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Quartz vs Automatic Watches: Which Should You Go For?

The battle between efficiency and art.

Karlton began covering men's style and grooming topics for The Adult Man since 2020 as a writer. He's also written for other popular men's publications such as The Modest Man and Effortless Gent. Karlton is an LA-born, New York-based lover of culture and optimism. Perpetual watch-wearer. Always holding a martini or a football, Karlton's favorite subjects in school were recess, PE and prom. Read full bio.


Published: Jun 21, 2024
8 min read
Key Takeaways

Watches with quartz movements are generally cheaper, more convenient because you don’t have to wind them, as well as more accurate and reliable. Meanwhile, watches with automatic movements boast great craftsmanship, are esteemed by the watch community, and are rooted in history. Of course, there are nuances, but these respective features are true most of the time.

Unlike many other watch guys on the internet machine trying to help you decide between a quartz or an automatic, I’m Switzerland. 

That is, I’m neutral. And like Switzerland, I’ve had a long history with timekeeping devices.

See, members of the watch world tend to prefer automatic timepieces. I, however, don’t. 

For as long as I’ve bought and sold watches and worked with collectors, I’ve always liked quartz and automatic models equally, and for different reasons.

In fact, my everyday watch for the past few years is the GoldenEye Seamaster. Yes, the bracelet is “so ‘90s” but it’s a gift to the little boy inside me who loved the GoldenEye N64 game.

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So if you’re not sure which movement is for you, read on.

A Refresher on Quartz and Automatic Movements

Vaer d5 crystal and dial detail

A quartz movement is battery powered, and uses an electric current to operate. 

The battery sends the current to the quartz crystal (hence its name), through circuits. Then, the crystal vibrates, creating a charge and an oscillation, allowing the motor to power the watch hands. 

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There are a lot of different types of quartz movements. The faster the vibration, the more accurate the watch. There are quartz movements powered by sunlight, and ones that are radio-controlled and can receive signals from highly accurate atomic clocks.

An automatic movement is a mechanical that’s self-winding. When I say mechanical, I mean it uses a spring for power and is made up of a series of parts that interact with each other, sans electricity and through movement.

Man wearing wasson automatic field watch

It’s like when you push a slinky down the stairs and it just uses that forward motion to keep climbing down. A mechanical watch movement is more complex though. Obviously.

An automatic mechanical caliber uses the movement of your wrist to power itself, so you don’t have to wind it.

It’s built with a rotor, which is a metal weight. This weight rotates as your wrist moves, coiling the mainspring, which then brings power to the watch.

Quartz Watches: Benefits and Drawbacks

vaer c5 closeup on black dial heritage field watch red second hand detail

Okay, so here’s why I love quartz watches.

First off, they’re incredibly accurate. Even a high-end automatic struggles to keep up with the accuracy and reliability of a quartz watch. 

I know we mainly wear watches for style and stories, so this might not mean that much to you.

However, for me, I like actually using my watch as a timekeeper. It keeps me from doom scrolling on my phone. And hey, there are times when pulling your phone out looks rude. Some ladies don’t appreciate it on dates, and some bosses don’t love it in board meetings.

You also don’t have to worry about constantly setting it. You set it once, and save for the battery dying or time zone changes, you’re good for years. Cheap batteries can last up to a year, while high-end lithium batteries can last up to six.

They’re just pretty low maintenance.

Quartz watches are generally cheaper. Yes, there are higher-end quartz models that might be more expensive than an entry-level mechanical from China. However, all things held constant, they’re more affordable because they’re easier to mass manufacture.

From a style perspective, I think you get more versatility from a range of quartz watches. You can get a retro-cool digital watch face, a classic analog, or even a combination of the two.

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For some, the fact that quartz timepieces are famously cheap is a drawback. It’s not that you can’t impress with a quartz watch. Vaer’s C5 Tactical, for example, is a solar quartz, which means it’s powered by light. Even more, it can be powered by any light, including that from a candle. That’s a party trick if there ever was one.

VAER C5

Featuring a Swiss Ronda movement, domed sapphire crystal, and coming with two straps, this military-inspired field watch by Vaer is easily one of our favorite affordable timepieces.

Check Price Read Our Review

However, an automatic equivalent to any quartz watch will always have more bragging rights for those who want to flaunt their disposable income.

Another drawback to some is that the second hand doesn’t sweep as smoothly. I think it adds personality, but to each his own. Some quartz watches can also be a bit loud. The boisterous tick of a Timex is one of the brand’s hallmark features.

