The world of “High Accuracy Quartz” watches (as they’ve been dubbed by the online watch community, where “HAQ” is a recognized acronym) is a highly specialized one, but within that world, there are a number of technically intriguing timepieces, including such forgotten exotica as the Pulsar PSR-10 and PSR-20, which were accurate to, respectively, 10 and 20 seconds ± per year. There’s a tendency among mechanical watch enthusiasts to regard quartz watches as essentially all the same (and fundamentally unworthy of serious consideration) but this view, while it may be understandable, ignores the fact that there are, both functionally and aesthetically, sometimes very marked differences between the movement in a thirty or forty dollar entry level quartz watch, and one found in higher end offerings from brands as diverse as Breitling, Bulova, and Seiko, all of whom have in their current lineups, quartz watches that represent extremely dramatic improvements in quality and accuracy over more conventional offerings.
Fans of HAQ watches generally find them more interesting than GPS or radio-signal corrected quartz watches, thanks to the fascination of autonomous accuracy. After all, while GPS and radio-controlled watches may deliver accuracy, they don’t actually produce it – instead, such watches are essentially display terminals for large, stationary atomic clocks such as the National Institute Of Standards And Technology NIST F1 clock, in Boulder, Colorado. It’s interesting and remarkable technology in its own right, but inherent, rather than externally regulated accuracy, is essential to the appeal of HAQ watches.
In this highly rarefied world, where watches are competing to see which can offer better accuracy in measurements of seconds per year (rather than per day, as with mechanical watches, or per month, as with ordinary quartz watches) and where rates of ±5 seconds a year or better are an often-sought but rarely achieved goal, Citizen’s The Citizen watches (which are also known under the name “Chronomaster”) represent some of the most advanced autonomous timekeeping technology in the world.
In terms of stated accuracy and rate stability, these are some of the most accurate wristwatches in the world right now. Citizen is right at the forefront of production of HAQ watches – the company owns Bulova, whose Precisionist line is rated to ±5 seconds per year; Longines has its VHP line, which has the same stated accuracy. Seiko officially rates its 9F calibers to ±10 seconds per year, with anecdotally better performance often reported by owners. It’s a very exclusive club, and within it one generally finds watches that are not only an order of magnitude more accurate than conventional quartz timepieces, but also out of the ordinary in terms of fit and finish as well, which is very much the situation with The Citizen.
The externals of The Citizen are pretty much what you would expect from a flagship, high-accuracy quartz wristwatch from Japan. The obvious point of comparison is Grand Seiko, and while I feel that they still has an edge over The Citizen in terms of overall fit and finish, The Citizen still very much gives a definite and very positive impression of refinement and quality. The dial is especially commendable – this model has a very deep, blue-black dial and certainly gives no sign of being an element in a light-powered watch. This is one area in which Citizen has been, and remains, an industry leader; I can’t think of another company that has succeeded as well as it has in wedding traditional analogue watch design with solar quartz technology, and this technical edge means that they can produce watches which, like The Citizen, have dials that give up nothing to more traditionally made dials but at the same time, can admit enough light to keep the movement humming away.
The case and dial are not particularly dazzling, but certainly very well finished and impressive qualitatively in an unobtrusive way. It’s really in the details of the dial furniture and hands that this watch sings; the indexes, nicely rounded shape of the long, elegant seconds hand, and very sharp bevels on the hour and minute hands as well as the contrasting brushing, all add up to a watch that feels – almost subliminally, which I mean as a compliment – like the product of very thoughtful craft and design. Citizen’s other, dressier Eco-Drive watches have always felt as if they punch above their weight in terms of quality – I have a Stiletto Eco-Drive that must be at least 10 years old now, cost maybe $150, and has one of the nicest steel bracelets I’ve ever seen – so The Citizen is definitely in line with Citizen’s tendency to overdeliver on quality at every price point. But there’s a richness to it definitely sets it apart from other, less expensive Eco-Drive models.
Where this watch really shines, of course, is not in the presentation of dazzling externals, but rather, in functionality. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of trying to create the ideal, completely autonomous watch – something that would have a more or less infinitely renewable power supply, and which would not rely for accuracy on anything other than its own intrinsic capabilities. Now that solar watch technology is mature, there are quite a few more options out there than when I considered the problem for the first time, as a kid in the 1970s. Back then, I wondered about what kind of watch you’d want if you got sucked into an inter-dimensional vortex on a one-way trip to a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, and the state of quartz watch technology at the time made the idea of such a watch as a plausible choice absurd – the battery would be flat in a couple of years and you’d be stuck for the rest of your time trapped in the Jurassic, never quite knowing if it was teatime. I’m not entirely sure that The Citizen is a perfect solution, but it does show how far we have come – the gear train such as it is will probably show much less wear than in a mechanical watch as the side-loads from the stepper motor are negligible.
According to an FAQ published by Citizen, in general an Eco-Drive solar cell and secondary battery should last at least 10 years, but that seems to be an absolute minimum, with 40+ years closer to the probable minimum if the watch is exposed to light regularly. That’s astonishing performance – the idea of a watch that can keep time to ±5 seconds a year, maximum deviation, and which can run perhaps for decades without human intervention, shows just how far wristwatch technology has come – and it makes me wonder just how much further it could be pushed, if one wanted to try and make a “forever” watch. Integrated circuits have length-of-service failure modes as well, but from what I’ve read, the life of an IC can be greatly extended if it’s manufactured to good tolerances and kept well shielded from moisture. I’m not sure what it would take to make a virtually indestructible watch with an analogue display, solar powered, with a sealed IC and a longevity of at least a century without any need to open the case (or renew the gaskets) but I’d love to see someone try.
If you’re fascinated by timekeeping precision for its own sake, as a primary goal, and what floats your boat is a high accuracy timepiece that can do its thing autonomously rather than acting as a receiver for an atomic clock, and you don’t care particularly whether the precision is mechanical or quartz, then this is one of the most interesting watches in the world. It may not sit at the pinnacle of autonomy for much longer: Citizen showed an Eco-Drive movement at the last Baselworld, cased as a pocket watch, that has a stated accuracy of ±1 second per year, and we’ve heard that the tech will be rolling out in consumer products starting next year. For now, though, The Citizen is right up there.
The fact that you can adjust the hour hand forwards or backwards, in one hour jumps, without stopping the watch, just sweetens the pot; it means you can adjust for DST/Summer Time, as well as travel with the watch, without interrupting your obsessive observation of its accuracy. As a rule if you want to experience one of these watches, and you’re in the USA, you have to order it from a seller in Japan however, this particular model is actually for sale right here in New York, in the Citizen Boutique in Times Square. If you’ve a yen for accuracy, check it out post-haste. Yen. Is this thing on?
“The Citizen” Eco-Drive, high precision light-powered quartz timepiece: Reference, AB9000-61E. Case and bracelet, stainless steel; case diameter 38mm. Movement, Eco-Drive, ±5 seconds per year. Price, $2,900, available in the USA only at the Citizen Boutique, Times Square, NYC.