The Quartz Watch Revolution11:59 am
“Every year, one billion watches are produced. It’s crazy when you think there are only six billion people on the planet.”
It’s been a little over 40 years since engineers in Switzerland, Japan and the United States reinvented the watch which changed the very fabric of the industry forever. Call it a crisis for the mechanical watch reign or a revolution of affordable-accurate timekeeping, we’ll leave that to where your loyalties lie, but by the time this article concludes you’d agree that the introduction of quartz watches was a good and perhaps, necessary addition to the watch world. In more economical ways than anything else, no longer did one have to shell out $1000 for an accurate watch with multiple features! It changed the way people looked at a wristwatch.
How it all started:
It was during the time of World War II that Switzerland controlled nearly 90 percent of the world’s watch industry, enjoying a well-protected monopoly in the watchmaking marketplace. Shortly after the end of the war, Max Hetzel, a Swiss engineer, developed a watch that ran without any mechanical complications and entirely by the power of electricity. The mechanics were reduced to a circuit board, a tuning fork which was powered by a 1.35-volt battery that powered the hands of the watch with the help of an electromechanical gear train. A watch that was powered by a battery instead of an unwinding spring was unlike anything ever seen before and it laid the groundwork for the quartz wrist watch. The watch came alive in 1960, manufactured by Bulova and was called the ‘Accutron’.
Though the technology was entirely developed in Switzerland and the first prototype was entirely Swiss made, the watch companies back there didn’t welcome it with open arms, citing concerns that they weren’t ready for the transition from “micromechanics to microelectronics”, and that it would cause more disruption to the industry than anything else. A downright rejection of the idea of developing the quartz watch for manufacturing, despite enjoying a handsome monopoly.
It was the contribution of American, Japanese and a handful of Swiss manufacturers along with independent researchers that were really interested in this venture, that helped make the quartz watch what it is today. They recognized an obvious market for accurate watches at affordable prices and because these watches weren’t costly to make, the demand for quartz watches picked up in a very short span of time.
As a result, quartz watches gained popularity and even surpassed the popularity of mechanical watches all over the world. They were inexpensive and accurate, what else could one possibly ask for! But like they say, one man’s gain is another’s loss and their demand led to a turmoil in the Swiss watch industry. Many noteworthy Swiss watch companies, who refused to hop onto the bandwagon, shut shop and became insolvent. So drastic was the impact that it reduced the Swiss watchmaking industry by 66 percent, hence also termed as ‘Crisis’. But perhaps it was a crisis the industry asked for, their mistake to refuse to adapt cost them dearly.
Though some decided to combat this turmoil in their own style, including Rolex, who introduced their first Quartz watch called the “Oysterquartz” back in the 70’s. The Datejust Oysterquartz was not only the first quartz watch by the crown but was also the first Rolex to include sapphire glass. The era of the Rolex quartz watch ended in 2001, so if you happen to have one, hold on to it dearly as it’s considered to be a ‘highly valuable’ timepiece in the auction market today!
“It was an important lesson.” “At the end, Swiss industry learnt how to accept and cope with this new technology.”
And then came the “Swatch” who saved them all. In 1982, the very first Swatch prototypes were launched with a sole purpose to recapture the entry level market share that was lost by Swiss manufacturers during the growth of other companies. Coming in a variety of colours and attractive designs, Swatch even remastered the technology entirely by reducing the components from 100 to 51 without losing any of the watch’s accuracy!
The experience of manufacturing and marketing that the Swiss were pioneers of in the past paid off and put them at the top once again. An example that all watch manufacturers took note of and went on to develop their own versions of the electronic watch.
Having a collection of quartz watches is important today and helps keep the industry “more diversified”. Nearly every major watch manufacturer today has learned and consciously added a collection of high quality, quartz watches that helps them add even more, shall we say ‘futuristic’ complications. For Instance, Breitling who’ve made quartz watches as one of the pillars of their brand (and even have all of them COSC certified). The Breitling Aerospace is considered today as a benchmark for quartz watches, a watch that could control a bewildering amount of complications with a battery that would last for years.
The use of technology cannot be ignored today, a classic case of it is visible in the Omega Speedmaster Skywalker X-33, which would otherwise appear as a conventional watch, actually has an electronic screen as the dial, built-in alarm, digital chronograph, and a perpetual calendar. All of this obviously wouldn’t have been possible without a quartz movement.
A Few Noteworthy and famous Luxury Quartz Watches:
Looking back in time only helps us to appreciate what innovation can do to an industry. Imagine how expensive a good watch would’ve been had the Quartz revolution never taken place! Though you can’t ignore that Switzerland was, in fact, the ones to invent the technology, however, credit goes to the United States and Japan, who embraced, preserved and gave life to this marvel of timekeeping.
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Features Writer, The Watch Guide
Rahul is a watch and sports lover currently living in New Delhi. Having worked as a journalist and a copywriter previously, he is now thrilled to be a part of a team that loves, lives and breathes wristwatches. After joining Ethos and The Watch Guide team, his interest for the world of horology grew and is now completely and hopelessly hooked on watches.