In watch spheres, the quartz vs. mechanical debate is contentious. On one hand quartz is, technically-speaking, better in every measurable regard: more affordable, more accurate, easier and cheaper to maintain. On the other hand, mechanical watches are works of art, meticulously put together and superior in the little ways in which they function. Neither side is right or wrong, and both arguments have their merits. But what if enthusiasts could have the best of both worlds — in the beloved chronograph, no less?
While those looking for the “feel” and craftsmanship of a mechanical watch have a variety of affordable, basic three-hand options, the mechanical chronograph is among the “complication movements,” highly intricate movements that require more time and money to engineer and that therefore tend to cost an arm and a leg. Quartz chronographs, however, are relatively simple to engineer. In a standard quartz watch, the electrical signal given off by the battery and quartz crystal drive a stepper motor. To add the chronograph function, more stepper motors are added to drive each hand on the chronograph movement. And, in addition to being inherently more accurate and affordable, a stepper motor can pulsate at a very high frequency, allowing the chronograph to measure very small fractions of a second.
The downside? The quartz chronograph loses out on the mechanical feel. For one, the pushers on a quartz chronograph lack the satisfying click of a mechanical’s. What’s more, a quartz chronograph’s hands slowly sweep back to the zero position when they reset, a process that takes a few seconds, whereas a mechanical chronograph instantly resets to zero.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, in the midst of the so-called Quartz Crisis, two Swiss manufactures, Frédéric Piguet and Jaeger-LeCoultre, attempted to correct these small foibles and add their own value to the rapidly growing market of quartz watches by adding a mechanical component to a standard quartz chronograph. The watch’s standard time function was still run by a quartz-powered stepper motor. But instead of having each hand of the chronograph movement powered by a separate stepper motor, as in a normal quartz chronograph (in addition to the stepper motor powering the main time function), a single stepper motor powered a set of connected gears that split the motor’s power among the chronograph functions. By using the connected mechanical components powered by one motor to drive all functions of the chronograph, the Swiss companies were able to bring back the clicking sensation in the pushers as well as the instant reset to zero.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, in the midst of the so-called Quartz Crisis, two Swiss manufactures, Frédéric Piguet and Jaeger-LeCoultre, attempted to correct these small foibles and add their own value to the rapidly growing market of quartz watches.
These early mechanical quartz (mecha-quartz) hybrid movements were used in a variety of luxury watches during the late ’80s and throughout the’90s. Frédéric Piguet’s mecha-quartz movements powered a variety of watches from Breitling, Omega, Chopard and Bulgari. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s mecha-quartz movements ended up in some Jaeger-LeCoultre chronographs, but were more commonly used in IWC and Porsche Design watches. The original Swiss mecha-quartz watches never really caught on, fading into obscurity in the early 2000s.
The original mecha-quartz may have made a small and somewhat strange footprint on watchmaking history, but Seiko has recently brought back its own version of the hybrid movement, which is used in a number of affordable chronographs from the brand. What’s more, Seiko has made a version of the mecha-quartz available to independent, boutique watch startups for use in their own chronograph watches.
Thus, those interested in the weird and wonderful world of the mecha-quartz watch have two different paths to go down: track down a rare, luxury branded pieces from the ’80s and ’90s and spend a couple thousand dollars to own a piece of history, or go for one of the many readily-available and affordable Seiko-powered timepieces. In either case, we’ve picked six of our favorite new and vintage versions.
Brand New and Affordable
Using a Seiko-exclusive version of the mecha-quartz movement dubbed 6T63, the Seiko SSB series is made up of the brand’s ultra-affordable chronograph watches. The movement is encased in a 40mm stainless steel case that features a tachymeter scale and water resistance up to 100 meters. Coming in at well under $200, the SSB series Seikos are a fantastic first chronograph for your collection.
Belmoto Track Day
Started by the same man who founded Magrette (makers of some of our favorite Panerai homage watches), Dion McAsey, Belmoto watches use similar Panerai Radiomir-shaped cases and add some retro motoring edge. The brand does both three-hand and chronograph watches, with the chronographs using the VK64 mecha-quartz movement Seiko ships to third-party watchmakers. One of the finest examples from the model range is the Track Day chronograph, in a PVD case finish and matte silver dial.
Autodromo is an automotive lifestyle brand that sells gloves and sunglasses, but their first products (and their bread and butter) were watches. The Prototipo is their chronograph, and it uses the same VK64 movement as the Belmoto. It is encased in a cushion-shaped stainless steel case and affixed to a perforated leather rally strap, a look entirely reminiscent of the boldly designed chronographs of the 1970s and the ultra-fast prototype race cars of the same era.
Vintage and Rare
Jaeger-LeCoultre Heraion Chronograph
Jaeger-LeCoultre made two different mecha-quartz movements, the Cal 630 and the Cal 631, in 1987. The Calibre 630 didn’t see much use, but the 631 was widely used in the late ’80s and the ’90s in a variety of JLC, IWC and Porsche Design watches including the Jaeger-LeCoultre Heraion, a compact 35mm timepiece adorned with a pulsemeter around the bezel that was available in steel, 18k gold or a combination of the two.
IWC Schaffhausen Fliegerchronograph Cal 631
The Jaeger-LeCoultre 631 was also commonly used in a simpler pilot’s chronograph from IWC. The Fliegerchronograph uses the same Cal 631 mecha-quartz movement as the Jaeger-LeCoultre Heraion, and encases it in a steel (though some were made in 18k gold) 36mm case without any additional bezel or scales and a dial with big, legible Arabic numerals.
Breitling Windrider Chronoracer Rattrapante
Technically, it uses a Breitling movement, but the Breitling Cal 69 movement in the Windrider Chronoracer Rattrapante is based off of the Calibre 1271 made by Frédéric Piguet. This oddball Breitling also features a rattrapante (German for split-second) complication that allows for the timing of split laps during a race.