The Early Days of Watches

For centuries, watches were considered a luxury item. They were reserved for the aristocracy and other elite members of society or used for functional purposes in the military and other professions where one needed to time their work. Then, watchmaking was a true art form, often passed down from generation to generation.

At first, all watches were mechanical, meaning they had to be wound to keep accurate time. As the industry evolved, so did the art of watchmaking. In the late 1700’s, there was the introduction of the automatic watch, which was wound by the motion of the wrist.

The Early to Mid-1900’s

By the early 1900’s, the technology needed for watch production had improved. Subsequently, watches started to become more accessible. And when WWI spurred demand for a timekeeping device more practical than a pocket watch, the wristwatch was born.

During the Second World War, the Swiss watchmaking industry grew exponentially. Because of their neutrality in the war, they could continue manufacturing watches for the consumer market, while other countries had to use their production facilities to make watches for the military. By the time the war was over, the wristwatch was becoming an essential accessory for every well-outfitted businessman and every fashionable housewife. And, the Swiss watchmaking industry had 50% of the world watch market.

 

The 1970’s and the Introduction of Quartz

The 1970’s marked a period of transition for both the Swiss watch industry and the watch industry as whole. On Christmas Day in 1969, the Japanese watch brand Seiko introduced the world’s first quartz wristwatch: the Astron. Instead of a mechanical or automatic movement, it featured one that was battery-powered. Thus began what is known as the Quartz Crisis.

Quartz vs Automatic Movements

 

In addition to the allure of the new, futuristic-seeming technology, quartz watches rapidly gained mass appeal because of their cost and durability. They were not only more affordable than most mechanical or automatic watches but also surprisingly sturdy and accurate. And, while the manufacture of mechanical and automatic watches had come leaps and bounds from the early days when watches were solely built by hand, quartz watches were still much easier to produce.

Soon, the existing market began to take a major hit, particularly the Swiss. They struggled to compete with the price, precision, and production of quartz watches. And, they resisted the new technology in an attempt to hold on to centuries of watchmaking tradition.

Quartz Movement

Swiss Watchmakers React

However, some Swiss watchmakers started to cave to the quartz revolution. In 1970, Hamilton released the Pulsar. The watch was not only quartz but also digital as opposed to analog. Then, in 1974, Omega unveiled the Marine Chronometer, the first quartz watch to be COSC certified. Just two years later, Omega debuted yet another quartz offering. The Chrono-Quartz was the first analogue-digital chronograph with a quartz movement.

Still, there was panic in the Swiss watch industry and watchmaking industry as a whole. They feared the Quartz Crisis might mean the end of centuries of watchmaking tradition, a concern that wasn’t unfounded. Seiko was not only the first watchmaker to release the quartz technology but also the reigning leader. By 1977, they had become the world’s largest watch company in terms of revenue, totaling around $700 million with a production of roughly eighteen million pieces. Seiko’s success eventually forced the Swiss watchmaking industry to reassess and revamp its practices

Saving the Swiss Watch Industry

The effort to save the Swiss watchmaking industry was spearheaded by two men: Ernst Thomke and Nicolas G. Hayek. Thomke tackled the restructuring at ASUAG, one of the largest Swiss watch industry groups at the time. His work to streamline, reorganize, and cut production costs led to the first glimmer of hope for the Swiss watchmaking industry since the Quartz Crisis began. But, his work wasn’t enough. Swiss banks were still forced to bail out the watch industry groups in an attempt to salvage the country’s third largest export industry. Soon, the banks sought help from Hayek, the owner of one of Switzerland’s top consulting firms.

Quartz Movement

In 1983, Hayek’s plan was unveiled. He proposed a merger between the two largest Swiss watch industry groups, ASUAG and SSIH, to form what is known today as The Swatch Group. This marked the turning point in the Quartz Crisis for the Swiss. Between 1974 and 1983, Swiss watch production had been cut in half, falling from a record 96 million units to 45 million. However, by 1985, just two years after the creation of The Swatch Group, production rebounded to 60 million units.

Quartz, Mechanical and Automatic Watches

Today, mechanical, automatic, and quartz movements have continued to find a way to coexist in the watch industry. Most watchmakers strive a balance between upholding the fine art of traditional watchmaking and integrating some quartz pieces into their offerings. Ultimately, the Quartz Crisis has helped the watch industry to become more efficient in their classic watchmaking practices and more adaptable to the evolution of technology.

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Latest comments
  • automatic wrist watches in the 1700’s. Would love to see a picuRe of that!

  • so what exactly did the merger that created swatch do in order to cause the rebound? i once had a watch repair man tell me that if i wanted an accurate watch to get quartz, but if i wanted a piece of fine jewelry to get a mechanical watch. now we have the seiko spring drive that combines fine mechanics with quartz accuracy. my next watch will be a grand seiko spring drive.

  • And now both industriEs are thReatened by…the cell phone.

  • As A younger man (circa 1988) I dropped way too much on a tag 3000 professional chrono. The store i bought it from had no problem replacing the battery 3 times in the first year for free and informed me that battery usage was normal for that unit.
    After moving to Va in late 1989, when the battery craps out again, I go to a local store in richmond that tells me it’s not normal and sends it off for evaluation. Looks like it had a 1 year warranty (2 now) and would be $450 for repair.

    I fed batteries to it every 3 of 4 months for another year before it quit altogether. I still have in the collection as a personal reminder of youth folly, waste, and customer service. I shouldn’t have accepted the lower standard from a store or manufacturer in hindsight but i look at it one of my first and best lessons. I’ve never had an problem from Rolex, Breitling, or Omega that wasn’t corrected immediately and courteously.

    So I may be a bit jaded but the personal standard is set. Consider any quartz watch as disposable and refuse to spend over $150 for a timepiece destined for obsolescence.and unrepairable failure. I still look at the useless TAg every time i drop a fresh battery in my ham 500 pacer or 214 spaceview and marvel at the fact that they still work. All the rest are cheap quartz or mechanical reliable.

    Spend your hard earned $ wisely.my friends.

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