-thirds of the employees lose their jobs and companies fear for their survival.

✔️ 1971 – Swiss watch company Girard-Perregaux presents a quartz timepiece with a 32,768 Hz frequency. It becomes the standard frequency in quartz wristwatches. 

✔️ 1978 – Quartz watches elapse mechanical counterparts in popularity. More and more companies apply new technology, while the Swiss watch industry gradually falls into a downturn.

Quartz Crisis & Quartz Revolution

Since the quartz crisis played a significant role in shaping the watch industry as we know it today, it deserves a description in a couple of words.  

Quartz crisis, or quartz revolution, depending highly on the region, was the upheaval in the watch industry that incurred after the emergence of quartz movement. The crisis ended the monopoly of the mechanical movement, which had been the onliest in watches for centuries. 

mechanical movement old pocket watch
Mechanical movement ruled for centuries

Swiss watchmaking industry felt the crisis at a maximum volume due to the unwillingness to go along with the new trend. It opted to continue manufacturing traditional mechanical timepieces, while the rest of the world implemented the latest technology into their watches. 

When one lags, then another expands. Quartz revolution happened everywhere in the world, besides Switzerland, and the most significant beneficiary was the United States. The electronics companies started to mass-produce digital quartz timepieces at a low cost. They enjoyed the success for nearly a decade, after which the Asian market took over the steering wheel. 

In 1983, two Swiss watch groups merged, framing the basis for the Swatch Group. The end of the crisis started to loom after the company decided to automate the production and sell cheap and simple watches. The decision was a success and subsequently ended the crisis for the Swiss watch industry.

When the crisis was over, the revolution kept progressing. A couple of exciting watch movement hybrids arose that employed the best bits of quartz movement. They were kinetic and solar-powered mechanisms.

Solar Watches With Quartz Movement

Solar watches became available in the 1970s, right at the time of the quartz revolution, but received wider popularity with the emergence of Citizen’s Eco-Drive series not until the 90s. The mechanism in a solar-powered wristwatch comprises a solar cell receiving all kinds of light, a rechargeable battery storing the energy, and quartz timekeeping ensuring the accuracy. 

Citizen solar watch with dark dial
Solar-powered quartz

In the midst of widespread attention towards ecological issues, the solar-powered technology gains more regard than ever before. The production of disposable batteries that are used in quartz movements is not an eco-friendly approach.

However, using rechargeable cells and renewable energy in solar timepieces avoids the enormous mass-production of disposable batteries.

One of the most exciting developments combining solar and quartz technologies, as well as atomic time adjustment, are solar atomic watches. The timekeeping of these wristwatches is based on quartz movement but through radio waves, the time adjusts to atomic precision.

An atomic-precision watch running on solar quartz movement receives energy from all sorts of light, making this type of watch the handiest there is. You can totally forget time corrections and battery replacements.

Kinetic Watches With Quartz Movement

Kinetic watches are as the name suggests – they use kinetic energy for automatic self-winding, and also possess quartz for accurate timekeeping.

Kinetic wristwatches, just like solars, don’t employ batteries for charging, but instead, use a wrist’s motion to keep the watch going. A rechargeable battery then stores the unused energy and powers the ticker if not worn. The timekeeping accuracy relies solely on the quartz mechanism.

A kinetic wristwatch is another example of an eco-friendly product with the elimination of the use of disposable batteries. Although the production of these timepieces belongs almost sovereignly to Seiko, it still provides a guideline for others to take on similar environmentally friendly approaches. 

Since sustainability is growing essential with every passing year, it’s only a matter of time when disposable batteries become the story of the past. The quartz movement is not yet finished in setting groundbreaking milestones, so making extensive use of the eco-friendly approach could be the next one in line.

Quartz vs Automatic

The comparisons between the two movements have been going on ever since they’ve both shared the stage.

For centuries, the mechanical movement was the onliest around in timekeeping. With the emergence of the quartz technology, the mechanical counterpart, especially the automatic mechanical movement, now had a viable alternative.

Although the automatic self-winding watch had been available for quite a while, it achieved the popularity not until the 1960s, conveniently on time for the era of the quartz revolution.

So, which movement is better, and how do they differ?

what is quartz movement in a watch

Automatic watches don’t use any battery for powering, unlike quartz timepieces. They possess a moving rotor that automatically winds up the spring, and eventually, the wristwatch itself. 

