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A Guide to Quartz Watch Movements

In the 21st Century it is easy to keep track of time because the time is everywhere. Clocks, computers, mobile phones, tablets, televisions and, of course, our watches will all tell us what time it is but imagine what it was like before any of those things had been invented. People had to use the sun to manage their days before scientists began to evolve the equipment that would accurately measure the passing of the seconds, minutes and hours and translate that information into a visible display.

Mechanical Movements

As human society became more complex increasingly more accurate time keeping was required. This necessity eventually led to the development of mechanical clocks and watches. It was Galileo who first noted that a pendulum of any given length always takes the same amount of time to swing back and forth regardless of how heavy it is or the distance travelled. He established his theory by measuring the motion using his own pulse! Galileo's discovery meant that there was a way to measure an exact period of time via a moving object. The motion could be used to both drive and regulate the turning of cogs (gears) which would translate the time of the swing into seconds and minutes displayed by the hands of the clock.

The only problem with this ingenious system is the fact that air resistance and friction will eventually cause the pendulum to stop swinging at which point the clock will also stop. This stumbling block was overcome by the inclusion of a spring. The spring would be wound tight periodically to store potential energy. As it uncoiled it drove the gears via a see-saw mechanism called an escapement with the timing of the movement regulated by the pendulum. Hence you had to wind up mechanical clocks. Mechanical watches came later but operated using the same principles. Clearly a watch is too small to contain a pendulum so a small balance wheel which turns one way and then the other was incorporated instead.

If that all sounds a little complicated then take a look at this video which explains how a mechanical watch movement works.

Mechanical watches tell the time with remarkable but not total accuracy and you must remember to wind them up or they will eventually stop. A pendulum or balance wheel swings due to the force of gravity and that force will vary at different altitudes. The components are also affected by temperature changes as they will expand on warm days and contract on colder ones varying the length of the swing. The resulting timing errors are minimal on any given day but will mount up over the weeks and months meaning that mechanical timepieces will gain or lose seconds or minutes in the course of a year. Inevitably a more accurate system was sought but in many ways the principle of the pendulum never really went away. Timekeeping continued to develop using the principle of oscillating elements with inherently stable rates of oscillation and by finding a means of sustaining that resonance.

Quartz Movements

It was Bulova who began the move away from balance wheels and springs. In the 1960's they experimented with recently developed technology and used a battery and transistor oscillator to resonate a tuning fork in a timepiece. The resonance of the tuning fork still timed the movement of cogs just as a balance wheel had but the development was significant because it was the first time that a wheel and spring had been replaced by an oscillator and a battery. Further development was required as a timing element more accurate than a tuning fork was needed as was an integrated circuit that could power the oscillating element without using too much energy. A low energy integrated circuit would allow the use of a battery small enough to fit in a watch.

Finding the right timing element was relatively simple. Quartz crystal was already in widespread use to provide accurate frequencies for radios and transmitters. Quartz is both chemically and mechanically stable remaining crystalline at high temperatures, being only minimally influenced by gravity and temperature and almost completely unaffected by our everyday environment. In addition it is piezoelectric which means that when you pass an electric current through quartz it will pulse or oscillate and when quartz oscillates it emits a small amount of electrical power.

Quartz' stability and piezoelectric properties cause it to oscillate at a precise frequency enabling timekeeping with a far greater accuracy than via a mechanical movement. In a quartz timepiece electricity is sent to the quartz via a battery powered circuit. The circuit then counts the oscillations and uses the information to generate regular electrical pulses which then either power a digital display or a motor which turns the gears to move the hands of the watch at precise intervals.

In order to maximise accuracy the quartz is cut into bars or tuning fork shapes as these forms produce the most reliable oscillations. Happily quartz is one of the most common minerals on the planet which helps to keep the cost down.

Confused again? Here's a video which explains how quartz movements work.

Initially the integrated circuits used too much energy to be powered by a battery that was small enough and possessed a lifespan long enough to be practical. Both Swiss and Japanese watch companies were working on the development of integrated circuits that would enable a battery to last for at least one year. The first watch to incorporate the new CMOS microchip was the Seiko 36SQC which was released in 1969. A new era of time keeping had arrived but the first watch was expensive. It cost around the same as a small family car! In 1970 the first digital watch, the Pulsar, went on sale but opinion was divided as to the future of the technology.

The Swiss watchmakers largely saw the early quartz watches as a novelty and believed that the new technology's primary applications would be in industry. This proved to be an error of judgement as the watches were proving popular and as more companies began to develop their own models the element of competition powered research into cheaper technology and prices began to fall. By 1976 it was possible to buy a quartz watch for under $20. Quartz watches were taking a huge slice of the market leading to what was to become known as the Quartz Crisis. This saw many historic Swiss watchmakers run into financial trouble or go out of business altogether.

The 21st century

At one time it looked like quartz watches would put an end to mechanical movements completely but this revolution never happened. Whilst quartz timepieces are valued for their accuracy, mechanical watches are treasured for their heritage, beauty and intricacy. There is a place for both in the modern world and that is reflected in the Watch Hub range which features mechanical, quartz and digital watches for both men and women and to suit all tastes and budgets. It is ironic that in an era when we barely need watches to keep track of time, they are more popular than ever. Watches have found a new role as stylish accessories and technological devices that do so much more for us than simply recording the passing of time.

Watch Hub - Sat Aug 24 06:40:34 BST 2019 [web3]