In the 1970s, a new technology took hold in a big way. It was powerful enough to unseat Switzerland’s long-standing watchmaking monopoly, establish an entirely new way of timekeeping, and irrevocably change the economics of the watch world.
The tech in question was quartz. If you’ve seen the word written at the bottom of a watch face and you’re not sure what it means, here’s James May to explain it. Basically, a vibrating piece of quartz (think tiny crystal or grain of sand) powered by an electric current is used as a timekeeping engine, rather than the more traditional driver, which is movement (think oscillating spring or swinging pendulum). Maybe the most straightforward differentiator is that quartz watches generally need batteries while movement watches don’t. Another is that the former have second hands that tick, whereas the latter’s run smoothly along the dial.
The advantage of quartz is twofold: it’s very accurate and very cheap. A quartz watch loses around half a second a day compared to the half-minute a mechanical watch might, all while being sold for a fraction of the price. Plus quartz watches were new and Japanese watch manufacturers surfed this wave of novelty to world-wide success.
The first commercially produced quartz watch was the Seiko Astron. It was released on Christmas Day in 1960. Only 100 gold-cased watches were made and each sold for ¥450,000 (roughly the price of a family car), but it set the ball rolling for what would become known as the quartz revolution or quartz crisis, depending on your point of view. Japanese companies like Seiko, Casio, and Citizen had growing success selling quartz watches over the coming decade to the extent that by 1977 Seiko had become the world’s biggest watch brand by revenue, totalling some $700 million. Unsurprisingly, most of the watch-making establishment scrambled to follow suit with their own quartz production.
Digital watches — all of which are quartz-powered — proved particularly popular. They appeared on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show as a novelty, with Carson jokingly tossing a then $2,100 gold Pulsar over his shoulder. Even heads of state and celebrities were clamouring to buy them. Nixon was apparently a fan and Gerald Ford wore a Pulsar while testifying before Congress.
My favourite canary in the horological coal mine is James Bond. 007 is associated to this day with the Rolex Submariner, which was worn in most of the Bond films of the 1960s. Roger Moore’s first outing as Bond in 1973’s Live and Let Die also sees him sporting a Submariner. But there’s another watch in that film: a Pulsar LED digital watch. What followed in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was a series of Seiko watches on Moore’s wrist, most of them digital.
It all seemed like a knockout punch to traditional watchmakers. By 1988 employment in the Swiss watch industry had fallen to a low of 28 000 compared to just shy of 90 000 in 1970. In 1974 Swiss watch production was at a record 96 million units; just shy of a decade later it had more than halved to 45 million by 1983.
Of course, any horology nerd knows that movement watches didn’t die out. Far from it. But it was the advent of quartz that made for a shift for the mechanical watch from de facto to object of desire. The affordability of quartz watches meant movement watches naturally concentrated toward the top of the price range (which isn’t to say there weren’t already many prized and pricy mechanical watches in that category). Moreover, once the shine wore off and quartz was no longer a hot commodity, movement watches were once again sought after for their complexity, workmanship, and prestige.
It’s a bit like the movie business in an age of streaming and superheroes. That industry appears to have shifted to the extremes, with most films being made either cheaply or for bank-busting sums, leaving very little in the middle. While there are ample micro-budget indies and nine-figure behemoths, gone seem to be the days of the mid-range films of yesteryear.
Similarly, quartz has meant that the big names in the watch world appear to be concentrated at the fringes, with quartz watches generally being the affordable option and mechanical watches making up the luxury market, leaving precious little in between.
Actually — that wouldn’t be entirely true. Quartz created one further niche: the so-called fashion watch. Your Fossil, Guess, and similar watches. Suddenly new entrants and fashion brands could easily get into the watchmaking game since quartz watches don’t require the same prohibitive level of production expertise their mechanical counterparts had. As a result brands like Fossil and Guess rose and came to occupy most of the mid-market (the $100-$800 range).
Today, this niche is again being disputed by direct-to-consumer brands and the latest tech advance in the watch game, the smartwatch — all of which is a story best saved for another day.