Watches have always been reserved for aristocracy, the military, and those who needed one for work. The early 1900s and an easier production process brought watches into a more affordable zone and allowed a wider range of people to own one. Beginning in the 1950s and still continuing today, a new technology opened up the production of watches and made them available to everyone. In the watch world, this period is known as the quartz crisis, to the brands producing the watches, it is known as the quartz revolution.
The Quartz Crisis
The Quartz Crisis is designation given to the era that nearly incapacitated the Swiss watch industry beginning in the early 1970s. This era’s earliest days take place in the 1950s when the concept of an electronically powered watch was hatched. Companies from all over the world actually took devising these electronic concepts: the American company Hamilton, the Swiss labs at Bulova and of course the Japanese companies Seiko and Citizen. The concept of a quartz watch was important for two reasons, first it provided much more accurate chronometric performance and second it was possible to be mass produced.
During the 1960s, scientists made advancements using liquid crystals to develop liquid crystal displays. During the Cold War, there were also advancements miniaturizing electronic circuitry. This, in particular, helped developers create smaller and smaller electronic movements, further advancing their quartz quests. On the other side of the spectrum, research teams also lead to advancements in consumer products. The products included televisions, calculators, hearing aids and watches.
The Swiss vs. Japanese
While the Japanese had essentially gone all in on electronic watch movements, the Swiss were far less willing to accept a wholesale change to the watch industry. Quickly, the Swiss watch industry fell into complete disarray. In 1959, Seiko launched a top secret plan to create the most accurate watch, and in 1964 at the Summer Olympics, they produced a 7 pound quartz sports timing clock. They were then able to miniaturize the watch and introduced the first quartz wall clock.
Some prominent Swiss companies closed their doors — only to be revived later by conglomerates — while other companies had no choice but to change their strategy and invested heavily into quartz products. The Swiss research group, Centre Electronique Horloger, worked in secrecy to develop a battery powered watch. Their prototypes were only off a few tenths of a second per day.
On the other side of the world, Seiko and Citizen became juggernauts, exporting more than 25 million watches at the same time Swiss exports had fallen from 40 million units to less than three million units during the same time. On Christmas day in 1969, Seiko launched the Quartz Astron 35SQ. This 18k gold watch cost as much as a car and was accurate to just 3 seconds per month. Nearly half of all the Swiss watch companies had closed, and almost two-thirds of all the watchmaking jobs had vanished by 1983.
That same year, two brands stepped out of the proverbial shadows of the crisis and created products that revived the Swiss industry. The two brands were Raymond Weil and the Swatch Group. Both Raymond Weil and Swatch introduced affordable models Swiss quartz watches that marketed nicely to consumers who are fashion conscious. The focus on fashion quickly paid off for the floundering watch companies. The Swiss mechanical renaissance followed suit, although slowly, throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s while the Japanese continued to dominate the marketplace. Today, many of the Swiss watch brands, as you probably know, specialize in both quartz and mechanical movement production.
The Quartz Revolution
Out of the quartz crisis came some really interesting watches. You can’t really have a conversation about electronic watches without talking about the amazing Accutron 214. It’s still a conversation piece to this day and they are very cool pieces. The movement features a tuning fork that emits a frequency of 360 kHz, which at the time was the most accurate watch in the world.
Another really cool movement from the Crisis era is the Beta 21. The Beta 21 was a movement that was developed by 21 brands such as Patek, Rolex, IWC and Omega among others. Watches that featured this movement were the Rolex Quartz Date 5100, the Patek Philippe 3587, IWC DaVinci 3501, and the Omega Electroquartz F8192, just to name a few. As the market changed, the focus of movement production shifted away from hand-crafted movements and traditional mechanical calibers to highly accurate and affordable quartz movements. The movement concept was indeed an important and necessary business decision at the time, but it was made at the cost of further crippling the mechanical movements.
These technologies eliminated the need for winding a watch and improved accuracy to within one minute per year versus one hour per year found in most mechanical watches. The 1970s and 80s were a perilous time for the Swiss watch industry. Through the guidance and leadership of several brands and innovative leaders, not only did the industry survive, it flourished at the turn of the 21st century.