Automatic watches provide precision through an escapement that measures the power into equal parts. The energy goes through numerous gears and wheels until it manifests in ticking. Quartz mechanism, on the other hand, uses quartz’s piezoelectric properties and possesses fewer parts, and is, in this sense, a lot simpler.

The difference in using quartz or gears ultimately defines accuracy. As quartz is less prone to external influences, such as temperature fluctuations and magnetic impacts, it’s more accurate than a timepiece with an intricate mechanism. The more parts a system has, the bigger is the probability of deviation. Automatic watch accuracy is thus times worse. 

The fact that the automatic watch has an intricate build-up has a direct effect on the cost of the movement. Typical self-winding wristwatches cost significantly more than quartz equivalents.

On the other hand, the more intricate the system is, the better value it offers. A lot of people appreciate the craftsmanship that automatic wristwear possess, thus prefer them to mass-produced quartz watches.           

Convenience-wise, an automatic wristwatch is rather carefree but needs to be worn often to avoid the energy to run out. When fully wound, most of the watches can function up to 40-50 hours. Quartz timepieces, however, need no constant wear and can run up to three years, but need a battery replacement – something which automatics won’t require.

As we can see, both of the movements have their pros and cons, and the selection for the best movement depends mostly on individual preferences. One thing is certain – the competition between them is setting the standards higher and higher, which is a perfect situation for the consumers. After all, a quality product is always what a customer craves.

If you wish to learn more about the differences between these two types, visit our quartz vs automatic comparison post.

Cheap Quartz & Expensive Quartz

It’s possible to get a quartz wristwatch for as little as 10$, but some watches can cost up to thousands of dollars. It’s quite apparent that well-known and proven brands use higher quality materials and technologies in the watchmaking that eventually set the price. But even the various quartz movements play a role in defining the final price of a watch.  

metal wristwatch with dark blue dial and three white sub-dials

Typically, the higher-end watch brands use better quality materials in the movements, while the cheap ones utilize quite a lot of plastics. It’s also common to find jewels in some of the high-end models for friction reduction.

Although the more affordable options, such as plastic and steel, also do the job, they can’t provide the quality a jewel possesses. A movement with jewel bearings is thus longer-lasting. 

The longevity of a movement often determines if it’s also serviceable. Quality products are made to be maintainable, while cheap and quality-lacking movements are disposable.  

We’ve already explained the High Accuracy Quartz where the ultimate precision is achieved through temperature compensation. The difference between the accuracy of a typical quartz watch and a HAQ could be up to 20 times, so evidently, the HAQ wristwatches cost a lot more than ordinary quartzes and provide better quality. 

If one’s after a quality movement that won’t disappoint in the first years should avoid dirt cheap quartz wristwatches. Prices starting from 100$ should be adequate for a decent quartz mechanism keeping the accuracy while offering enough long-lasting quality.

Swiss & Japanese Quartz Movements

The two most significant watch movement manufacturers are Switzerland and Japan. There’s no significant difference between them and the accuracy of their products, except for the slight variation in the manufacturing process.

While the Japanese produce movements mainly through an automated robotics line, the Swiss still use a bit of hand assembly in some stages. They also tend to decorate the movements more than Japanese by adding various aesthetic details. That’s one of the reasons why the Swiss items cost somewhat more.

The two powerhouses in the watch movement manufacturing are ETA (Switzerland) and Miyota (Japan). You’ll come across repeatedly with these names during your timepiece research.

Although there are numerous other companies undoubtedly providing high quality, ETA and Miyota stand out from the crowd. They’ve gained the reputation through decades of relentless hard work, so watches with ETA or Miyota engraved on the movements guarantee the highest degree.

All in All, What is Quartz Movement in a Watch?

Accuracy, affordability, convenience, simplicity – these are the four words that describe the quartz movement the best. It’s a mechanism that went through a revolutionary rise not long ago, but it arrived to rule. Several exciting inventions in the watch industry rely on the quartz movement – solar and kinetic timepieces will not be the last in the line. But how to suitably enclose and summarize the question of “what is quartz movement in a watch?” It’s the most precise and affordable timekeeping mechanism, providing a convenient use and guaranteeing a hassle-free experience. 

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