Citizen Watches promaster diver as part of edc

If your battery stops working and you forget to change it, it can permanently damage your timepiece. The battery can leak corrosive chemicals, which is why we can’t just throw them in the trash bin.

In my opinion, the worst part of having a quartz watch is the fact it won’t last you forever—technically. Functionally, they’ll last several decades, but as all electronics do, they’ll eventually die.

When this happens, you can either just accept that it’s a non-working accessory (again, please take the battery out) or get the movement replaced. The latter requires professional attention, ideally from the brand itself so they can outfit it with the same movement.

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And if the movement is retired, you’ll have to settle for another one. 

As I mentioned earlier, a quartz watch is low maintenance. It’s 99% no-fuss. However, that 1% fuss can be a real pain.

Automatic Watches: Benefits and Drawbacks

Vaer d5 dive timepiece

Not to be shallow, but to me, the main benefit of an automatic watch is that it’s cool. They’re a fun piece of engineering. That being the case though, I prefer automatic watches with an exhibition caseback.

For example, when you look at the back of Vaer’s D5, you can see the screws, layers of gold cogs, and even a branded rotor. I love when watches add decoration to the rotor.

VAER D5

Technically the D5 has a 39mm case, but because of the ceramic bezel and double-domed sapphire crystal it wears like a 40 or 41mm piece. With US assembly, 200 meters of water resistance, and 15 layers of lume, the D5 is far more than just a stylish piece---it's a functional work horse, too.

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From a horological perspective, I find automatics, and mechanicals in general, just more engaging. A cheap workhorse mechanical, that may not even be particularly attractive, is still fun to watch.

Vaer d5 sapphire display caseback

Plus, this is how watches have been made since the beginning of watches. Part of the cool factor is how mechanicals rooted in history. Remember, we wear watches for style and stories. Even automatic watches with solid casebacks can be conversation pieces.

Maybe the movement is certified by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (or COSC) for accuracy and durability. Or maybe it’s a heritage movement that you can’t find anymore. There are a lot of possible bragging rights with automatics.

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Relatedly, they’re considered “superior” because of all of this. Again, I don’t agree, but if that’s important to you, you should know many consider automatics “real watches” in that sense.

Still, if craftsmanship and tradition are important to you, I can understand why you agree that they’re superior. There’s as much art as there is science with a high-end movement. This is why brands rarely seek COSC-certification for quartz movements or set them in exhibition casebacks.

And, unlike quartz watches, a mechanical will never die because physics is constant. You may need to get an older timepieces serviced because of natural wear and tear. However, unless you’ve smashed the watch into tiny pieces with an anvil, they’ll always be operational or revivable. This makes them better family heirlooms.

Vaer d5 dive watch next to river

As far as drawbacks, I already mentioned that they tend to be more expensive than quartz watches. They’re also not as accurate, overall.

A run-of-the-mill quartz deviates -10 to +20 seconds a month. A COSC-certified automatic is required to be accurate within -4 to +6 seconds a day.

If you want a highly accurate automatic, you’ll definitely pay top-dollar. Meanwhile, the cheapest quartz watch in a mall will keep time better than many automatic watches several times its price.

best watch winders

I personally love winding watches. It adds to the prior-mentioned engagement factor. However, it can be a pain. If you haven’t worn your automatic watch in a few days and it goes past its power reserve, you’ll need to wind it.

And if you’re in a rush to get somewhere, this can be highly inconvenient. I speak from experience. Many, many experiences.

I also don’t see the point of an automatic watch that doesn’t have an exhibition caseback if its movement isn’t that special. If it’s not story-worthy, why am I settling for a less accurate, more expensive model? 

That’s just me though. I understand that for the horologically curious, an entry-level automatic can be a treat. No judgment.

Conclusion

closeup Vaer c3 details

So there you go.

If all you care about is affordability or accuracy (or both), go for a quartz watch. No automatic timepiece will ever be as cheap as an entry-level quartz watch. Moreover, you’ll need a pretty high-end mechanical to match the accuracy of a quartz.

They’re also far more convenient during their long life.

And of course, not all quartz timekeepers are just cheap fashion watches. Many are good, honest, and efficient. You can even find some pretty luxurious quartz models out there.

However, the ultimate luxury is an automatic watch. If you want a forever timepiece that you can flaunt, automatics are the way to go.

Bragging rights aside, opt for an automatic watch if you’re a horology nerd, like me. You can either admire the buttery sweep of the second hand or, if it has an exhibition caseback, watch the movement in action.

Winding an automatic isn’t always convenient, but it’s fun.

Make a list of the things you’re looking for in a watch. Perhaps more importantly, make a list of features you don’t want. From there, you can choose between these two movements.