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The Value of Time

When an American made, quartz watch costs up to $1,500, and its counterparts from other countries, including Switzerland, range from $50 to more than $50,000, what’s the difference between them?

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The new American watchmaker: Members of the Shinola assembly line in the company's factory in Detroit. Photo by Romain Blanquart.


I recently walked into the San Francisco outlet for Tourneau, a leading supplier of fine wristwatches, and asked to see their most expensive quartz watch.

I focused on a quartz watch for a reason. Mechanical watches—those still run purely by gears, jewels, and springs—have become their own increasingly rarified art form. None of them can match the accuracy of the finest quartz movement, yet the sheer, microscopic magnitude of a mechanical watch’s achievement never ceases to amaze. No matter how accurate quartz watches get, and no matter how inexpensive, watch aficionados continually buy mechanical watches that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And, with a few very notable exceptions, each price level is an indication of something special about the functional quality of the watch.

Shinola watches are assembled from kits provided by Ronda, the Swiss watch component company that is a part owner in Shinola. Photo by Romain Blanquart.

Quartz watches, on the other hand, play an entirely different game. Since they are powered by a quartz battery, there are no springs—and there are a fewer number of gears. Most of the tricky stuff, therefore, is handled by this tiny battery. And that same battery goes into nearly every quartz watch, whether it’s a $50 Timex or a $50,000 Rolex. (Fact alert: Rolex doesn’t make quartz watches anymore, but when it did, they were something special, for reasons we will get to in a moment). So what creates a quartz watch’s gradations of price and, presumably, quality?

On this particular day, the top-of-the-line quartz model that Tourneau had on hand was no slouch. It was a Cartier, for women, priced at $42,000. “Is this the most accurate quartz watch in your store?” I asked with a sense of anticipation, waiting to be regaled with a watch dealer’s favorite pitch. “No,” said Tiffany Chin, my saleslady. “The Breitlings are the most accurate.”

“How much are they?” I asked. “They start at around $3,000,” Tiffany said. She went on to explain that even the cheapest Breitling in this range is 10,000 times more accurate than the $42,000 Cartier.

Maybe I’m out of synch with today’s consumer market, but to me, this made absolutely no sense. The whole point to a fine watch, I always thought, is its potential for precision. If you were to survey ads for watches, I’m willing to bet that is the descriptor you would see most often. A watch and precision are nearly synonymous in the popular imagination.

A few tools of the watchmaker’s trade. While this might not be brain surgery, the work does take concentration, and a steady hand. Photo by Romain Blanquart.

In the quartz world, it turns out, precision and price have almost nothing in common. All that value in the Cartier was in the shimmering line of diamonds that framed the watch’s miniscule, rectangular face—with a little extra value thrown in for an ingenious silver watchband, articulated to mimic snakeskin. With a watch like this, you’re not buying precision. “You’re buying a sculpture for your wrist,” Tiffany explained.

OK, but if the engines of the two watches are essentially the same, what makes one quartz watch so much more accurate than the other? “The Breitling is a super quartz,” Tiffany said. This wasn’t just hype—she said this with a completely straight face. In recent years, quartz watch makers have pioneered new ways for quartz watches to regulate time. Most use “thermal compensation systems,” which can read and respond to the temperature on your wrist. Others use self-regulating miniature computer programs, which become even more accurate as the watch ages. These quartz systems are special enough to have earned their own acronym: HAQ, for “high accuracy quartz.”

Even a battery-powered quartz watch requires up to 100 different components. Most are small enough that the watchmaker needs to use tweezers. Photo by Romain Blanquart.
A nearly finished Shinola watch, featuring an Aragonite 5021 quartz movement, made by Ronda. The price of a Shinola watch ranges from $500 to $1,500. Photo by Romain Blanquart.

But HAQ movements are rare, and you will definitely know it if you purchase one. This means your $40 Timex can match that $42,000 Cartier step for step, year after year. “You’re basically buying the same time,” says Anne-Marie de Gramont of San Francisco’s Gears & Jewels, an expert watch repair shop. Paul Seregin, another watchmaker and repair specialist, is even more brutal. “Mechanical watches are works of art,” he says. “A quartz watch is more like an appliance.” What about these fancy, HAQ watches? “It’s still an appliance. It runs on a circuit board. If something goes wrong you just throw away the movement and buy a new one.”

Seriously, it’s that simple? For standard quartz watches, apparently so. On the open market, most quartz movements sell for $20 to $30, and many cost half that much. None, even for those driving all kinds of “complications”—extra dials for such things as dates and months and stop-watch systems—cost more than about $100.

Nor, in most watchmakers’ opinions, are these watches particularly difficult to make. The work is fussy, and it takes some training. But not an inordinate amount, because virtually every quartz watch is produced on an assembly line these days. “Even in Switzerland,” says de Gramont.

For an outfit like Shinola, which is one of the only U.S. companies making watches on American soil these days, that fact tells two stories. Its watchmaking operation may not require the rarified skills that are implied by some of the company’s marketing materials. But that’s OK. Today, most Swiss watchmakers are just appliance builders, too.

More stories from this issue:

Can the U.S. Bring its Supply Chain Back Home?

The Shinola Polish

Walmart’s Made-In-USA Shell Game

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