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Quartz’s journey from troublemaker to the shaper of modern watch industry

Tissot Tradition Perpetual Calendar. Source: Novatime

Tissot Tradition Perpetual Calendar. Source: Novatime

The above timepiece, called Tissot Tradition Perpetual Calendar, which is able to move automatically to the 1st October after ending 30th of September as opposed to 31st as it moves from August to September. As for the other months, it can determine the date when it needs to move to the following month taking into account of February of leap years.

The timepieces which are equipped with mechanically automatic perpetual calendar – the displays of seconds, minutes, hours, dates, days of the week, months as mentioned above usually cost an arm and a leg. For instance, the IWC Portuguese Perpetual Calendar below costs $ 35.000.

In addition to the solid gold case and sophisticated design, which makes the IWC Portuguese Perpetual Calendar so costly is the complicated and accurate internal mechanism meticulously designed which is in purpose of operating perpetual calendar.

The IWC Portuguese Perpetual Calendar. Source: IWC

The IWC Portuguese Perpetual Calendar. Source: IWC

The cutting-edge technology used to manufacture watches with perpetual calendar like the IWC makes them the most desired by watch enthusiasts. This is the reason why despite the high cost, many a person has been always willing to spend a big buck to bring those masterpieces home.

Apparently, we cannot deny the practical use of perpetual calendar that is badly wanted by a number of watch buyers and players. Not everyone, however, can afford them for its cost of tens of thousand dollars. Consequently, Tissot Tradition Perpetual Calendar came as the perfect solution to solve all of those challenges. With the complex functions, appealing design, classic brand and notably affordable price of less than $500, it fascinates those who desire to own one watch with perpetual calendar but having limited budget.
The point that enables Tissot producing the watch with captivating functions and price lies in the technology. Tissot Tradition Perpetual Calendar contains not only mechanical components only but also electronic elements altogether packed in a single movement named G15.261 from ETA including wires, circuits, microprocessors and several simplified mechanical elements.

G15.261 from ETA used in Tissot Tradition Perpetual Calendar. Source: ETA

G15.261 from ETA used in Tissot Tradition Perpetual Calendar. Source: ETA

The electronic technology facilitates the watch to function in a proper and simple way, which, therefore, plays an integral part to considerably lower the price.That kind of technology which has been widely used in watch industry is officially known as “Quartz technology”.

Quartz crystals possessing similar chemical structure with glass (SiO2). Source: Wikipedia

Quartz crystals possessing similar chemical structure with glass (SiO2). Source: Wikipedia

Piezoelectric effect. Source: Epson.com

Piezoelectric effect. Source: Epson.com

While mechanical watches operate based on the principle of winding, those of Quartz technology work in a different way. The energy source that rotates the gears originates from the oscillation of quartz. This oscillation produced as quartz crystals placed in an electric field with the electric source from batteries. This phenomenon is called Piezoelectricity discovered by Jacques and Pierre Curie in 1880.

The working principle of automatic mechanical watches

The working principle of automatic mechanical watches

The working principle of quartz watches

The working principle of quartz watches

For the further details on working principles of Quartz, you can take a look at this article in Novatime website and other sources [7] [8]. In general, Quartz watches are designed with more simple structure and less components than those of mechanics. In spite of the high precision, simple usage and low cost, Quartz watches received less attention from watch collectors. The proper explanation for this may be the weakness in aesthetics, artisanship, in which are not many to show.

Looking at the simplicity and seem-to-be-boring looking of Quartz watches, you could be now wonder what we can tell about these kind of watches and what makes it worth a whole review article on Novatime. The answer lies in history, the revolution of Quartz in the 1970s and the way that Quartz technology has been shaping the entire contemporary watch industry.

As for this writing , I would like to lead you to go through the revolution that Quartz watches created a half century ago, which aims to clarify the misunderstandings on this milestone technology. That revolution is so-called “Quartz crisis”.

