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A brief history of quartz (1)
Watch Stories

A brief history of quartz (1)

Tuesday, 17 September 2019
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Vincent Daveau
Journalist, watchmaker and historian

“When a pretty woman is an hour late, she is really fifteen minutes early.”

Sacha Guitry

“Passion is the spice of life!”

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7 min read

The quartz revolution traumatised the Swiss watch industry to such a degree it is rarely documented. No longer, thanks to this short read. Part one: from the Seiko Astron to the Swatch.

Calm reigned in the valleys of the Swiss Jura as watchmakers went about their business, oblivious to the storm that was brewing thousands of miles away, soon to bring about the demise of mechanical watchmaking. Engineers in the 1970s were hit full on by a “tsunami” that originated with one man – Tsuneya Nakamura, managing director of Seiko since 1963 – and his determination to be first to master quartz technology. In less than three years, the watchmaking world was transformed by the likes of Ulysse Nardin and others which, as early as 1965, submitted prototype quartz watches to Neuchâtel Observatory for timing trials. Their precision could easily have left mechanical watches by the wayside. Instead, this new technology failed to muster interest beyond purely scientific. Even when Seiko, a Japanese firm established in 1881 yet totally unknown to European audiences, presented its version in 1966, the Swiss carried on unperturbed. As far as anyone could see, including those in the frontline of research such as Girard-Perregaux, Ulysse Nardin and the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH), there was no way forward beyond the prototype stage. Quartz had ground to a halt.

Seiko lays down the law

Shoji Attori, a member of Seiko’s founding family, took the bull by the horns and in 1968 ordered the company’s executive to start again from scratch. Attori was intent on transforming this futuristic idea into a technology suitable for mass production, and to finalise the first serial-produced quartz watch in the world before 1970. And so it was that on December 25th 1969, the first ever high-frequency analog (with hands) watch to be driven by a quartz crystal went on sale. The Seiko Astron’s high price didn’t hint at the revolution to come, even if the Swiss timing trials had ceased in 1968, overwhelmed by high-precision prototypes all using the same technology. Still, the writing was on the wall; it was simply a question of who could read it. By the time the Basel fair opened in 1970, Seiko (Astron 355Q), Longines (Ultraquartz 6512), CEH (Beta 21), Girard-Perregaux (GP350) and Hamilton (Pulsar) were in the starting-blocks with a commercially viable quartz watch. The battle would, however, be shortlived; Swiss companies seriously lacked motivation and faith in the future of quartz technology. In their defence, back in 1970 no-one could have expected engineers to foresee that mechanical watches, with their centuries of history, would be “frozen out” by a quartz watch costing three to four times more, and in less than ten years.

Swiss brands paid the price of their short-sightedness.

The most powerful Swiss manufacturers soon threw in the towel. Some, such as Zenith, focused on improving precision by mechanical means. Even so, the El Primero, launched in 1969 and beating at 36,000 vibrations per hour (5 Hz), was competing against electromechanical watches with a frequency of 2 Hz – not the 32,768 vibrations per second of quartz, the standard established by Girard-Perregaux and adopted throughout the industry, including in Japan. Swiss brands paid the price of their short-sightedness and their failure to grasp the market, in particular the expectations of new, younger buyers. You can’t fight fashion (something Nicolas Hayek fully understood).

Digital displays

Early analog quartz watches were still breaking news when already electronics engineers were developing the first watches to display time digitally, i.e. with numbers formed by electrically charged diodes; the same technology used by IBM, Texas Instrument or Casio for their electronic calculators. In these watches, a battery sends electricity to the quartz crystal via an electronic circuit that counts the crystal’s vibrations and uses them to generate regular impulses. These impulses power a display of light-emitting diodes (LED) to show hours and minutes in red digits against a black background. Hamilton was first to launch a digital quartz watch, the Pulsar Time Computer, on May 6th 1970. Three were made. So as not to drain the battery, the display was activated by a button, remaining blank the rest of the time. Series production started in 1971. Now highly collectible, these watches have the Pulsar name under the display.

Quartz Astron The Commemorative Edition
Quartz Astron The Commemorative Edition

Other brands set about manufacturing these futuristically modern timepieces for an enthusiastic public. Omega, Texas Instruments, Bulova, Citizen, Zenith Time and Waltham, among others, ploughed resources into LED watches, not knowing that a new type of display using field effect mode (FEM) crystals was about to hasten the demise of all previous generations of quartz watch, starting with power-hungry LED displays. In 1972 the Société des Garde-Temps S.A (S.G.T.) in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, introduced a dynamic scattering liquid crystal display (LCD). This system then evolved into the more energy-efficient field effect liquid crystal display. Attributed to Schadt & Helfrich in 1971, Seiko used it in 1973 to display the seconds.

The first silent revolution

This new generation of watches flew off the shelves. In line with Moore’s law (from a 1965 article by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel), their computing power (and that of other electronics) doubled and their price halved every eighteen months – a rate of development unheard of in traditional watchmaking. In 1975 Seiko released the first multifunction digital watch; in 1983, the first television-watch (cal. T001); the year after, the first computer-watch. Year after year, the brand presented new models to satisfy demand from a public soon to be dazzled by the first personal computers, starting with the Sinclair ZX 81 in 1981, followed by the Amstrad CPC and the Apple 2E in 1984.

Not every engineer engaged in a breakthrough project was Japanese.

Meanwhile, another Japanese firm, Casio, established in 1957 and originally specialising in electronic calculating systems and, later, the pocket calculators found in every school bag, unveiled the G-Shock on August 31st 1983. Widely regarded as the toughest watch ever, worn by adventurers and military the world over, over 100 million have been sold to date. The G-Shock was developed by Kikuo Ibe, a young engineer working for Casio in Tokyo who in 1980 came up with the idea for an indestructible quartz watch. Convinced he was onto something, Ibe made a series of prototypes which he tested by dropping them out of his lab window. After three years of research and some 200 prototypes, he succeeded in bringing Casio management onboard. His persistence and determination inspired the brand for its slogan – Never Give Up – and the first G-Shock was released in 1983.

First Casio calculator 1957
First Casio calculator 1957

Not every engineer engaged in a breakthrough project was Japanese. In Switzerland, ETA developed the calibre for the Delirium, which it supplied to four brands: Longines for the Delirium Feuille d’Or, Omega for the Dinosaure (1.8mm thick), Eterna for the Espada Quartz, and Concord for the Delirium (2mm thick). These were expensive watches (in 1978 the movement alone cost $4,500) and also the thinnest ever, attained by doing away with the mainplate and attaching components directly to the caseback. Sound familiar? Indeed, by the early 1980s another revolution was brewing in ETA’s Swiss offices where director Ernst Thomke, assisted by engineers Jacques Müller and Elmar Mock, were working on an affordable quartz watch. In order to reduce cost, they reprised the Delirium’s construction and gave the new watch a plastic case, manufactured by precision injection-moulding (a technique mastered since the Astron). In 1983 a pilot series launched in the United States. Named Swatch Quartz and given reference number GB101, it was the start of an epic adventure that is now part of Swiss watchmaking history. And for good reason: by the time of its 30th anniversary in 2013, more than 400 million Swatch watches had been sold…

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