Monday, September 26, 2011

A Watch Primer #05: A Few Words on Watch Movements

This installment of the Watch Primer series will take a look at one of the most galvanizing issues among watch enthusiasts: the watch movement.  A movement is the mechanism that powers the watch, and the differences between various types of movements and their specifications often influence how collectors view the watches they inhabit.  One of the biggest distinctions lies between mechanical movements and quartz movements.

Mechanical or Quartz--or Something In-Between?

Mechnical watches are powered entirely by kinetic energy, namely the tension provided by the mainspring.  Watches powered by these sorts of movements need to be wound in order to function, either manually by the crown or through a weighted rotor built into the movement itself that rotates with the daily motions of your watch arm.  In this way, mechanical watches with a rotor system are "automatically" wound while you wear them, which is why they're broadly classified as automatic movements.  These are the gold standard when it comes to most watch collectors, as they epitomize the artistry of the horological arts in physical intricacies.  Many watch enthusiasts prefer mechanical watches because they view them as been more "alive"--a metaphor strengthened by the "beating" heart of a mechanical movement, the balance spring.  The downside is that mechanical watches are less accurate at timekeeping due to their reliance upon kinetic mechanisms, which are subject to outside forces.  Also these kinds of watches require periodic servicing, which could range from reapplication of lubricants to a full overhaul of worn down parts, which, depending on the watch, could entail a considerable investment.  For the least expensive watches, servicing could cost nearly as much as the original purchase price of the watch itself (e.g., $200 for a $500 watch), while costs also increase as the price of the watch in question increases (e.g., $1700 for a $20,000 watch--proportionally a smaller percentage of the watch's cost, but an even larger investment to make every 2-3 years).

Mechanical +: the original type of watch movement; more aesthetically appealing; more prestigious in watch collecting circles; exhibits the panoply of horological prowess.

Mechanical -: tends to be more expensive than quartz; requires periodic servicing, which means perennial costs of upkeep; requires frequent wearing, winding, or the use of a watch box to remain powered.

Quartz watches are powered by batteries and regulated by the vibrations of a quartz crystal, from which their name derives.  They revolutionized the watch industry when the were introduced in the late 60s (I believe in the form of Seiko's Accutron), and while they began as an expensive novelty, economies of scale and the conduciveness of the movement for mass production has made it so that quartz watches can be produced at far lower costs than mechanical ones.  Hence the $20 watches you'd find in a department store are most assuredly quartz watches.  Nevertheless, even the cheapest quartz watch usually provides more accurate timekeeping that the most carefully tuned and expensive mechanical watch, and, when comparing the high end quartz versus the high end mechanical, the difference in accuracy is staggering (as little as -5/+5 seconds a YEAR for quartz, whereas even chronometer-grade mechanicals range -4/+6 seconds a DAY).  Also, quartz watches require only a battery change every 2-3 years as opposed to a full servicing, though when they are due for service, it may be more cost effective to replace the entire movement than to perform maintenance on it, depending on the quality and design of the movement.

Quartz +: Less expensive; more accurate; less maintenance required.

Quartz -: Less horologically distinctive; potentially less aesthetically pleasing, depending on whether you prefer a sweeping or ticking second hand.

No comments:

Post a Comment