The Curse of Quartz
There has never been a timepiece which exemplified the concept of planned obsolescence like the quartz watch, riveted together to save time and money by melting the plastic studs over the next layer, making it impossible to repair without damaging it, and making it for such a low cost that it will never be economically viable to repair, so these watches eventually end up where they belong, in the round file. This photo shows a typical quartz watch from 2004, almost all plastic.
Before I continue with my essay against quartz watches, I must offer the obvious counter-arguments in favor of quartz technology to be fair. Never before in a thousand years have there been timepieces so accurate, reliable and affordable to so many people as quartz watches, which is why quartz watches conquered the world. A quartz watch like the one above could be manufactured for pennies, and keep time with an error of less than one second per day, without stopping because someone forgot to wind it. No mechanical watch ever gave such reliable performance for the same price. It is unfair to compare the accuracy of quartz technology to the mechanical watch, which was based on technology that preceded the invention of the steam engine.
Most quartz watches are very limited in their repairability, as I will show on this page. Watchmakers mostly limit their repairs to replacing batteries, crystals, crowns and the entire mechanism, but not repairing the mechanism. Some of the higher end and older quartz watches were very well made, like the Seiko H357 from 1980 in the photo below, which I found on the internet. This watch was state of the art.
Removing the back cover reveals how well protected the movement and the circuit board are. I have seen very few quartz watches with seven jewels. This watch was made when the Japanese wanted to prove to the world that their watches, cameras, stereos, cars and other products were as good as Swiss and German products. Remember the Nikon F2 and the Toyota Celica? Remember Sansui? They competed with Leica, Mercedes Benz and Grundig. That attitude had changed by 1983, as you will see below.
The circuit board was very well made. The tube contains the quartz oscillator. The square object is the microchip, very large when compared to comparable microchips in watches ten years later. There is a rheostat for adjusting the timekeeping on the top left. The black cylinder on the right makes the alarm sound. The small rectangles are resistors. The row of contacts on the left are for the digital display.
With the circuit board removed, the rest of the watch is exposed, revealing, once again, a row of contacts on the left for the digital display. You can also see the copper coil for the step motor that keeps the hands moving via a gear train. Notice the elegant row of jewels and the metal gears. Notice also the modest corrosion, in this case, caused by a leaking battery. The corrosion was enough to ruin this watch.
Seiko replaced the H357 with the H557 in 1983. The H557 had many similarities, but it had only three jewels.
With two steel plates removed, you can see the circuit board.
Here you can also see the steel plates and a thin plastic layer that was mounted between the circuit board and the gears.
The curse of quartz watches is leaking acid from the batteries. This photo says it all. The steel plates and plastic layer above served to distribute the acid by capillary action, as if this were designed to happen. Seiko sold these watches, designed to have a battery life of two years, but a warranty of only one year. Many batteries leak towards the end of their life cycles in watches designed to self-destruct in the process. The objective of the manufacturers was planned obsolescence, after only a couple of years.
Here is another watch for your viewing pleasure. Rarely is the damage so severe. I found this photo on the internet.
All you need is some absorbent tissue next to the battery, in case it leaks. Watch manufacturers could easily have installed some absorbent material next to the battery to protect their watches, but no. I have never seen absorbent material in any battery watch or clock. Pac-man, anyone?
I should mention that it is not the use of plastic parts that makes the watch inferior. The gears in this watch would not have become corroded by the battery acid if the gears had been made of plastic. Furthermore, plastic gears have less weight and require less power to make them turn, so the battery lasts longer. While the obvious advantage of plastic gears is lower manufacturing cost, there are other advantages to using plastic, such as low weight and no corrosion. Watch hands, however, should always be made of metal. It is important to know when not to use plastic.
I should also mention that jewels are really not necessary in quartz timepieces because there is no load, no mainspring.
What makes most quartz watches inferior is that they cannot be repaired, for the most part. Many mechanical watches are repairable, as long as parts are available, extending their useful life considerably. Therefore, if you want to buy an expensive watch, it should be mechanical. Spending more than US$100 on a quartz watch is often a waste of money.
Here are a couples of tips to consider. If your watch has a 2 year expected battery life, replace the battery in 1 to 1.5 years. Also, consider buying a watch with a lithium battery, such as the CR2016. I have never seen a lithium battery that leaked in a watch.
Planned obsolescence is also found in mechanical watches, in which manufacturers use libricants that are effective for only two or three years. Many watchmakers use inferior lubricants when they repair watches because they think it is good for business. This keeps customers coming back.
As I wrote in my essay about Quartz Clocks, quartz is fantastic technology! One of my best quartz watches is a Citizen chronograph with a Miyota 3510 from around 1990. The mechanism is virtually identical to the one in the photo below, which I found on the internet. This watch ran for almost eight years on a single battery, a Renata 399. It is so accurate, losing 1.6 seconds in 30 days, that I only set the time twice a year, to change the hour. Performance will vary from watch to watch. However, while I was able to repair my
Tobias watch from 1855, I could not repair anything in my Citizen quartz chronograph if I needed to. Quartz watches are like iPhones and other wonderful electronics which cannot be repaired. How much you spend on them depends on how much you are willing to lose when they need repair.
My Seiko H357, gaining 5.2 seconds in 30 days, is slightly more accurate that my Seiko Lassale, also from around 1980, despite the adjustment for temperature variations, gaining 7.9 seconds in 30 days. The Lassale is an exceptionally thin and elegant watch, as thin as my Vacheron (4.3 mm.), offering an excellent example of the Japanese effort to prove that their watches were as good as Swiss watches.
Paying more for a quartz watch does not result in greater accuracy. Three of my least accurate quartz watches were made by Omega in the same era. This one is from 1978. It lost 49 seconds in 30 days.
Below is a comment from a retired watchmaker who read this web page. His comment is worth repeating here.
"That essay is so true. It was amazing when I worked for Bob the number of high-end, expensive quartz watches could have a $5-$14 movement in them."
This means that you do not know whether the watch you bought is good until you inspect the mechanism. Caveat Emptor.