The Quartz Revolution

Posted by: Mark Moss   |   12 December 2011   |   8 Comments  

It’s been called the quartz crisis and the quartz revolution. Not without good reason either, it saw a good deal of market share in world watch-making migrate from Switzerland towards the east and a multitude of mergers, acquisitions and even long-standing companies disappearing forever. Some would later re-emerge in slightly different guises; others have remained lost to this day. Some of those mergers created very large groups such as what was to become ASUAG/Swatch, which later would cause some monopoly issues for the rest of the watch-making companies in Switzerland. Suffice to say, the effects were widespread, significant and long-lasting.

The Electromechanical Watch

That’s not to say the Swiss entirely had their heads in the sand throughout and hadn’t seen the arrival of the quartz watch coming. The precursor of the quartz watch proper is considered to be the electromechanical watch. Research work had started on these post-war, electrically powered clocks already having been produced in the pre-WWII period and was accelerating by the early 50s. The then US company Hamilton rushed its 500 movement to market in 1957 to have the distinction of the first “electric”, battery-powered watch and emphasised this new type of movement with many of the cases being unusually shaped and often asymmetrical.

The Hamilton movement, though electric, was not “electronic” as we would come to understand it with later quartz watches as it did not feature any transistors or rudimentary circuit componentry – the battery was simply a power source for the movement. That achievement went to a French watchmaking company the following year, LIP releasing its R27 movement in 1958. The design was broadly similar to the Hamilton, but the LIP movement used a diode to reduce sparks at the contacts within the movement, thus earning that first “electronic” watch distinction with a single, very simple component. At this point, though, we’re still quite some way away from a quartz movement. The next breakthrough would come in 1960 from the New York company Bulova, with the release of the Accutron range of watches. [1]

As well as featuring a tuning fork concept similar to later watches, this movement was also the first to feature a transistor (again, just a single one). It could be argued (and has been) that this is more deserving of the first electronic watch accolade than the LIP movement with its single diode. The movement was shown off on the Spaceview watches (the example above is a 50th anniversary reissue), which didn’t feature a classical “dial” at all, allowing an unimpeded view of the movement. Though it is hardly as attractive as a highly decorated “skeletonised” mechanical movement, the point is that it was new technology and Bulova was proud to have it on view.

But what does any of this have to do with Switzerland, you might well ask! Well, although Bulova was an NYC company, the movement was the brainchild of one Max Hetzel, a Swiss engineer at their office in Bienne in, you guessed it, Switzerland. So at this point, the biggest step towards a quartz watch had been taken in Switzerland.

The Quartz Watch

They even went as far as to set up an office specifically to research and develop quartz movements in 1962, the “Centre Electronique Horloger” in Neuchâtel. They weren’t alone in heavily researching quartz at this point though. Seiko was also working hard on this in Japan, and were using quartz clocks as timers for the marathon in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Several companies competed to get the quartz mechanisms ever smaller and more portable, culminating in Seiko unveiling their Astron model on Christmas Day in 1969.

Quite contrary to later preconceptions of quartz as a cheap, throwaway technology, you could say the Astron was astronomically (yeah, sorry about that one!) expensive. Nonetheless, despite a price equivalent to about £5000 today (~$8000), they managed to find 100 takers in the space of a week, showing the lure of new technology. [2]

Remarkably, Heuer aficionados may be aware that Seiko were also developing an automatic chronograph movement in the same period, narrowly missing out to the Heuer/Breitling/Büren/Dubois-Depraz consortium as related in Jeff Stein’s “Project 99” article- a busy time to be a Seiko engineer, the late 60s… The Swiss still weren’t left far behind, with Ebauches SA (later to become ESA, then ETA) producing their own quartz movement for the Basel Fair the following spring (1970). In another example of things coming full circle, another partner in the Project 99 consortium was Hamilton, makers of that first electric watch, thanks to their acquisition of Büren. Hamilton then went on to announce their development of a digital quartz watch, also in 1970.

Despite being in at more or less the start of the quartz revolution, then, the Swiss watchmaking industry was still comprised of many small companies supplying components in almost cottage industry fashion. Heuer was being supplied with dials by Singer, movements by Valjoux, cases by Piquerrez and Schmitz, springs by Breguet and other components from many more. Many of these were geared towards parts for mechanical watches, giving a degree of inertia to and some resistance towards adopting quartz watches. Other parts of the world, notably in the far east, didn’t have the same constraints, particularly as Seiko hadn’t seen fit to patent the entirety of their Astron movement and the market share of the Swiss (over 50% at the beginning of the 70s) soon began to erode.

By the late 80s, the Swiss workforce involved in watchmaking was less than one third the size it had been in 1970. The resurgence was to begin with the launch of the quartz Swatch in 1983, leading to the Swiss industry’s current state of health now. But that’s not to say that there weren’t Swiss quartz watches in between 1970 and 1983; there were and that’s what we’re going to look at now.

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