THE HISTORY OF QUARTZ WATCHES
While quartz movements are ubiquitous today, it wasn’t always the case. In face, quartz movements – compared to mechanical movements – are a relatively new development. A development that almost wiped out the entire Swiss watch industry only 40 years ago.
The first quartz watch was introduced in 1969 by Seiko. Named the Astron, the watch had an all-gold case and a quartz movement that promised a accuracy of + or – 0.2 seconds per day – far exceeding the accuracy of even chronometer-rated mechanical movements.
With a price tag of 450,000 Yen, it cost as much as a small car at that time – an indication of the groundbreaking innovation it represented.
The next leap in quartz watches came from the USA in the form of the Hamilton Pulsar. Introduced in 1972, the Hamilton Pulsar was the world’s first digital watch, featuring a quartz movement, a solid gold case, and a LED display that displayed the time at the push of a button.
And despite its US$2100 price tag, it was popular amongst the masses and was heralded as the future of watchmaking.
However, LED was pricey to produce, and quality control was often a stumbling block for manufacturers.
The industry then turned to cheaper LCD displays, which also happened to be more reliable and robust. Seiko was once again at the forefront of this digital revolution, producing a large number of digital watches with LCD displays in the 1970s and offering them at a fraction of what the Astron cost just a decade ago.
The popularity of the Seiko LCD watches – they were available for cheap, and included functions such as world time and chronograph – kickstarted what is now known as the “Quartz Crisis”.
As quartz watches outnumbered mechanical watches by the end of the 1970s, the Swiss watch industry (which resisted the advent of quartz) floundered as the number of Swiss watchmakers was decimated from 1600 to 600.
The Swiss watch industry was sent into a downward spiral, until the mercurial visionary Nicolas G. Hayek launched Swatch in 1983. An entirely plastic quartz watch, Swatch watches were fun and vibrant, and attracted a new generation that scorned the subdued aesthetic of traditional Swiss watches. Most importantly, it was priced at just 50 CHF – an unprecedented price for a Swiss-made watch.
The low price point and the fashion forward designs made Swatch watches an immediate hit. In less than two years, more than 2.5 million Swatch watches were sold.
The popularity of Swatch watches single-handedly revived the fortunes of the Swiss watch industry, and enabled the industry as a whole to tide through the “Quartz Crisis”.
Ironically, the popularity of quartz eventually also became its downfall.
As quartz watches became increasingly common and cheaper, mechanical watches saw a resurgence by presenting themselves as rare luxury goods. This has been compounded by the advent of smart devices such as smart phones which tell the time exactly via an internet connection. Making the wearing of a watch much more a status/fashion statement than an item purely for telling time as accurately as possible.
Recently, high end quartz had become a new way to differentiate quartz watches and move them into the luxury segment.
Brietling has has developed its SuperQuartz™ movement which monitors the temperature of the watch and adjusts the quartz oscillator to compensate.
This effectively brings the accuracy of the watch down to less than 10 secs per year making one of the most accurate “non connected” time pieces in the world.
The pricing for these exclusive models sells for similar amounts as mechanical movements based on their exclusivity.
Both Seiko and Miyota have also developed new high end quartz chronograph movements that have a sweeping second hand (it moves at 4 beats per second instead of the usual 1 beat per second).
This along with mechanical pusher buttons provide the appearance and feel of an automatic movement.
PANZERA has adopted the Miyota 6S20 movement with these features in both its Flieger and Time Master Chronographs to be better align them with the mechanical models in the same ranges.
Today, quartz movements are generally seen as cost-effective, functional, robust, and accurate alternatives to mechanical movements.
While they can lack the exclusivity and prestige of a mechanical movement, some of the higher end quartz movements are now starting to play well in this space also.