Quartz Revolutionized the Watch Industry. So What Is It?

A guide to the material that ushered in a new era for the watchmaking industry.

Reading about watches can often feel like cracking open a textbook. Browsing—and even buying—means being barraged with inscrutable words and phrases like ”tourbillons,” “perpetual calendars,” “minute repeaters,” and so on. So here, we'll be breaking down the meaning, history, and importance of different watch terms.

Quartz is one of the most abundant materials on earth. It’s found in sand and stones, among other places—and it’s also tucked inside a large majority of watches worn today.

That’s relatively new: Up until the 1970s, the watch industry was dominated by Swiss masters, companies that produced watches powered by intricate movements that required skilled craftsman to put together. Of course, these came with a price commensurate with the manpower and skill put into them. Quartz simplified the equation—it replaced all the complicated machinery with a straightforward mechanism that not only made watches much more affordable to the average person but also made them more accurate.

In the watch world, quartz is often talked about in melodramatic terms: the Quartz Crisis, as it’s popularly called, sprung up following the material’s introduction. The effects of the mineral on the industry were catastrophic. There were 89,450 people employed in the watch industry in 1970, but that figure fell to 28,000 just 18 years later, according to Hodinkee.

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So, quartz is a mineral that totally reshaped the watch market. But what is it? As it relates to watches, quartz is a stand-in for the complicated arrangement of gears and wheels that make mechanical watches work. Think of a grandfather clock: it keeps time by swinging a pendulum once every second. Quartz keeps time in a similar way (by completing an action once every second), but the mineral’s way is much more accurate. Quartz naturally vibrates a very precise 32,768 times each second. When hooked up to a small electric motor, quartz sends an electric signal on every 32,768th vibration, which then makes the hands tick forward every second. (Quartz watches produce the effect we’re thinking of when we imagine a watch’s signature tick tick tick; hands on a mechanical watch glide.)

And although quartz would one day democratize the watch industry, it didn’t start that way. The Seiko Astron, the very first quartz watch available to consumers, was originally made available on Christmas Day 1969 for $8,000, the equivalent of over $50,000 today. Prices plunged quickly, though: By the mid ‘70s, a quartz watch ran in the low double digits. Japanese brands like Seiko ate up large chunks of those sales. But the Swiss watch industry finally came up with an answer to its problem when Nicolas Hayek started Swatch in1983 and started exporting millions of plastic watches around the globe. Now Swatch is the de facto starter watch for mallgoers.

Watches, once only available to those well-heeled enough to buy one, suddenly flooded the market. To this day, quartz is what the average person wears on their wrist everyday. A watch that can be had for less than a couple hundred dollars—so, most watches from the likes of Swatch, Casio, Seiko, Shinola, Timex, Daniel Wellington, and the rest—is most likely powered by quartz.

In response to the cheaper and more accurate quartz watches, prestige watchmakers like Patek Philippe started pushing craftsmanship, their heirloom-grade quality, and nebulous qualities like soul. These are great qualities to sell collectors on who are now willing to spend millions of dollars on the very best mechanical watches. But who needs soul when a quartz-powered Casio watch can be bought today for $11?