Automatic vs Quartz
Quartz vs. Mechanical movements: which is best?
I get a lot of questions about movements in collectible watches, especially about the differences between quartz and mechanical watches. This is a subject that always generates passionate reactions, especially from some self-described “purists collectors.”
I've been collecting watches for more than 35 years, and a watch manufacturer for five years, so I thought it was time I told you my views on this subject.
First, some background: a quartz watch uses an electronic oscillator that is regulated by a quartz crystal to keep time, with a battery to provide the power. In a mechanical watch, the balance and anchor serve the same function as the oscillator in a quartz watch, and a mainspring functions as the battery.
An automatic watch is also mechanical, but the mainspring is wound when the wearer’s movement spins a mechanism that winds the mainspring. If worn daily, an automatic watch does not need manual winding.
But why Quartz?
When I created my brand, I started with a commitment: to create watches for everyday wear by the vintage collector. My watches will always be beautiful, reliable, and accessible.
Quality manufacturers assemble their watches with Japanese or Swiss movements, no one trusts the Chinese movements. When I visited some of the factories where Chinese chronograph movements are made, I got a deeper understanding of the problem.
There are two ways to manufacture movements: the classic hand-mounted method, or robot-mounted.
Automatic movements with three hands (hours, minutes, and seconds only), like the Seiko NH35 we use for the Dan Henry 1970 Diver, are simple mechanisms: with high-tech robotic production, great automatic three-hands movements can be manufactured inexpensively and reliably.
The market is full of options for automatic movements: the best known are the ETA and Sellita, and their Japanese competitors manufactured by Miyota and Seiko. All of these automatic movements are good, but the "Swiss" movements are always more expensive because they carry the Swiss-made label (many people buy ETA and Sellita thinking they are Swiss, while the most of them are made in Asia). For more about this, Google “far east ETA”.
Automatic chronographs (stopwatch functions in addition to time) are more complex movements. Reliable, high-quality, affordable automatic chronograph movements are relatively modern designs; the most-used is the Valjoux 7750 designed in the 1970s, and the best is the more recent Seiko NE88. Because both of these movements are automatic chronographs, they are thick and need to be installed in big cases. An automatic movement is also much more expensive than a quartz movement.
My designs are vintage, and most of my current chronos have a 38mm case. I use a quartz movement in these watches because an automatic chronograph movement would make one of those watches look like a Big Mac. I'm designing a new Chronograph that will use the Seiko NH88; the case will be much bigger. And because the cost of a quality automatic movement is higher than quartz, by necessity the price will be higher than the chronos I offer today.
3 pileup watches side by side; Quartz vs. Manual wind vs. Automatic
What about the Seagull movement?
Many collectors ask me about the less-expensive hand-wound Seagull ST19 movement manufactured in China. To produce the ST19, Chinese manufacturers use machinery purchased in Switzerland in the 1960s that was used to manufacture the Venus 175 movement designed in the 1940s.
The Seagull is an outdated design and destined to fail, manufactured with equipment more than 70 years old, and assembled by a third-rate workforce that can’t compete with skilled Japanese technicians who build more reliable movements.
Some collectors who own watches equipped with a Seagull movement have no problems. But that reliability is possible because collectors typically have dozens of watches; we may wear a Seagull chronograph only a few times a year.
And now for quartz movements
Now that you understand the reality of mechanical movements available in the market, let's discuss a little about what has happened with quartz movements.
The first quartz watch was the Seiko Astron, which was released in 1969 with a list price of an astronomical $1,250 -- at the time, equivalent to the price of a brand new mid size car. By that time, batteries to power quartz watches had been available for more than a decade; the first watch battery was released by Hamilton in 1957.
The 1970s was an era when electronic technology replaced mechanical devices in many products, such as electronic injection replacing the carburetor in cars. For watch manufacturing, the price of quartz watches dropped rapidly, and electronic movements soon became the dominant technology among the best-selling watches.
And then came problems...