The Swiss watch industry on the verge of extinction

As mentioned in the article on ETA, the 1970s witnessed the overall severe crisis of Swiss watches. The amount of exported Swiss watches dramatically decreased from 84 millions in 1974 to 30 millions in 1983. This is a dreadful disaster. Let’s imagine the similar situation that you have to get used to the drastic decline of your monthly budget to $100 from $500. This crisis, as a result, pushed a series of watchmakers into the circumstances of no way but closing their businesses. Some others were forced to narrow the scale, restructure or merge to weather the storm.

The Seiko Quartz Astron được giới thiệu năm 1969. Ảnh: Seiko Time Corp.

The Seiko Quartz Astron was launched in 1969. Source: Seiko Time Corp

This crisis was directly resulted from the emergence and absolute control of Quartz watches with the lower price compared to the Swedish mechanical’s.  The Quartz watches with the price of only tens dollars in the difficult economic situation was the new choice of almost users. The pioneer of the commercialization trend of Quartz was Seiko with the Quartz Astron in 1969. That was also the time of the breakout of Quartz crisis which accelerated the total changes in Swedish watchmaking and reformed modern watch industry.

Certainly, there are a number of information and events documented or told about this crisis. Many of them, however, has not been clearly known and Novatime strives to make them all clarified.

A brief history of Quartz technology and Quartz watches

As Seiko launched the first commercial quartz watch model in 1969, it was thought that Japanese was the inventor of Quartz watches. Obviously, it is not the truth. The history of Quartz technology and its applications in timing and wristwatch is far more complex.

Back to 1880, the French physicists Jacques and Pierre Curie discovered Piezoelectric effect. As they posed a pressure on quartz crystals (SiO2), it produced electricity. In reverse, when quartz crystals were put under the electric field, they oscillates. Thanks to this property, with an electric source, quartz crystals can be used to function as the balance wheel in mechanical watches.

Based on the principle of piezoelectricity, in 1927, Warren Marrison used quartz and circuits to make a large watch which had higher accuracy compared to existing mechanical watches. Consequently, it became the essential tool to measure time in laboratories. It was not until 1940s that the Marrison’s design had been considered as the standard for each and every laboratory across the world. This technology, however, was so primitive and expensive that it could not be used popularly in small sized watches such as wristwatches.

Marrison’s watch was built at Bell Labs in 1927. Source: beckchris.wordpress.com.

Marrison and the smaller version of quartz watch, 1947. Source: http://blog.ahsoc.org.

Marrison and the smaller version of quartz watch, 1947. Source: http://blog.ahsoc.org.

There were more advances in technology needed to apply quartz in portable timepieces. In 1954, Hamilton developed the electrical wristwatch, the Ventura, and its batteries as well. In 1959, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce invented intergrated circuit allowing the small circuit to perform the complicated functions. These are the pre-requisite for reducing the watch’s size.

The Ventura, the electric watch with batteries, invented by Hamilton. Source: Monochrome Watches.

The Ventura, the electric watch with batteries, invented by Hamilton. Source: Monochrome Watches.

At the end of the 1950s, in 1958, Seiko built a quartz timepiece for a broadcasting cooperation with the size of a filing cabinet. A year later, they started the project titled ‘59A’, as the result, a chronometer timepiece was manufactured for marine industry in 1963. It was the first quartz watch to participate a competition on watch’s accuracy at Neuchatel Observatory. In 1964, Seiko started commercializing this watch which then was broadly worn in Olympic Tokyo as well as equipped in the Japanese Bullet Trains.

Seiko's big-sized quartz watch used for Olympic Tokyo. Source: Seiko Museum.

Seiko’s big-sized quartz watch used for Olympic Tokyo. Source: Seiko Museum.

However, the Swiss was the very first developers of quartz wristwatches. In 1960, having huge supports of the novel technology, Max Hetxel introduced the very first prototype of quartz watch named “Accutron”.

The Max Hetzel's first prototype named Accutron in1960. Source: Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie.

The Max Hetzel’s first prototype named Accutron in1960. Source: Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie.

By 1966, the complete wristwatch prototype had been finished, the Bêta 1. Years later, the first official wristwatch, the Beta 21, was launched in Switzerland which was then used by Swiss watchmakers namely IWC, Omega, Piaget, Rolex and Patek Philippe.

