True or false? The influx of Japanese quartz watches caused the decline of the Swiss watch industry between 1975 and 1985. “False!” exclaims Pierre-Yves Donzé in an extended analysis, published by Swiss daily Le Temps. As this research fellow at Osaka University reminds us, most historians lay this crisis at the door of quartz, an innovation which seemingly left Swiss watch executives cold. Dr Donzé puts forward a comparative analysis with Seiko which highlights the “shortcomings” of this theory.
Quartz in the clear
“When Seiko launched the world’s first quartz watch on Christmas Day 1969, this was a sign not of technological progress but the result of a strategy aimed specifically at establishing an image as a leader in technology and precision,” he explains. “Swiss companies followed suit shortly after. Primacy and recency has no bearing on command of technology. Furthermore, while Japanese manufacturers did promote quartz watches, they made the transition to this new product slowly.”
The quartz revolution took place at Seiko when Switzerland was already deep in crisis.
It was only in the 1980s that electronic watches confirmed their supremacy, as worldwide production rose from 25.5 million in 1980 to 118.6 million in 1990. “The quartz revolution took place at Seiko when Switzerland was already deep in crisis. Consequently, the decline in Swiss watch exports between 1975 and 1985 cannot be attributed to a change in worldwide demand subsequent to the launch of electronic watches, with Japan continuing to produce mechanical watches until the revival of the Swiss watch industry in the latter half of the 1980s.”
According to Pierre-Yves Donzé, the origin of the crisis lies more with production systems. Mechanical timepieces would be the subject of major changes in the post-war years, following the introduction of the “Roskopf”, a mass-produced, mass-market watch. “In 1960, Swiss watch companies mastered this method of production but, with the exception of Rolex, didn’t apply it to quality products. A two-tier system developed. […] However, it was the combination of these two models, i.e. mass production of quality watches, that enabled Japanese manufacturers to emerge on the global market as genuine rivals to Switzerland. Mass-produced quality mechanical watches allowed Japan to challenge Switzerland’s dominant position on the world market in the 1960s and 1970s.”
This rationalisation then allowed companies to focus on marketing and engineer their comeback on the world market.
As Dr Donzé concludes: “Swiss watch firms responded in the mid-1980s most memorably with the creation of SMH in 1983 [Swatch Group since 1998] and the launch of the Swatch. However, the strategy Nicolas G. Hayek adopted was also based on a complete restructuring of the production system. Mass-production methods, which had previously been limited to low-end watches, were extended across the entire industry. This rationalisation then allowed companies to focus on marketing and engineer their comeback on the world market.”