One of the first things you associate with a mechanical watch is the smooth sweep of the seconds hand. In fact, many people would assume that the easiest way to tell the difference between a quartz watch and a mechanical watch is whether the hands "sweep" or "step".
Regrettably, for fans of neat definitions, that is not the case at all. For many years, "jumping" displays have been popular as an expression of a watchmaker's skill, or a designer's flair.
Of the three scales (hours, minutes, or seconds) that could be displayed in a jumping fashion, the most common (and the one that has the most visual impact on the dial) is the jumping hour.
With jump hour watches, the hour is often indicated in digital format via an aperture. Behind this aperture, a disc is printed with 12 or 24 hours, which advances once per hour. As soon as the minute hand reaches the 60th minute of the previous hour, the hour disc is fired forward (just as the date would be at midnight).
Normally, such a display is accompanied by a regular minute hand, completing one revolution of the dial every hour. It is, however, possible to find watches that boast jumping hours and jumping minutes, such as the famous (and much revered) A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk family. In these models, however, both the hours and the minutes are displayed digitally (which means they are displayed with numbers rather than by hands).
Beyond the jumping hours and (far) less common jumping minute complications, it is also possible to find jumping seconds hands on the market. This strange, and seemingly backward complication is one of those rare anomalies in watchmaking that exists for very little reason other than the fact it is possible.
Jumping seconds hands (those that advance once per second) are the expression of a complication known as the "deadbeat seconds" complication. It seems crazy that any watchmaker would want to make their luxury watches "tick" like a common-or-garden quartz watch, but executing the deadbeat complication requires a level of skill that is extolled within the industry. It affords the watch and watchmaker a level of insider status that few other complications can match. Perhaps the closest in terms of beneficial negligibility but technical wizardry is the tourbillon (which you can read about here).
Most jumping displays work in much the same way (at least theoretically speaking). Over the hour, minute, or second (depending on the scale being advanced), the energy that is normally used to move the hands incrementally is diverted. It is either diverted towards the charging of a spring-loaded hammer system, a snail cam, or another "charging" mechanism that holds that power back from the hand until it is time to advance it by one increment. This is done because moving hands and discs suddenly and accurately requires a large amount of torque - more than one would expect to be able to generate with a normal mainspring.
In the A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk, the brand achieved hitherto unseen levels of torque by flipping the barrel (which contains the mainspring that powers the watch) on its head, and gearing it so it could effectively wind in the opposite direction. This resulted in a notable reduction in power-loss and provided the movement with enough torque to shift up to three time-displaying discs at once.
Not even the Zeitwerk merges digitally-displayed jumping hours and minutes with a deadbeat seconds hand (perhaps such a combination of complications will exist in the future?).
Part of that is explained by the immense power requirements of this kind of complication. Despite Lange's success in manipulating their mainspring and barrel to generate sufficient torque to power the jumping display, the original Zeitwerk has just a 36-hour power reserve, which is much lower than one would expect from a regular manual watch.
There is no doubt that new material innovations, new ultra-efficient oscillators, and new inventions will make fusing these complications possible without decimating the movement's power reserve, but this kind of exercise loses its charm when high technology comes into play.
A huge part of the appeal to jump hours, and especially the deadbeat complication comes from the fact they are feats of artisanal genius. Replace that with the somewhat sterile world of zeros and ones and the magic evaporates.
And on the other side of the fence, battery-powered, quartz-regulated watches are going in the opposite direction. New developments in quartz module technology have made it possible for battery-powered movements to sweep a little more like their mechanical counterparts.
High-frequency quartz modules such as the Seiko VH31, actually tick four times per second (the equivalent of a 2Hz mechanical movement) instead of once. While they still appear to stutter in comparison to their mechanical cousins, the effect is engaging nonetheless. And while it places an enormous strain on the power source (a simple button battery), the novelty makes their severely depleted run time forgivable.