TO QUARTZ OR NOT TO QUARTZ

A potential wristwatch collector should know that wristwatches sold nowadays are powered either by a mechanical movement or a battery. The former is referred to as a "mechanical watch" (with either an automatic or manual winding mechanism) and the latter is simply called "a quartz". There is a class of watches powered by "kinetic energy" and they will be discussed later.

Mechanical wristwatches made an appearance in the late 1700s and Queen Elizabeth I was known to wear one decorated with precious jewels. By 1928 mechanical wristwatches were outselling pocket watches.

Of course, all early wristwatches had a mechanical movement but a dramatic change occurred in 1957 when Hamilton (an American watch company) replaced the mainspring of the watch with a battery that lasted well over a year. in 1960, Bulova (another American company) made its Accutron model with an exclusive tuning fork system that was powered by a battery. Nine years later, Seiko launched its first quartz watch, the Astron 35SQ which was claimed to be the most accurate watch in the world. Timex of England followed with their quartz model, the Electric. These examples show briefly the early development of quartz technology in watches.

The 1980s saw the Japanese flooding the world with cheap quartz watches and this marked the beginning of the quartz era. With quartz technology, wristwatches are much easier to make than mechanical watches and they could be mass produced on assembly lines. This made watchmaking cheap and profitable and many new companies (including unscrupulous ones with no experience in watchmaking) jumped on the time bandwagon.

The Swiss, whose name is synonymous with watchmaking, were too much bound by tradition to be able to accept quickly the concept of a battery powered watch, consisting of a mere electrical circuit and a mundane case assembled on impersonal production lines. To them the quartz was a pariah.

They were slow to react to the Japanese onslaught but they eventually came up with a savvy answer in the form of Swatch, which we will discuss in detail in a future article. Many famous Swiss watchmaking houses also started to include a line of quartz watches in their catalogues. Names like Rolex and Patek Philippe were the early ones to have quartz watches to offer their customers but there were still a few Swiss watchmakers who looked at quartz with disdain. The famous house of Blancpain advertised as follows. "Since 1735 there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be. Another established Swiss watchmaker, Oris, makes only mechanical watches and advertises this fact.

However, cheaper production methods created by advances in technology are hard to resist and of the 40.1 million watches exported from Switzerland in 1992, 87.8 per cent of them were quartz.

Therefore, what should the answer be to the intending watch collector? To quartz or not to quartz?

I have learnt not to be fond of those battery operated watches unless they are of the cheap variety like those made by Swatch. After all, quartz technology has enabled watchmakers to produce cheap quartz watches and some are sold for less than RM10 each.

If you intend to buy an expensive watch, you should opt for a mechanical watch consisting of traditional mechanical parts assembled by skilled craftsmen rather than a quartz with an innocuous circuit board, step motor, resonator and a battery of unknown parentage mated together by robots on an assembly line. If you open up a quartz watch and look inside, you will know what I mean.

While the various movements of a mechanical watch are time tested and their designs well-known to collectors, the quartz movement remains a mystery. When one buys an expensive quartz wristwatch, there is no way of telling whether it has an expensive quartz movement or a cheap one. All that the quartz circuit maker will say is that the movement is "very advanced and accurate" etc and no technical details or circuit plans are disclosed.

Defenders of quartz will say that constant R & D has improved the quartz movement tremendously and batteries are now fail safe (non-leak) and that some last almost 10 years. Cartier is one upmarket watchmaker which believes in quartz and its latest quartz called 202P, is a very much improved version of its first generation quartz movement. This is used in the latest editions of the Cartier Pasha, Santos, Panthere and Diabolo.

Rolex has a quartz, the Oysterquartz Day-Date Chronometer in 18-carat gold (with bezel, dial and bracelet set in diamonds) that carries a list price of RM131,083. Patek Philippe's Nautilus with quartz movements are also very upmarket and expensive watches. The Audemars Piquet Royal Oak Championship (dedicated to Nick Faldo) is a limited edition of just 500 watches and it is available only in quartz.

However, the BIG question remains. Can a quartz watch last as long as a mechanical one? My personal experience says "NO". I bought a Cartier Santos in 1981 for RM2700 and the quartz movement lasted only 5 years. The entire quartz circuit was replaced in 1986 for RM480. Another Cartier (a ladies model) bought in 1982 for RM1300 lasted only 4 years and the entire quartz movement had to be changed twice by the agents in Singapore before the watch could be put right. A Seiko "calculator watch" bought in 1980 for RM900 was declared a write-off a year later due to a faulty battery that leaked into the quartz circuit thus ruining it.

These three cases involved the early 1st generation quartz movements but I still think that quartz technology has a long way to go and the search for the perfect battery has yet to end. The watch with the mechanical movement will always remain the favourite of watch collectors. True collectors choose an item for its beauty, function and history. The making of a mechanical watch is an art by itself, from the making of the various mechanical parts to its assembly by skilled craftsmen. Many mechanical wristwatches continue to be reliable timepieces today despite having gone through decades of use.

