Chronography 8: Meca-Quartz—Is It Really the Poor Relation?

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What is it about meca-quartz chronos? They have a knack of getting an opinion from even the calmest, most relaxed of watchies. Like most arguments, it’s simple enough in principle. You can have a mechanical chronograph powered by a mainspring, regulated by a balance wheel and controlled with a set of precision levers, hammers and gears. Or you can have a meca-quartz chronograph, powered by a battery, regulated by a quartz crystal and controlled with a set of precision levers, hammers and gears. But suggest to some watchies that meca has a value all of its own and you might as well have tried to argue that Hublot make tasteful, restrained, classical timepieces.

So, is it the best of both worlds with quartz accuracy and a mechanical feel, or a battery-powered compromise gone too far?

Being blunt, the market has a very clear view indeed. Go shopping for IWC’s splendid meca-quartz Flieger ref. 3741-001 and you’ll pay around £1,900 ($2,778) on the secondhand market. Chase a very similar but mechanically-powered ref. 3706 and you’ll be handing over a number closer to £3,300 ($4,825).

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IWC ref. 3706
IWC ref. 3741

Of course, there’s a huge irony here that exposes what a daft place Watchworld is. The meca-quartz will need less servicing than the mech, it will be more accurate and more robust, and it will look to all the world as though it’s powered by a coiled spring. You could even argue that, because quartz puts less of a torque strain on its components than spring-powered mechs, the meca-quartz is a more horologically pure choice. But it’s still less desirable and cheaper.  No one ever said watches (or watch collectors) had to make sense.

So what’s the difference between a meca-quartz movement and a mechanical one? At its simplest, a meca-quartz is as its name suggest—a hybrid. It has a battery powering the movement through coils and a quartz oscillator, but the chronograph is mechanically actuated and controlled. Push the start/stop button and the second hand steps into action—and resets—just like a mechanical movement would. Look inside the case and you’ll see proper heart pieces, reset hammers, and levers. In fact, the meca Piguet cal. 1271 rattrapante is a proper, high-end, vertical clutch column-wheel chronograph that just happens to be powered by a battery and regulated by a crystal. It’s a beauty of a movement, but still gets people turning up their horo-illogical noses because it doesn’t have a spring.

Mecha-Quartz_Piguet1271.
Breitling cal. 69; base Piguet 1271

This sort of irrationality has never bothered Seiko. You can trace the origins of the meca-quartz to their brilliant and properly ground-breaking 7a28 movement. Keep in mind that back in 1982, quartz chronographs were still going bleep bloop and flickering a screen of LCD digits. Seiko decided there was no reason that a watch shouldn’t have quartz accuracy with analogue legibility, and thus produced the 7a28.

SEIKO_7a28-movement-4
Seiko 7a28

Seiko planned to take on the Swiss at their own game. So rather than a modular, disposable plastic movement, the 7aXX series boasts a proper, quasi-decorated 15-jewel metal movement that could be regulated, disassembled and repaired. It even has a very traditional finger damper spring on the centre seconds pinion. Seiko really threw investment, thinking and effort into this one. This explains why, despite often impressive abuse, so many survive.

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So the 7a28 was a proto-meca that laid the foundation for the future. Okay, so the chronograph doesn’t snap-reset, and there are no hammers, levers or column wheels to keep things moving, but if the modern VK series of movements had a paternity test there’d be little doubt about the outcome (but more on the VK series later).

For the first real meca, though, you need to look to Jaeger LeCoultre and their 630 and 631 calibers. Introduced towards the end of the 1980s, these were impressively thin (half the depth of a Valjoux 7750) and, with the crystal oscillating at 32,768Hz, splendidly accurate, gaining or losing just a second or so per month. And if your watch-related OCD is particularly bad, the 630 series were all adjustable via a small screw on the backplate of the movement.

These weren’t utility engines either. JLC went to the trouble of rhodium plating the movements and finishing them with côtes de Genève. They found their way into IWCs—running Flieger watches as well as the Ingenieur and the Porsche Design series. JLC used them widely too, later adding a moon-phase complication as well as an alarm function.

Mecha-Quartz_JLC631
JLC cal. 631

But it’s Seiko we have to thank for taking the meca-quartz idea and making it their own at a price that doesn’t cause a squeal. The cals. VK63, 67 and 83 are powering all sorts of watches from the likes of Autodromo to, well, Seiko. It’s not a pretty movement in the way the 7a28 or the cal. 630 were, but it does give the feel of a mechanical chronograph, and the visual action of one too.

Sneak a look inside and you’ll see that the VKs use proper levers, hammers, wheels and heart pieces. Push the top button and you get a crisp, mech-style snick and the chrono steps off smartly, ticking in 1/5 sec increments—just like a mech. Push the stop button at 4 o’clock and you get the same crisp, mechy snick as the chrono stops. Press it again and the hand snaps straight back to 12.  If I hadn’t let you in on the secret, you might just think you had an auto on your wrist.

On the VK series, the small running seconds is always at 6 o’clock, but the other dials vary a little. On the VK63, for example, there’s a 60-minute counter at 9 o’clock and a 24 hour sub-dial at 3. The VK67 moves the chronograph minute hand up to 12 o’clock and has a 12-hour recorder at 9.  The VK83 has a 20-minute chronograph sub-dial at 9 with the 24 hour hand at 3.

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VK64

But being a wannabe auto is not the point of meca-quartz movement. Seiko’s VK movements have opened up the market to a whole range of interesting models from micro-watchmakers. To be fair, there have been some horrors too, but to see what’s possible, just nip over to the Autodromo website.

AUTODROMO_PROTOTIPO_REDMAN_LE_DIAL4With a meca-quartz, you get a far slimmer watch than one with, say, a traditional Valjoux 7750. And you get it for a fraction of the price too, so makers can afford to take a few more chances. You don’t get the lovely whizzy winding weight that characterizes the 7750, or the sense of having a tiny mechanical marvel on your wrist. Instead, you get a robust, wear-it-anywhere watch that you can haul out of the watch box without fuss.

Some in Watchworld, noses upturned, still think of mecas—and Seiko’s VK series in particular—as the equivalent of the Kia Boringo or Hyundai’s Santa Meh. In fact, they have an integrity and interest all of their own at a price that a lot of people can afford. That makes them much more like Mazda’s splendid MG/Lotus recreation the MX5/Miata. Something with an identity all of their own and well worth a test drive.

Mark developed a passion for watches at a young age. At 9, he was gifted an Omega Time Computer manual from a local watch maker and he finagled Rolex brochures from a local dealer. Today, residing in the Oxfordshire village of Bampton, Mark brings his technical expertise and robust watch knowledge to worn&wound.
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