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07/21/2020
 5 minutes

Vintage Quartz Watches: Worth a Closer Look?

By Theodossios Theodoridis
Header 2_1_Vintage Quartz – Omega Seamaster – ZEIGR-7242

Vintage Quartz Watches: Worth a Closer Look?

Quartz watches get a pretty bad rap, particularly among discerning watch collectors and connoisseurs. I can understand it – though only to a certain degree. Of course, it’s a let-down when you open a watch that looks like a classic from the outside only to find a lot of white plastic (movement holding ring) and a tiny little movement with a battery, a coil, and some other not very pretty components on the inside. At least that’s how I felt the first time I opened an analog quartz watch. There was no evidence of watchmaking artistry – it was merely electronics squeezed into a tiny space. And plastic.

Beautiful Quartz Movements: An Oxymoron?

Following such a disappointment, I was beyond surprised the first time I opened a vintage Omega Seamaster Quartz from the 70s. It presented a completely different picture. Next to all the circuitry, a chip, and a battery, I found rose gold-plated (!) movement components, and most importantly, there were some mechanics going on.

Omega Seamaster Quartz movement, Image: Zeigr
Omega Seamaster Quartz movement, Image: Zeigr

If you’re not convinced, here is proof that not all quartz movements are created equal. I found and opened both watches again to show them side-by-side:

Left: Vintage Omega Seamaster Quartz, approx. 1977, caliber 1342. Right: Fossil quartz watch with triple date and moon phase (approx. late 80s/early 90s), Image: Zeigr
Left: Vintage Omega Seamaster Quartz, approx. 1977, caliber 1342. Right: Fossil quartz watch with triple date and moon phase (approx. late 80s/early 90s), Image: Zeigr

Even the most stubborn quartz opponent will have to admit that there is a difference. Whether that’s enough to call a quartz movement beautiful or not is still a separate issue. If you ask me, I like the old “fine quartz movements” that various luxury watch manufacturers developed and built during the quartz crisis. I just find them exciting.

You have to keep in mind that these old luxury quartz watches represent a not entirely insignificant chapter in watchmaking history. If you have a mind for history, you can’t really avoid them – or quartz watches in general, for that matter.

Thanks, Quartz Crisis!

The quartz crisis struck a heavy blow on mechanical watch manufacturers. In the late 1960s/early 70s, the market saw the arrival of Japanese quartz watches that were significantly more precise, cheaper, and less complicated. They made mechanical watches all but redundant, relegating them to the shadows. After all, the primary function of a watch is to tell the time as precisely and reliably as possible, and quartz watches have a clear advantage here. The average watch consumer recognized this and gravitated towards the more modern timekeepers. The good old mechanical watch was obsolete. Sadly, this spelled bankruptcy for many Swiss and German companies.

Some well known Swiss manufacturers, whether they wanted to or not, adapted to the times and began producing their own quartz watches. As dramatic as the quartz crisis must have been back then, we have it to thank for some very interesting quartz models from famous luxury brands such as Omega, Jaeger LeCoultre, IWC, Cartier, Heuer, Breitling, Girard Perregaux, and even Patek Philippe and Rolex.

Yes, you read that right. All of these traditional brands turned to quartz and have survived to this day despite – or perhaps even because of – the quartz watch. Some of them still include quartz models in their repertoire, though they’re not necessarily shouting it from the rooftops. That’s probably due to image concerns. Mechanical is simply classier and more luxurious.

Watches in the Space Age & 70s Design: A Matter of Taste

My advice is to, for a moment, forget any prejudice and take a look at some vintage quartz models from major watch brands. Granted, in so doing, you’re bound to find a few odd 70s designs that inspire more confusion than enthusiasm. Indeed, some of these watches spring directly from the experimental “Space Age.”

Omega Seamaster TV
Omega Seamaster TV

However, if you have a bit of patience, you’ll definitely also find one or two quartz treasures with more pleasing designs, such as this vintage diving watch. I bought it a few years ago because I very badly wanted a vintage Heuer in my collection. It’s a Heuer Professional 1000M (ref. 980.023) from the 1980s – before the merger with TAG:

Heuer Professional 1000M Quartz
Heuer Professional 1000M Quartz

Vintage Quartz Watches: Pros and Cons

A major advantage of these watches – aside from their precision and truly unpretentious movements – is their affordability. Vintage quartz watches are far from most people’s radar, and that is often reflected in the price. As I mentioned, they have a bad image, and the average watch snob will turn their nose up at any quartz timepiece.

On the other hand, enlightened collectors take advantage of the situation and buy these watches, some of which are very rare, for relatively low prices. That’s because vintage quartz watches are generally significantly more affordable than their mechanical (yet aesthetically nearly identical) counterparts.

Popular opinion would have you believe that the issue of repairing and maintaining these watches puts them at a disadvantage. Let’s blow that theory right out of the water: Quartz watches can run smoothly for 20-30 years or longer without any professional servicing. Only the occasional battery change is necessary. In this regard, their mechanical counterparts are significantly more vulnerable and dependent on servicing. By the way, that’s one of the reasons why modern militaries prefer quartz watches over expensive mechanical watches. Interesting, isn’t it?

Heuer Professional 1000M Quartz, opened
Heuer Professional 1000M Quartz, opened

But what happens if there actually is a defect? Well, it’s absolutely possible to repair quartz watches. Watchmakers still learn this skill today, as I learned when I visited the watchmaking school in Glashütte. However, whether they want to do it and whether it’s worth the trouble for them and the customer are separate issues. In general: The cheaper the quartz watch, the less it’s worth repairing. The more valuable and rare the watch is, the more you should consider it.

As for the availability of replacement parts? That’s where it could get tricky for vintage watches, although both mechanical and quartz models face this problem. The best thing you can do is research before buying. You can check in advance how easily a specific movement and/or its components can be replaced. Apparently, there are even some collectors who, when buying a vintage quartz watch, will also buy a second watch with the same movement so they can mine it for parts later should the need arise. In that case, it really doesn’t matter what the second watch looks like. It’s all about movement inside.

Of course, you could also send your vintage quartz watch directly to the manufacturer for servicing. However, that option is (even more) pricey and usually only worth it for very rare and expensive watches.

If your interest has been piqued and you’d like to start shopping around a bit, here are three quick vintage quartz tips:

  • Omega Seamaster, Geneve, Constellation
  • Jaeger LeCoultre Master Quartz
  • Heuer Professional, Kentucky

The Queen of Quartz Watches

Yes, even Rolex came out with a quartz watch in the late 70s. It’s hardly thinkable today, but it happened. With the Rolex Oysterquartz, the Genevan company wanted (and probably had to) get with the times. That goes not only for the quartz movement but also the design itself. The result was a very striking, almost angular Rolex with an integrated wristband.

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Today, these models are a relatively inexpensive point of entry into the world of vintage Rolex watches. Prices currently begin beneath the $3,000 mark.

That’s all I have to say on the topic of vintage quartz watches. Whether they’re worth taking a look at really comes down to the individual. I hope this article was able to do away with the common prejudices and concerns regarding vintage quartz watches, at least to a certain degree.

Read more

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Grand Seiko: From a Single Model to a Luxury Brand


About the Author

Theodossios Theodoridis

Theo has been passionate about watches since the 80s and 90s. Today, his collection contains around 40 watches, including timepieces from Omega, Sinn, and Heuer. …

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