A quartz movement is no feast for the eyes but take a look at the Patek Philippe Minute Repeater or any other complicated watches and it is to behold true beauty. Even an ordinary mechanical movement (ETA) is pleasing to look at.

Here is a story of one of my favourite watches in my collection, a mechanical timepiece made by Vacheron Constantin. I bought this watch in Zurich in 1974 and paid a small ransom for it. At that time this watch was billed as the "thinnest automatic watch in the world". I saw the watch while passing a shop window and at once, I knew I had to buy it. It was one of the most exquisite timepieces I have ever seen and owned.

I was advised that the watch should be sent back to the factory in Switzerland for servicing every two years and I did that diligently until 1990. Sometime in mid 1990, I found that the watch was running fast and I happened to be in Singapore. I took it to a shop in Lucky Plaza which had a sign to say they were authorised agents for Vacheron Constantin. They opened the watch to do the adjustments but the result was worse, the watch ran even faster. No matter what they did for the next few hours, they could not put it right.

They then contacted the main agents in Singapore who told them that my watch should only be opened and serviced in the factory in Switzerland due to the special caliber 838 movement used. The watch was then sent back to Switzerland and it came back after two months running perfectly. There was no charge for the work as they acknowledged the problem was caused by one of their sub-agent's ignorance. The company wrote me an apology and the letter also stated that the person who re-assembled my watch was the same craftsman who assembled it in 1974. I don't suppose a quartz watch will give you this kind of experience.

Remember that time is measured by fine caliber movements and not by a leaking battery.

 

(This article was first published in the July 1993 issue of Asian Auto, Malaysia's leading motoring magazine)

 

Anything to say about watches in general? Use the form below:-

 

RESPONSE

Fredo<faridx82@gmail.com>

I like your website. Truly Malaysian. Are there a lot of watch shops in Penang? I like automatic Seiko/Citizen/Orient diver's watch because they are cheap and durable. I know there are Orient service center at Komtar but I never been there. Is it worth for me to go to Penang to buy a watch? For your information, I live in Ipoh. What is your recommendation? Any good watch shops? Thank you.

Reply from kayes<kayes@pc.jaring.my>

Hi Fredo, Penang has many watch shops selling the diving watches you are looking for i.e. Seiko, Citizen and Orient. They offer a wide range of models too. I am not too sure about the prices of such watches in Ipoh but I do know that Seikos could be cheaper in Taiping than in Penang or KL.

About 6 or 7 years ago, there was a particular Seiko model that was in great demand worldwide and the watch forums on the internet saw many posts by many people looking for it. A friend of mine bought up all the available ones in Penang and also those from Taiping. He found the Taiping prices much cheaper. Could be that the Taiping watch shops did not know about the demand for this particular model. But generally, watch shops in smaller towns will sell them cheaper because of the lower overheads. Since you are in Ipoh, it is also worthwhile for you to make short trips to Sungei Siput and Kuala Kangsar. You might be surprised at what you can find in these small towns. Brands like Seiko, Citizen and Orient are being marketed throughout the country and so there is no problem getting them in any Malaysian town except that some of the more expensive models may not be stocked by a particular shop if it is a "small" shop.

Have you ever shopped at Soong Weng Kwong & Sons in Old Town, Ipoh? They also have a branch at the Syuen Hotel arcade. Peter Soong (at the Syuen Hotel branch) is a nice fellow to talk to and very knowledgeable about Rolex of course, since they are the Rolex agents in Ipoh. They do sell other brands of watches like Seiko and Citizen. There is another shop at Yik Foong Plaza (1st floor) and if I remember right, it is called Regent. The chap who runs the shop is also very helpful and he might have the model you want.

In Penang, I go to Woo Hing Brothers in Campbell Street and Tai Ming in Penang Road, in front of KOMTAR. Woo Hing are the Rolex agents in Penang but they also have Seiko, Orient and Citizen. You might find Tai Ming more interesting as they have a good selection of the watches you are looking for, including some old (unused) models. In the KOMTAR area alone there are many other watch shops and I suggest you walk around and compare prices. Best wishes and good luck, kayes.

ssthow<ssthow@yahoo.com>

Hi guys, Not sure how old is this thread but I just stumbled upon it. Just got my DSL connection lately so I catching up on this hobby of mine - vintage and collectible watches of the mechanical type. I shan't give any advice since there are tons of expert advice and forums on a particular watch you are interested in, (on the net) but a word of warning of fakes. There are fake Seikos. This I heard from casual conversation from my regular watch repairer only yesterday (20 Jun 05). The watch in question was a mechanical Seiko Diver and it was sold Rm20 cheaper then normal genuine Seikos. The sad fact this guy did not asked for a receipt when one was not given. Therefore general rule always ask for Warranty Card with the model and serial number filled in by the shop and chopped plus the shop's receipt. Fakes can be bought for Rm60-80 and only an experienced collecter can tell the difference. Saying that its a case of bad apple in a barrel... So beware, do some rearch on the one you are interested in, paying particular attention to model numbers and position of those number on the back of the case but do enjoy your collection. Sean from Penang.

 

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