How I Learned to Stop Hating, And Love Quartz

Ok, I’ll be honest, “love” is too strong a word. I’m just a big fan of Dr. Strangelove. Because if I’m honest, this article should be titled: “how I learned to stop hating and try to appreciate some types of quartz watches.” Not as punchy.

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In an effort to be more open minded and less dogmatic, I’ve recently started to reevaluate how I think about quartz movements. Ok, that’s not true either. I love being dogmatic about things. What this is really about is Seiko and more specifically, Grand Seiko. I can’t bring myself to spend mechanical modern Grand Seiko dollars, but the GSs I might be able to afford? The quartz ones. But first, I have to get over what seems to be a contradiction in my mind: a high-end (ok, mid-end) luxury watch, with exceptional design and craftsmanship, driven by a quartz movement.

Not my first Swatch but a fair look-alike [Courtesy Swatch Group]

I was born in 1971, so when I came of age in the 80s, the Quartz Disruption* had already shifted the watch market. The first watch I bought myself was a Swatch. Cool looking and hip, sure, but fundamentally and intentionally disposable. As the 90s came on, watches, like so many products in our lives, were cheap, trendy and easy to replace when they broke or the battery died. Over those years, I began to associate “quartz” with “cheap.” 

It doesn’t help that the quartz movements I experienced were cheap. They kept great time compared to mechanical, but the seconds hand never lined up with the minute markers. And it would wobble with each click. Looking insubstantial. Flimsy. Cheap.

My previously owned Q Timex [Photo courtesy Fate Luxury Goods]

I should point out that I’m not just talking about ancient history, you know, twenty or thirty years ago. Last year I bought a Q Timex from the first release. I flipped it a few months later for a couple of reasons: I couldn’t get over the fact that it felt more like a toy than a watch and the quartz movement. I wasn’t trying to be a snob, it just drove me nuts how the seconds hand seemed to be randomly pinging around the dial. Sometimes it would be so close to a minute marker, other times it would land between them. It validated the idea in my mind, after decades of experience, that quartz means cheap.

My friend’s SBGN009

And then a few weeks ago, a new experience. A friend visited with his Grand Seiko SBGN009 which, unless you are a GS obsessive, is a blue dialed GMT limited edition. With a quartz movement. Specifically, the 9F86 movement. I’d heard of the 9F series before but honestly didn’t look into it too much because, well, it’s quartz. But with the watch in my hands, I could sense my mind changing. The watch itself is so impressive, with a pleasing and substantial heft, a design that’s reminiscent of vintage Seiko, a stunning blue dial (especially in sunlight), and exceptional finishing on the hands and markers. But what really caught my eye was the seconds hand: its movement around the dial was so sharp and precise. Not only did it hit every second marker dead on, it did it without any wobble. Instead of feeling cheap, it felt crisp and precise. Maybe not the wabi-sabi enjoyment of an imprecise mechanical movement, but a different kind of joy and appreciation. For exactitude.

[Courtesy Grand Seiko]

If you want, I encourage you to dig into the history and mechanics of the 9F movements – others have done a great job and there’s no sense in repeating it here. But what I take away from it all is that Seiko’s engineers, over the past few decades, have worked to make quartz movements more precise, more reliable and, interestingly, more “crafted” than they have been in the recent past. For instance, the 9F movement is able to adjust itself based on temperature, so that it is precise to within 10 seconds a year. Seiko grows and ages its own quartz, pairing the selected bits with integrated circuits that have been adjusted for the temperate sensitivity of that specific crystal. They also added a hairspring to add a bit of counter-force to the gear train to make sure the seconds hand doesn’t wobble and exactly hits the markers. But what I find most surprising is that the movements are quite lovely. There’s still the rather industrial looking battery and coil, but the plates are gold-tone and polished in a way that’s reminiscent of Geneva Stripes. The movement features 9 jewels, something my ignorant self thought was only used on mechanical movements. Gosh, some of the watches even have an exhibition casebacks. For a quartz movement.

