This is a question I — as a watch expert and writer — hear much. And I am sorry I haveto answer a question with another question, but before giving you an answer I would like to know what the asker is meaning with “better”.
“Better”, as it is, is a comparative — so it must be related to some objective quality to use it effectively.
If you were to say, for example: “which is better at timekeeping, automatic or quartz watches?” the result would be “quartz, of course”. The timekeeping technology uses, in traditional watches, an oscillating mass which beats at various frequencies, like 2.5 to 5 “cycles” per second (Hz). Quartz watches instead use a different way to achieve the same result: instead of an oscillating mass, it uses a tuning fork which “vibrates” at a much higher frequency than any mechanical watch could, which is 32,768 Hz.
Standard-quality 32,768 Hz resonators of this type are warranted to have a long-term accuracy of about six parts per million (0.0006%) at 31 °C (87.8 °F): that is, a typical quartz clock or wristwatch will gain or lose 15 seconds per 30 days.
For comparison, a very precise, COSC-certified mechanical chronometer will average -4/+6 seconds per day.
Quartz technology is way better than mechanical one at keeping time, no doubt.
And more, this technology, which once was very costly (the first quartz watches introduced in 1970 were sold at a price of a car — no kidding), is so cheap today that you could buy a far better timekeeping quartz movement than any mechanical watch for a few dollars (if Swiss) or pennies (if Chinese).
Here is one — a Swiss-made Ronda 762 movement. It is on sale on Amazon for 10 USD — somewhat less than the 20,000 USD+ of the Vacheron Constantin on top.
But now I take your original question and take another twist on it.
“Which is better as an object of beauty which also keeps time, automatic or quartz watches?”
And as you can suspect, the answer is very different here. An automatic watch wins hands down in this category. At least for the majority of watch lovers.
Why? Because we are men, and men are not machines. Even if we have practical needs, one of them being the keeping of time, we have developed a taste for aesthetics which trascends the function of objects.
This is why, in this aspect, an automatic watch is way better than any quartz watch: because it is not just a timekeeping device, but an object of beauty which stems from a long tradition of invention and experimentation.
The mechanical watch that you have at your wrist represents the ultimate evolution of a research of centuries, when countless men and women have worked to perfect that function — timekeeping — by using the materials which they had available, so, metals. They have invented springs to power them up. Balance wheels to make them work. And countless other inventions to make them more precise and add functions to them.
So, when I say that a mechanical watch is far better than any quartz watch there is, I am meaning just that. I find it better as an object of beauty and as a testament and legacy to the horology history. And there will be no-one ever who could convince me otherwise, exactly as no-one could ever convince me that Bach Brandenburg Concerto is just a sort of casual noise that everybody could make.
A quartz watch is more precise? So be it. Do I need to be that exact? Not in my books.