The quartz watch Bêta 21 (B-21) used for Swiss watch models, notably Omega Electroquartz 8192. Source: Timezone.com.

The quartz watch Bêta 21 (B-21) used for Swiss watch models, notably Omega Electroquartz 8192. Source: Timezone.com.

Catastrophic Quartz crisis

Japanese, the newcomer with its keen intelligence, anticipated the bright potentials of quartz wristwatches. They were also the most proactive among others in commercializing these watches with the precise predictions. As the result, the Seiko Quartz Atron was introduced after those massive efforts. By then, it marked the breakout of Quartz crisis. This bomb had been not exploded yet, instead lasting for a decade, which gradually weakened the Swiss watch industry.

One of the vital factors that accelerated the Quartz Crisis was global macroeconomic situations mentioned once in ETA on Novatime. In the phase of 1973-1974, the Oil crisis led into the huge economic depression and dramatically reduced purchase force. Accordingly, the price of hundreds or thousands dollars for a watch was out of reach. The gloomy picture of the market hit the Swiss watchmakers hardly whose market segmentation was at high-end. In 1976, a quartz watch priced roughly $20 was on sale by Texas Instruments. In few years later, this price was considered to be a disadvantage in the competition with those of below $10.

While Swiss watch manufacturers were struggling to find the new products, the continuous waves of cheap Japanese watches coming might make the hundreds years of Swiss watchmaking history collapsed. As the figures point out, the labour force for watchmaking in Swizerland considerably went down to 25 thousands from 90 thousands at the end of the 1970s. We can conclude that cheap quartz watches coupled with the Oil ciris in 1973-1974 drove watch industry to a big milestone.

The revival of the Swiss Watch Industry

The considerable progress of Beta 21 was not enough for Swiss watches defeating the waves of cheap ones of Japan. In spite of having designed with quartz, the price of Swiss timepieces was far higher and unaffordable. To take back market segmentation, therefore, product development philosophy needed to be changed. Finally, Gods gave Swiss watch industry Swatch Group with the new thinking, redefining the value of watched. Swatch Groud, headed by Nicolas Hayek, brought in the new developing the eye-catching timepieces with various designs and mere mechanism, which caused the excitation for watch buyers at the low price.  As the first 12 models of Swatch’s watches were introduced in 1983 going with interesting marketing campaign, they immediately attracted all the global attention bringing about the newly heated trend. Nowadays, some of 1983’s watch models remains on the date of Swatch’s website and has become the hunted target of watch collectors.

The Swatch's quartz watch models introduced in 1983. Ảnh chụp màn hình website.

The Swatch’s quartz watch models introduced in 1983. Ảnh chụp màn hình website.

The watch models born in 1983 and its immediate success proved the rightness of customer-oriented product developing psychology. Swatch did listen to its customers, measure the monetary capability of majority to introduce the suitable products. As for the customers, they are willing to spend thousands of dollars to own the preminum quality Swiss watches with which had been valued much more higher than that. In addition to that, the new design, simplified mechanism and simple materials interest customers so that they can buy some as alternatives. This big action was supposed as the vital momentum for Swatch to re-control the market, accumulate sales and financial resources as well as implement the coming plans. From there on, Swiss watches exposed the signal of revival. In these days, as growing as the giant, Swatch acquired a number of brands, restructured the entire products lines, perfected the production and co-operated with ETA to, all of which helped to reduce the price and boost competitive ability of Swiss watches. All of those activities contribute to the successful Swiss watchmaking today.

Conclusion

Through this article, Novatime did introduce the overall view of Quartz technology, quartz watches and their basic differences with mechanical ones. In addition, we together went through the development history of quartz watches and the troubles that they had created for entire watch industry in the 1970s. The unremitting competition and development of Swiss and Japanese watch industry, quartz technology and quartz watches in the 1950s-1960s showed us the severity of watch industry. Quartz watches, pioneering by Swatch, played as not only the troublemakers for Swiss watch manufacturing but also opening the promising era for them.