In other words, this isn’t a cheap, run of the mill quartz movement sitting inside an exceptional watch. The whole thing is exceptional. But a different kind of exceptional from what I’m used to: the nostalgic gears and springs feeling of a mechanical movement. Yet as much as I could appreciate and even enjoy the modern Grand Seiko quartz, I wasn’t sure I was in “love” with quartz enough to spend the lower but still substantial amount of cash for one. 

Until I dug into some history.

The original Seiko Astron [Photo courtesy Deutsches-uhrenmuseum]

As you may have read or heard, a few months ago I wrote and produced a podcast documentary about Seiko in the 50s, 60s and 70s. The point of that project was to tell the story of how Seiko harnessed a friendly competition between two of its suppliers to push innovation to new levels. Specifically when it came to mechanical watches. What I didn’t know when I started the research was the role quartz technology played in this competition. I knew, or thought I knew, about Seiko’s shift to quartz starting in the 70s, but what I didn’t realize is that Seiko’s push for quartz wasn’t because they envisioned it as cheap and mass produced and that that’s what would challenge the Swiss (as is the common misconception about the quartz “crisis”.)

Instead, Seiko was focused on one thing, in both mechanical and quartz watches: accuracy. Seiko saw quartz technology as the silver bullet against the Swiss because it was so much more accurate than mechanical. But the technology was so complicated, so hard to produce, the first quartz watches in the early 70s cost as much as a small family car. And as the decade went on, much to my surprise, quartz watches continued to be much more expensive than mechanical. Looking through Seiko’s catalogues in the 1970s, quartz watches are listed first not simply because they are more accurate and a point of pride for the company, but because they are three, four, five times as expensive as mechanical ones. In 1974, for example, only the Grand Seiko VFA cost as much as Seiko’s quartz offerings. In fact, by the late 1970s, Seiko’s finest quartz watch, the Superior, cost much more than any Grand Seiko ever had. 

The Seiko Superior [Courtesy Watch Hunter]

Even more than my experience with modern Grand Seiko’s quartz movement, this history completely changed my perspective on quartz technology. Yes, Seiko did eventually flood the market, starting in the 80s, with cheap, mass produced quartz watches, which helped form the negative image in my mind. But into the late 1970s, “quartz” meant high precision, accuracy and quality. Even “luxury.” The 1978 Superior, for example, sold for 230,000 yen, or about $1000 US dollars. The equivalent, in purchasing power today, of about $4000. For a quartz watch. Never mind the precious metal versions of the mid 70s which cost, in today’s money, from $15,000 to $60,000. [And just to compare to non-Seiko watches, the Rolex Explorer I sold, in 1978, for $635 or approximately $2500 today.]

But this isn’t just about money, as that is rarely a reliable indicator of quality or desirability. The other thing that struck me about Seiko’s quartz watches in the 1970s, at the high end, was the design. With the final Grand and King Seikos offered in 1975, the high level craftsmanship and Grammar of Design approach of those watches moved into the quartz versions, the Grand and King Quartz. Of course, as the decade wore on, cases became even more angular, following the design trends of the time, which is possibly due to Taro Tanaka’s relegation to the Seiko marketing department, but that’s another story. Regardless, there are some exceptionally beautiful watches at this point in time. Watches that, I am sure, if they ran on mechanical movements, would be much more sought after and adored. 

From the 1979 Seiko Catalogue [Courtesy Watch Hunter]

As it is, late 70s quartz Seiko is largely ignored. And I’ve increasingly become more and more interested in those corners of the watch world where other people aren’t looking. Beyond an opportunity to find something of horological significance for a relatively low cost, I also saw another opportunity. I have long wanted a gold-tone watch in my collection. Not solid gold, I’m not made of money. But gold capped or gold plated, as a different kind of experience on the wrist. And there’s hardly a more “golden” era than the late 70s. At first, I started searching out King Quartz, as it is remarkably inexpensive, even the finest models of the time. And then our very own David Flett suggested I look at the King’s greater sibling, Grand Quartz.

Because of the “G” word, I assumed prices on these must be considerably higher than the King. I was wrong. I saw plenty of examples of pristine Grand Quartz watches from the late 70s, with the era’s cutting edge quartz technology (more on that later) and exceptional craftsmanship, selling for well below $1000. I will admit the gold-tone options aren’t as plentiful as the stainless steel – even at the time, steel offerings greatly outnumbered gold – but there are still some gorgeous examples. And because gold-tone is not as sought after, with a bit of searching, I was able to find something in exceptional condition, well within what I was willing to spend.

