Quartz vs Mechanical

Choosing between an Automatic or Quartz Military Watch

Deciding whether to opt for a quartz or mechanical military watch is sometimes a difficult decision to make. Interestingly I often find at watch fairs etc that younger watch buyers sometimes do not even know that watches without batteries exist! They often consider winding a watch to be totally archaic but it is interesting that once they know the options and the principals of an automatic self winding watch are explained to them it often grabs their attention and becomes much more appealing. I always point out that most military issue watches are actually quartz these days but that automatic variants are frequently made by manufacturers such as CWC, Marathon and MWC for sale to private purchasers or serving military and also to individuals such as ex military, Police security staff or pilots. Of course military watches up to around 1980 were historically handwound and many famous models such as the GG-W-113, W10 and A-11 are still made today to the original specifications although some have upgraded cases and automatic movement options as opposed to manual wind.

   

GG-W-113                                                                    A-11

These are the questions people often ask me.

What is an automatic self-winding watch?
The first watches were handwound mechanicals. Then in the late sixties and early seventies manufacturers in Japan and Europe - at pretty much the same time - started to manufacture self-winding automatics. Interestingly the first automatic watch was the invention of a British watch repairer named John Harwood in 1923 but for some reason it took around 40 years for the automatic watch to reach commercial production. Automatic watches are as the name suggests, nothing more than mechanical watches that do not need to be manually wound on a daily basis.  A half-rotor mechanism moves with your body motion winding the watch automatically by using your kinetic energy.



An ETA-2824-2 Movement as used in the Marathon SAR

Are automatic watches superior?
I always explain that it is not so much a question of better, it's a question of personal preference and a deciding factor is often how often you wear it. Although it is estimated that over 80% of watches sold these days are quartz I always point out that a hand-wound or automatic watch has vastly more character. Clearly, there is something different about watching a second hand sweep around the dial as opposed to the one second increments of a quartz watch. In my mind it is all a bit like comparing a Harley-Davidson XR1200X or a Triumph Thruxton to a Yamaha or Honda equivalent, the Japanese bikes might do everything really well (possibly better) but in my mind they can't come close when it comes to character and originality.

Isn't it a nuisance to have to keep wearing an automatic to keep it wound?
The answer to this is yes and no. Any automatic watch generally has a power reserve of 30-50 hours depending on the movement but they can also be handwound if you don't wear it. The other option is to buy a watch winder. The following site has an excellent article regarding automatic watch winders http://www.chronocentric.com/watches/winders.shtml Personally I have 3 automatic watches and a watch winder that keeps them running 24/7 so I can pick one and wear it whenever I choose. In my opinion for automatic watches you wear frequently, but not continuously, a winder is the only practical solution to keep them ready to wear at a moments notice. If this convenience is worth the cost of a winder to you, and I can say with 100% certainty that it is for me then go for it! Keep in mind that the biggest single advantage of a winder for watches not used on a daily basis is that it saves the hassle not only of setting the hands but also the date - and day if the watch has one.

Isn't a quartz watch a lot less hassle if it just keeps running regardless if you wear it or not?
A quartz watch goes for 3 to 10 years between battery changes and never needs winding. It is also accurate to within a minute a month and many are as good as 15 seconds a month or better, in comparison the automatic generally manages accuracy of five to ten seconds per day. Quartz military watches are also generally less expensive than automatic or handwound variants and apart from a battery change every few years they don't require much servicing other than new seals occasionally, and as long as they continue to manufacture batteries for it, it's conceivable for a quartz watch to literally go on for decades, maybe centuries! I bought a quartz LED watch at a watch fair from 1975 put a battery in and off it went. One point to keep in mind is that some military watches from manufacturers such as CWC and MWC still retain a battery hatch which makes swapping the battery a 5 minute job. One consideration with a battery swap is that you need to pressure-test the watch to ensure its water resistance if it will be used for swimming or in the shower so any battery exchange needs to be done by a jeweller who has the equipment to do the job properly.


A High Quality CWC Mechanical Chronograph Movement

Can I wind my automatic automatic by hand?
Most automatics enable the owner to wind up the watch in much the same way as a handwound mechanical but keep in mind that with some self-winding mechanisms, the rotor and winding system is less efficient and it would require the owner to either keep turning the crown or moving the watch back and forth for several minutes before it starts and can hold sufficient energy to run for more than a few minutes.  This is the reason why with most brands - especially military watches - the ability to wind up the watch manually has been retained.  When you wear the watch even those with a less efficient movement will will be wound fully by the motion of your wrist throughout the day which will fully wind the mainspring automatically. Most self-winding watches, when fully wound, will run continously for 30-50 hours which is anywhere from 3 to 20 hours longer than most handwound watches.

