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What is quartz to watches? Time for some science, watch freaks!

What is quartz to watches? Time for some science, watch freaks!

More than just a killer Scrabble word, quartz happens to be one of the most abundant minerals on the planet, second only to feldspar. And, maybe the most useful. You’ll find quartz in your:

  • Granite countertops
  • Televisions and monitors
  • Windows
  • Smartphone
  • Favorite sandy beach
  • Local metaphysical supply shop

The chances are good that it’s also what keeps your watch accurate. But what is quartz, and what does it have to do with telling time?

It’s everywhere

Quartz is a mineral composed of silica dioxide. In its purest form, quartz (also known as rock crystal) is a smooth, clear stone, but various impurities in quartz create other colors:

  • Rose quartz
  • Smoky quartz
  • And as other gemstones; amethyst, citrine, agate, and my personal favorite, the Herkimer diamond.

    It’s a component of many less glamorous types of rock and is also commonly the main ingredient in sand, which is used in the manufacturing of glass. Quartz is durable, heat- and chemical-resistant, and makes an excellent abrasive material for use in sanding.

    But its versatility doesn’t stop there. Quartz features some unique properties that make it an ideal material for use in precision electronic equipment like radios, pressure gauges, optics and lenses, and--yes--as the movement inside clocks and watches.

    It’s electric

    Well, quartz is piezoelectric, to be more correct. This property means that it produces an electrical current when mechanical stress is applied to it. What’s mechanical stress? A force, such as from bending, or an electric charge, such as the one from a battery. See where this is going?

    When stressed, quartz emits a frequency. Don't we all? The frequency is highly stable, a desirable quality when it comes to keeping time or broadcasting signals via radio waves. In simple terms, a quartz watch functions like this:

    1. The battery sends an electrical current through a sliver of quartz, electrifying the crystal and creating vibrations. See, your local metaphysical supply shop is onto something. Crystal vibes are the real deal.
    2. These vibrations drive the motor(s) to move the watch hands at very exact intervals.
    3. You get precise time, reliably delivered.

    In today’s quartz movement watches and other electronics, that sliver is typically made from synthetic quartz, which tends to be smoother and more uniform than naturally-occurring quartz and is cut to a precise shape to optimize the frequency.

    It’s accurate

    Quartz watches are more accurate than their mechanical counterparts. While mechanical and automatic watches built today are accurate enough, gaining or losing a few seconds per day, a quartz watch can remain accurate within a few seconds per year. A few seconds a day might not seem like much but consider this: a difference of five seconds per day could equal a full half-hour during that year.

    Now for even more science. If you’re wondering whether a quartz watch is the most accurate timepiece there is, the answer is not quite.
    That honor goes to an atomic clock, which uses frequencies in the microwave, optical, or ultraviolet regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, making it the frequency standard for timekeeping, as well as useful in television broadcast signals and GPS. But quartz watches are pretty darn close.
    How about another science factoid? The National Institute of Science and Technology’s (NIST) new atomic clock is so precise scientists have to come up with a new method of measuring gravity to use all its capabilities!  Wrist-sized models are not expected to be available, ever.

     

    It’s reliable

    Quartz watches are battery-powered so, as long as the battery is working, your timepiece is telling accurate time. No winding required. When you consider that mechanical watches need frequent winding, and rely on the wearer remembering to wind it, the set-and-forget nature of a quartz watch is very appealing, especially for the forgetful among us. Where was I going with this?

    If you’d prefer to set your watch the day you receive it and never think about its inner workings again, a quartz watch is a timepiece for you. It also has a fraction of the moving pieces than a watch with gears and springs contains, meaning fewer things that can malfunction. If that isn’t the definition of reliable, what is?

    It’s (relatively) new

    Although quartz itself is as old as time, its use in time-keeping is much more recent. All timepieces function with an oscillator, that is, an object which, through its continuous, unvarying motion, “tells” a clock or watch how much time has passed.

    The oscillator in a grandfather clock isn’t a quartz movement, of course, but a pendulum, which swings back and forth due to the gravitational pull being exerted on it. Pretty cool, and cool-looking, but not very practical for that guy or gal on the go. Wonder how TSA would react?

