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Why do some quartz watches need the battery changing more frequently than others?

Most quartz watches are powered by a battery that powers an integrated circuit. Imagine the battery is a heart and the circuit is a human body. When the body is standing still it can be said to be doing nothing, but blood still flows from the heart around the circuit. Assuming the body has a finite energy resource it can maintain this static pose until power runs out. Now if you ask that body to physically push something the energy will deplete faster, the strain on the heart will increase, and the body’s lifespan will decrease. That’s the problem faced by the battery when you ask it to move the wheels that drive the hands and thus tell the time.

When allowing power to flow around the circuit the battery is barely flexing its muscles. The battery is just doing what it would do naturally and allowing power to flow all around it. The load, or drain, on the battery increases with the introduction of mechanical friction. As soon as the wheels come into play, powered of course by the bipolar motor, the friction of driving the train asks an awful lot of the power source.

In a Quartz Watch that has a seconds hand, an impulse is needed every second. However, for watches with no seconds hand, such a load can be reduced. It is not necessary for the motor to convert electric impulse into mechanical movement every single second, and so the impulse is ‘chopped’ into larger chunks, pulsing maybe once every 20, 30 or even 60 seconds in order to reduce the strain on the battery.

It is common for more power to be released during the date change phase of a quartz watch as it takes slightly more energy to power the movement during this period. This whole process is controlled by the Integrated Circuit (the IC), which reacts to the feedback it receives from the movement and distributes power accordingly, releasing extra juice when the movement needs a bit of a push.

For this reason, a digital watch has the lowest consumption and can get the most out of an identical battery asked to power an analogue quartz. Some analogue quartz watches are incredibly good at maximising battery life by reducing the number and weight of hands and by doing without a date function. A standard Swatch Skin watch is a good example of a lightweight, low-load quartz that will go for years without needing a battery change.

If your quartz is burning through batteries at an unusual rate this is probably due to excessive friction, which could be caused by dirt jamming up the wheels, a damaged tooth or old lubrication that needs replacing. It is a common misconception that the only thing that can go wrong with a quartz watch is the battery, although if there is a problem with the movement itself, it is more likely a watchmaker would exchange rather than fix it due to the cheapness of this revolutionary technology.

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The Gregorian Calendar

We take time for granted all the time.

It is there from the moment we are born, to the moment we die. It’s there always. Only, it isn’t really there.
We all seem to agree that things progress in a linear fashion, but the question of how to document, compartmentalise and live effectively within that passage is largely down to choice.

Sure, the heavens make it a lot easier by doing their thing on a relatively regular basis, but people haven’t always agreed on the best way to divvy-up the day so we can all get on with business.

In terms of telling the time itself, let’s keep things simple. Let’s stick with the way we do things now (the French did use decimal time for a short period during the revolution, but we’ll explore the headache that turned out to be at a later juncture).

Right now there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, and 365 days in all non leap years.

But that wasn’t always the case.

Nowadays, we use the Gregorian calendar. Previously we used the Julian calendar, which has 365.25 days exactly, meaning there was a leap year EVERY four years, but that is, despite popular misconception, no longer the case.

The difference is the fact that the Gregorian calendar omits the leap year on secular years (century years) unless they are divisible by 400 (there was a leap year in the year 2000, and will be one in 2400, 2800, 3200 etc.). This is to compensate for the errors accumulated over a long period of time.

So although we – those of us alive today – have never experienced the phenomenon, there was no leap year in 1700, 1800 or 1900, nor will there be one in 2100, 2200, 2300 and so on.

In 1582, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted, 10 days were omitted to correct the errors of the Julian calendar and the date jumped from Thursday 4th of October, to Friday the 15th.

If that’s not pub quiz gold, I don’t know what is.

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A brief explanation of Automatic Watches

The three main power sources in a watch are either the tension caused by a powerful spring stored inside a barrel that systematically releases its tension to power the watch movement, a conventional ‘button’ battery, or a capacitor, which is very similar to a battery but can be recharged by a variety of different mechanisms, such as solar power or, as with an automatic watch, the movement of the wearers wrist.

Seiko_AGSMany shop assistants – and thus their misinformed customers – often confuse automatic watches with watches containing a capacitor. Watches that are powered by a capacitor but charged by the movement of the wearer’s wrist are called kinetic watches. There is a myth surrounding these kinetic watches, frequently peddled by fundamentally false marketing campaigns that you will never need to change your ‘battery’ again. In a sense it is true, because they don’t even have a battery in them. They have a capacitor, which although does recharge, loses the ability to do so effectively in about 8 years, meaning, somewhat ironically, that a kinetic watch lasts about the same length of time without attention as an efficient digital, or a low-load analogue such as the Swatch Skin watches.

So how does the movement of the wearer’s wrist translate into power? It is achieved by an oscillating weight, which is attached to the movement and rotates around a fixed point when the watch is being worn.

