We all see how Rolex’s decisions can cause sweeping impact across the entire watch industry. Stainless steel sport watches are the hottest category and there’s no doubt this has been paced by the popularity of icons such as the Submariner and Daytona.
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When the “quartz crisis” of the 1970s hit the Swiss watch industry, Rolex had its answer in the Oysterquartz, which ended production in 2001, but left an impression that Rolex could do quartz movements and do it well with a model that features and integrated bracelet in what looks like a sci-fi influenced take on a Datejust. I've written about my impressions of the model here.
What if Rolex has not only made the Oysterquartz and introduced its battery powered movements into sports watches like the Submariner. My guess is that many other manufacturers would follow their lead and high-end quartz watches wouldn’t just be the domain of Grand Seiko and Citizen and the few HAQ models that Breitling offers in its Colt line. Grand Seiko does quartz divers well and its application makes sense if a watch is truly meant for rugged use. Mechanical watches are amazing but much more fragile. Trust me, I dropped one and the result was a broken mainspring.
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For most collectors, quartz is relegated to rough duty. Think G-Shock Rangeman or the Marathon Navigator with those incredible tritium tubes! A solar G-Shock is going to outperform any watch under taxing conditions and if Rolex had decided to take their quartz technology to its core lineup, the entire over-$5,000 watch world would have a lot of quartz models available.
If Rolex had embraced quartz the entire watch community would not look down at them as they do now. “There’s no soul in quartz watches.” “The ticking seconds hand really bothers me.” “Quartz watches are for cheap watches and non-watch people.” It's a bit about justifying a love for mechanical watches, which I entirely get. Alton Brown on Hodinkee's Talking Watches admitted he doesn't think as highly of a watch wearer whose watch's seconds hand tick. I do get that sentiment, but quartz watches are often stigmatized by enthusiasts without any real merit.
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If a Rolex had a ticking seconds hand, I don’t think as many people would be bothered by it.
I own an expensive quartz watch. It’s a Grand Seiko SBGV011, the remake of the historic Self-Dater and I can tell you I get a lot of enjoyment that is basically synched to the atomic clock all the time. The case is beautiful and, of course, the hands and indices are really, really shiny. The 9F movement is serviceable, so you’re getting the same longevity of a high-end mechanical movement.
But it’s not a Rolex, so most people won't show a passing interest in it. Fine by me, but the watch is a performance beast. Cartier offers popular models such as the Tank and Santos Dumont in quartz and they sell well and many watch enthusiasts will give the brand a pass for selling a quartz watch for over $3K and without a high accuracy quartz movement. Cartier’s quartz offerings are within their core models but they are on the dressier side and not as appealing to younger buyers.
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Of course the higher end market is dominated by mechanical watches and rightfully so. But many non-watch enthusiasts don’t want to fuss with setting the time and having watches that aren’t as accurate as even a $40 Timex Weekender from Target. So if Rolex had continued to make quartz watches, I’m willing to bet that even more people would be shelling out thousands of dollars for nice watches that just require a battery change every five years.
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I’m actually glad that Rolex stopped making quartz watches in 2001. Even though higher-end mechanical watches are growing majorly in popularity, it’s still a much smaller club of us watch nerds who aren’t wearing an Apple watch.