Nowadays, when it comes to the quantity and popularity, quartz watches are leaving mechanical watches far behind. Therefore, the crucial contribution and role of quartz watches should be recognized. By reviewing historical events, statistics with the right access methods, we are capable of having further clear understanding on the underlying causes of Quartz crisis. It is actually the war of customer-oriented product development. Once macro elements change, customers and their financial ability, interests and habits change later on. Therefore, some changes in product strategies are needed. In the past, Japanese were more quick-witted in identifying these changes and nearly wiped the Swiss watch industry out. Luckily, the history calls the name of Swatch as the savior for Swiss watch industry.

Nowadays, quartz watches are massively contributing to the product lists and sales number. In the current situation, many brands, notably one with big influences and huge number of customers, are utilizing quartz watches to be the strategic products.

Nova @ Novatime Lab.

This article was written in Novatime Lab’s Technical Report (Watch Research). It can be updated in the future for better quality.

References

[1] Perpetual Calendar, Wikipedia, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perpetual_calendar

[2] The IWC Portuguese Perpetual Calendar In White Gold With A Blue Dial, Benjamin Clymer, URL: https://www.hodinkee.com/articles/just-because-the-iwc-portuguese-perpetual-calendar-in-white-gold-with-a-blue-dial

[3] Tissot Tradition Perpetual Calendar | T063.637.16.037.00, Tissot, URL: https://www.tissotwatches.com/en-en/shop/tissot-tradition-perpetual-calendar.html

[4] ETA G15.261, ETA SA, URL: http://www.eta.ch/en/our-products/quartz-movements/fashionline/eta-fashionline-g15261

[5] Piezoelectricity, Wikipedia, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piezoelectricity

[6] Một số Khái niệm cơ bản về Máy đồng hồ, SmaQues, URL: https://www.novatime.vn/2017/01/mot-so-khai-niem-co-ban-ve-may-dong-ho

[7] Quartz, Manual or Automatic? Choosing the Right Watch Movement for You, Christina Tsirkas, URL: https://www.grayandsons.com/blog/quartz-manual-or-automatic-choosing-the-right-watch-movement-for-you

[8] Watch Movements, Tourneau, URL: http://www.tourneau.com/watch-education/watch-movements.html

[9] ETA – Sự “bình thường” vĩ đại, Nova @ Novatime, URL: https://www.novatime.vn/2017/09/eta-nha-kien-thiet-vi-dai

[10] The Little Engine That Could – and Did: A History of ETA, Ed Estlow, URL: http://wornandwound.com/the-little-engine-that-could-and-did-a-history-of-eta

[11] Quartz Crisis, Wikipedia, URL:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quartz_crisis

[12] The Quartz Crisis – an event that could have wiped out the mechanical watch industry, Hora Halus, URL: https://horahalus.com/2016/05/22/watch-lore-the-quartz-crisis

[13] The Quartz Crisis Explained, Smith Bradley Ltd., URL: https://www.smithbradleyltd.com/blogs/blog/7971071-the-quartz-crisis-explained

[14] The Quartz Watch Revolution, Calibre11, URL: https://www.calibre11.com/heuer-quartz-revolution

[15] Quartz Watch, Engineering and Technology History Wiki, URL: http://ethw.org/Quartz_Watch

[16] History of Watchmaking, Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, https://www.hautehorlogerie.org/en/encyclopaedia/history-of-watchmaking

[17] Collecting The First Swiss Quartz Movement: 5 Beta-21 Watches To Look For, Cara Barrett, URL: https://www.hodinkee.com/articles/the-beta-21

[18] 1974: “Long queues and fights at garages”, BBC UK Witness, URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/witness/december/15/newsid_4065000/4065969.stm

[19] Oil Shock of 1973–74, Michael Corbett, URL: https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/oil_shock_of_1973_74

[20] Background: What caused the 1970s oil price shock?, Terry Macalister, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/mar/03/1970s-oil-price-shock

[21] The amazing adventures of the ‘SECOND WATCH’, History @ Swatch Group, URL: https://www.swatch.com/en/explore/history

[22] The Swatch Group, Wikipedia, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Swatch_Group

[23] Swatch, Wikipedia, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swatch

[24] Watches from 1983, Swatch International, URL: https://www.swatch.com/en/watches/?timeperiod=1983%3B1983

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Jennie Ng

A people person

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