In the beginning, the news about quartz movements was all good: quartz watches showed the time more precisely than mechanical watches. With the mainspring replaced by a battery, quartz movements never stopped or needed winding.
But the problems began when quartz watches started to break. Watchmakers trained to fix mechanical watches had no idea how the new technology worked; ironically, the vast majority of this first quartz watches were destroyed by those trying to fix them. This is the main reason why most old quartz watches are not valuable: the movements are often damaged, and because there are no more spare parts, they cannot be fixed.
We've come a long way. Now quartz movements are extremely reliable, hardly ever break, and when it happens we don't fix quartz movements anymore; we just change them.
But don't be fooled into thinking that most modern watches – even a “prestige timepiece” costing thousands of dollars -- are assembled by experienced watchmakers with white lab coats and grey hair; most expensive watches haven’t been assembled this way in decades. The vast majority of movements are assembled by robots inside giant factories; what you see on guided tours of some factories in Switzerland is pure staging (someday I will write an article about how most watches called “Swiss made” are really made…)
Quartz or mechanical?
So which movement should you buy? The better question may be: what do you want from a watch? Honestly, I am not a quartz snob. I am a watch lover, and a fan of quartz watches for their practicality and low cost. Most of the chronographs manufactured today simply wouldn't be possible to produce with a quality mechanical movement. And thanks to quartz, you can enjoy a beautiful and precise Dan Henry chronograph.
The problem for many collectors is they look for watches that are valuable, when they should be buying watches that they enjoy wearing. I have never looked for valuable watches, but for watches with designs I like.
As a collector, I am not hooked on movements; for me it doesn't matter if the watch is equipped with the trendy Valjoux 72 or a Venus 178. I don't believe the movement influences the rarity or price of the watch; for $1000 today you can buy an unbranded watch equipped with the Valjoux 72 identical to the movement in a vintage Rolex Daytona that easily exceeds $300,000.
The record auction price of $18 million for the Rolex owned by Paul Newman reached that price not because of its movement, but for its brand, its historical importance, and its legacy of ownership by the world’s most famous actor-racer.
Watch values: always a question
Many collectors claim that quartz watches do not increase in value, or devalue more, compared to mechanical watches; this is not true. Many mechanical watches that cost thousands of dollars are worth almost nothing today; see the embarrassment among those who bought a Bulgari Scuba or Hublots – today those watches are not worth 20% of their retail price. You can find mechanical watches among other brands that are worth a fraction of their retail value. No one should buy a watch – quartz or mechanical – assuming the value will increase.
In fact, the vast majority of watches lose their value over the years, predicting what will happen to the price of a watch is not an exact science. A watch can become collectible whether it is quartz or mechanical; check the price of the first generation Citizen Aqualand, Casio Game, Seiko Giugiaro, or even old Swatches; they all appreciate. An original 1969 Seiko Astron at auction is no less than the price of a good Rolex Paul Newman.
1980's Seiko Giugiaro
Even our Dan Henrys models -- mostly the 1939 Quartz black dials, and the sold-out 1970 Divers -- are selling at more than three times their original price on eBay. Hopefully, good taste and buying the right watches will make a good long-term investment.
I created my own brand because the value of my collectible watches has increased dramatically, and became risky to use on a daily basis. I wanted to wear watches with vintage designs without worry; that's when Dan Henry watches was born. I created the designs for Dan Henry Watches that I enjoy; I continue to do that, creating tribute designs for watches that I hope you will enjoy as well.
My advice is you don't treat your watch collection as an investment, but instead as a hobby. Collect what makes your eyes sparkle and your heart happy – whether the movement is quartz or mechanical... sometimes we buy watches just for the big discount off the retail, I have hundreds of watches that I regret buying and will never wear.
Try not to be influenced by Hodinkee, the blog owned by LVMH Group. Reflect if you really like green dials at Pilot and Diver watches.
I like to say that discussing quartz versus automatic is like discussing CDs versus vinyl records: I prefer simply to listen to the music.