How the Quartz Crisis Changed Watchmaking Forever
Source: Patek Philippe
Unlike the mechanical movement pictured above, a quartz movement doesn’t have a lot of parts. They’re easy to maintain, but more importantly, they’re cheap to produce. It’s essentially a battery and a circuit. The battery pings a piece of quartz, which makes it vibrate (often at 32,768 Hz). At that point, the hard part is over. A constant, predictable frequency is how we measure time: even in mechanical watches (albeit much slower). An integrated circuit turns this frequency into pulses, which move the hands via a rotor. If this sounds complicated, I invite you to take a second look at the picture above.
The Quartz Crisis
On Christmas day in 1969, Seiko released the Astron: the world’s first quartz wristwatch. . . depending on who you ask. By the late 60’s, everyone knew how to make quartz movements. The trouble was attaining intellectual property rights, and perhaps more importantly, getting a product to market. Without getting into the weeds, Seiko released the first solid offering with the Astron. This affordable, accurate, Japanese watch interrupted a flourishing Swiss watch industry. For context, the Rolex Submariner, Explorer, and GMT-Master were just over a decade old at this point. The Omega Speedmaster became “The Moonwatch” just 5 months prior.
Quartz movements threatened to make mechanical movements obsolete. They’re more accurate, more shock-resistant, and cheaper to produce. This posed a huge threat not only to the watchmaking industry, but the Swiss economy as a whole. By the late 70’s, about 1,000 Swiss watch brands went out of business, more than 60,000 jobs were lost, and a sizable chunk of Switzerland’s GDP went missing. The rest of the world was churning out quartz watches, leaving little market share for Switzerland’s less accurate, more expensive mechanical counterparts.
Fast forward to today: mechanical watches are beloved, quartz watches settled into their market share, and the “quartz crisis” is nothing but a history lesson. What happened in between?
The Quartz Aftershock
Following the initial pandemonium, Swiss brands like Rolex and Omega tried to catch up with the quartz craze. The Rolex Oysterquartz (1970) offered modern technology with traditional Swiss finishing. Omega went an. . . interesting direction with the Electroquartz (1969) and Marine Chronometer (1974), the latter being accurate within 12 seconds per year. Legacy Swiss brands embraced quartz, but the price point didn’t make sense for consumers. People opted for the cheaper, equally capable Japanese options. The Swiss fell behind at their own game, all due to a tiny crystal.
By the early 80’s, the Swiss knew something had to be done. Enter the Swatch Group: initially called ASUAG/SSIH (I’m glad they thought of a better name). The two biggest Swiss watch groups teamed up to create a definitive quartz offering under Swatch. They had years of market research and all the necessary resources to do so. Needless to say, it was a hit. Swatch’s products offered a competitive price point, distinct Swiss design, and superior customization. The Swatch Group financially rescued the Swiss watch industry, allowing legacy brands to get back to what they do best.
The Mechanical Renaissance
As the dust continues to settle, it's clear that quartz and mechanical movements have their own places in the watch industry. If you want something affordable and accurate, get a quartz watch. If you appreciate mechanical craftsmanship and history, get a mechanical watch. Modern horology is exciting -- brands just keep moving the needle. To some, the quartz crisis highlighted the importance of mechanical watches. They’re true to the heritage of watchmaking, and they’ll always have a place in people’s hearts (and my watch box).
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