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Japanese quartz didn’t kill the Swiss watch industry
History & Masterpieces

Japanese quartz didn’t kill the Swiss watch industry

Wednesday, 03 October 2012
By Louis Nardin
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Louis Nardin
Journalist and consultant

“Audacity, more audacity, always audacity.”

Georges Jacques Danton

“A quality watch is a concentration of creativity, rare technical and scientific skills, and age-old gestures. It appeals to the desire for uniqueness and distinction; it is a badge of knowledge, power and taste. A watch has many stories to tell; the details and secrets provide the relish”.

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4 min read

Pierre-Yves Donzé, Associate Professor and Hakubi Scholar at Kyoto University, has examined the reasons behind the collapse of the Swiss watch industry in the 1980s, and how it managed to bounce back.

Research by Pierre-Yves Donzé shows Swiss watch manufacturing in a revealing new light. Associate Professor and Hakubi Scholar at Kyoto University, he is one of the first historians to study in detail the demise of the Swiss watch sector in the latter third of the twentieth century. Fluent in Japanese, he has also combed the archives of Seiko-Epson to understand how Japan’s biggest watch group masterminded its extraordinary development. He discusses some of the key points of his findings.

Your research shows that Japanese quartz watches, in particular Seiko, were not the main reason for the collapse of the Swiss watch industry from the 1970s. What other factors were involved?

Pierre-Yves Donzé: Historians have tended to focus on product innovation and left means of production out of the equation. Yes, quartz movements did bring some serious new competition. The Japanese also had the reputation of being precursors in electronics, which made them an easy scapegoat to blame for the demise of Switzerland’s mechanical watch segment. But this isn’t the full picture. The Swiss watch industry was too fragmented for improvements to be made that would have increased the productivity and quality of mechanical watch manufacturing.

Why wasn't it more rationally organised?

Switzerland had led the world in watch production for a very long time, and brands and their contractors kept a huge catalogue of products that could satisfy all kinds of demand. Such diversification made mass production impossible. From the outset, right from the interwar years, Seiko, which still reigns over Japanese watch production, combined Swiss quality with American production methods which are geared towards large volumes. So when Seiko’s engineers developed quartz technology, they designed the production lines that went with it too. The first quartz watches, many of which had a gold case, weren’t cheap. Certainly no less expensive than a complicated mechanical watch.

You say that Rolex, which rationalised production and cut back its catalogue, didn't lose out to quartz.

Rolex doesn’t disclose figures but it does submit its watches for certification to the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) which publishes its reports. Those for the 1970s and 80s show a constant increase in the number of certified movements. We can deduce that Rolex didn’t go through a “quartz crisis” because it had integrated production and limited the number of products. By producing large quantities of highly precise mechanical watches, Rolex was applying the same solutions as Seiko.

Nicolas Hayek is often referred to as the man who saved Swiss watchmaking. To what extent is this true?

Nicolas Hayek started out in the watch industry in the early 1980s as a consultant to the Swiss banks which were owed money by the main watch manufacturers. He restructured the industrial base then went on to take control of manufacturing when he set up what would become the Swatch Group. By rationalising and globalising the production of watch parts, he put Swiss watchmaking back on a solid footing and made it newly profitable.

Your research is always of interest to the horological community. Why do so few people study the recent history of the Swiss watch industry?

In Switzerland, historical research tends to focus on subjects that are more remote in time. This is changing, although I am still one of the few academics to study more contemporary periods. My fellowship at Kyoto University comes under the School of Economics. I’ve received lots of requests from students and colleagues who are interested in the history of Swiss watchmaking, and the Swatch Group in particular. Seiko has also asked me to lecture on the subject. The academic world doesn’t always give enough publicity to what it’s doing. I enjoy meeting people and exchanging ideas, which is why I travel so much and like to talk with fellow academics and society at large about my work. That’s the way I am, and probably why my research is perhaps better known to the general public.

Histoire du Swatch Group, Pierre-Yves Donzé, published by Ed. Alphil, 2012, ISBN 978-2-940235-99-5

History of the Swiss Watch Industry from Jacques David to Nicolas Hayek, Pierre-Yves Donzé, published by Ed. Alphil, 2011, ISBN 978-2-940235-51-3

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