Quartz watches are the ugly duckling of horology, an ingenious invention that for a short while in the 1970s threatened the very existence of the traditional Swiss watch industry and its mechanical marvels. It was the great disruptor: with more than 100 times the accuracy of a standard mechanical watch, quartz technology brought reliable timekeeping to the masses and kickstarted the democratisation of watchmaking.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the quartz watch was a paradigm-shifting technological advancement. However, ask the average watch fan their opinion today and you’ll be met largely with derision. In a marketplace that has pivoted ever-increasingly towards luxury timepieces assembled by expert craftspeople, the quartz watch has lost most of its innovative connotations and is instead a dirty word associated with cheap, mass-produced watches that are the very antithesis of the horological refinement so coveted by collectors.
But what if I were to tell you that there is at least one brand holding quartz watches to the same standards as its mechanical kin? The brand in question is perhaps unsurprisingly Grand Seiko, one of the world’s great movement innovators and also a watchmaker that prides itself on its craftsmanship.
Should you be curious about the Japanese watchmaker, I would quite confidently suggest that its exceptional 9F quartz watches are one of the best gateways options from which to begin a love affair with the brand.
The birth of quartz technology
Shiojiri in Nagano Prefecture is a sleepy Japanese city that for most of its history has been known for its salt production and agriculture, growing some of the finest grapes, apples, and pears in the country; so, basically, Kent. But since 1942, under the shadows of the Jonen and Hotaka mountain ranges, it has also played home to one of the most important facilities for watch innovation in the world: Seiko Epson.
Beginning life as a manufacturer of movement parts under the name Daini Seikosha (Suwa) and later Suwa Seikosha, the Seiko Epson facility has grown in both size and reputation over the last 80 years. It was here that Seiko’s first original movement design of a mechanical watch, the Seiko Marvel, was created in 1956; where engineers spent 20 years developing the ground-breaking Spring Drive movement; and indeed where the very first quartz wristwatch, the Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ, was produced in 1969.
For the previous decade, Suwa Seikosha’s Kazunari Sasaki had been fascinated with the prospect of improving a watch’s accuracy by increasing the frequency of the oscillator mechanism. The oscillator – whether that’s the balance wheel in a wristwatch or a pendulum in a grandfather clock – is the regulating organ of the device and transforms energy into periodic oscillation to ensure that time is measured precisely. Simply put, the faster an oscillator rotates, the higher its frequency and ultimately how precise a timekeeping device is capable of being.
It’s no exaggeration to say quartz was a paradigm-shifting technological advancement
Sasaki knew the limitations of using a balance wheel within a wristwatch as the oscillating mechanism, which led his team to turn their focus to a new technology that utilised an electrical current run through a quartz crystal. They theorised that using a small crystal as the oscillator could make it possible to drastically raise the number of oscillations compared to a mechanical watch and therefore significantly increase the overall accuracy. After ten years of research, they were proved right.
Modern quartz watches are powered by a 1.55V internal battery that applies a voltage to a crystal oscillator that causes it to vibrate 32,768 times per second, providing a very precise speed control signal. The formative Seiko Quartz Astron released in 1969 was ‘only’ able to create 8,192Hz, but compare that to a standard mechanical watch that typically runs between 2.5Hz and 5Hz and you can begin to understand the scale of this innovation.
Let me put it another way, a typical mechanical watch of the day was accurate to approximately +/-20 seconds per day, but the Quartz Astron was capable of +/-5 seconds per month. In an age where accuracy was the demarcation of the finest watchmaker – consider the fact the Neuchâtel Chronometer Competition, a stringent series of accuracy tests hotly contest by Swiss and Japanese manufactures alike, was at that time the watchmaking Olympics – Seiko had just blown the competition out the water.
It’s worth noting Seiko wasn’t the first brand to show an interest in the unique properties of quartz crystals, but it was the first to develop the technology required to make a quartz wristwatch commercially viable. For example, it was Seiko Epson that pioneered a crystal oscillator cut in the shape of a tuning-fork, and developed an integrated circuit (IC) and a tiny stepping motor to convert the electric signals into mechanical movements.
When the Seiko Quartz Astron launched on 25 December 1969, it was far from a mass-produced affordable timepiece. Beauty and function have always coexisted in a fine balance in Seiko’s design philosophy and, here too, we see these elements in harmony. It cost ¥450,000 (£2,460 in today’s money), a tidy sum for the time period and more expensive than many mechanical watches. It featured a textured 18k gold case and brushed dial – it was unapologetically a luxury product.
In terms of kickstarting the quartz watch revolution? Seiko resolved not to pursue the patent rights on its quartz tech, opening it up to the world, and in so doing defining the standard practice for quartz watches in the decades that followed. As the production process was streamlined and computerised, the price of a quartz watch plummeted and became accessible to the masses.
The world’s most advanced quartz watch
When Kintaro Hattori founded the Seiko corporation back in 1881, he did so with the express vision of being “always one step ahead of the rest”. Hattori prided himself and his company on being a dedicated manufacturer that continued to push the boundaries of horological innovation. It’s an ethos that Seiko still holds dear to its heart to this day, and none more so than within its prestigious Grand Seiko brand.
