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A brief history of quartz (2)
Watch Stories

A brief history of quartz (2)

Wednesday, 23 October 2019
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Vincent Daveau
Journalist, watchmaker and historian

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4 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 two: from electromechanical watches to smartwatches.

Renewed interest in mechanical movements alongside the development, in the 1980s-90s, of the first miniature batteries prompted manufacturers to develop quartz calibres capable of delivering in excess of two years’ autonomy. In 1988 engineers at Seiko released the Kinetic, followed by the Auto-Quartz from Switzerland’s ETA. Now perfectly mastered, Seiko used this technology to power a series of watches that combines the precision of quartz – 2-4 seconds/month – with the appeal of a mechanical calibre. As an aside, a similar electromechanical system with movement sensor powers F.P. Journe’s Elégante collection, which debuted in 2016 with a record-breaking autonomy of between 8 and 18 years.

Seiko active on all fronts

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Quartz watches were all the rage in 1990 when Seiko released the first ever connected watch, the Seiko Receptor, which used telecom technology of the day to operate a paging function. At the same time, the Japanese firm was working on watches that would measure time with 1/100th of a second precision. In 1992 Calibre 7T59 became the first analogue (with hands) 1/100s quartz chronograph. Seiko followed this six years later with the first thermoelectric movement (powered by body heat) and the first electronic perpetual calendar (Premier Perpetual). When Seiko’s groundbreaking Spring Drive technology debuted in 1997, it was the culmination of an idea outlined twenty years early and patented in 1982. This hybrid calibre combines a mechanical barrel and geartrain with a rotating escapement. This escapement is electromagnetically regulated (like the electromagnetic retarder or induction brake on a truck) by an integrated circuit and a quartz crystal.

Almost as soon as micro-Bluetooth systems appeared in 2010, Seiko combined this technology with GPS in a watch.

This ultra-precise Tri-synchro regulator adjusts to the slightest acceleration or deceleration caused by shocks or sudden movements to obtain a stable reference value – the guarantee for this game-changing mechanical watch of a level of precision almost identical to that of a quartz movement. An automatic version was made public at the Baselworld fair in 2005 and officially launched later the same year at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Since then Seiko has introduced innovative quartz watches on a regular basis. Almost as soon as micro-Bluetooth technology appeared in 2010, the Japanese brand used it for the Astron GPS Solar, which connects to the GPS network to display the exact time in the wearer’s time zone without any outside adjustment.

Connected future

Since 2012 and the introduction of microscopic systems capable of connecting multiple electronic devices, cellphone manufacturers have been turning their attention to wristwatches that, as well as displaying the time, read and transfer data from a mobile phone. Some of these smartwatches are standalone, hence fully autonomous. They operate via an electronic system to relay information from a smartphone to apps such as a fitness tracker. These watches are powered by a conventional quartz calibre that incorporate various sensors and a Bluetooth connection. Others are unable to operate autonomously, making them effectively a wrist-borne extension of the user’s phone.

With sales estimated at 20 million watches in 2018, Apple has shown that smartwatches are becoming a credible alternative to all-mechanical.

Successive generations of smartwatch have followed since the introduction of the first connected watch in 2012 and the first Apple Watch in 2014. The Swiss launched their offensive with the first “horological smartwatch”, the TAG Heuer Connected, in 2015. Also that year, the Geneva-based watch brand Frederique Constant presented its Horological Smartwatch, the first analogue quartz watch to include smart features. In January 2018, following its takeover by Citizen, the same Frederique Constant introduced a new generation of connected watches, this time driven by a classic automatic movement. The integration of increasingly miniaturised components suggests more hybrid developments in watchmaking to come. With sales estimated at 20 million watches in 2018, Apple has shown that design-sharp tech products are becoming a credible alternative to all-mechanical. Which doesn’t prevent fans of classic timepieces from wearing the watch that best suits them.

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