My Grand Quartz 9943-8020

The 1978 Seiko Grand Quartz twin quartz ‘hard gold plated’ 9943-8020. The most striking element of this watch, beyond the angular case and gold-tone, yes gold-tone day/date wheel, is the dial. The stainless steel version of this watch is nicknamed ‘diamond dust’ (a name used on modern Grand Seikos with a much less rugged dial) but on my watch, I’ve read a nickname that’s more apt: ‘gold nugget.’ It really looks, to my eyes, like a slice of unrefined gold. I also like to think that watches like this, an artistic evolution from the linen dials of the early 70s, laid the creative grounding for today’s idiosyncratic Grand Seiko dials.

But, of course, what really makes this watch is what’s inside, the 9943 movement. As I mentioned above, the 70s at Seiko were all about building watches that were as accurate as they were beautiful. And so in 1978 they debuted the “twin quartz” 99 movement. As the name suggests, this movement uses two quartz crystals as an elegant way to achieve precision. This solution is outlined by Toshiro Uochi in this exceptionally useful video.** As Mr. Uochi explains, the way a quartz crystal is cut determines how it will react to different temperatures. In other words, cut a certain way for example, a crystal will oscillate at slightly different rates if it’s 0 degrees C or 25 degrees C. The integrated circuit sends a signal to the gear train depending on that oscillation. A standard quartz watch, therefore, is not perfectly precise because of temperature fluctuations. In 1978, Suwa Seikosha’s engineers had no way of determining the ambient temperature around a watch. So instead, they built a movement with two quartz crystals cut differently from each other so that each would react to temperature changes differently. The integrated circuit inside the movement determines the difference between the two oscillating frequencies of the crystals to find the ideal rate. This involves parabolas, coefficients and quadratic equations I can’t wrap my head around, so check out the video if you want a detailed explanation of the math behind this solution. Simply put, the 99 movement is able to react to temperature changes without actually knowing what the temperature is.

It’s important to point out, however, as Mr. Uochi does, that if the crystals are not precisely regulated to achieve this solution, the 99 movement is as accurate as any regular quartz watch: about 15 seconds a month. If properly regulated, however, the result is a yearly accuracy of plus or minus 10 seconds. The same accuracy as today’s Grand Seiko 9F movements. And this wasn’t even the top of the line in 1978. One watch stood above the Grand Quartz and that was the twin quartz Superior, as previously mentioned, which was adjusted to within 5 seconds a year accuracy. 

But my Grand Quartz was no slouch, coming in at 150,000 yen, or, adjusted to today’s money, $2600 (as also mentioned, the same price as a Rolex Explorer at the time). However, this one has devalued steeply. I was able to pick it up for a measly $650. But again, value and quality don’t always come down to prices. The real test, for me, is actually living with and wearing a quartz watch. And with the 9943, I can say (early into my ownership, I will admit), that perspective does a lot for appreciation.

Knowing what I know about this watch’s history, along with the exceptional craftsmanship, makes me feel like I have something truly special on my wrist. In terms of performance,  the fact that the seconds hand hits the markers dead on, without any wobble, gives me a feeling akin to first holding my friend’s SBGN009: this is fine, fine watchmaking. In fact, experiencing this watch in person is the greatest reset of my feelings about quartz because it just exudes superior quality. Plus, thanks to the extraordinary dial work and a bracelet that is as soft as butter, I get another feeling, one that at one time would have been an oxymoron from a quartz watch: luxury.

* I don’t use the term “Quartz Crisis” because it is biased in favour of the Swiss mechanical industry. Seiko certainly never saw it as a crisis. In fact, in what I’ve read in Seiko materials, they often refer to it as the “Quartz Revolution.” But that also strikes me as loaded. So, then, what really happened, if we go by the facts? A new technology was released that disrupted the world order. Thus: “Quartz Disruption.”

** This article was originally published with incorrect information about the regulation of the 99 movement.