The ontological discussion about the necessity of the Apple watch has forced me to reevaluate one of my more embarrassing facets: I am a Watch Guy. It’s a hobby that instantly brands you as one of those kinds of people – the ones that live in a world of leased 320i’s with eBay M-badging, webbed belts adorned with the Gucci tricolore, and maxed-out Nordstrom’s credit cards. This certainly comprises a large subsect of the watch-wearing demographic, and you’ll find no arguments herein against the blanket disdain of these folks. I come here to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
But lend me your ears.
A watch is essentially a machine that you strap to your arm. That’s pretty bitchin’! You’re halfway to Robocop with one purchase. With a few exceptions (including the Apple-helmed smartwatch market), they exist for a singular purpose: to tell you what time it is. Some throw in a lagniappe and tell you the date. Truly fine timepieces do both of these things and include a calculator, which is convenient for tallying up the sexual conquests achieved whilst wearing such a lust-inducing piece of technology.
Casio: The Wet-Maker.
Fun fact: calculator watches are not greenlit for use during the math portion of the SAT. Ask me how I know.
The Way You Move
Beyond the realm of Timexes and $9 Casios (which happen to be a favorite of GitMo-era Al Qaeda operatives), the watch world quickly spirals into a petty subculture that uses ambiguous words like craftsmanship and heritage to justify value. Nits are picked. Preferences on second hand placement are defended with a vigor unlikely to be found outside of a freshman philosophy course. Holy wars exist in all hobbies, and this one is no different. Without going too deep into the Matrix, I’d like to explain the two main distinctions behind how most wristwatches work.
The cool cogs you conjure in your mind when you think of a clockmaker are part of a mechanical watch movement. Most are powered by a spring that is wound by a spinny rotor mounted on the bottom part of the mechanism. The motion of your wrist spins the rotor and winds the spring and theoretically keeps the watch running perpetually if you wear it regularly. For this reason, they are often called automatics. This kind of mechanism has been around since the late 18th century when pocket watches were a thing, and are pretty nifty and complex when you take a look at them naked. They also use jewels as bearings, which is both ballin’ and mechanically interesting.
The cons? They’re expensive and fairly fragile. They inherently lose a few seconds per day and will go dead after 30-40 hours of non-use, so the “set-it-and-forget-it” mindset en vogue these days isn’t fulfilled. They’re also a bit more expensive, with the $65 Malaysian-made Seiko 5 being your best starting point. But just look at the little gears!
Not quite as sexy.
Quartz watches, also known as normal-ass watches, make up the majority of the market. These are battery-operated, which render them disgusting and barbaric for upper-echelon timepiece enthusiasts (note: the internet needs a standardized sarcasm font). If you ask me how they work in public, I’ll mumble something about piezoelectricity and walk away from you. Quartz watches were The Hot Shit when they became attainable in the early ‘70’s due to their accuracy and electronic simplicity compared to mechanical watches. They’re now the standard mechanism for pretty much every watch under $100 (and quite a few that are far over that figure).
The cons? Not much, really. They’re rugged as hell - Timex’s classic promise that they can take a licking and just keep ticking is fairly close to reality. Advances in battery technology and creative solutions like Citizen’s Eco-Drive mean the limited lifespan argument is practically dead. At this point, it’s more of a prestige thing: even though the tech going into these watches is fairly cutting-edge, a lot of people think it’s cooler to have an automatic’s little steampunk fiesta churning on their wrist than a solar-powered Atomic-clock-synced computer.
TL;DR - A Summary
So now you know the difference. The Automatic vs. Quartz debate is analogous to the transmission divide in the automotive world. Think of the quartz watches as continuously-variable transmissions: technologically advanced & efficient, more usable to 90% of the population, and reviled and dismissed by the culture’s purists. Automatics are the stickshifts in this analogy (which is a confusing statement): an old-school stalwart that, though outclassed in almost every category, has a mechanical allure that appeals to a specific type of buyer.
I prefer automatics. This is because A) I’m a snob and B) I find it absolutely hilarious that a machine can be powered by the motion of me eating popcorn or petting a puppy dog. Essentially, automatic watches are KINETICALLY ACTUATED MECHANICAL PARASITES. But that’s not to say that quartz watches are lame! Wear anything you want. Wristwatches are the last acceptable bastion of male jewelry, and it’s your opportunity to show a bit of your personality on your wrist.
Correction: wear anything you want except a goddamn Apple watch.