Grand Seiko is the pinnacle of the practical-use watch – combining expert craftsmanship with robust case designs and highly accurate movements – created within a fully integrated manufacture process. Almost every component is made in house, which gives the group absolute control over the quality of its products. It has also enabled its watchmakers to continue pushing the boundaries.
Twenty four years after the creation of the Seiko Quartz Astron, Grand Seiko’s Shinshu Watch Studio located at Seiko Epson took the quartz movement even further with the creation of the Caliber 9F in 1993.
The next-generation Caliber 9F built on the success of its originator and took its high-accuracy concept several steps further, with an exceptional accuracy rate of +/- 10 seconds per year and utilised a series of unique technical advancements to perform tasks previously inconceivable for a quartz watch. Indeed, despite its creation 30 years ago, it’s still recognised as one of the most advanced quartz movements on the planet.
The Caliber 9F is the embodiment of Grand Seiko’s fully integrated manufacture process. It begins, of course, with the quartz crystal itself, which is grown in the company’s own autoclaves located in northern Japan at an undisclosed location. Each of the crystals utilised in the Caliber 9F are individually selected and aged for 90 days to ensure performance is as stable as possible. The selected crystals are then regulated by an IC that is finely tuned to the individual characteristics of each individual crystal.
Think of the IC as a cox on a rowing boat, telling their crew how frequently they should row for optimal performance: once inside the watch, the movement samples the ambient temperature 540 times per day and the IC uses that information to adjust the frequency of the crystal to compensate. Remember: the key to a quartz movement’s precision is its high frequency, so maintaining this rate is crucial.
Despite being quartz, it’s hand assembled and adjusted in the renowned Shinshu Watch Studio
Perhaps the most important innovation inside the Caliber 9F is the use of a Twin Pulse Control Motor, which enables the movement to drive large hands around the dial, just as you’d find on any other Grand Seiko watch. Grand Seiko’s design philosophy was developed in 1967 for the iconic 44GS model. It combined nine principles of design that would consequently set a blueprint for each and every watch that followed. Pivotal to this philosophy was the balance of form (the interplay of light and shadow over the case) and function (the legibility and robustness of the case) to create the ultimate timepiece.
At the centre of each Grand Seiko design are thick angled hands that play an important role in both the aesthetics and the practicality of the watch itself. The trouble with traditional quartz watches is that they simply don’t produce the same high torque as a mechanical watch and therefore are not capable of moving such hands around a dial – instead employing thin light hands to carry out the job of telling the time.
The Caliber 9F’s Twin Pulse Control Motor solves this problem by moving the hands in two steps triggered by two successive pulses, like a weightlifter performing a clean and jerk instead of a snatch lift, that combine to create sufficient levels of torque.
There are other minute details that combine to leave the Caliber 9F unrivalled in its field. The Backlash Auto-Adjust Mechanism reduces nigh-on imperceptible ‘shuddering’ of the seconds hand to ensure it stops exactly on the second marker for maximum legibility, achieved by utilising a regulatory wheel featuring a hairspring, which minimises the backlash as the gear train turns. There’s also an Instant Date Change Mechanism, which ensures the date numerals automatically advance at midnight.
Grand Seiko also designed the main plate, the foundation of the quartz movement, to be twice the thickness of a standard plate to boost its strength and impact resistance.
But if there’s one fact that you should take away from the creation of the Caliber 9F it’s that this movement, despite being a quartz movement at its heart, is hand assembled and adjusted in the Shinshu Watch Studio right alongside its mechanical brethren.
Throughout the many stages of the watch production process, the painstaking Zaratsu case polishing process, which creates a mirror-like image in the case by removing the distortion from the surface metal; the dial workshop, responsible for Grand Seiko’s exceptional textured dials and distinctive hands; and the casing and movement assembly workshop, the mechanical and quartz Grand Seiko models are never segregated at any stage.
Should you find yourself at the heart of the Shinshu Watch Studio, you’ll see Grand Seiko artisans hunched over their workbenches, as if in prayer, assembling by hand either a Caliber 9F or Grand Seiko’s iconic Caliber 9R Spring Drive movement – in the very same room.
The final pivotal stage of each Caliber 9F is attaching the watch hands to the movement. All three hands on the watch sit on independent axes, a mere 0.2mm apart, to ensure the smoothest of hand rotation. It’s one of the most delicate procedures throughout the entirety of the process and it requires the close attention of one of Grand Seiko’s expert watchmakers. If that doesn’t demonstrate how artisanal this process is, I don’t know what else to tell you.
The only glaring difference (save for the beating heart of the movement) is that the Caliber 9F is uniquely finished in a gold colour, even though it won’t be visible through the caseback. It’s one wink and a nod to the lucky owner that this watch has been meticulously assembled to be the very best quartz model in existence.
At a starting price of £2,100 for Grand Seiko’s entry-level Caliber 9F models, I can scarcely think of a comparable brand – regardless of movement mechanics – that can match this level of watchmaking artistry and process. Besides the hardware, you’re owning a small piece of history from a highly innovative corner of Japan’s Nagano Prefecture. Sincerely, I can think of few stories quite as compelling in the entirety of watchmaking.
Indeed, the quartz watch might be the ugly duckling of the modern watch world, but in the hands of Grand Seiko’s peerless Caliber 9F it has become a swan.
For more information and to see the full range of Grand Seiko watches, go to grand-seiko.com