Isn’t it fascinating how people can see the same event from two different perspectives? Seiko's release of their first quartz-powered model in 1969 is often referred to as the start of the “Quartz Crisis”. It plunged the Swiss watchmaking industry into despair and financial ruin. Other times—and much more rarely—we hear of the “Quartz Revolution”, hinting toward the fact that what Seiko did was indeed an horological revolution. They made possible what many thought to be impossible and they did it in the best way the brand knows how: perfectly. So whoever talks about a crisis when discussing this event must be doing so from a specific perspective. And the opposite is also true. In that case, why do so many see it as having created a crisis? Isn’t change and innovation part of everything that we do? Let’s discuss this.
What Happened in 1969: the Seiko Astron
While Seiko was not the first brand to have imagined the quartz movement, it was the first to make it real and commercially available in a wristwatch. (To know more about this I recommend this excellent article by Gear Patrol.) Swiss brands had been working on battery-operated movements for years and it seems that Seiko was simply first. After all, Seiko and its subsidiaries (Grand Seiko and King Seiko) had been competing with the Swiss to make the most precise mechanical movements (and even won some chronometer competitions). Although the Astron cost a fortune, Seiko made subsequent developments to make the quartz manufacturing cheaper and faster. This meant—and I’m summarizing a long and complex history into a very simple sentence—making super accurate and inexpensive watches became a reality.
Who Calls it the Quartz Crisis?
At first, and for a long time afterwards, the Swiss couldn’t compete. According to Gear Patrol, about one thousand of the 1,600 Swiss brands that existed in 1970 (a year after the release of the Astron) didn’t make it through the next decade. Employment in the Swiss watch industry was slashed by two thirds within the same time period. The onslaught of inexpensive and accurate Japanese watches hit the Swiss industry hard. Many of the brands that have been revived in the past ten years closed down following the development of Japanese quartz watches. Think of brands such as Nivada Grenchen, Airain, and Vertex amongst many others. The brands that survived are those that dared to make quartz models too. This is why Rolex released quartz powered Datejust and Omega battery-powered Seamasters. They would have been crazy not to do so.
The American horological market was hit hard as well. Most beloved American watchmakers had to close shop or move production elsewhere to reduce manufacturing costs and remain competitive. I imagine the same is true for many historical brands in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Since Japan created the rules of engagement in the quartz watch market, they quickly dominated it. Unable to procure affordable components outside of Japan, most North American and European brands had to close shop or went dormant for a few decades until they were revived by an investor or watch collector.
Who Calls it the Quartz Revolution?
Well, the Japanese of course, as well as anyone who is passionate about technology and the notion that nothing in life is permanent. The Astron was accurate to +/- 5 seconds per month: an accuracy that no Swiss movement of the time could compete with. They struggled to boast the same accuracy for a 24-hour cycle, let alone for an entire month. One aspect of this event that most don’t discuss is the fact that Seiko democratized horology for the entire world. Although the Swiss (and Americans, French, and Germans) made more accessible versions of mechanical watches, they were never as accessible as Seiko quartz-powered watches. The $15 Seikos or Casios that we can buy anywhere, anytime, are the direct result of the Quartz Revolution which ended up being a great thing for many.
Furthermore, I would add that Seiko forced the Swiss watch industry to get off its high horse and step into gear to become more competitive and innovative. Although Swiss watches cost less in 1970 than they do today, they were still luxurious items that many people couldn’t afford. Cheaply-made mechanical watches weren’t accurate or robust, and people would replace them as often as we replace a car battery in 2023.
I can’t tell you how to feel about what happened in 1969, the Astron, and what it did to (and for) the watch industry. While some look at it as a crisis, others see it as a revolution. Technically speaking, the latter is true. And I would argue that those who look at it negatively are those who were the most affected by it—all of those who worked in the Swiss industry and the numerous brands in Europe and North America that depended on Switzerland for parts. In other words, they are subjective.
Everything changes and evolves. Before we had cars, people used to move around on horse-drawn carriages. Before we had Tesla, only toy cars came with batteries. Everything changes all the time and history shows that those who accept what’s going on, springing into action to join the movement, are those who make it through and thrive. In my opinion, there is nothing different about the Quartz Revolution. What are your thoughts on this? Please leave your comments below.
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