Can I overwind my automatic watch and damage it?
Fortunately Not.  Automatics will disengage from winding when the watch is fully wound.  As the power runs down at some preset point it automatically engages and starts winding again until it has a full charge then the process starts again.

Automatic Watches General Maintenance:
Although automatic and mechanical watches do not have batteries, some routing maintenance is vital for continued and long term reliability. Our general guidelines are that if you wear your Automatic daily and it has  a manual wind feature, it is best to wind it by hand every two weeks with the winding stem (crown) this keeps the wheels in motion and ensures oil does not solidify. When you remember just wind the crown a few turns - say 15-20 - and it will keep things ticking over. This is not crucial but it seems beneficial in my experience.

If you don't not wear your Automatic watch daily, you should wind the watch once or twice a week to ensure the mechanism remains in complete running order. 


Maintaining a handwound watch:


A Typical Handwound Military Watch Movement

Although we are mainly looking at Automatics as a point of interest if you own a handwound watch it is best to try to remember to wind it at the same time every day. This is important as far as the movement is concerned. Many collectors I know of military watches make winding it every morning when they wake up or when they get to their desk a daily routine.One thing to avoid is winding it in the bathroom if it has a tiled floor because you only need to drop it once and it can be a virtual write off especially if it is a very old model with scarce availability of parts.

Another thing is to avoid setting the day and/or date (if your watch has these functions) at night. The reason for this is that the day-date mechanism is always activated during the night and could be seriously disrupted if set at this time. For this reason always aim to set it after midnight and before say 7pm. Another consideration is that automatic and mechanical watches although shock proof can suffer damage if you are playing a sport requiring violent arm motions (e.g. tennis, golf, cricket, squash etc), there is also a risk that hands can be dislodged. Another thing which can wreak havoc surprisingly with any watch including military watches is firing a large calibre weapon. This is the reason a lot of front line guys buy a g-shock because that avoid the problems of shock dislodging the hands.

How do I ensure maximum life from my watch?
I usually recommend you take it in every 18 months to 2 years to a good watchmaker or jeweller, lots of collectors say it should go in every year but personally I think every two years is fine. Basically every watch should be serviced, including quartz analog watches which although they don't need much do need waterproof seals etc.  In my experience almost all watches will run fine with a basic lube and tune up once every two years. Interestingly a lot of enthusiasts and watchmakers I know reckon you could let them go 4-5 years because modern synthetic lubricants do not tend to pool and congeal but to play safe - especially if it is an old military watch or even a standard old handwound or automatic - I still feel it is wise to take it in every couple of years.  Treated right a mechanical watch should keep going indefinitely. I am often asked how long a mechanical watch should last and my answer is always the same "forever if you keep maintaining it and replacing parts as needed".  

The most important single factor is that if you have a water-resistant watch, and you use your watch frequently around water and especially sea water, take it in annually for a new set of seals.  Otherwise, it will start to leak eventually.  Most seals are natural rubber and they will rot and become brittle which can lead to leaks around the stem and the case back.  One way to accelerate the deterioration of the seals in your watch is to use it in the tub or shower because soap or soapy water, hand creams and lotions all cause problems.  Personally I use my Rolex Submariner, Marathon and MWC divers watches everywhere as the mood takes me, this includes both the tub and sauna which are definite no no's, it goes against everything I have been told but I take a chance and so far no problems - thankfully - but this is a very unwise thing to do - slap on wrist LOL! - and I do not recommend anyone else does it but there you have.  

Don't things wear out?  How can it last forever?
Modern mechanical and self winding watches have what are termed as 'jeweled' movements.  These jewels are not real precious stones they are synthetic rubies which are placed at specific pivot points throughout the watch where the parts are most stressed.  Prior to the development of synthetic rubies, real rubies were used and this was often in combination with hardened steel bushings.  Modern synthetic rubies are to all intents and purposes as good as the real thing and don't wear down at any appreciable rate.  The rubies keep your watch running smoothly and when the watch is maintained correctly they ensure the watch will last for generations.  So I guess the question now is will a quartz watch last for generations?  In my opinion the answer is yes, and if the battery is discontinued? Not a problem just fit a new movement.