You had to know this was coming, right? Long before it lent its name to an indispensable guide to the new global economy, quartz (the mineral) has been shaping the world we live in.
Quartz isn’t remarkable because it’s rare—it’s the second-most abundant mineral on Earth, after feldspar. It’s quartz’s versatility that makes it amazing, from Stone Age tools to gemstones to wristwatches, and as a key ingredient in cement, solar panels, glass,and microchips.
7,148 kg: Quartz crystals stored in the US National Defense Stockpile.
$280: Price per kilogram of cultured quartz crystals used in electronics, though prices can exceed $1,000/kg for some applications. China, Japan, and Russia are the biggest producers.
Better know a quartz
Quartz is a crystalline form of silicon dioxide, but trace impurities can create a dazzling variety of forms. They include amethyst, rose quartz (Pantone’s co-color of the year, 2016 ), jasper, and smoky quartz (reportedly used to make sunglasses for Chinese judges in the 12th century, so they could hide their facial expressions).
Time after time
Quartz watches today are inexpensive and extremely accurate: Who wouldn’t love that? Well, Switzerland’s storied watchmakers refer to the introduction of the new technology as “the quartz crisis.” The rest of world calls it “the quartz revolution.”
1969: Seiko introduces the Astron, the first-ever quartz wristwatch, guaranteed to be accurate within five seconds a day. The cost? $1,250, nearly the price of a small car.
1972: Hamilton Watch Company, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, introduces the first digital watch. They call it the Pulsar, give it an LED (light-emitting diode) display, and attach a $2,100 price tag.
1975: The US gets into the watch game when more than 50 semiconductor companies start making and selling watches in the States.
1979: The Swiss enter the quartz game with a line called Delirium. The Delirium IV is, to this day, the thinnest watch ever made.
1980: After a boom-and-bust cycle, all US companies have gone kaput—except for Texas Instruments, which halved LED prices in 1978 and killed the competition.
1983: The Swiss watch industry is hurting, with 1,000 companies going under and the number of industry employees plummeting from 90,000 to 34,000.
1983: Swatch (“second watch”) saves the day. Swiss entrepreneurs launch the revolutionary plastic watch in an effort to make analog timepieces cool again.
2016: The Swiss watchmaking industry, now under fire from smartwatch makers like Apple, is in trouble again. Operating profit hits a 15-year low.
HOW IT WORKS
The piezoelectric boogie woogie
Some types of quartz are piezoelectric, which means they give off a tiny amount of electric voltage when they’re subjected to pressure or tension. A properly cut piece of quartz vibrates exactly 1,966,080times per minute, making it an extremely effective way to keep time. That’s why it’s such a vital component of electronic equipment like radios, TVs, clocks, and especially wristwatches.
The Engineer Guy does a great job of explaining this whole piezoelectric business in a very efficient 3:33 minutes.
A MOMENT OF APPRECIATION
Without quartz, you couldn’t read Quartz
Without pure quartz, we wouldn’t have computer chips. To make silicon wafers, a seed crystal of silicon is heated to high temperatures in a giant quartz crucible, then stretched out into a long cylinder. The cylinder is then sliced into wafers, which eventually receive electronic circuitry.
To ensure that the silicon cylinder is as perfect as possible—any defects mean the chips won’t work—the crucible has to be made from high-purity quartz. Benches, tools, and other elements used to help form the chips are also made from quartz.
Grow your own quartz crystals in a pressure cooker! (Sort of)
Almost all the quartz crystal used in electronics is “grown” in a labfrom mined feedstock, mostly from Brazil.
“Synthesized quartz is made using the hydrothermal process in an autoclave. You probably don’t have one of those in your kitchen, but you may have a smaller equivalent,” explains Dr. Anne Marie Helmenstine in an article for Thought Co.
If you decide to risk the Instant Pot you got for Christmas, you’ll be following in the footsteps of German geologist Karl Emil von Schafhäutl—the first person to grow a crystal grown by hydrothermal synthesis, back in 1845. Fun times!
Who is not a character in the Cartoon Network series Steven Universe?
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“Quartz was the mineral upon which the Stone Ages were based. With few exceptions, most early stone tools were fashioned of quartz. Outcrops of quartz that were suitable for tool manufacturing were targeted by some of the earliest known mining activities and the mined quartz was traded across vast distances, even before humans began to establish agricultural societies.”
Any direct relationship between Quartz and its namesake mineral should be taken with a grain of salt. From the 2012 press releaseannouncing our launch:
Atlantic Media chose the Quartz name because it embodies the new brand’s essential character: global, disruptive, and digital. Quartz, the mineral, is found all over the world, and plays an important role in tectonic activity.
Even if we didn’t explain it fully at the time, quartz is a great namesake: It formed some of mankind’s earliest tools, and it’s an essential ingredient for the global economy, forming everything from bridges to microchips. Plus, it’s a killer Scrabble word—24 points!