There are a few different types of weight, such as a uni-directional weight that rotates fully but winds in one direction only, a bi-directional weight that winds no matter which way the weight is moving, a limited movement weight that bounces back and forth through about 300 degrees, an eccentric oscillating weight, which could be either uni- or bi-directional but is offset in its placement, and more archaic forms of winding weight such as the bidenator (kind of a back and forth motion like a pedometer) and the rarely used pawl lever system (good luck finding one of those).
Effectively, an automatic watch is a mechanical (wind up) watch, that doesn’t need to be hand wound if it is worn frequently, i.e. within the duration of its power reserve, which is usually at least 36 hours, and often much, much more thanks to new technology that has enabled the use of multiple barrels and mainsprings to power the watch.
So why is an automatic better than a pure mechanical?

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust auto movement

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust auto movement. Credit Vintage Watches. Reproduced under Fair Use.

Here’s the answer: during constant use, the mainspring always stays fully, or close to fully wound, meaning the supply of power to the escapement (that’s the part of the watch that releases the spring’s stored energy) is constant and sufficient to maintain high and steady amplitude (an advantage of storing your automatics on a watch winder).
As a watch runs down, amplitude falls. A fall in amplitude will show isochronous error, curb pin error and exaggerate any poising errors, so the maintenance of higher amplitude, as achieved by the constant winding of an automatic watch, is preferable.

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Is this the best time in history to be a watch enthusiast?

Before electronics burst onto the scene and threatened to derail the watch industry altogether, the choice of quality watches available to the average consumer was vast. In the early 20th century there were countless independent brands, many movement manufacturers and a level of diversity that proved unsustainable during the quartz revolution of the 1970s. We all know the story: most companies were forced to scale back production, to lay off staff, to hide in the shadows praying for a miracle. Many went bust altogether, their names consumed by the time they once helped record. But times have changed; light has spread to the darkest corners of horology, posing a new and blessedly optimistic question: is this the best time in history to be a watch enthusiast?

Although the well established old guard (the Pateks, the Vacherons, the Audemars Piguets etcetera) continue to grow and prosper, the brands that populate the entry-level luxury bracket are becoming more accessible and desirable thanks to a perfect storm of conditions that ultimately benefits the consumer. Never before has stylistic and material quality been so affordable.

The value of upper-echelon timepieces is rooted in their heritage. Centuries of reverence and the ability to call the horological hotbed of Jura home affords the wearer a certain degree of status. Because heritage inflates the value of a watch but cannot be bought, new companies – those energised by young and imaginative designers – are offering sublimely crafted products for a fraction of the cost of their revered forebears’ wares.

Entry-level luxury is a particularly competitive bracket, because it focuses on consumers that can just about afford to buy one of their products. The super-rich, from whose wrists the glimmer of Graff diamonds dazzle and distract, can generally afford a collection of classics. The limitations of the entry-level consumer means the companies trying to stand out from their peers need to offer a lot of bang for their impoverished client’s buck.

Obviously the movements in the entry-level luxury brands owned by the major companies are not handmade masterpieces. They are generally poorly finished examples of standard ETA movements. They may not be the best or most beautiful example of that calibre, but they do offer relatively good functionality for the price. The independents, who are more concerned with gaining a foothold than jacking up their profit margins, offer the best return on your investment. Stylistically unbound by youth, they challenge the customer to trade reputation for revolution. Those bold enough to take the plunge are often rewarded with an eye-catching piece that could, in years to come, look like the best penny stock pick-up you ever made.

We are blessed to live in such competitive times. We may not be able to afford a weekend Jaeger or a Royal Oak Offshore with matching yacht, but for the true fan, for the true lover of variety and diversity, of ingenuity and novelty, there has never been a better time to collect, share and enjoy wristwatches. And long may it continue.

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What is a bimetallic balance and how does it work?

Bimetallic balance wheels were an integral component of Harrison’s chronometers designed in the eighteenth century in an attempt to effectively discern longitudinal location. They provided a huge leap forward in accuracy. Modern materials have rendered them redundant but they can still be found swinging away in the heart of many an old watch.

A bimetallic balance is a screw balance wheel made of brass (on the outer rim) and steel (on the interior rim). Because of the differing temperature coefficients of the metals, they react differently under the influence of temperature. The steel hairspring used with these bimetallic balances is so thin it too expands and contracts under the influence of temperature. The fineness of the steel spring causes it to behave more like brass, which is far more reactive than steel (it has a higher temperature coefficient). In warm temperatures the brass will expand and pull the arms of the bimetallic balance out. This mirrors the effect an increase in temperature has on the steel hairspring. So when the temperature rises the spring AND the wheel expand so that they are still working in harmony. Similarly, under cold temperatures, the brass contracts, pulling the arms in (see diagrams below) to mirror the reaction of the hairspring. The steel component of the wheel is thick enough to not react to temperature changes (unless they are incredibly extreme). TO this end it acts as a base against which the brass can push or pull. Without the steel component of the wheel, the brass would be too reactive and flimsy and timekeeping would be atrocious.
Bimetallic balances are expensive and have fallen out of favour due to the discovery and refinement of new materials that boast a much lower temperature coefficient such as Elinvar springs, Glucydur balance wheels and, more recently, silicon.

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