    In the 1500s, “portable,” spring-driven clocks were developed using a harmonic oscillator instead, consisting of a network of gears and springs that function in a delicate balance to each other to keep time. It was only a matter of time before that technology evolved into watches, first of the pocket variety, and then, of course, onto the wrist.
    While the accuracy has improved immensely over time and the size has decreased to a much more useful scale, this is the same general idea that drives mechanical clocks and wristwatches to this day. But in the 1960s, evolving technology led to the creation of battery-powered quartz oscillators, which didn’t need to rely on the delicate balance of gears at all.

    It changed the face of an industry

    The first quartz watch was created in 1969 by Japanese manufacturer Seiko. Known as the Astron, this watch was a gold-case limited-edition style with quartz movement technology. It was slick and convenient--but prohibitively expensive. The Astron cost roughly the same as a small car at the time. Therefore, it didn’t instantly set the watch industry on fire.

    The quartz movement started to take off in the 1970s with the invention of digital watches. Featuring LCD or LED screens, these new movements featured no moving parts at all and provided a bold, illuminated, and easy-to-read face.

    Eventually, manufacturing technology improved, and prices dropped, which in turn made quartz movements the oscillator of choice in analog watches for most consumers. The opportunity to wear a watch was transformed by the profound reduction in price made possible by quartz movements. Once a status symbol requiring a small fortune, watches became casual accessories that anyone could afford.

    Japan took the lead in the watch world, leaving Switzerland, a nation so synonymous with watching making that mechanical watches constituted its third largest international export industry, in dire straits. By the early 1980s, the industry was forever altered.

    A consortium of Swiss banks was forced to bail out that nation’s watch manufacturers after demand for mechanical movements plunged seemingly overnight. Ultimately, though, the story of Swiss watchmaking has a happy ending; the ubiquitous Swatch watch was created in direct response to the “quartz crisis” and put Switzerland back on top.

    It makes your watch tick—literally

    If you’ve ever wondered why the second-hand moves in jumpy little movements on some watches and sweeps gracefully and continuously on others, you may be interested in learning that the “ticking” watches are almost always quartz watches. The ticking movement is caused by the quartz’s frequency while the “sweeping” watches are mechanical.

    In true mechanical watches, which have to be wound to operate, the sweeping second hand is powered by the constant release of the tension created by winding the mainspring, or by the wearer’s motion generating kinetic energy in automatic, self-winding watches.
    There are a few exceptions, Bulova and Seiko each make sweeping quartz watches, but generally speaking, a ticking second-hand equals a quartz movement. So, be wary of anyone trying to sell you a ticking mechanical watch. Especially out of an alley or the back of a truck.

    It’s the most popular type of watch 

    Today, quartz movement watches make up 90% of the market, but mechanical watches have something of a cult following for a reason:

    • Heritage
    • Craftsmanship
    There’s a long tradition of exquisite attention to detail in the construction of a mechanical watch. The very image of its tiny golden gears and springs nestled together calls to mind a certain finesse and status. It’s not just marketing. A well-built mechanical or automatic (self-winding) watch will last a lifetime, or more if properly maintained.
    Here's a fun fact: Airline pilots often prefer mechanical watches because there is no battery to fail while the aircraft is in flight.
    But a quartz watch can last a long time too, though its battery will need to be replaced regularly. A quartz watch is significantly cheaper to build because its construction is simple by comparison to a mechanical watch, resulting in cost savings passing onto you, the consumer. And, its lighter weight and lower profile make it a common choice for ladies’ watch styles.
    Luxury watchophiles tend to prefer mechanical watches for their collections, while quartz movements are often preferred for regular use.
    Even watch snobs can agree that modern quartz watches can look just as sharp as their mechanical counterparts, and the simpler manufacturing process offers the opportunity for innovation in design, functionality, and materials, allowing any budget to rock a fashionable timepiece.

     

    So, as you can see, this lightweight, versatile material is known as quartz has the power to keep things running and running on time. The choice between a quartz watch and a mechanical or automatic watch comes down to your personal preference.

    Fortunately, there is no wrong choice here. A mechanical watch may be like a work of art inside, but a quartz watch is versatile, lightweight, more affordable, and more straightforward to use. With the right attention to design, both types can look and feel great. And the next time you find yourself with a Q and a Z on your Scrabble rack, look no further than your wrist for inspiration.

     

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